sylvia ashby

Fractal Novels

 
What do snowflakes, cauliflower, and novels have in common?
The answer to this question is: fractals.
 
Fractal geometry is relatively new – the term was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975. A fractal is a geometric pattern that repeats at every level of magnification or in Mandelbrot’s own words “a fractal is a geometric shape that can be separated into parts, each of which is a reduced-scale version of the whole.”
Think of Russian nesting dolls.
 
But how are fractals relevant to writing?
 
Fractals help us study and understand scientific concepts, such as the way plants grow, as in broccoli or cauliflower; the patterns in freezing water – snowflakes, and the brain waves. Anything with a rhythm or a pattern has a chance of being fractal-like.

And what is a text, or a novel, if not a concept that you’d like to put through to people and be understood? The more structure there is to a text, the easier it would be for those reading it to make sense of it.
 
In his work “Poetics” Aristotle puts forth the idea of the three-act structure.
“A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” He writes.
 
I think that should be applied universally. I think that every part of every text – paragraph, sentence and even phrase, should also have “a beginning and middle and end”. In other words, it should be fractal. What is found in the whole should be found in its parts. That is how a text becomes consistent.

Let take the first paragraph of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austin as an example:
 
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
 
“It is a truth universally acknowledged…” is the beginning. Its purpose is to ease us in. It could be by adopting a universally known phrase, like here or something punchy that’d excite us, so we’d carry on reading.
 
“…a single man in possession of a good fortune…” is the middle of things. It’s not as exciting as the beginning or as dramatic as the end, but it’s still indispensable. It’s one of those things that you need to know in order to connect the dots.
 
“…must be in want of a wife.” Is the end. The climax in which, after all is said and done, all should be revealed. In good texts it’s surprising, as it is here. In bad texts it’s common and repetitive and dull.
 
“A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.”
It’s as simple as that.

Image: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487852138935/

Sunday Salad

20160424_007

Sunday is that kind of a day when even boiling an egg seems too much of an effort.

If, however, you are persuaded to boil four eggs here is what you could do with them.

SUNDAY SALAD
Serves 2; 15 min to prepare

4hardboiled eggs
2 avocados
1 packet of prewashed salad
1 tbs Dijon mustard
2 tbs olive oil
cheese (in my case goats cheese but feta or mozzarella would be good too)

Hard boil the eggs. This takes approximately 6 min from the moment the water starts boiling.

Meanwhile cut the avocados in halves. In a small bowl put half an avocado and mash with a fork. In a salad bowl put the salad leaves and chop the rest of the avocado in it. Mix the mustard and olive oil and pour over the salad and avocado, keeping 1/4 of the mixture behind. Stir until salad is coated in dressing. Divide between two plates.

Once the eggs are ready, rinse under cold water and peel. Cut in halves. Put the yolks in the small bowl with half the mash avocado and 1/4 of the mustard and olive oil. Mix thoroughly.

Arrange the halved egg whites over the salad and spoon the avocado and yolk mixture in them.

Crumble some cheese. Eat.

Beautiful Depression: “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

41LdnNav2xL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_“The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.”Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar is (almost) modern prose; (almost) an autobiography; and (completely) a perfect piece of art. I could write for days about the poetry of the prose of Sylvia Plath. Of her mesmerising metaphors and allegories; the quickness of her mind and her unaffected writing style.

But as beautiful as our words could be, ultimately, they would be about depression. That’s what The Bell Jar is all about.

Sylvia Plath’s fight with this multifaceted demon lasts throughout her short life. She dies at the age of 30, after countless suicide attempts, leaving behind two very young children, numerous poems, and one novel – The Bell Jar. Half a century later, I’m as fascinated by it as all those before me, who’ve read it and attempted to write about it.

Sylvia Plath’s first suicide attempt is at the age 19, by swallowing her mother’s sleeping tablets and hiding under the house to die. She survives, by the skin of a miracle. The Bell Jar is about that summer, which marks the start of Sylvia Plath’s relationship with elusive Death.

In the novel her name is Esther and the book was first published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, but it’s all about Sylvia Plath. Like Plath, Esther loses her father at an early age; like Plath, Esther spends a month in New York on a magazine scholarship; like Plath, Esther attempts to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills. Esther leaves behinds a letter to her mother, which is, word for word, the letter Sylvia Plath leaves to her mother when she attempts to commit suicide.

