Monthly Archives: October 2007

Historical Fiction in Spain

C.W. Gortner in his blog, Historical Boys, had an interesting post yesterday on the popularity of historical fiction in Spain. He found new novels covering many time periods and written by authors from all over Europe. His impressions of the market there reflect the sense I got when I was in Spain last July. Waiting for a friend at the Barajas airport in Madrid, I stopped in the airport bookstore to see what people were buying. I think fully one quarter of the novels there were on historical fiction, mostly about medieval and early modern topics and set in Spain and the rest of Europe.

I thought that was pretty neat.

Bob Dylan

I caught the final concert of the autumn tour last night at the Chicago Theatre. Elvis Costello opened (as did Amos Lee but I’m afraid I missed that part) and he was political, acoustic, and intense. I am a big Elvis fan from way back, mostly through my sister. When I hear him live or otherwise I always think of her and I am taken back to summers in North Hatley, covered in sand, munching popsicles, and listening to John Colapinto bang out “Watching the Detectives” and “Girls Talk.”

However Bob is a taste I have acquired in my old age, along with olives, JRR Tolkien, and men with beards. In my pathetically minute experience (compared with real Bob fans), last night’s concert was the best one I had ever attended. He started out strong and got better and better all night. But, as someone else remarked in a review of an earlier concert on this tour, no matter how carried away I was by the music and the experience, there was a moment when I paused and just thought, “Oh my God, that’s Bob Dylan up there. That’s really Bob Dylan and here I am, in the same room.”

Historical Fiction Sites

I want to write soon about Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games but it is taking me a long time to finish it, not because I am not enjoying it, but because it is so wonderful that I am savouring it slowly, like a box of Vosges truffles that you eat one a night for fear they’ll be gone too soon. So in the meantime, I thought I would list a few of the websites discussing historical fiction that I have found and liked over the past few months. I am doing this because many of these I did *not* find through a simple google search, but rather by tracking my way through a forest of links.

The first place to start is the Historical Novel Society. They publish reviews of recent historical novels (in print, for members) and have a twice yearly magazine. They also hold a yearly conference that seems to move between the States and the UK.

My favourite site for historical fiction, however, is the blog, Reading the Past, which is maintained by HNS reviewing stawart, Sarah Johnson. She is a university librarian with a knowledge of historical fiction that is both deep and wide-ranging, and I have spent many fun hours digging through her archives. She keeps track of reviews, deals, book covers, gossip, and much more.

I am intrigued by another blog, C.W. Gortner’s Historical Boys, which plans to concentrate on men who write historical novels. I am enjoying his author interviews so far. And how can I resist the blog of someone who has written a novel about Juana la Loca? What a wonderful figure to explore.

Historical Fiction is a bulletin board/web forum whose members discuss historical novels about all times and places. They also have a section where they post reviews. I haven’t spent much time here, but I like the breadth of what they talk about.

That’s probably enough for today.

Flan de Queso

When Cecily and I were in Spain this summer, we took a break now and then from our quest to see every single ninth- and tenth-century church in the Asturias to have a spectacular meal. I can’t bring you any of the artisanal cheeses we tried, or the besugo the waiter brought from the fish shop across the way on the coast in Cudillero, but I can offer this transcendentally wonderful dessert we had in Arenas de Cabrales after a dinner that started with half a side of cow covered in the eponymous cabrales cheese, and sidra natural all over the floor. It is sort of a cross between regular flan and cheesecake, neither of which I like very much but somehow the alchemical reaction that occurs when you mix them is greater than either alone.

Flan de Queso

For the custard:

  • 1 12 oz. can of evaporated milk
  • 1 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 5 large eggs
  • 8 oz softened cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon very good vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon brandy

For the caramel:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 tablespoons water

Put a bain marie in your oven (I use a rectangular cake pan filled with enough water to go about half way up the side of the dish I cook the flan in). Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

The caramel is the fiddly bit, so let’s begin there. Put the sugar and water into a saucepan and stir to dissolve. Now turn the pan onto medium heat and let the sugar cook without touching it until it turns golden brown. Sounds easy, eh? Problem is, when the sugar is cooking it bubbles and foams so much, you can’t tell what colour it is until it is too late and you have a nasty, burning mass of blackened sugar on your hands. I mostly use smell to tell it is done. When it starts to smell like caramel, I stick the end of a wooden spoon nto it and see what I have. You might also try cooking it in a pyrex saucepan if you have one.

