28 July 2014

Caitlin Moran Readalong: How To Build a Girl

Hi, everybody! It's the third week of our pre-publication discussion of Caitlin Moran's upcoming novel, How to Build a Girl.  Through the generosity of HarperCollins, Moran's publisher in the US, we've all been given access to the book, and if our blogposts (or accompanying GIFs) pique your interest, then consider pre-ordering the book here.  Please beware that all of our posts will be spoilerific.

Okay, y'all. Now I've been enjoying the book as we've been going along, but this week's portion?  I LOVED it.  I started reading this week's section around 11:30 pm a couple of nights ago and I was so utterly smitten with the story she was presenting us that I had to read straight through to the end.  Around 1:30 in the morning I finished it, and my mind was racing so much that it was much later before I fell asleep.  Since I had to be at work, that reading was an act of pure devotion. (Don't worry--I won't spoil what happens in the last section this week.) EDITED TO ADD: I AM AN IDIOT. DESPITE BEING THE HOST, I FORGOT THAT WE WERE SUPPOSED TO END AT CHAPTER 15, NOT AT THE END OF SECTION TWO.  I'm very sorry, especially because I do have some spoiler things from the end of section two this week.  Please don't hate me, or if you do, please get over your hatred soon.

I dog-eared more pages in this book than any other book I can recall reading.  In fact, I took a photo of my book to share with you. And those are just the top edges.  Often there were parts on the verso/recto of the same page, so I dogeared the bottom pages for those circumstances.
I don't usually abuse my books this much
There is definitely something about Moran's book that lends itself to the humourous gifs that we've been using each week, but I almost don't want to use any because I fear they will distract from its importance. You see, this is a book that fills a gap that has been open in literature for a long time.  This is coming of age like we've not seen in a long time, if ever -- it's the equivalent for older teens of Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, the book that set the bar for the genre in 1970 when it was published, but which has become all but irrelevant for the last two decades.  But because Moran is writing for adults, there are no holds barred, which is not always the case in the world of YA, and therefore gets down to the nitty-gritty.  The fact that it's interlaced with social commentary about the class system? Well, that's pure gravy.

It's the story I wish I had been able to read when I was in my early twenties (I was a much later bloomer than Daisy/Johanna), and it's told in a language and style I wish I was brave enough to use myself. And if it had been available to me when I was a teenager, I think there's an excellent chance my life would have taken different direction.  As it is, reading this book in my forties is still an utter revelation. In other words, this book is 100% my jam.

When we left Dolly/Johanna last week, she'd been just offered the gig to interview John Kite. In Dublin.  No big deal or anything.  This week we open with Johanna on the airplane -- her first time ever on a plane, her first time ever out of the country.  Her innocence and insight are precious:
I am getting incredibly high on a single, astounding fact: that it's always sunny above the clouds. Always. That every day on earth -- every day I have ever had -- was secretly sunny, after all. However shitty and rainy it is in Wolverhampton -- on the days where the cloud feel low, like a lid, and the swarf bubbles and the gutters churn to digest -- it's always been sunny up here. I feel like I've just flown 600 miles per hours head-on into the most beautiful metaphor of my life: If you fly high enough, you get above the clouds, it's never-ending summer. 
Anyway...to make a long story short, Johanna spends this section falling in love with John Kite, honing her skills as a writer, learning how to have sex, and learning how to be mean and snarky in print. In the meantime, her family's benefits are cut by 11%, and this brings out the social commentary that lends this novel a heft that the surface humor belies:
There are no investments to cash in, to tide you over this 11 percent dip -- no bonds, savings, or shares. There are no "little luxuries" to cut back on, like going to the hairdressers, or a subscription to a magazine. We cut our own hair, and read magazines in the library. There are no grand plans we can temporarily shelve, during this cash lull -- like replacing our car, or decorating the front room. We were never going to replace our car, or decorate our front room.  
And there's no one we can borrow from -- for one of the truths about the poor is that they tend only to know other poor people, who also couldn't afford an 11 percent dip, and can't subsidize ours.  
The truth is, when you are very poor, that 11 percent bites into the very bones of our existence. Eleven percent less means choosing between electricity or food -- electricity and food that is already rationed and fretted over. Eleven percent is not very much, but when you are very poor, it may form the very bedrock of your survival. 
We follow Caitlin Johanna/Dolly through her first kiss, her first drunkenness, her first sexual experience, and the various levels of professional self-assuredness that she climbs.  She learns the difference between cynicism and just being plain mean.  She pursues men (well, one man in particular) who just don't treat her well. And above all, she learns to see *herself* in a relationship, and not just through the eyes of the men she sleeps with. She tries for so long to be edgy and hard that it takes a disaster to make her realize that 
"It is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish. Because I still don't know what I really think or deel, and I'm throwing grenades and filling the air with smoke while I desperately, desperately try to get off the ground: to get elevation. Because I haven't learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind."
Amen.  I don't believe I'll use any more gifs, because that's the note I'd like to end on.  This book is so damned funny that it's easy to forget the home truths that it drives home.  I get the feeling, and not only from the narrative"I", but from what I've learned about Moran from other bloggers, that this novel is not just personal, but autobiographical. Reading it makes me want to stand up and cheer. It also makes me thankful that, overwhelmingly, the boys and men in my romantic life have all been pretty decent and, erm, generous to me in ways that the boys and men in Johanna's life have not been to her. I can't wait to discuss the ending of this next week with you all.

