I’m sitting on a bench under a grand old maple tree, its bright green leaves almost transparent in the sunshine, surrounded by lush lawns, neatly trimmed and carpeted in daisies. The remnants of grand buildings around me are literally scarred by the stories of time through which they have endured, histories both tragic and hopeful. Giant blocks of weathered stone, handmade bricks, centuries-old wallpaper and worn wooden floors.
Soldier’s Memorial Avenue
Source: my photos, 2014
I am not visiting some historic site in England or anywhere else in Europe, though it might seem so. What is missing from that description above are more place-specific details, and an ever-important context. I did not mention that beyond the old deciduous oaks and elms and maples, the creaky, creepy pines that line the Soldier’s Walk, and the roses blooming in the cottage gardens, are equally grand eucalypts, shrubby acacias, and plants I can’t even identify because we’re not taught the names of our indigenous flora, let alone taught to recognise them when we see them.
More significantly, perhaps, I have not yet named this location, this incredibly peaceful, quiet, tranquil and – let’s be perfectly clear – beautiful place. I am at Port Arthur, Tasmania’s infamous historic penal settlement when this island was still called Van Diemen’s Land. Now a popular tourist destination, the ruins – gutted by bushfires – are preserved for our enjoyment, our education and our curiosity. Some would say, perhaps, even for our titillation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The pretty Government Gardens, designed to replicate what was left behind – though the fern trees are a bit incongruous!
Source: my photos, 2011
I have been here the last two days for an English teachers’ symposium organised by the university and TATE, the Tasmanian branch of AATE (Australian Association for the Teaching of English). Titled ‘The Revenant Past’, the conference has been a fascinating, thought-provoking and inspiring event that – as it would anyone who loves literature, history, culture, learning and questioning – has fired me up.
But it has also got me thinking, and confronting some of my own perceptions, values and ideas, of which I had only lightly brushed up against in the past. (Or maybe it’s that, until directly confronted with something, we have no idea to look closely at certain things, and that’s okay.) Namely, the conflict – or ‘tension’, which was a word used often by the presenters – between celebrating, preserving, honouring and even beautifying our colonial past, and the cruelty, violence and prejudice that is an unavoidable aspect of colonial imperialism.
Part of the Penitentiary (main prison)
Source: my photos, 2011
Port Arthur is a ‘dark place’, a place that has long been mythologised and is considered by many to be haunted. When you visit, you cannot help but be confronted by layers and layers of story and emotion. So much happened here, so many lives lived (in frequently unpleasant ways), that it is imprinted in ways that don’t occur when a historical site is also an everyday, ordinary place. This place, like other ‘dark places’ I’m sure (concentration camps, killing fields, Hiroshima), seems to be imprinted with memories and life experiences. (In contrast, I think of Paris, and how steeped in history it is, yet because it is a place where people live regular lives, that sense of history and old scars is muted – at an emotional level, anyway. Smothered by the louder emotions of those still living.) And yet so much of it is beyond our ken, because it is hard to picture what it must have been like when it was a bustling port town dominated by military barracks and other big sandstone buildings, filled with noise and the bustle of work. (The paintings and photos from two centuries ago don’t help because it’s so hard to reconcile them with what you’re actually seeing, today.)
Now all I hear are bees buzzing, birds trilling, occasional voices as people of all different nationalities wander through the site. This is the fourth time I’ve been here as an adult, since coming in 2000 when I was a uni student. In many ways, nothing has changed in that time, yet each visit the place feels a little different – or maybe it’s me who feels different. Regardless, it’s a place steeped in nostalgia, where it’s not hard to resurrect past visits, past impressions, and add them to the layers of memory and story that make up Port Arthur. Each return, you contribute to the ongoing story and history of this place.
Remains of a cell in the Penitentiary building at Port Arthur
Source: my photos, 2011
The apparent commercialisation of a pain-filled landscape such as this one is indeed a matter of contention and even controversy. Perhaps the subdued nature of its visitors is testament to an unspoken call for respect, such as you would find at any memorial site. Walking around Port Arthur can feel a bit like walking across the graves at an old, crumbling cemetery. There is a distinct, though often unconscious, impression that so many stories lie at rest here, so many people of different class and circumstances lived (and died) here, that the weight of history
is tangible, in all its gothic glory. And that, maybe, if we are quiet, we may sense those voices at some primitive, instinctual or subconscious level.