When the caramel is perfect, working quickly, pour it into your flan mold. I use a souffle dish. Tip the mold around to coat the bottom and sides. It will harden quickly. Then relax. The hard part is done.

Mix all the other ingredients together until smooth. If you do it in your food processor, you’ll get runny goo overflowing through the holes (I learned this the hard way). If you don’t mix it well enough, its components may separate in the oven. I suggest a blender or a hand mixer. Pour it all into your prepared flan mold and cook it in the bain marie for about an hour. It is done when it has set but is still a tiny bit wobbly. A skewer will come out clean.

After it has cooled, you can unmold it. Run your skewer all the way around the rim and put a large serving dish over your flan dish (I use a pie plate since I am greedy and don’t want to lose a drop of caramel). Flip it over until the flan falls down onto the serving dish. You can cool it a bit more before serving.

What I’m reading now

Doris Lessing

I woke up to good news this morning.

By coincidence, I recently finished rereading a couple of my favourite novels by Lessing, so I am vividly aware of all the reasons why this Nobel prize is so richly deserved. One of these was the volumes that make up The Diaries of Jane Somers, the tales that Lessing famously first submitted under a pseudonym to her usual publishers. They rejected it. It’s a story that, depending on temperament, either cheers or depresses beginning novelists. Rereading the novel as I did, right after The Golden Notebook, it is impossible not to recognize it as Lessing’s work. The relationship between Jane and Joyce, her boss at the shiny upscale magazine where they both work, in the Diaries mirrors and develops that of Ella with her magazine boss, Patricia Brent in the Golden Notebook. They’re both books about women, about how women work and love and tend friendship and despair and grow.

But by saying Lessing writes books about women, and that is why I love her, is putting her in a box too small to hold her. The Golden Notebook is a perfect example of how she evades simple characterization. It is a great feminist novel, and has been hailed as such. It is also a novel about Africa, a novel about mental illness, a novel about post-war disillusionment with Communism. Any of these alone would have been a triumph. But all of these subjects that make up the preoccupations of Anna Wulf are married to an exciting experiment in form, the five notebooks and the novella, “Free Women,” through which Anna attempts to knit back together the fragments of her shattered self, to revision herself as an individual living in society.

Som of the reports of Lessing’s prize are dwelling on her underwhelmed, to say the least, reaction to the honour, like this report from the Associated Press. But I thought this part was great:

Lessing brightened when a reporter asked whether the Nobel would generate interest in her work.
“I’m very pleased if I get some new readers,” she said. “Yes, that’s very nice, I hadn’t thought of that.”

It’s about the books and the readers, not the prize. I like Doris Lessing.

The image in my header

The photograph in my header is of a place called Támara where an important scene takes place in my novel, Pilgrimage. I wrote the scene before I had ever seen the village, and when I finally visited there this summer with my friend Cecily Hilsdale (who took the photo), I had a big surprise because it was very different from how I had imagined (and written) it. The photo is a little deceptive. Because the church on the right is so huge, it looks like a small village in the middle of a plain with a low mesa in the background. But if you look just to the right of the big church (which would not have been there in the twelfth century when my novel takes place) you’ll see a much smaller church on a height of land. It is a small, Romanesque church, and it would have been there when the novel takes place.

Támara is not a village in a valley; it was actually built on a height of land with the small church at its highest point. And when we drove closer, we discovered that the whole hill had been surrounded by a wall from the late eleventh century. Can you imagine how much effort in men and resources it would have taken to wall in a place that lonely and isolated? But they did it for a reason. Támara is a perfect defensive outpost. From the church on the top of the hill you can see north all the way to the Picos de Europa, west through the plain, and east along the mesa to the pass which is a major route for people coming from Burgos. And if someone approaches over the mesa looking for trouble, people posted as lookouts on the top of the mesa can easily make it back in time to be safe and to warn the village the village of danger, which they can just wait out behind their nice, sturdy walls.

I chose Támara almost by chance to be the site where two armies meet. The truth was better than my fiction.

Hello world!

Welcome to my new web site!  I am going to be using it as a place to discuss my own writing, as well as the books I love to read, and possibly, if I am lucky, my adventures in publishing.  And if there is any time and space left over there may be occasionally a teeny-tiny post about food.