P.S.   Swashfuckler. That is an excellent word. I will never not laugh when I see it or think it.
Just like that. But with a different kind of sword.

27 July 2014

It's Friday -- I'm In Love (With Anguilla, of course)

Pano of Barnes Bay in the morning sun
The day dawns bright and clear again, so we take another walk on the beach before breakfast -- this time, with camera in hand. One of the things about Mother Nature is that Barnes Bay always looks a bit different from one visit to the next, and it can even change radically during the course of our two-week stay.  This year, the beach was smoother and wider in many parts, particularly the far ends by Arbron (west) and Viceroy (east). Barnes Bay had never looked so smooth and even, but by the time we left, there was nearly three vertical feet of erosion immediately in front of Mango's restaurant.
One of two breakwaters that Viceroy constructed
How much of this is to do with the breakwaters constructed by Viceroy and the subsequent heaping piles of sand that they keep on hand, and how much of this is to do with the natural ebb and flow of the beach, I could not say.  It still strikes me as utterly asinine and arrogant in equal measure for them to think they can control the sea. But here are some photos from our walk, starting with the eastern end by Viceroy and ending by our swimming cove by Arbron.
Long shot, looking toward Viceroy
Where DH is standing here was nothing but sea & cliff last year

Second breakwater
I've never seen such a calm pool of water in front of Viceroy
 on the Barnes side of the resort
The beach is quite full in front of Arbron here
The entry into our swimming hole has never been so gradual
A flowering sea grape on the Viceroy cliff
A flamboyant in all of its flaming glory, on the Viceroy
cliff above the beach. These are my favorite Anguillian trees.
Barnes in front of Arbron, looking toward Caribella
After our walk, we head back to Geraud's for breakfast.  Again.  This time I eschew pastries for another breakfast sandwich, and I've got pictures this time because it wasn't the same old, same old. I had the breakfast BLT, which is different from a traditional BLT in that it comes with avocado and a fried egg. As usual, the breakfast sandwich was HUGE and I took half of it home with me.
Check out those tomatoes!
It's a very nice touch that Geraud's includes an
extra cup of ice with our iced coffee order. 
Our bill came to about $24 (before presenting the Anguilla card), and that included a baguette to go, and since I basically got two meals out of my breakfast sandwich, I'm thinking that's a pretty good deal.  After that, we head back to Caribella to pack a beach bag and then head to The Place.  We got there a bit earlier than we expected (10:30 am!), and a bit earlier than they were expecting guests, as they were repairing one of the steps when we arrived.  But they were very gracious and told us we could go ahead and set up shop with our books if we didn't mind the noise.