For a white Tasmanian of English, Scottish and Irish descent, places like Port Arthur are indeed a direct link to my own past. Evidence not of convict ancestors – though there is at least one of those, that I know of, and where there is one there are probably more – but of how I came to be here in this land. This is a place that, as one of the presenters brought up, crushed and even denies its Aboriginal heritage. It is all about the British, at Port Arthur.
Back and side view of the hospital at Port Arthur.
Source: my photos, 2011
So why preserve it? Why sell tickets to allow people to drift through the buildings and stare at the crude dolls of officers’ children, the condition of cells in the Separate Prison (a place of slow, ‘humane’ torture), the jagged walls of the hospital that dominates the hill? Is it a morbid, macabre fascination with a violent and cruel past? Is it a sick, primitive desire to learn about torture and deprivation, to shiver with horrified delight as you imagine what it must have been like before getting into your air-conditioned car to drive back to the comforts of home? Is it to reinforce British imperialism at the expense of the people who were here before? Or is it out of some deep sense of guilt and desire for atonement?
It’s true that one of the imperatives of history is to avoid repeating old mistakes, but we do so selectively. Comparisons can be made (as one presenter did) between the design and practice of the Separate Prison (based on the theory of isolation and silence of the Panopticon from the States – something that was already being stripped back before Port Arthur built its own version and maintained for far too long, considering the effect of the ‘reforming’ punishment was insanity) and Guantanamo Bay.
Where I felt confronted – and I do like to feel confronted – was on a related idea. The idea (which came across either explicitly or implicitly, I’m not sure now) that I – we – shouldn’t ‘enjoy’ Port Arthur. That Tasmania’s colonial heritage – represented in a plethora of beautiful and well-maintained old buildings and estates across the island – was ‘quaint’ (which generally means cute but not authentic) and a poor imitation of the ‘real’ English village or manor house (never mind the fact that the architecture and building materials do set them apart quite quickly). I picked up on a mocking quality that surprised me. Part of this sentiment comes from a mainland attitude born of the fact that visual representations of colonial history such as we have, aren’t as common interstate, and that one of the big colonial tourist drawcards – the replica of the gold mining town at Ballarat – is indeed considered tacky within Australia. While places on the mainland, especially Sydney, came into money and knocked down old buildings to make way for new, Tasmania languished in an economic slump from which we are now recovering.
Part of the military complex, of which there’s not much left.
Source: my photos, 2011
Despite knowing that most Australians feel condescending towards its second-oldest state (when they remember it, that is), I was surprised to find myself feeling defensive. It took me a while to realise why, or what it was about the connections being made that bothered me. I hadn’t realised that, what I saw as beautiful old buildings from another era, a colonial era rather than an imperialistic British one, others saw as some kind of unintellectual (unoriginal), insipid grasping of the past, a kind of reluctance to relinquish ties to ‘the empire’. I’m surprised at myself, that I never really understood before how much the mainland considers Tasmania to be willingly, eagerly chained to England and the Crown. (I saw England quite deliberately.) Yet we’re no more a royalist state than any other (though I should confess my own bias against Queensland’s rigid conservatism). It seems unfair and dismissive, to think that because we have such rich evidence of a white colonial past, that we are incapable of moving on, or of critiquing it, or that it’s impossible to appreciate and love our colonial heritage sites and
be critical of our colonial past and the ongoing tension between Us and the Indigenous populations. That calling an old ruin, for example, ‘beautiful’ means that you can’t look beyond the mythologising of the past.
The distinction lies, I think (as it often does), in language. Terminology, and our understanding of words and their connotations. What I see when I look at these ‘dark places’ or at any old building here, is evidence of a colonial past. And that past is a story of exile, to me, not of British imperialism (well, it is that too, but the sense of exile is stronger, or more human at an individual level). And I think that’s where the Gothic element comes from. The imagination runs wild at the story of Australia’s white colonial beginnings, the early decades of settlement, the long path to federation. Of course it speaks to our souls and senses as much as our heads, of course we feel the weight of ages and other people’s pain when we navigate the ruins at Port Arthur. It is a deeply human story, a story of remembering and forgetting, and it connects to our deepest fear: the fear of being forgotten.
