Why it’s okay just to dip in a toe. Plus Iranian poetry and a recipe for apple cake.
|Joanna Scutts||Nov 23|
Welcome new and vintage readers! I am getting these out when I can, but I aspire to regularity. Please feel free to reply and let me know what you think, and thank you for being here.
I currently have at least four good books (and two TV shows) that I’ve started recently and left hanging, not counting everything I ought to be reading for book research. There’s always a miasma of guilt around unfinished books, a mutual inkling of failure—did I fail this book, or did this book fail me? But I’m trying to rethink it more generously: the buffet approach, rather than finish-your-broccoli-or-you-can’t-have-dessert.* Over the past few months I’ve found it difficult to start anything new, especially when it’s a book I’m sure is good, or less-than-good in an interesting way, that I’ll want to think and talk and maybe write about. It’s easier to put it off in favor of rereading or doomscrolling—a thing already finished, or unfinishable.
So in trying to recognize, understand, and jettison these little weights I carry around, I’m learning to enjoy just getting a taste. I’m talking first pages, first episode, first chapter: enough to get oriented, but not really to start the journey. I recently bought Shuggie Bain, which won the Booker last week, and read to page 30. I’m roughly the same depth into Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. I’ve managed just a single episode each of the latest season of The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit**, not out of any ascetic aversion to bingeing, nor simply because I’m too damn tired to stay up past ten, but because the sample is enough for now. I’m eager to finish all these things, but I’m sensitive to certain topics and moods right now. I’m sensitive, for instance, to bleak stories about mothers and sons. I don’t want my heart wrenched right now, I need it warmed.
There’s so much ambient pressure around culture. Read this (not that). You will love this. Everyone is talking about this, right now. It makes me defiant and stubborn.*** Not finishing a book or a TV show—or not finishing it yet—doesn’t matter to anyone but you, and it’s up to you how much it matters. Binge culture insists that you should consume the whole thing in great greedy gulps. But with apologies to literary publicists, not being able to put something down isn’t the only measure of value. I like having started, so that when I go back it’ll be like meeting someone I vaguely know at a party, grasping to place them: Bulgaria? Iowa? Glasgow? If I’m remembering parties correctly, that game of how-do-I-know-you? is a lot more fun than the cold hello.
My latest Feminize Your Canon column is up at The Paris Review, on the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, known reductively but not inaccurately as the Persian Sylvia Plath. This was a really challenging piece to research and write, given how little I knew going in, but I’m pleased with how it came out. Here’s the opening:
In 1954, a nineteen-year-old poet walked unannounced into the office of the literary editor of Roshanfekr (The Intellectual), one of Iran’s most prestigious magazines. Her fingers were stained with green ink, and she trembled with nerves as she handed over three poems. One of them, the twelve-line “Sin,” described in explicit detail her affair with the magazine’s editor in chief. Different translations give different nuances to the opening of the poem: “I have sinned a rapturous sin / in a warm enflamed embrace,” (Sholeh Wolpé) or “I have sinned, a delectable sin, / In an embrace which was ardent, like fire” (Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallée) or “I sinned / it was a most lustful sin / I sinned in arms sturdy as iron, / hot like fire and vengeful.” (Farzaneh Milani) Across these variations, there are a few scandalous constants: the heat, the embrace, the pleasure, and the boldly unashamed I.
Of Cake for Breakfast
This is the method from a longer, more involved recipe that I’ve made several times now, cutting so many corners it’s become a circle, and now takes roughly ten minutes and a single bowl. The original called for a springform pan; I only had a loaf tin (a decent one, because $20 kitchen upgrades are pleasures with an exceptional ROI.) This carried the delightful bonus of any cake made in a loaf tin (or “pan” I guess), that it becomes officially acceptable for breakfast. It is especially good warm, with ice cream.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and put 1 stick butter on the stove top to melt in a little bowl. Lightly grease a standard size loaf tin.
Peel two regular eating apples and cut into small cubes. Toss them in lemon juice if you have it handy, to stop them browning, otherwise just work quickly.
In a large bowl, whisk 2 eggs until foamy, then 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 2tbsp calvados and 1tsp vanilla essence. (If you don’t have calvados, you can do as I do and work your way through the random fruit brandy sampler pack you have stashed in the back of the bar, but this is probably a good excuse to buy calvados.)
Sift together 1 cup + 2 tbsp flour, 1tsp baking powder, and a pinch of salt. I just measure all of this into a wire sieve set over the bowl. (The original recipe calls for this extra 2tbsp to be almond flour, but we are a nut-sensitive household so I just use a bit more flour.)
Sift and stir in half the flour mixture, then half the melted butter, then the rest of the flour and butter. It’s a very sticky batter.
Stir in the apples & scrape it all into the cake pan. Bake for 50 mins.
* Not in our house, the baby loves gnawing on tiny trees.
** Does The Queen’s Gambit get better? Because that first episode was Not. Good, and I’m not sure why everyone loves it so much?
*** Taurus, why do you ask?
**** I am not a professional cookbook author for many reasons.