July 21, 2011


So Sweet! Cookies, Cupcakes, Whoopie Pies, and More. By Sur La Table. Andrews McMeel. $15.

The Evil Garden. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $12.95.

Why We Have Day and Night. By Peter F. Neumeyer & Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $12.95.

Manglo Saxon: Marvelously Mangled Meanings for Well-Worn Words. By R.S. Young. Pomegranate. $12.95.

     A book need not be weighty in size or number of pages in order to be weighty in content. Indeed, the latest cookbook from Seattle-based Sur La Table could be very weighty indeed for anyone who might decide to try all 50 recipes within a very short time span. But resist the temptation – or, better, spread it out over time, to get the full flavor of enjoyment of this delicious little set of recipes. Everything here is indulgent – for as the book’s introduction points out, “sometimes a homemade sweet and a glass of milk are all it takes to remind us that life does have sweeter moments.” The really nice thing about the recipes here is how much they vary in complexity. Sugar cookies and lemon bars are on the simple side – the latter being easier than most people may suspect. Rocky Road Cupcakes and such specialized whoopie pies as Oatmeal Raisin with Orange Cream Cheese, or Kahlúa and Cream, are on the more-difficult side, but well worth the investment of time. The book makes it clear that deliciousness can easily be a family endeavor: “Children will love being little helpers by peeling and mashing the overripe bananas for this recipe,” one page notes. The chapter on doughnuts is especially interesting, because all the recipes call for baking rather than deep-frying these tasty snacks. And some of the recipes are really creative, such as Blueberry Buttermilk Doughnuts or Maple and Bacon Doughnuts. The one important element missing here is a count of calories and fat calories per serving of these sweet treats. Perhaps Sur La Table thought the numbers would make the recipes less delightful; and perhaps that would be so. But healthful eating does require a sense of balance as well as a sense of taste – and if people are going to indulge themselves with the various forms of deliciousness here, it would be better if they did so in the full knowledge that a little of these scrumptious items goes a long way.

     It should be no surprise that little books from Pomegranate have the elegance and élan of the company’s many fine-arts offerings – this is a publisher that brings care and quality to everything it produces. A number of its productions showcase the inimitable work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000), whose highly detailed crosshatch drawings are typically set in vaguely Edwardian times and show mayhem of many sorts being visited upon a wide variety of characters. The Evil Garden (1965) is typical Gorey, and typically delightful for those with an appreciation of his macabre sense of humor. It begins with a dual-language pun, the book purporting to be “Eduard Blutig’s Der Böse Garten” in translation. The German “blutig” translates as “bloody,” but the same word with an umlaut – blütig – would mean “flowered,” and Gorey was surely aware of this. (And the purported German title just as accurately translates as “The Garden of Evil,” with Gorey surely aware of that as well.) Typically for Gorey, the book starts with an assemblage of innocent-looking people – five adults, two children and a baby – about to go into a garden whose entryway proclaims, “Eintritt Frei!” (free admission). Almost everything is white in the illustration before the people enter, but things get steadily darker thereafter, as “Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,/ Is coming nearer on the path,” and then “The gorgeous flowers have a smell/ That causes one to feel unwell.” And things get steadily more bizarre: a giant moth, a people-strangling snake, huge flying bugs, a deadly bubbling pond, until eventually “the sky has grown completely black” and the few remaining visitors realize there is no way out. And so the book ends – leaving just enough to the imagination. Or maybe just a bit too much.

     Gorey’s imagination is shared with that of Peter F. Neumeyer in Why We Have Day and Night (1970), and a finely wrought collaboration it is. This is a brief explanation of – well, just what it explains is open to interpretation. This book begins with illustrations that are nearly the opposite of those in The Evil Garden, with everything black except for the white lettering and white crosshatched outlines of some children and a cat. These white-on-black pictures are among Gorey’s most unusual – and they are wonderfully contrasted with his more typical black-on-white ones as the children try to figure out why everything has become dark. For instance, the kids ask, “Could a squirrel have chewed a wire?” And Gorey shows a squirrel doing just that in the upper-right-hand-corner of the page – in black-on-white mode. These kids seem to understand that they are drawings – at one point, they wonder, “Did the ink spill?” (And, again, a tiny picture at the top of the page shows ink being spilled.) Explanations and drawings become increasingly fanciful: Eyes bursting? Still sleeping? Kids turned into snails? “Aren’t we born yet?” But finally, one child remembers what happens when the sun goes down – and recalls his father explaining nighttime by using a bug and an orange. Except that the boy misremembers the explanation, resulting in a suitably Gorey-esque conclusion consisting of two entirely black pages. Words and illustrations meld wonderfully here.

     Manglo Saxon is nearly all words – although there are a few doodle-like cartoons here and there – and American readers should be warned that this is a highly British book, whose occasional notes “to the puzzled American reader” do not go nearly far enough to explain all the puns and portmanteau-word explanations that R.S. Young has developed. But it is worth taking the time to comprehend what is going on here, because what ensues is hilarity. Young has taken the opposite tack of those who think words should be spelled as they sound. Manglo Saxon suggests that words should have meaning in accord with the way they are actually spelled – with some vowel sounds and accentuation altered to make things “clear.” At its best, this produces considerable amusement. “Helpmeet,” for instance, is “a spicy seasoning blend” (“help meat”). “Underground” is “inadequately crushed” (that is, not ground enough). “Illegal” is “a diseased bird of prey” (an “ill eagle”). So much for the relatively straightforward. But then there are the watch-your-pronunciation entries, such as “hospital” meaning “equine saliva” (as in “hoss spittle”) and “Pontiac” being “a French bridge fetishist” (“pont” being “bridge” in French, in a portmanteau with “maniac”). There are also words that require readers to know some Britishisms without being given an explanation, such as “verger” being “a roadside vendor” (Americans talk about the side of the road; in British English, that is the verge). Then there are the punning groaners, including “vanish” being “somewhat like a van” and “servile” meaning “to behave like a flight attendant” (“serve aisle” and perhaps also “serve vile,” if Young is trying for commentary here). Spellings may trip up American readers from time to time: “yoghurt,” the British spelling of what Americans call “yogurt,” is “an injury sustained while practicing yoga,” but really needs that central “h” to make sense. On the other hand, “hamlet” as “a small pig” works on either side of the pond. Each reader of Manglo Saxon will come up with his or her own favorites. How about “yammer” as “a vendor of sweet potatoes” (that is, yams)? Or “cantankerous” as “an adjective describing an inability to tether a vessel to the seabed” (as in “can’t anchor us”)? Or “malingering” meaning “pointlessly hanging around a shopping arcade” (that is, “mall” + “lingering”)? Or “Fahrenheit” as in “a long way up” (“far in height”)? Manglo Saxon is a small book and a short one, but it is packed with enough amusement to keep readers and language lovers thoroughly amused (and, for American readers, occasionally befuddled) for many pleasant hours.

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