Books and Baking: The Strays by Emily Bitto

“Time and sunshine began to seem endless.”

What a treat to dive straight from one brilliant book into another. Just pages into Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, I was utterly enraptured. It is a very interesting theme that seems to be transpiring this year indeed – the books that have mesmerised me most have each been first novels penned by emerging women writers. I am sure there must be something meaningful in that!

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The Strays takes place in Melbourne, my beloved home, albeit in the 1930s. A young girl named Lily befriends Eva, who is one of the three daughters of controversial modernist painter Evan Trentham. Very quickly Lily slips into the life of the Trentham family – a life that is a very different to the one she is used to. Their home is big, old and exciting, surrounded by sprawling gardens, orchards and paddocks. Eva and her sisters are left to run wild under the decidedly disinterested eye of their parents, who are rather more livened by the idea of fostering a community of creatives also willing to push the boundaries of conservative Australia. 

Over the course of several years the Trentham home grows, a ramshackle brood of artists and children in which Lily yearns to belong. She is enamoured by and envious of these bohemian characters. It is decades later that we join adult Lily in a recollection of what eventually became the most painful and haunting period of her life. 

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For me, Bitto truly nailed the character of Lily and I couldn’t help but keenly connect to her depiction of childhood friendships. This book makes me remember that intensely peculiar feeling that came with visiting the home of a school friend; seeing another kid’s ordinary life always had an element of the extraordinary to it, even if it wasn’t quite as exotic as the Trenthams’. I recall the strange role of power that friends always took on when playing host, to whom I was suddenly at total behest – and on top of that, bearing a kind of neutral, invisible witness to the parental power structure under their roof. I still feel an embarrassed, awkward pang to remember my childhood self watching on idly as a friend was berated or punished by a parent (sometimes for deeds in which I was also inherently involved!), or on the contrary – seeing a friend talk boldly back to a parent in ways I’d never imagine. 

The 1930s, outer-Melbourne setting also rang strangely similar to the kinds of places I found myself in as a kid who grew up in rural Victoria: big old country houses with plenty of room for mucking about outdoors. It was quite unfamiliar territory, reading a book that indulged both the country kid in me as well as the accustomed Melbournian. Knowing the location and history behind every suburb and street name gave this story such a deeper level of understanding, and it makes me feel rather sheepish to realise I just don’t read a lot of local fiction. After The Strays, I will be making a more pointed effort to do just that. 

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There are many cups of tea in The Strays. There is lots of coffee and wine and whiskey, and several boiled eggs. Not much baking. But somehow, these ‘grasshopper brownies‘ from Smitten Kitchen came to me instantly and I couldn’t shake the idea of pairing them with this book. Back when I was a kid having sleepovers at friends’ houses, one friend’s mother in particular made a sensational peppermint slice that I was practically obsessed with. Whenever it appeared, I ate a lot of it. 

A little childhood excitement pricked in me when I stumbled across Smitten Kitchen’s grasshopper brownie recipe some time ago, because I thought perhaps I’d found my adult answer to that delicious memory. Of course, as these things often go, it remained unbaked in my Bookmarks folder for years.

I was just waiting for the right inspiration, it seems. 

Happy reading, folks – and make sure to let me know what wonderful books have hit your sweet spot lately. x

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Books and Baking: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

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In 2014, my first year of rating books on Goodreads, the highest rating I ever awarded a book was four stars. I enjoy Goodreads’ rating system a lot: ★ – did not like it,  ★★ – it was ok, ★★★ – liked it, ★★★★ – really liked it, and ★★★★★ – it was amazing. I read some wonderful books last year, but nothing that truly earned five stars for me. The thought crossed my mind – was I, perhaps, being a bit picky? Well, it took but the first book of 2015 to assuage those doubts. Five stars must be saved for those rare pieces that strike you deeply; the word ‘amazing’ given in sincerity rather than unimaginative overuse. I’d almost forgotten what that five star feeling was. It was then that I picked up Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Burial Rites is a fictional telling of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Sentenced to death for the murder of two men in 1828, she is sent to work on a local family’s farm to wait out the long months before a yet unnamed day of reckoning. As the seasons turn, Agnes’ appointed religious guide, as well as her reluctant guardian family come to know a woman more complex than the savage murderess they’ve been led to believe she is. Peppered with actual government documents from the sentencing, Kent alternatively writes a raw, gripping and utterly moving tale for an otherwise voiceless figure of Icelandic history.

What really drives this novel is Kent’s depiction of the landscape and livelihood of Iceland itself. The author describes Burial Rites as her “‘dark love letter’ to Iceland”, and it is a powerful romance indeed. With even a few pages hungrily devoured on the morning tram, the Nordic country leapt cold and crisp off the page and I felt plunged into Agnes’ world in an instant. Iceland is the beautiful and brutally chilling character motivating every other being in this story. Despite the heavy, haunting nature of Burial Rites, I find myself incredibly compelled to make Iceland my next grand adventure. 

