A Few Peachy Summer Reads

Posted on August 13, 2012

A couple of weeks back, I dusted off my sales cap and headed out to the 2012 New England Authors Expo to sell some books. An hour or so before the Expo doors opened to the public, heavy, dark clouds moved in and, not long after, burst open. In several surrounding towns, pouring rain and parched lawns met and spawned flash street flooding. News stations issued tornado warnings. Expo attendance suffered. But the slow book sales gave us authors an opportunity to step away from our own display tables and browse the works of others.

Holly Robinson, novelist and memoirist, came right over to introduce herself to me. “Sue Little of Jabberwocky Books mentioned you to me and thought we might have lots in common,” she said. Over coffee a few days later, we learned we did. Clearly, Sue possesses a knack for matchmaking. Since that morning of coffee and tea and get-to-know-you chat, I have finished both of Holly’s excellent books and have found more common threads, some things I hope I can share with her at another date. Until then, let me share her work with you.

“One cloudy Monday afternoon, I came home and found my family gathered in the garage.” So begins The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, the story of a young Holly Robinson, her on-the-move Navy family headed up by a quirky but methodical father, and the package in the garage that is about to change their lives.

As you might have guessed from the book’s title, the air express boxes contained plastic cages, and each cage a pair of gerbils. The zippy memoir tells the how of their arrival: her father’s purchase of the first gerbils, his foray into breeding and scientific study, the elaborate web of secrecy he constructs and maintains as a naval officer with a very clearly drawn line to toe. And as Holly writes this tale, we – and she too, this devoted but at times perplexed daughter – learn the answer to “Why gerbils?”

Holly Robinson is whip crack funny with a sharp eye for detail and foible and human nuance. These skills allow her to quickly hone in on the absurdities of a mobile Navy family dealing with hundreds of rodents, on the tensions that arise because of the dual character of the man she called Dad, and on the little relationship “tells” that portend that perhaps all is not smooth sailing between her parents.

Although humorous, Holly’s memoir is far from one-note. She understands when and where it is necessary to pare back and let the quiet moments stand unadorned, and also how to treat these times with unsparing honesty and, therefore, respect. She doesn’t let herself escape the harsh lens of the magnifying glass either, and what emerges is a story that has the feel of truth rather than tall tale, something touching instead of schmaltzy.

Robinson’s second book, Sleeping Tigers, is a novel written for adult readers looking for books about people like themselves, people with difficult but beloved families, people who search for answers to some of life’s big questions. Again Holly exercises her keen wit (there are some fantastic character sketches in the book that center around re-entering the dating scene) but when the main story of a sister searching for her brother and hoping to nudge him back to a functioning life needs tenderness, the humor takes a supporting role so that the relationship’s humanity may have the final word.

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Glib novels abound in our fast-paced world, books with hip and arch tones, loose writing, facile plots, and one-dimensional characters with problems that land them in hot water but only until all loose ends get tied up quite neatly. The lampooning of these main characters and their foibles is de rigueur and predictably drives all action: flawed hero or heroine is too often paired with a vile nemesis or ditzy sidekick, barbs fly, forced hilarity ensues. While readers accept that novels are meant to entertain, novels also must provide emotional nourishment. Most readers look for this along with a good story. We don’t need our entertainment or our food for thought pureed before serving, or worse, reduced to pap. We can handle emotional depth.
The novel Back to Grace is what happens when an author writes a book for adults, readers he or she trusts to be capable of sitting quietly and patiently with a story as it unfolds, readers who are eager for pitch perfect dialogue and poignant interactions, readers appreciative of the complexity and nuance of the human condition. In Back to Grace, A.M. Monzione brings us Zep, who has lost both his wife and his faithful dog in the span of 18 months; Carol, whose days are ruled by her mother’s slide into dementia; and Lorena, a 25-year-old store manager who can’t share her deepest secret for fear of being declared an oddity or worse. In one serendipitous moment – involving a grocery store produce department, an errant tomato, and three strangers together in the right place at the right time – isolated people who need to make human connections find each other.

Readers are drawn into the inner lives of the characters, into their memories, thoughts, and emotions, and in this way we watch the transformations made by solitary individuals as they become members of a tight community. This kind of delicate story relies on a writer telling truths and presenting true people and Monzione does not disappoint. The author’s respect for the characters is present on every page. She breathes them to life then allows them to be who they are and grow into their experiences. No character is a stereotype, not one gets wrangled into an unbelievable situation. This kind of truth in telling means the reader is never duped or let down. Monzione has given us a wonderfully tender book, trusting that we will be drawn in because the world she has created is genuine and that this story of great emotional depth will resonate and transform us as well.

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Andrew Goldstein hasn’t taken the straightest road from intent to finished novel. The Bookie’s Son, as he notes in his acknowledgments, was begun 40 years ago only to be published this year. It doesn’t matter. We should just be glad the story finally got told.

Loosely based on Goldstein’s own childhood (and yes, that is a photo of his parents on the front cover), The Bookie’s Son gives us Ricky Davis, the Andrew Goldstein stand-in who, at age 12, takes over his father’s bookie business after his father must disappear for a bit to hide from an irate gangster. Ricky’s mother is also a schemer and just as unreliable an adult in the child’s world, and very soon it falls on the young boy’s shoulders to live the life of a young man in order to keep the family moving forward.

The story is by turns riotous and gritty but always real, and behind every twist and turn are the very real city streets that Ricky must navigate. The Bronx of 1960 looms, as much a complex character as the breathing human beings, both vital and full of tantalizing freedom while also filled with danger and dangerous sorts. No mere backdrop, the Bronx proves that family is inextricable from place. The neighborhood doesn’t let go easily.

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That’s it for the peachy reading. Now here’s a peach of a summer cake: my sister’s blueberry buckle recipe with chopped peaches added along with the berries to the batter. The cake mixes together quickly and makes a perfect mid-morning snack for oneself, or pretty and tasty gift for a new neighbor.

Blueberry-Peach Buckle

For the streusel topping:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup (4 Tbsp.) soft butter

Stir together the sugar, flour, and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Add the butter and with your fingers, blend this into the dry ingredients until the mixture is crumbly and clumpy. Set aside.

For the cake:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (4 Tbsp.) soft butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 cup chopped peaches (about 2)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-inch or 9-inch square pan. Set aside.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl and set aside. Place the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat to blend. Stir in the milk and vanilla and blend well. The mixture will look curdled.

Add the sifted dry ingredients to the butter mixture. On low speed, mix with the beater just until all the flour is nearly incorporated. Then, fold in the two fruits and give the batter a few turns with a rubber scraper until the fruit is distributed and you see no more streaks of flour. Do not over mix.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan. Scatter the streusel topping evenly over the top of the batter.

Place the pan in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for 40-50 minutes, depending on the size of the pan. Begin testing the smaller pan at 40 minutes, the larger at 45 minutes. When finished, a cake tester inserted in the center will have no wet crumbs clinging to it.

Remove the cake from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.

(Disposable 8-inch or 9-inch round disposable paper baking pans can also be used if you are giving the cake as a gift. Test for doneness as directed above.)

©2012  Jane A. Ward