This fear is ever-present, both at the level of societies and individuals. How many post-apocalyptic films have you seen, or books have you read, in which evidence of the past – our present – is discovered, and barely identifiable by those of the future? We recognise it, and we feel both a sense of panic and reassurance that something has survived destruction. Images of the tragic crash of the Malaysian Airlines plane in Ukraine were painful on many levels, but that pain was often focussed on what survived, what was recognisable: our eyes latch onto the teddy bear, or the familiar suitcase, and it makes it impossible to deny the truism that human beings suffered and must be remembered. Tombs, mausoleums, memorials – all required as part of the process of remembering. “Lest we forget” – the utterly human side of that adage is “We must remember to ensure our own immortality”. If no one is around to remember us, did we exist? If we were to let the ruins of Port Arthur disintegrate, we would lose not only the story of our colonial past, we would also deny those that lived, loved, suffered, endured and died here. Just as we have denied the Aboriginal peoples their existence. It’s a cruel selfishness.
How much sense does this really make, outside of my own head? I can’t be sure. I titled this “Thoughts” and have left them unedited. I wanted to take this opportunity to capture a thought process, rather than argue a tightly-constructed idea. I’m still figuring things out, and this was by no means the only thing I could talk about from the symposium. I like to ruminate, to mull, to consider and reflect, but if I don’t write it down it can dissipate. It’s good to having something to build upon. And as part of the process of thinking, it is equally good to discuss. I’d love to hear your thoughts, whatever comes to mind.
Source: my photos, 2011
Us by David Nicholls
After more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen’s wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him, that their marriage has ‘run its course’.
Fifty-four year old Douglas is stunned and resistant. Connie is the love of his life, the only woman he’s ever had a serious relationship with, and the mother of his two children: Jane, who died just days after she was born, and Albie, a moody youth about to transition to university. Douglas is a scientist, Connie an artist, and Albie takes after his mother.
Despite Connie’s announcement, she is still determined that the family take their planned trip around Europe to tour art galleries and take in foreign places. Douglas sees it as his chance to change Connie’s mind, but the trip is fraught with tension, and Douglas’s inability to get along with his son is the cause of the disintegration of his carefully detailed itinerary.
Now, instead of going back to England with Connie, Douglas is determined to find Albie and bring him home – thinking that this will be a heroic act in Connie’s eyes. That if he can return her son safely to her, she won’t leave him. But the search for Albie in Europe tests Douglas in other ways, and away from Connie and all that is familiar to him, he has a chance to break out of his own tightly-controlled parameters and behave in ways that surprise him.
But is it enough to save his marriage? Can he rescue his fraught relationship with his son, a boy who has always managed to provoke irritation and disappointment in him? Us is a story of one middle-aged man’s quest to preserve something that, perhaps, shouldn’t be saved. A transformative journey not only across Europe, but through the past and his memories, the pieces of which come together to make Douglas Petersen a wholly real and sympathetic – if not entirely likeable – man facing a major upheaval in his life.
In the beginning, I loved this book. I loved the conversational style Douglas has in telling his story directly to the reader, his frank reflections and realistic flaws. This is very much a book about human nature, human foibles, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in being human, the ways in which life plays out and our best intentions don’t always work out how you planned. It’s a story about personalities, and making room for other people’s characters, adapting and compromising, to make not just a marriage but a family work.
The trouble was that, after a while, I found the story and the style almost stifling, claustrophobic. Perhaps those are overly dramatic words, perhaps what I really mean is it was a bit repetitive in terms of style and voice, that Douglas’s voice was too authentic and that I have, maybe, more in common with Connie and less patience for Douglas. I love getting inside a character so different from myself, but every story contains different elements – voice, style, plot etc. – that, together, either work for you or don’t. It becomes wholly subjective, an emotional response to a person that you can no more consciously influence when reading about that person than you can, meeting them in the flesh.
