For a respite from the crazy around us, my suggestions for what to read, watch, and cook during April…
Margaret George, The Memoirs of Cleopatra
This book…..oh, this book! I bought it to read on a plane. Thought it looked interesting and, furthermore, it was long enough that I figured it would get me through the flight there and back. It did much more than that.
This is one of those novels that grabs you by the shoulders, pulls you in, and doesn’t let go, even after you’ve finished the last page. The best historical fiction based on actual people and events takes what we know from primary sources and fills in the details, offering us the chance to better understand the past. George is a master when it comes to seamlessly incorporating thorough—and accurate—research. She’s never didactic, but you will come away from her retelling of Cleopatra’s life realizing that everything you thought you knew about the last Egyptian pharaoh is, pretty much, wrong. If you’re like me, you’ll also come away with a deep and abiding hatred of Octavian. You will scoff at the mention of anything Augustan. You might, even, be inclined to take scowling photos next to busts of the emperor. You will wish there was a way to rehabilitate Marc Antony’s reputation. But most of all, you will fall madly in love with this intelligent woman who the Roman historian Dio Cassius described as "brilliant...with the power to subjugate every one..."
I bought this in hardcover. When it came out in paperback, I bought that, too, so that my hardcover wouldn’t get too worn out. And now I’ve got the e-book as well. Yeah. It’s one of those. Read it now; you won’t regret it.
True story: When I was doing an event in Madison, Wisconsin, I had my best-ever writer moment. Margaret George came to my signing. I have to say it again. MARGARET GEORGE CAME TO MY SIGNING. I still get giddy whenever I think about it. Funnily enough, a few minutes before she arrived I was singing the praises of The Memoirs of Cleopatra to the booksellers…
The Misadventures of Margaret
OK, so this is a quirky movie that a lot of people hate. I get that it stretches credulity to suggest that any woman would get irritated by Jeremy Northam reciting love poetry to her, but don’t let that put you off. It’s witty and fun and based on Catherine Schine’s satirical novel Rameau's Niece. Which reminds me: I loaned my copy to someone and never got it back. Anybody know where it is? I’ll love you forever if you return it. At any rate, Schine’s story is a riff on Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, a deliciously witty philosophical dialogue that might remind you a bit of Candide.
In the film, Margaret (Parker Posey) is a catastrophically neurotic writer who, after penning a blockbuster bestseller, is paralyzed with writer’s block. For the follow-up to her debut, she’s trying to adapt the 18th century diary of a French philosopher and is getting nowhere until she travels to France and discovers the truth about the philosopher’s relationship with the beautiful, young woman he is tutoring.
The film bounces back and forth between Margaret’s world and that of her book as she imagines the scenes she’s writing (often with deliberate anachronisms from her own life). The strong supporting cast, including Elizabeth McGovern, Brooke Shields, and Craig Chester, provide lots of laughs. Northam nails his role as Edward, Margaret’s dreamy English professor husband. In the book Schine describes the character thus:
"If he had been seated beside a rock, he would have quickly begun an animated discussion of its layers of granite or sandstone or lime, its life underground, its ocean journeys and aspirations for the future. Intoxicated by this encounter, he would regale Margaret with tales of the rock's history, which he would tell with such enthusiasm and such grace that she would laugh and hope that some day she too might sit beside a stone at dinner. And the stone? It would sigh and bask in its newly realized glory, its importance and beauty, necessity and dignity: I pave roads and build towers, I form mountains, I rest on the throats of gracious ladies!"
Don’t try to tell me you don’t want to watch Northam be this man; I’ll know you’re lying.
It’s a fun romp, always eccentric, occasionally sly, and often silly. But go with it; you’re bound to laugh at least once.
I’m sure none of you need me to explain why we all need a great scone recipe. This is my favorite, adapted from Baking with Julia. Yep. More Julia Child. Because she’s the best. In this book, she brings in master bakers to contribute, and Marion Cunningham is the genius behind this recipe.
3 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
1 ½ sticks (6 oz) cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup (approximately) buttermilk
Zest from one good-sized lemon
Set aside an additional half stick (2 oz) of melted butter to brush on the scones
Preheat oven to 425
In a medium bowl, stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together with a fork. Add the cold butter pieces and, using your fingertips, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. It’s OK if some largish pieces of butter remain—they’ll add to the scones’ flakiness.
Pour in 1 cup buttermilk, toss in zest, and mix with the fork only until the ingredients are just moistened—you’ll have a soft dough with a rough look. If the dough looks dry, add another tablespoon of buttermilk. Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it gently so that it holds together, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead it very briefly—a dozen turns should do it.
Roll dough, using a light touch, until it is ½ inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter, cut out the scones. I generally use a 2-inch round cutter, but you can choose whatever size you prefer. Place the scones on a parchment-covered baking sheet, leaving space between each, and brush the tops with the melted butter.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until both the tops and bottoms are golden (time will partly depend on what size cutter you used, so keep an eye on them as they bake). Transfer scones to a rack and cool slightly.
They are spectacular warm with butter on them, or at any temperature with jam and cream. Obviously, you will need tea with them…