Same as Esther in the book, Sylvia Plath gets inadequate help and dismal reactions to her depression symptoms: electroconvulsive therapy and her mother’s words “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”

In the 50ties, electroconvulsive therapy was all the rage when it came to treating physiological symptoms. It was prescribed and administered for epilepsy and kleptomania; depression and catatonic states. Esther/Plath receives electroconvulsive therapy during the months spent under psychiatric supervision. They appear to have helped. But the prose in The Bell Jar is like the skin of a maiden spread over broken bones. They threaten to puncture the surface and expose the pain and suffering bellow with every verb and noun.

In The Bell Jar, Esther talks about her doctors with humour and warmth, but her care and gentleness are not reciprocated. Painful and humiliating therapies – insulin shocks alongside the electroconvulsive – are administered.

The sketches of the women in the psychiatric hospital are like the pages of a ghost book. Esther/Plath keeps asking herself why are all these women in the hospital with her, when they appear so normal. Then the pains, the losses, the failure, the shame are revealed; as if through them Plath reveals her own feelings of inadequacy.

Esther’s best friend in the hospital is discovered hanging from the ceiling one morning. This successful suicide attempt is like an echo of the last suicide attempt Sylvia Plath would ever make. As if she knows success is only a matter of time. A delayed execution, that’s never far from her thoughts and would be, ultimately, part of her reality one day.

Eva’s sort of an Apple Pie

Eva's2

I don’t know who Eva is. My mum doesn’t remember either. This recipe comes from her old recipe book: a handwritten, splitting-at-the seams notebook that’s my only inheritance, probably. That, and her “good” red dress that’s only slightly blobby. At least it still fits.

The recipe is from a section of the notebook enigmatically entitled “Baking”. It takes approximately  10min to assemble and  50 to bake.

Eva’s sort of an Apple Pie

3 apples
75g/half a cup raisins
75g/half a cup brown sugar
75g/half a cup crystal sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
90g/2/3 cup butter, softened
1 egg
150g/1 cup self-raising flour
75g/half a cup milk
25g almonds, peeled if possible

Preheat oven to 160C.

Peel and core apples. Cut into thin half-moon slices.

Butter a 20-25sm tin and arrange the apples at the bottom, sprinkling raisins, brown sugar and lemon juice over them. Set aside.

In a bowl beat crystal sugar, butter, egg unlit well combined. Add flour, milk. Stir until homogenous.

Pour over the apples. Arrange almonds on top. Bake. For about 50min or until golden brown.

Enjoy with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a pot of tea.

Sunshine is optional.

“I Promise You This” by Patricia Sands

I Promise You ThisThis is Book 3 in Love in Provence by Patricia Sands. It will be, from what I gather, the last book in the series. If you are a bit random, like me, I think you can start from it and work your way towards the beginning of the trilogy. The book sat well as a stand-alone novel and I had no trouble following the story and getting to know the characters.

I Promise You This is the story of Katherine, or Kat, a suddenly single, fifty-something Canadian, who’s left her hometown Toronto after a heartbreak. We meet her as she travels to the Parisian airport with Philippe, a charming and gentle Frenchman she’s fallen in love with. Katherine  is going back to Toronto to take care of her friend Molly, who’s had a life-threatening accident.

Despite the enchanting settings of the book – the French Riviera, Paris and Toronto, I had qualms about this book from the very beginning. There was something that was pushing me away from the text, but I couldn’t quite put my finger to it. The book is well written. The characters believable. I could relate to the emotions and struggles they went through, and yet…

And then, just as Nick was sending his private jet to fetch Philippe from Paris to Toronto for Kat, I knew what it was:

this book was not one of us.

First class flights (with air miles); sending planes to fetch friends. Syrian refugees as private chauffeurs. Hunting the food of famous chefs around Toronto. Private rooms in hospitals. The list goes on. All the characters led really privileged lives to a point that, frankly, I was beginning to resent them.

After this revelation, I finished I Promise You This with a curious detachment. It was a good enough book and I saw no reason not to finish it, but the whole experience wasn’t entirely satisfying. A bit like eating a gluten-free crumpet. Or soy sausage.

Still, I’m grateful for this book to the publisher in exchange for an honest review and I’m sure there are many readers out there who would enjoy reading I Promise You This to the full.

I Promise You This is out on 17 May 2016

Galette with Ricotta, Aubergine and Fresh Herbs

1

There is always ricotta in my fridge. Sometimes, like in this recipe, a tub or two of ricotta feeds the whole family.

Before I start, I’d like to issue a warning: the dough in this recipe is a bit of a genius discovery on my part. And as it usually happens with genius discoveries, it was accidental.