Us is strongly realistic, almost painfully so. The non-linear structure is easy to follow – Douglas guides the whole way, which is very in keeping with his character (he loves itineraries and maps) – and helps break it up, as well as enable the full picture to come together slowly and with a solidity that comes from the use of small details, little snapshots. There’s a quote from John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich at the very beginning that fits this book perfectly:
He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for.
As a description of the style and structure of this book as well as the way Douglas walks you through his memories and his life, this is very apt. The characters are recognisable – and often unpleasant – in all their flaws and quirks, and the scenarios feel familiar whether you’ve experienced them or not. There’s skill in that, from Nicholls, that shouldn’t be dismissed.
But essentially this is the story of a marriage in the process of dissolving, and the interesting thing was how you, the reader, feel about that. Do you want them to stay together? The stories and memories that Douglas chooses to share have a noticeable influence on that, until the last third of the book when you start to finally break away of Douglas’s mindset and you have enough information to consider things for yourself. Perhaps the ending is a surprise. Perhaps it is a disappointment, yet really it is the only way it could have ended, in hindsight. But it is very sad. It made me think of how I – who have much in common with Douglas, really, being an introvert who dislikes ‘partying’ and finds socialising exhausting – could never be in a relationship with an extrovert like Connie. There have been times when, snuggling on the couch with my husband of a Friday or Saturday evening, we’ve remarked out loud how nice it is that our wishes are in harmony, not conflict. Yes that sounds a bit smug, but really it’s just comfortable. The pattern of Connie and Douglas’s relationship makes sense, the way it plays out and the hurdles they had to overcome, but at the end of the day Douglas won: it was Connie who had to change. It was Connie who gave up aspects of her life. That’s never a great recipe for a long-term relationship.
Yet life is rarely neat and simple, and if it is, it might not feel like living. What this story really shows is how complicated every individual relationship is, that you can’t apply one system of rules or expectations to every relationship, every marriage. That what works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. And that not every marriage should survive. That maybe it’s better that it doesn’t. I like to think I’m not the judging type, but we all try to make the world less chaotic, more familiar and understandable, by using our own frame of reference – our own perspective – to make sense of the world and the people in it, so everyone judges in that sense. This is one of the things I love about fiction: the chance to hear a voice different from our own, a different perspective, other people’s choices, and not just get irritated that they didn’t do things the way we would have done them, but to consider their choices in light of their own context, their own life and character. In that sense, fiction has great potential. I may not have enjoyed Us as much as it seemed I would at the beginning, but it still made an impression and reminded me of some of the qualities of storytelling that I really value.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.
I’m Green and I’m Grumpy! by Alison Lester
Puffin Books 2009 (1993)
I absolutely love Alison Lester‘s picture books, and this one is no exception.
The kids are getting dressed up in costumes behind the green door, while the others wait outside and guess what the next person will dress up as. The cover features a peekaboo hole in the middle (showing a dinosaur), but the inner pages have a big, half-page flap for the door. The pages (of my edition, anyway) are fine and not suitable for very young children (which is a bit of a given – this is a paperback, not a board book).
Image courtesy of the author’s website
The rhymes are fun, with enough repetition to get a rhythm going and enough variation to make it continuously interesting and engaging. You can have a lot of fun, reading this book out loud, and doing voices and tones and pitch. Also, if you happen to be stuck for costume ideas, there’s some good inspiration here and more than a few home-made costumes in the illustrations.
With Lester’s distinctively fresh-looking (and somehow, so very Australian) drawings and fun rhymes, this is a great book for the 3+ crowd. It can work for a daytime read to get your kids excited about dressing up, or a bedtime story (you’ll have to see what Rose, the youngest, does behind the green door at the end!). Perfect for boys and girls, this is another gem from Lester.
Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll
Illustrated by Jan Pieńkowski
Puffin Books 2012 (1972)
I hope everyone recognises this book. I had forgotten all about this series until I saw it in Dymocks back in July and was immediately transported back in time to my childhood. I LOVED these books, they were big when I was in, what, prep? Grade 1?