We didn't.  And in fact, we got in some serious reading.  Despite the loveliness of the setting, we pretty much had our noses buried in our books for a solid two hours, but that enabled DH to finally finish reading The Goldfinch.  And since it's damned near 800 pages, it's no wonder it took him several days to get through it. Two brief showers came up before lunch, and they were almost enough to drive us to seek shelter, but we put our books under our towels and decided to wait them them both out.
Rendezvous Bay
Around 1:00, we headed up to the shaded pavilions for lunch.  By that time, there was quite a small crowd accumulated, including a large party from Argentina on a sailboat, seated right next to us.  Now mind you, Mo had the day off because he was away for a conference, so poor Dave was hopping just trying to keep on top of everybody's orders.

I mentioned several posts back, when we went to Picante for dinner, that we would run into Jovaughn again; well, he came to have lunch at The Place with a friend, but on his way back up from the beach to the seating area, he was waved over by the large Argentine group because they assumed (wrongly) that he was working there.  I'm not sure that I'd have been as gracious as he was, but after trying to convince them that he didn't, in fact, work there, he went to find out the answer to their questions and brought them menus, to boot.  They continued to pester him with questions and he kept trying to help, much to the irritation of his friend, who by now was waiting for him to join her for lunch.  I asked him later about it, and he just shrugged and said he didn't mind helping out because he could clearly see that they were understaffed that day.  We chatted a bit more with him after they finished their lunch and very much enjoyed his company.

I'd heard, both from Dave and a couple of patrons earlier in the week, that the specialty hamburger at The Place was well worth trying.  I usually order fish of some kind, but the day before I had seen the burger in question and experienced a pang of food envy.  The Place burger is large patty (1/3 lb, maybe?), topped with bleu cheese and bacon, and piled high with caramelized onions, and served with French fries and cole slaw.  It was pretty decadent, but if DH hadn't been helping me, I never would have finished it.  He opted one last time for the coconut shrimp, which he gallantly shared, despite there being only 5 shrimps per serving.

After lunch, we went back to read on the daybeds.  I was rather feverishly working my way through a fast-paced sci-fi thriller called Lexicon, so I was both startled and gratified when, an hour later, Dave checked in to see if I was ready for my daily afternoon infusion of rum.  I allowed that I was, and he brought me my new favorite drink, this time with a generous float of rum on top.

Another hour's worth of reading or so, and it was time for us to gather our things settle the tab.  On our way out, we met Clifton Gumbs, the chef, and got Dave to pose for a photo, too.  He also mentioned that they'd decided to stay open two more days and elicited a promise from us to return on Sunday (alas, we'd already made plans for Saturday, thinking they were going to be closed).
Chef Clifton Gumbs
The infamous Dave
On the spur of the moment, we decided to drive by Dune Preserve and Cuisinart on the way home, largely because I couldn't figure out Dune is west of Cuisinart while the road to get to it is east of the Cuisinart main entrance. (The answer: an interior service road, of sorts)  We had contemplated stopping at Dune, but there were no cars in the lot, so we retraced our steps back to Cuisinart and decided to take the scenic route back through the golf course.

The main entrance off the main road
Despite the overcast afternoon, it was very pretty.  It's been more than two decades since I hit the links (my mom's the golfer in the family, not me), but I admired the grounds.  Beautiful, and outside of the greens and fairways themselves, not overly manicured or fussy.  Still, the amount of water it must take to keep it looking the way it does makes me shudder a little bit.
Not exactly a stunning sunset, but we still like
 being present for each of them, cocktail in hand
Back at Caribella, we quickly clean up for the sunset and dinner, feeling a frisson of excitement about trying out a new restaurant. Inspired by our Anguilla Card, we decide to try out Flavours restaurant at LaVue  hotel, overlooking Sandy Ground. I especially appreciated that they informed us on the phone, when making the reservation, that they were expecting a very large party (25+) that night at 8:00. We booked a table for 7:30 and were thus able to get our orders in to the kitchen before they got swamped.

Well, the location is perfectly lovely.  Decked out with white curtains that billowed in every alcove, we appreciated the breeze that the elevation afforded.  In fact, outside of Gwen's beach bar in the east end, this was the breeziest meal we'd ever experienced on the island, and I was grateful that I'd chosen a long-sleeved shirt for the occasion.

