Genius Indeed

Anyone who knows me knows that I read more than I watch movies.  It’s not that I have anything against movies, there are some excellent ones out there, but I love the place reading takes me.  A little prose to tantalize the senses, characters with whom I can relate or debate, description that draws me in:  I lose myself in the writing to the exclusion of everything around me.  But when a fellow book-snob recommends a movie, I seriously consider watching it.  Such was the case with Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman.  The movie chronicles Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, as he oversees the careers of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway with the emphasis on Wolfe.

The first three actors immediately caught my attention because they are among my favorites.  Turns out Nicole Kidman portrayed Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s unofficial patron and jilted lover, with an incredible amount of skill.  She’s matured quite nicely as an actress beyond being a pretty foil for Tom Cruise’s macho-man roles.  When she asks Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe if he knows how hard she’s worked to look at him and feel nothing, her strength radiates from the screen.

As for Laura Linney, who never fails to please, I thought she was underused in this film in her role of Max Perkins’s wife, Louise.  Her character was strong when she stood up to her husband, demanding he spend more time with his five daughters and less with his author, Thomas Wolfe, but she seemed a titch on the peripheral.  I understand the movie focused on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, but why waste Linney’s talent on one impassioned plea and nothing more?

Colin Firth as Max Perkins appealed to me as a writer.  Firth’s portrayal was solid, marching steadily on as an editor, drawing lines with his red pencil through a writer’s work with the precision of a scalpel.  I thrilled and cringed all at once watching those scenes.  But the one that delighted me the most was when Firth/Perkins sat on a train reading Wolfe’s manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel and realized it was worthy of publication.  Again, I was drawn into the movie by Firth’s slight smile, drawn into his head to the point I could see the wheels turning because he knew he’d hit upon literary genius.  Ah, to be a writer in those days when the relationship between editor and author meant hashing out the chapters line by line while secluded in an office.

The first thing about the movie that caught my attention was the cinematography in the opening scenes depicting the 1920s.  Usually pictures or films from this era are shades of gray or sepia.  Such was the case with the movie until it slowly faded to color past the opening credits.  Only the coloring didn’t change all that much because the streets of 1920s New York were rather gray and brown anyhow.

Now think beyond the splash of color implied by jazz and flappers and you’ll realize this was a great technique to employ in a movie about writers.  You’ll see it throughout the movie from Max Perkins’s cigarette smoke-clouded office slanted with rays of sunshine, to Perkins’s white home against a plain background, to scenes of men in breadlines during the Depression.  This may sound rather boring, but I believe it was a skillful attempt to capture black words on a white page, i.e. writing.  In fact, the whole movie was so brilliantly black and white, that I must give high praise to whoever thought of transitioning the written word to the viewed image in such a way.

Make no mistake, however; the movie was anything but colorless.  Jude Law as the larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe was so over the top with his portrayal.  Clearly Wolfe was a genius, but I flinched every time he opened his mouth, romping around scenes like a Great Dane puppy, and baying his slightly crazy, writerly musings.  I could see why Wolfe needed reigning in and taming by Max Perkins.  Law was at his most unsophisticated, un-Jude-like self; I forgot that he was acting and not truly Thomas Wolfe.

Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway provide two nice cameos of the authors.  More exciting was the camera panning what looked to be first edition novels by said authors on the shelves in Max Perkins’s office.  Even if they weren’t, I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer salivating at the dream of getting my hands on a first edition of any of their works.

One small sidebar to the Perkins/Wolfe drama was the tiny restoration of my faith toward F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with F. Scott and banged him up pretty bad on my blog.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, Dear Scott, Sincerely HL, Under the Influence).  The viewer is given a small glimpse of F. Scott as the tender caretaker of his mad wife, Zelda.  For me, this persona never came out in Fitzgerald’s writing.  To see him as something other than the money-grubbing, mad-for-fame author in pursuit of the “top girl” was refreshing.

I’ll not spoil the ending of the movie as it delivers more emotionally impactive word-to-image scenes, but I’ll close by saying it was the best movie I ever read.

A Southern Exposure by Alice Adams

Cynthia and Harry Baird relocate to Pinehill during the prewar Depression years.  They flee Connecticut to escape his low paying job, her mounting debt and dangerous flirtations.  They hope to make a new life in the South where they will become rich and fall in love again.  The Bairds are viewed as a cross between rich movie stars and naive Yankees, but they are welcomed into the many social circles of the town they have decided to call home.

Told from multiple points of view and punctuated with authentic dialog, A Southern Exposure allows the reader an inner view into the intimate societies that develop among the cast of characters.  You’ll be on the inside track of all the gossip concerning their secret fantasies, illicit affairs, social standards, fears, betrayals, depression, alcoholism, and racial issues.

Alice Adams doesn’t back down from any of the subjects that most people want to skirt today.  Rather, she tackles them head on in all their unpleasantness and delivers a brilliant work of fiction blended with history and viewed through the lens of what it truly means to be Southern.

A Crazy Little Thing Called Cake

In May of 1951, Dr. John Welles attended the first birthday party of Patty Ann Hoffman whom he had delivered the year before. The doctor was friends of Patty Ann’s parents, Morris and Lorraine, but he also had a soft spot for the spirited little girl since the day she was born. For this reason, he willingly attended a child’s party.

The Hoffmans weren’t well off, but they made do with what they had. The ingredients for the cake Lorraine served were items she probably had on hand. Furthermore, as parents they would forgo the special treat of cake and ice cream to ensure plenty for their children and guests.