Originally published in 1972, this is the first book and I decided it was a good place to start – I’ve since added Mog’s Missing, Meg’s Eggs and a three-in-one volume that includes Mog at the Zoo, Meg’s Veg and Meg Up the Creek. They are bold and distinctive and I’m so, so happy they’re still in print! Here is the first page, or half of it as they’re all double-page spreads that don’t fit in my scanner:
Meg, a witch whose spells often backfire in interesting ways, lives with her cat, Mog, and Owl. They creatures of habit and routine who enjoy their breakfasts. Meg has four witch friends: Jess, Bess, Tess and Cress. She has a broomstick and a cauldron and her spells are very … inventive.
The pages are solid blocks of colour, primary colours mostly, and the text has a distinctive lack of punctuation that you just have to go along with. Dialogue is in the form of speech bubbles, so when you’re reading out loud you have to ad lib a bit. There’s always a lot to point at in the illustrations and plenty of comments, conjectures and opinions to share as you read it, because the stories imply much but leave a lot of it unsaid. My son loves these books and with their big, bold and unstructured text, it makes for a good book for kids learning to read. Helen Nicoll died a number of years ago but I believe Jan Pieńkowski, who illustrated the books, is still alive. There are 16 books in the series (that I know of, anyway) and each one is similar – and familiar – in terms of style and storyline, yet also distinctively different.
Having the chance to relive the fun of these books through reading them to my three-year-old is an absolute joy. There’s something wonderful about sharing a story you loved as a child, with your own child, and watching them enjoy it just as much.
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson
Illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Puffin Books 2003 (2001)
Anyone with small children (and older ones too, I’m sure) will be familiar with Julia Donaldson, in particular The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, which – along with Room on the Broom – have been made into animated films that regularly show on the ABC. My son, at three, enjoys the books but finds the movies too scary – he’s still young like that.
Room on the Broom is about a witch with “long ginger hair in a braid down her back” and a cat and a broomstick and cauldron. They’re flying through the sky, having a peaceful, calm trip, when the wind snatches off her hat. A dog helps her collect it and in return she offers him a ride. Next she loses the bow from her hair, and a green bird brings it back. It, too, gets “room on the broom”. And so on, until the broomstick is heavy and snaps in two. They all fall to the ground, and the witch encounters a big, red, terrifying dragon who wants to eat her. Her new friends save her, she makes a spell for a new broomstick, and off they go again – in style and comfort this time.
I love it when picture book authors work closely with the same illustrator for their books – like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, or Mem Fox and Julie Vivas; you start to instantly recognise their books based on the style of drawings, and come to associate the drawings with the author. (From a marketing perspective, it’s a perfect way to make an instant connection with buyers as they scan the shelves.) There’s also a comfort aspect at play – the same can be said of authors like Alison Lester, who do their own illustrations and also have a distinctive style. Such books tend to stick with you longer.
Room on the Broom has a delightful rhyme that almost sounds like song, or music – any picture book that rhymes like this is a pleasure to read out loud. The story just flows so well, it’s fun to read, and pleasurable to the ear. Doesn’t stop a kid from interrupting, though!
Over the fields and the
forests they flew.
The dog wagged his tail
and the stormy wind blew.
The witch laughed out loud
and held on to her hat,
But away blew the bow
from her braid – just like that!
Julia Donaldson is another children’s author I find myself gravitating towards whenever I’m looking for a new picture book – between her, Alison Lester, Mem Fox, Oliver Jeffers and a few others, you’re never short of titles to consider!
Happy Birthday Peppa! by Rebecca Gerlings
Ladybird Books 2013
My son is a big fan of Peppa Pig, a five-minute cartoon featuring a family of pigs and their various animal friends. British, and featuring lots of jokes and irony for an older audience to enjoy (watch out especially for Mr Wolf with his deep and slightly creepy voice and all the innuendos), the show is very good fun. My three-year-old often laughs himself silly while watching it – between Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig and Bob the Builder, there’s always something age-appropriate, ‘accessible’ and non-scary for him to watch.
Peppa is four, I think, but as is the way with cartoon characters, she never ages. This spin-off book is about her fourth birthday and the party she has with her friends, including magic tricks from “Magic Daddy” (who wanted to be called The Amazing Mysterio). It reads very much like one of the television episodes, and kids familiar with the show will delight in this picture book. Just remember to make the noise every time you see the word “snort!”