I try to be healthy in my cooking using wholemeal flour wherever I can, combining it with white flour for best results. This works out OK for dough with yeast or baking powder in it, but in galettes there is no raising agent. The raising happens from pockets of butter forming between thin layers of dough, which swell out while backing and give the finished galette flakey consistency. Wholemeal flour, however, is a bit on the heavy side and butter can’t always lift it. As a result, my healthy galettes were often dense and though.

Two years ago I was distracted while making a galette. I only realised I’d mixed my wholemeal flour with self-raising flour after it was already in the oven. I stared at the self-raising flour packet for a second, then shrugged. What’s the worst that could happen from putting a bit of baking powder in a dough?

Instead, something magical happened: my wholemeal flour galette was finally flakey! That little bit of self-raising flour had given it the inspiration to be a better dough. I never baked wholemeal flour galette with normal flour again.

3

Galette with Ricotta, Aubergine and Fresh Herbs

DOUGH:
190g/1 1/4 cup* wholemeal flour
60g/1/3 cup self-raising flour
120g/3/4 cup cold butter
60ml/1/3 cup cold water
2tbs lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
a handful of finely chopped herbs (basil, mint)

FILLING:
1 eggplant
1 tub ricotta (250 g)
30g/1/2 cup chopped basil and mint
3tbs olive oil
salt, pepper to taste

In a food processor put the butter, cut into cubes. Add wholemeal flour and self-raising flour and pulse until coarse crumbs. If you don’t have a food processor rub butter and flour with your fingertips.

Transfer into a bowl and add water, lemon juice, and herbs. With fingertips again (to keep it cold) knead dough until it forms a ball. Roll out to a thin (5mm) round circle and put on a baking sheet. Galette is free-form so any baking sheet will do. Put in the fridge while working on the filling.

Preheat the oven to 190C.

Cut the eggplant into rounds and fry gently in olive oil.

In another bowl mix ricotta, salt, pepper, and the fresh herbs.

To assemble the galette spread the ricotta in a thick layer in the middle of the dough. Leave about 5cm to the edge for folding over. Arrange the eggplant circles over the ricotta, then fold over the dough edge crimping it where needed. Galettes usually have rustic appearance, so don’t worry about neatness or accuracy.

Bake in the oven for about an hour or until golden brown.

This galette could be eaten hot or cold. Enjoy!

*cup=150g

“The Forbidden Queen” by Anne O’Brien

51+A7k+TF4L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_
Why do queens vanish in history? Their names get blown out of the windows of the stately, yet draughty rooms of history books. As if once their duty of bearing children—sons!—has been performed they become surplus to history and historians. Katherine of Valois has similar fate, despite the fact that she’s the mother of Henry VI, who in his turn is one of the sides in the War of the Roses.

We’ve all read about Henry V and his legendary conquests in northern France. He had only one wife—Katherine of Valois—before dying at the age of 36. His wife gave him an heir, Henry VI, whom he also know from history books. Yet, until recently I’ve heard nothing of Katherine of Valois. But she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s caught the eye of a contemporary writer, Anne O’Brien, who’s taken to heart to restore Katherine’s life and achievements into the minds of 21st-century readers in her book The Forbidden Queen. There are a few medieval queens that never get mentioned at all.

The Forbidden Queen is written in first-person, from the perspective of Katherine.

I found that to be rather claustrophobic at times.

We follow her inner life as a neglected child and constrained, by religious upbringing, adolescence. We witness her hopes of love and intimacy as she becomes the young wife of Henry V and mourn with her as she turns into an ill-prepared Dowager Queen only a couple of years later.

Katherine knows very little of the real and political battles that are fought around her (or so we all told repeatedly) and as a result, we get hardly any historical background story. Battles get mentioned sporadically. Battlefields, that Katherine is stationed by with her husband, only serve to signify how neglected by her husband is poor Katherine.

And there it is the main problem: “poor” Katherine. Throughout the book, her thoughts are predominantly self-pitying, melancholic, defeatist, and downright dismal.

Her wedding day is depicted through her overhearing some vile gossip about herself and her dropping a golden cup to the floor.

On her first night as a wife to the magnificent Henry V, right before she loses her virginity she has this to say to her husband: “I have nothing to wear to be guest of honour of a tournament.”

After the death of Henry, Katherine is ripe for the picking from ambitious men in the English court. Three men get prominent place in The Forbidden Queen: Henry’s brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; Edmund Beaufort from one of the foremost families in the land’ Owen Tudor, Katherine’s household master.

Here too, we witness primarily Katherine’s doubts and insecurities on who should she choose. In my reader’s mind, the men in question remained ill-defined and unconvincing.