The cake I had in mind when I wrote this scene was a cake I grew up with: Crazy Cake. Also called Wacky Cake, this chocolatey cake had its origins during the Depression when milk, eggs, and butter were expensive. For this reason, you may know it as Depression Cake. I have found that most people are familiar with it by one of these names. A little ingenuity solved the problem of making cake without the pricey ingredients, and following generations were none the wiser.

img_20170205_182131906Because it is so rich and delicious, and because so many children these days have dairy and egg allergies, Crazy Cake is one of the old fashioned recipes to have survived until today. Even if one is financially stable, Crazy Cake is not to be missed.

Although Crazy Cake is tasty enough to eat plain or dusted with powdered sugar, I’ve provided a frosting recipe and a fudge recipe as toppings for the cake. The frosting is a titch more elegant if you’re serving the cake to guests. The fudge is the old fashioned kind that you can pour over the cake and allow to drip and puddle down the sides until it sets. There is no other way to describe this magnificent concoction other than to say it is a hillbilly delicacy. But then that’s where my experience with this cake has its origins.

One of the things you’ll find if you conduct your own research on Crazy Cakes is that they were often made right in the baking dish. All the dry ingredients were combined, and then three depressions were made in which the vanilla, vinegar, and oil were placed. The water was added, and everything was stirred into batter. I suspect because my mother learned how to make this in school, her recipe calls for greasing and flouring the baking dish. Either way, the results are the same. You’ll also find recipes for other flavors of Crazy Cake. I cannot testify to how good they are, and they do look good, but I can’t seem to make it past the chocolate version.

Enjoy!

Crazy Cake

1 ½ c flour

1 c sugar (I used raw)

3 T cocoa (heaping)

1 t salt

1 t baking soda

1 t vinegar (I used apple cider)

1 t vanilla

6 T oil

1 c water

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour an 8 X 8 baking dish. Mix the dry ingredients. Add the wet ingredients. Stir thoroughly. Pour into the baking dish, and bake for 25 – 30 minutes. A knife inserted in the middle should come out clean. Cool completely in the baking dish before frosting. This recipe can be doubled and baked in a 9 X 13 baking dish.

Cocoa Frosting

4 c powdered sugar

¼ t salt

⅓ c cocoa

⅓ c unsalted butter, room temperature

⅓ c milk

1 t vanilla

Mix the powdered sugar, salt, and cocoa. Warm the milk slightly and add the butter and vanilla, then add to the dry ingredients and combine. Blend until it is smooth using either a stand or hand mixer.  This recipe is enough frosting for a 9 X 13 cake. Half it for an 8 X 8 or make two and fill in between the layers.

Old Fashioned Fudge

1 ½ c sugar (I used raw)

¼ t salt

⅓ c cocoa

¾ c whole milk

2 T unsalted butter

1 t vanilla

Mix the sugar, salt, and cocoa in a large saucepan. Add the milk and stir thoroughly. Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches a full, rolling boil. Boil without stirring until the mixture reaches 234° on a candy thermometer (the bulb of the thermometer should not rest on the bottom of the pan). If you don’t have a candy thermometer, after about twenty five minutes of boiling, test a small drop of fudge in ice water. The fudge should form a soft ball which flattens when removed from the water.

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and butter. Do not stir. Rather, swirl the pan until the vanilla and butter are mixed in. Allow the fudge to cool to lukewarm (110° on a candy thermometer). Stir the cooled fudge with a wooden spoon* until it thickens and loses some of it gloss. Pour the fudge over the cooled Crazy Cake. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

*There is some debate on the Internet from professional cooking sites to blogs such as mine regarding the use of metal versus wooden spoons for stirring fudge. Both present logical arguments, however, I’ve used wood and metal with success.

Jim the Boy – Book Review

I am concerned that many readers, and not a few writers, have lost the ability to enjoy a story that exists purely to entertain. That unless a novel is outlined with on cue plot twists, pinches, and character arcs, the reader will dismiss the story as worthless. The only reprieve some books receive is to be classified as literary fiction.  Yet even this term will drive some readers away with the expectation of highbrow prose not easily understood. I blame this last fact on the current confusion that exists when we are expected to force every book into a specific genre.

Prologues, we are told, are anathema. One-sided conversation between characters is labeled an info dump. On and on the criticism toward books who stray from the above-mentioned criteria flows from reviewers, and again, I worry that excellent literature is being ignored or cast aside in favor of the high-tension, action-packed, reads-like-a-movie novel.

untitled (5)Sit down and let me tell you a story. Be still, and without interruption allow yourself to be drawn into the world of ten year-old Jim Glass, his widowed mother, and his three unmarried uncles. Set aside your technology, your resistance to everything you believe this story isn’t, and your expectations for a dystopian universe where children kill each other to survive. Slip back to a simpler time that existed during a difficult era, the Depression, and get a feel for what true social interaction means.

Live for a year with Jim’s family in Aliceville, a town that has been wired for electricity for years but has yet to receive the blessing of lights after dark. Attend the brand new school on the hill with Jim and be afraid that the converging of kids from all the closed one room school houses presents the terrifying and thrilling opportunity to make new friends. Enjoy the push and pull relationship between Jim and his best friend, Penn Carson, as they vie for playground supremacy. Listen to the family history, tall tales, and ghost stories told by the adults in Jim’s life.

If you can do this, long before you reach the last page of Tony Earley’s novel, Jim the Boy, you’ll have made lifelong friends, and you’ll feel as if you’re among kin. Or, sadly, you may dismiss the story as merely charming, quaint, and anticlimactic. That’s okay, too; no one will judge you for it because you probably won’t even realize you let a treasure slip through your fingers.

For readers who enjoyed Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season and John Grisham’s A Painted House, I highly recommend Tony Earley’s novel, Jim the Boy.

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