Kent’s own story as a writer is one that both inspires and flusters me (in the best possible way). A young Australian (yes!) writer, she penned Burial Writes as the creative component of her PhD in 2011. It was sparked by her visit to Iceland during high school as a Rotary exchange student, where she first learned of Agnes Magnúsdóttir’s execution. She would later return on a funded research trip in 2010. Kent submitted her draft of Burial Rites to Writing Australia’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2011 and won, leading to the publication of her debut novel. It’s gone on to become a bestseller and continued award-winner around the world. 

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The baked companion of Burial Rites came to me almost like a gift. Just days before I finished this book (I eked out the last few pages almost painfully, not wanting it to end), I stumbled across this ‘Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake‘ at The Sugar Hit, a fabulous blog I follow. Now, Agnes’ story hardly involves any happy marriages – in fact, far from it – but the Iceland connection seemed too good to ignore. In any case, the original meaning of the ‘Happy Marriage’ in Iceland’s classic hjónabandssæla (oh, what a delightful language to wrap one’s tongue around!) appears to have been lost. It seems we have to create our own story for this too.

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I’m going to send you over to The Sugar Hit for this recipe, because Sarah’s blog and photography is just too delightful not too share. I urge you to make this ‘cake’ – it’s easy and thoroughly delicious, and truth be told was exactly the baking win I needed (I’ve had a couple of kitchen dramas lately!). I didn’t make the jam filling from scratch, as Sarah does, both because I wanted a quick creation to whip up on a work night, and because I found a a scrumptious-sounding Rhubarb and Red Berry jam from Anathoth Farm at my supermarket. I can wholeheartedly confirm it does the trick!

Sarah also links to a couple of other bloggers’ posts on Icelandic travel, which I highly recommend you take a peek at too. Combine that with Burial Rites and a slice of hjónabandssæla? I’ll see you on the next flight bound for Reykjavík. 

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Books and Baking: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

I started to use Goodreads last year, mostly with the idea of kickstarting and tracking a good reading habit again. I finished the year on 15 books – which really doesn’t sound like much at all, but it’s probably the most committed I’ve been to reading intently in a good few years. I’m quietly chuffed to have made it to 15, to be honest! It has certainly helped that my college girlfriends and I started a book club, an exercise that has benefitted both my reading and my friendships in quite magical ways. 

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Lucky number 15 was Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’, which was to be our book club’s first novel up for discussion in the new year. I nominated this book after spying it on a number of bookish ‘2014 in review’ type posts; it was a page-turner with an exciting revelation. After a couple of memoirs, fantastic though they were (Lena Dunham’s ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ and Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’), this felt like the perfect change of pace for us.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story told by Rosie, who once had two siblings but now, seemingly, has none. It explores themes of family, memory and largely hinges on a revelation that (rather refreshingly) comes quite early in the book. I didn’t pick the reveal, so I won’t say too much because it really is a good little surprise. For me, the book gets a solid three stars: I liked it. It was the page-turner I needed it to be. I was compelled to discover the fate of Rosie’s family, and the nature of the revelation itself makes for some very interesting material throughout the novel.

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My chosen baked counterpart to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is yet another recipe from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking: Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins. The (rather vague) connection to the story lies in the revelation – so if you haven’t read the book and plan to, just don’t think about this too much, okay? And if I have spoiled it for you (sorry!), at least take consolation in this: these muffins are delicious. Way better than the book. So just make the muffins instead. x

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Banana Espresso Chocolate Chip Muffins
Yields 12
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Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
25 min
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
25 min
Ingredients
  1. 1 1/2 cups mashed, very ripe bananas (4-5 medium bananas)
  2. 1/2 cup sugar
  3. 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  4. 1/2 cup (113g / 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  5. 1/4 cup full cream milk
  6. 1 large egg
  7. 1 1/2 cups plain flour
  8. 1 tsp instant coffee granules/powder
  9. 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  10. 1 tsp salt
  11. 1 cup (170g / 6oz) dark chocolate chips
Instructions
  1. 1. Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F). Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray, or cheat and line with paper patty pans like I did.
  2. 2. Stir together the bananas, sugars, butter, milk and egg in a medium bowl.
  3. 3. In another medium bowl, whisk together the flour, instant coffee granules/powder, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the middle and pour in the wet ingredients, stirring until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.
  4. 4. Divide the mixture evenly between the 12 muffin cups. Bake in the centre of your oven for 20-25 minutes. You'll be able to tell they're done when a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffin comes out clean.
  5. 5. Place pan on a cooling rack and leave for at least 15 minutes, before removing the muffins from the pan to finish cooling on the cooling rack.
  6. 6. Enjoy!
Adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito
Little Wanderings http://littlewanderings.com/
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