The real Katherine of Valois was born and raised in the lecherous and insane French court (her father was mad, her mother infamous for her “wanton lewdness”), then sent to a convent and traded off to Henry V for some peace in the Hundred Year War between France and England. She might not have had a lot of political swagger at the English court  (although she was Dowager Queen and attempted to make some important political and personal decisions) but she dared to challenge the medieval bounds and (allegedly, papers have never been found) marry the man she loved. For a medieval woman and a young, widowed queen that must’ve taken courage. I didn’t see that in Anne O’Brien’s Katherine of Valois.

I feel that the inner life Anne O’Brien has inhibited her Katherine doesn’t do justice to the real Katherine.

As it is, The Forbidden Queen is more a romance novel with historically named cast of characters, then historical fiction.

I’ve also found a few historical and time inaccuracies throughout the novel. The most notable one being the use of the phrase “in my good books” by Henry V. The phrase was first recorded in 1509, come 100 years after the events in The Forbidden Queen take place.

This is the first Anne O’Brien book I’ve read and, according to amazon readers, not her best. I’m unsure if I should give another of her books a chance. I’d be grateful for recommendations.

“It Started with a Snub” by Bernadette Maycock 

41MPIOb550L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_There are a couple of things that drew me to this book that are not your typical reasons to want to read a novel. First of all, I stumbled upon Bernadette’s blog and realised that she is Irish. Second, I read on Amazon that she is the mother of four boys. Now, anyone who can manage four kids and not want to drown in a bucket of gin on daily basis is my hero. But a woman who has four boys and still manages to write a book is, basically, the brightest star in the sky.

Let me elaborate on the first point a bit.

Every Irish author I’ve read—and I’ve read a few—writes with nothing but empathy and (dare I say it?) love towards their protagonists. Maeve Binchy, Marian Keys, Colm Tóibín, Cecilia Ahern, even the eponymous James Joyce and Oscar Wilde are never judgemental towards their cheating, gambling, suicidal, alcohol abusing, eccentric main characters. They don’t find excuses on their behalf either. They simply accept that people are flawed. And we have to deal with that in life, as well as in novels. I’ve been drawn towards the compassion and warmth of Irish literature for as long as I can remember.

In It Started with a Snub, Bernadette has created a cast of characters that is as full of contradictions as any human beings I’ve ever met. Take Heather’s boyfriend, Graham, for example. He could be unbelievably selfish one minute, then he’d pick her up and carry her halfway from the pub to her house because her feet hurt. We’ve all met people like that, haven’t we? Some of us dated people like that for a long time. I’m not naming names and pointing fingers. It’s the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

The story in Bernadette’s book, just as suggested in the blurb, revolves around Heather “…as she navigates the simple things in life, her inability to remember the code for the house alarm, odd driving habits, general musings on chick flicks, casualties in cooking, as well as her attempts to talk down the “mad farmer with the gun.”” There are dark times in Heather’s life too and they were treated with the sensitivity that, as mentioned above, I’ve come to expect from an Irish author.

There are a lot of characters in It Started with a Snub.

There are Heather’s family and her housemates, but also her workmates and the friends and girlfriends of her friends, still they come forward with their own voices and character traits. Here is a little sample of a dialog that springs out from the page:

“‘The other night I asked him to come up with three words to describe me and he came up with sexy, beautiful, funny – could he not have done better than that? Oh and don’t take offence at this but if I hear anything else about how amazing Heather is, I’ll lose it! She’s so strong, she’s so funny, she’s so amazing. I mean we even started talking about you in the lead up to getting down and dirty. He said you were like a ray of light. Ray-of-light… now there’s three words I would have been happy with…’

‘Sweet Jesus.’ Heather’s face felt like it was about to explode. ‘Please don’t talk about me before sex again.’”

Bernadette manages to carry us through the ups and downs of the narrative with a smooth and melodic voice that’s delightful to read.

One thing I’d like to point out, though, and that’s the only point of possible improvement for the books Bernadette would write in the future, is that the book was overly long for me. As much as I liked the bubbly way the characters talked, I found myself distracted at times from the plot with all the details they shared.

All in all, It Started with a Snub is a fantastic debut that finished very satisfactory (I’m not saying more!) and left me with the lingering pleasant sensation usually associated with having a drink with a friend.

It Started with a Snub was gifted to me by the author for an honest review.

Buy It Started with a Snub on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

 

 

What Makes Banana Bread Tastes Bananer?

12

The answer is an apple. One grated apple in any banana cake is a miracle worker towards boosting the banana taste.

Here is a recipe you could try out if you are feeling skeptical.