The menu isn't extensive, but it offers something for almost everyone, with the exception of vegetarians, though I have a few friends who would have enjoyed sampling the veggie side dishes. All of the entrees come with two sides, so I selected Uncle's Pork, which is a grilled tenderloin with my choice of sauce (smothered onions for me) with the garlic & chive mashed potatoes and fried plantain.  It was excellent, though I ended up taking some home with me.

DH didn't fare quite as well, unfortunately. Opting for the grilled fish of the day, which was snapper, he was very disappointed when it arrived at the table with an undisclosed heavy lemon cream sauce, which completely overpowered the fish.  The vegetables were egregiously over-salted, too, so he left most of everything except the garlic mashed potatoes behind. Still, the value was good, even before taking off the 10% discount afforded by the Anguilla card -- two cocktails, a large bottle of water, and the service charge all came to $88, which falls decidedly on the lower end of the dinner spectrum on Anguilla --  and we were treated to a lightning show and a thunderous amount of rain during our meal.

We exited for the carpark by way of the swimming pool, which looked so lovely and inviting.  I took some photographs, but the low light made for some very grainy images, so here's a photo from the hotel's website.  I love Caribella, but I confess that I do miss having a swimming pool, and it was all I could do not to abandon myself to those luminous waters. I also loved the table & chairs at one end of the pool that looked like each chair had been carved from one solid piece of wood. They were extremely heavy but quite eye-catching.
Photo is from LaVue website

25 July 2014

These Perfect Days are SOOOO Tiresome

We couldn't know, when we awakened to an overcast sky, that we were about to begin yet another perfect day in Anguilla. We started off with breakfast at Geraud's (sorry, I felt silly taking the same photos of the same pastries & coffee, day after day, so I stopped), then drove back to Caribella to pack up our beach bag for the day.

We knew we were heading to The Place because it was Mo's last day working there during our vacation.  He is the president of the newly formed (or perhaps about-to-be-formed, I wasn't clear on that point) Anguilla Boxing Association for youth and he was heading to Barbados for a conference to learn all about it.  This time we got there early, so we could claim one of the daybeds, and it gave us time to chat with Mo and Dave before the big sailboat from St Maarten pulled up and took up much of their attention with their various demands for chairs, umbrellas, drinks, etc.

Lunch was pretty good overall--I had the blackened shrimp with salad, which was fine but a tad too salty, and DH ordered the calamari, which iluvdannydottir had ordered the previous day. They were just as excellent and crispy as the first time so I sneaked several bites from him. I think the fry cook at The Place knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Alas, I stopped taking pictures of our food, but at least I have a photo of my new favorite (non-alcoholic) drink. Dave brought me this when we got settled in, before I even had the chance to ask for it.  Just one more reason why we so love being at The Place.
Passionfruit & club soda, generous squeeze of lime
After lunch, we alternated between getting in that gorgeous water and enjoying our books.  We switched to the other daybed to follow the shade, which seemed to please other guests because they preferred the one in the sun, so it all worked out well.

We left a little bit earlier than usual that day. I didn't make a note of our exact bill, but most days it came to around $50-60, including the 15% service charge. After pausing to wish Mo the best of luck with his future endeavors with the boxing club, we headed out to Sea Spray.  We always try to stop there a few times during any trip, but the times we had passed by before, we either had an agenda or it wasn't during Pamela's business hours.