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2010
Oliver Jeffers writes very grown-up picture books, the kind that kids love and that can make adults cry. Okay, so he can make this adult cry – especially with The Heart and the Bottle.
It’s the story of a little girl, “much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.” Her grandfather takes her to the forest, the beach, and listens to her stories and all her many questions. But then one day his armchair is empty.
She puts her heart in a glass bottle so it can’t be hurt, and grows up into a young woman who has no curiosity about the world at all. But her heart is safe. Then one day she encounters a little girl, a girl just like she had been, full of questions about the world.
There was a time
when the girl would have
known how to answer her.
But not now.
Not without her heart.
She decides to get her heart back, but she doesn’t know how, she can’t remember. She tries all sorts of things. It is the little girl who has an idea, a way – and this answer will, to adult readers at least, represent a profound metaphor that will really make you appreciate the open curiosity and sense of wonder that children naturally possess – and maybe refrain from quashing it.
This book is sad – and poignant – to me for several reasons, all of them powerful and all of them due to the skill and artistry of Oliver Jeffers. With so few words and such beautiful illustrations he can say so much, about the spirit of childhood, about the love between children and those they look up to, about how precious curiosity and appreciating the world is, and that locking away your heart to keep it safe is no way to live. The book shares the joy of wonderment, the joy of listening to children and taking the time to talk to them, and how important it is to let yourself feel, and live, and love and, yes, hurt too, because that’s part of life, and if you don’t let yourself hurt you’re probably not letting yourself love, either.
That’s not to say that children don’t get a lot out of this book. The best picture books are ones that both adults and children can enjoy – and Jeffers is one of those contemporary picture book writers who is treasured by both. While the stories about the boy and his penguin are a delight to read, and also beautifully illustrated (as is How to Catch a Star and This Moose is Not For You), there’s something utterly beautiful and utterly tragic about The Heart in the Bottle that makes it such a powerful story, full of truisms and life, death and coping after the death of a loved one, about growing up and dealing with loneliness. Children can relate, because they are just like that little girl, and they’re going to experience the loss of loved ones, especially – sadly – grandparents, who are so looked up to by children. Jeffers presents a gentle and insightful look at love, grief and being alive. A must for every library.
How to Bake a Man by Jessica Barksdale Inclán
Ghostwoods Books 2014
Fiction; Chick-lit; Romance
If you’re looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here – the young, working generation’s struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks – at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.
Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she’s ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, “But what are you going to do? You’re in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can’t make cookies your entire life.” Yet that’s exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend’s wise words, despite her mother’s theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she’s done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she’ll need, and followed a connection from Dez’s husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.
Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love – of which he has plenty of experience – and lets Becca know that he’s available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca’s Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected – and unpleasant – surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.
Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what’s going on between Jennifer and another of the firm’s lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can’t see is the truth in front of her: that there’s a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who’s perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.
There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking – I don’t seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don’t they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That’s not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.
I will say that Becca’s ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it’s true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn’t experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I’m also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day – making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I’m not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it’s described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca’s focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.
The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer – which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly – was an interesting plot tactic, not something I’d read before, and used as justification for Becca’s personal interest in Jennifer’s life. Not sure I’m entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story – the one character you can’t help but love and appreciate from the beginning – is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca’s mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones’s Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca’s perspective, are that he’s a womaniser (which is just an impression she’s picked up) and that he doesn’t have a “real job” – and when you’re white and middle class, that’s important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he’s reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.
Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal’s none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it’s just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It’s not original, but it’s a classic.
With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. – you’ll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It’s a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and ‘let’s be serious for a minute here folks’, though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca’s couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too – or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.
More stops on the tour:
Monday, October 13th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, October 14th: girlichef
Wednesday, October 15th: Nightly Reading
Thursday, October 16th: Bookchickdi
Monday, October 20th: Bewitched Bookworms
Tuesday, October 21st: Giraffe Days
Wednesday, October 22nd: WV Stitcher
Thursday, October 23rd: Leigh Kramer
Friday, October 24th: Books à la Mode
Monday, October 27th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, October 28th: From the TBR Pile
Monday, November 3rd: Kritter’s Ramblings
Tuesday, November 4th: Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, November 7th: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Date TBD: Book Marks the Spot