Banana Bread

285g/1,5 cups* flour
225g/1,25 cups sugar
110g/0,75 cups butter
5g bicarbonate of soda
2 eggs
85ml/0,5 buttermilk, diluted yogurt or milk with squirt of lemon in it
3 bananas
1 apple
vanilla

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Line a loaf tin approx. 23 x 13cm /9 x 5 1/2inches with baking paper.

In a large bowl measure flour, sugar, and soda. Set aside.

Melt butter until almost liquid but not hot. Pour in the milk with squirt of lemon (or the yogurt; or the buttermilk). Beat in the eggs and add them in as well.

Mix dry ingredients with the butter, milk and eggs until well combined in a liquid dough.

Mash bananas with a fork. Grate the apple. Mix in with the dough and pour in the pre-lined tin. Bake in the oven for 45min or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean.

*Cup approx. = 150g

“The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

51n+ltX8X2L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Before I start, there is one thing to get out of the way: I’m not a book snob. I’ve read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love with the same perpetuating curiosity that makes me read all books. To me, a story is a story. Discriminating against books based on marketing genres and covers would be equal to submitting to borders drawn in the sand by other people, which is the opposite of what books are supposed to do with our minds.

That said, The Signature of All Things is a well-written and, to my non-botanical mind, a well-researched novel. One that’s full of tiny, down-to-earth enlightenment moments that made me put it on my chest after I’ve finished reading it and think for a while before I got on with my life. And even more tellingly, I woke up with Alma Whittaker and her wondrous mosses the next morning.

And they made me smile.

The novel follows Alma Whittaker’s life—from birth to death—in a simple, linear way.  But, as Gilbert often remind us throughout the book, Alma is her father’s daughter. So the book is as much about Henry Whittaker as it is about Alma.

Henry Whittaker was a “…poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city…”. Born in London, Richmond he grew up “…sleeping one wall away from the pigs…”. He was the youngest son of a worker in Kew gardens, who had once managed to save the king’s favourite apple tree and thus had been nicknamed “the Apple Magus”. Henry starts working in Kew gardens at the age of ten. This shapes his destiny, as well as the destiny of his only daughter. From there on botany becomes the family trade.

At the age of thirty-two, already very wealthy and well-travelled, Henry Whittaker washes up on American shores and settles down in Philadelphia with his Dutch wife Beatrix. That’s where Alma was born and where the majority of her life happens.

Alma’s childhood is exemplary of what her life would be: self-sustained, lonely but full of thirst for knowledge and, ultimately, very satisfying. We are taken on long walks in her father’s woods with her trusted pony when she is only a small child. Later, we discover in those same woods Alma’s passion in life: mosses. Much the same way we go to Tahiti with her in search for The Boy.

The book is written sparingly from details and research point of view. It’s easy to burden the prose of any historical novel with useless material. Elizabeth Gilbert has escaped this trap with elegance and, seemingly, with ease. Yet, places and characters are drawn out with depth and with compassion that makes them believable and beloved. This is Gilbert’s strongest point in writing, I believe: detailing the thoughts and changes in her protagonists’ minds to a point of their inevitable growth; and ours alongside theirs.

One thing I wished for, as I progressed the five hundred pages of the novel, was that

Gilbert would trust her readers more.

The reminders and repetitions throughout the book spoiled the journey a bit. If we didn’t want to know Alma, we’d have stopped reading by page 305. Since we’ve passed the mid-point of the book and we are still reading, there is no point telling us that “Alma Whittaker was a woman of quick calculation, and far from sensual innocent.” We’ve watched her study Latin, French, Greek and Dutch by the age of ten and we’ve been to the Binding Closet with her countless times. We know what Alma is like and how her mind works. We are not “onnozelaaren”; or if we are we don’t like it pointed out.

This takes me to the point of discord in this novel: the going-ons in the Binding Closet. Other reviewers have accused Gilbert of inserting these elements for sensationalist sake. They’ve found them disturbing and off-putting. I did not find them disturbing and I didn’t think any less of Alma because of her, somewhat dubious, choice of past time. On the contrary, they made Alma all the more human despite her being anchored in time three centuries away from mine.

Elizabeth Gilbert has been ambitious in undertaking the writing of The Signature of All Things. She has attempted an almost Marquez-like outlook on the wholeness of life, minus the magical reality; a Hilary Mantel’s on-look on a historical subject with a twist. Only time would tell if she’d been successful in her attempt, but I can gladly confirm that The Signature of All Things is well-worth reading and thinking about it afterward. Gilbert has managed to make Alma’s personal journey somehow universal. That in itself is wondrous.