If you don't already know it, Sea Spray is a charming boutique located across from the Sandy Ground roundabout--you really can't miss the bright and cheery rainbow of sorbet colors. Pamela has a terrific selection of goods ranging from soaps & hot sauces to local jewelry and t-shirts to Christmas ornaments and some original art, and everything is reasonably priced.  And the smoothies at Sea Spray are legendary.
Smoothie menu, or create your own!
Marsha and Pamela
We always love stopping in and chatting with Pamela about island life, our dogs, travel, the Green Bay Packers, and whatever else might come up.  It's also fun to sit there, sipping a smoothie, and watch the world go by.  On this visit we also met Marsha, a young woman who works with Pamela and helps craft the various ornaments for sale in the shop.  And, of course, there's Dash, a dog we met as a pup and who continues to be the sweetest charmer you've ever seen.
DH and Dash
Pamela accepts the Anguilla card in Sea Spray (but not for the smoothies), so I took advantage by doing a little shopping: I bought a batik sarong for the beach and some locally made goat's milk soap for my mom.  (Sorry to spoil the surprise, Mom!)  I don't know why there aren't more goat milk products on the island, considering their prevalence.  I think it's a niche enterprise waiting to happen!

After a nice, long visit, during which we debated the merits of various restaurants around the island, DH and I bid adieu to Marsha and Pamela.  It was time to head back to Caribella for our end of day swim before getting ready for dinner at Straw Hat.

Straw Hat has long been a favorite of ours, and there's nothing about it that we don't love.  It's the perfect place for  any meal of the day, and with the setting right on Meads Bay, it provides what might be the only non-resort breakfast with a view on the island. (If I'm wrong about that, please let me know in the comments section.)  The staff are friendly, the whole restaurant has a congenial air about it, and it's busy year-round (or at least during the months that it's open). We were there for breakfast once and dinner twice during our stay, and each time it was hopping.
Table with a view
One of the things we especially like about Straw Hat is the combination of its fine dining menu with a casual atmosphere--its food might rival the finest restaurants on the island, but its setting is infinitely more convivial and relaxed. We also like the fact that the chef there incorporates goat into the menu.

I had purchased a gift certificate to Straw Hat for DH for Christmas last year, for which we owe Peter Parles, the owner, our sincere gratitude for the lengths he went to to make sure I received it on time, despite the fact that I was a little late in the game seeking it out. Peter's a go-getter for sure, and he has nothing if not a can-do attitude, so he somehow sweet-talked another American couple to transport the gift certificate back to the States and mail it to me right in time to put it in my DH's stocking.

It's always difficult to make up our minds, so we decided to turn Straw Hat into our own private tapas restaurant by ordering four appetizers to share. Armel, our server, teased us a bit about our indecision, which goaded us into ordering them all.  Good move, Armel!
Bread is served in these eponymous straw hats
Ever since I first read that the chef had created a plate of goat sliders, I knew I had to order them.  They were wonderful--flavorful and succulent on a pillow soft roll--and I would have been happy to eat nothing but goat sliders for the rest of the meal. 
Goat sliders with cole slaw
We also ordered the spring rolls (fine, but outclassed by the remaining dishes), the Big Eye Tuna flatbread, which is dusted with wasabi, then sprinkled with herbs and truffle oil, and the blackened shrimp and slipper lobster tacos, the last two of which were excellent.  And I was so glad to see that Sea Lice had been renamed on a menu, because why on earth would Anguillians ever call a delicious food, sea lice?  Oh, wait. I bet they called it that because they didn't want anybody else to eat it all. Well played, Anguillians. Well played. 
Spring rolls with seaweed and green salads
Big Eye Tuna flatbread
Blackened shrimp & slipper lobster tacos
Despite the fact that we ordered four appetizers to share, we couldn't finish it all and regretted having eaten the spring rolls before we at the flatbread, some of which was left on the plate. We couldn't just end there, though.  One of my favorite desserts is Bananas Foster, and Straw Hat does a non-flammable version of that quite well, AND they add pineapple on top.  In fact, with the caramelization of the bananas, I just may prefer their version over the traditional New Orleans one.  We also ordered some whiskey (DH) and a desserty drink for me (which was a mistake--I should have stuck with the whiskey).

We were obviously enjoying ourselves and taking our time, talking with Peter, Armel, and Doris as they came by to check in; nonetheless, it was a bit of a shock to look down at my watch and see that we'd been there for nearly three hours already.  I don't think we've ever been one of the last parties at Straw Hat at the end of the night, but this time we managed it.

If there was a way we could have improved upon our day, I sure would like to know about it for our next trip.  Until then, we'll just have to settle for our current definition of perfection.