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True Confections: A Novel
by Katharine Weber

Published: 2009-12-29
Hardcover : 288 pages
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Take chocolate candy, add a family business at war with itself, and stir with an outsider's perspective. This is the recipe for True Confections, the irresistible new novel by Katharine Weber, a writer whose work has won accolades from Iris Murdoch, Madeleine L'Engle, Wally Lamb, and Kate ...
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Introduction

Take chocolate candy, add a family business at war with itself, and stir with an outsider's perspective. This is the recipe for True Confections, the irresistible new novel by Katharine Weber, a writer whose work has won accolades from Iris Murdoch, Madeleine L'Engle, Wally Lamb, and Kate Atkinson, to name a few.
 
Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky's marriage into the Ziplinsky family has not been unanimously celebrated. Her greatest ambition is to belong, to feel truly entitled to the heritage she has tried so hard to earn. Which is why Zip's Candies is much more to her than just a candy factory, where she has worked for most of her life. In True Confections, Alice has her reasons for telling the multigenerational saga of the family-owned-and-operated candy company, now in crisis.
 
Nobody is more devoted than Alice to delving into the truth of Zip's history, starting with the rags-to-riches story of how Hungarian immigrant Eli Czaplinsky developed his famous candy lines, and how each of his candies, from Little Sammies to Mumbo Jumbos, was inspired by an element in a stolen library copy of Little Black Sambo, from which he taught himself English. Within Alice's vivid and persuasive account (is her unreliability a tactic or a condition?) are the stories of a runaway slave from the cacao plantations of Côte d'Ivoire and the Third Reich's failed plan to establish a colony on Madagascar for European Jews.
 
Richly informed, deeply moving, and spiked with Weber's trademark wit, True Confections is, at its heart, a timeless and universal story of love, betrayal, and chocolate.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

On my first day of work at Zip's Candies, it took five minutes for me to learn the two-handed method for separating and straightening the Tigermelts as they were extruded eight at a time onto the belt carrying them towards the finishing chocolate striping applicator tunnel. The necessary reach-shuffle-reach-shuffle Tigermelt-straightening gesture was demonstrated for me with condescending efficiency, with the belt running at half speed, by the irritable Frieda Ziplinsky, whose husband Sam had just hired me that morning, an impulsive act on his part that she would regret audibly every few weeks for the next thirty-three years. In the sixth minute, I had my first glimpse of my future ex-husband. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. How reliable a narrator is Alice? Do you trust her? She observes the hidden meanings and subtle inflections all around her, but is she equally aware of her own subtexts?

2. Can you identify moments in each chapter of True Confections in which Alice adds meaning to what she experiences or describes? Can you identify moments in each chapter in which Alice seems to overlook or gloss meanings in what she experiences or describes?

3. Are Little Sammies racist? What does it really mean to be racist? If you are aware that
others may define something you have said or done as racist even if it was not your intention, is it still racist?

4. True Confections is a novel in which there are many instances of lies and deceptions. Alice stakes a claim for her own veracity starting with the title of the book. What is the truth about the history and meaning of Willie Wonka's lovable Oompa Loompas? What is the truth about the runaway boy from the cacao plantation on Ivory Coast? What is Howard's relationship with his relatives in Madagascar? What is the truth about Frieda Ziplinsky's chicken soup recipe? Is Alice entirely innocent of the arson charges that seem to be a pattern in her life?

5. Why do you think Alice cheats on her psychoanalyst by seeing another therapist on the side?

6. Why is Alice so eager to become part of the Ziplinsky family?

7. Why is Alice's relationship with Sam Ziplinsky so much more successful than her relationship with Frieda Ziplinsky?

8. The Madagascar Plan is a historically true though unrealized goal of the Third Reich during the Second World War. Were it not for Julius Czaplinsky's ambitions when he learned of it, which in turn led to the establishing of a Madagascar branch of the Ziplinsky family, what do you imagine Alice's marriage to Howdy Ziplinsky would have been like?

9. Did reading True Confections change the way you think of chocolate? Did reading the book make you crave candy? Which kind? Did you succumb? Did you gain weight while reading True Confections?

10. What would it be like to have Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky as a member of your book group?



Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A note from author Katharine Weber:

Although True Confections is a novel about love, marriage, betrayal, and a crisis in a fourth generation family business -- a chocolate candy factory in New Haven -- the origins of my fifth novel are in Cote D'Ivoire, on the west coast of Africa. The troubling issue of child slave labor on cacao plantations in the country that supplies much of the world's chocolate inspired me to consider the moral dilemma for someone in the chocolate candy business. True Confections is a novel about chocolate, and about race, from the story of a runaway cacao plantation slave to a riff on Oompa-Loompas, to a contemporary factory -- Zip's Candies, makers, since 1924, of Little Sammies, fudgy figures inspired by Little Black Sambo. I want my readers to be entertained, but I also want them to be moved, and to think about familiar things in new ways. My novels always offer a lot for readers to think about, which is why my previous novels, from Triangle to The Little Women to The Music Lesson have been very successful with book groups. Where does our candy come from? Who makes it? Even a sweet candy business can have underlying bitterness, from family squabbles to a history of casual racism. Alice is an unreliable narrator, but she invites readers to believe her story, and it is up to every reader to determine how far she is willing to go with Alice.

WHY TRUE CONFECTIONS IS A GREAT BOOK CLUB SELECTION:

True Confections is a wonderful book for discussion. Alice's story of loyalty and betrayal in her marriage will give book groups a lot to talk about. Everyone has a story of the lost family fortune, the schisms in families torn apart by bitter fights over a family business. Everyone knows a story about a family fortune built by previous generations who had vision and energy, only to see the current generation, born into prosperity and lacking ambition, either run the business into the ground or cash out. And everyone has an intense personal relationship with chocolate!

Rich Cohen, author of Sweet and Low, calls True Confections "a novel filled with characters so real they come off the page and into your life."

Susan Karl, the CEO of Annabelle Candy, raves: "Delicious, stuffed with humor and brimming with greed and goodness. Weber adroitly evokes a real candy factory, with all its aromas and intrigue, providing the perfect setting for the Ziplinskys to chase their dreams. True Confections is good enough to eat! Better yet, savor one of the best novels of the year!"

Publishers Weekly says "Alice is an immediately lovable narrator, and her narration eventually bears hints about its possible lack of credibility, giving readers even more of a reason to keep turning pages. This story of love, life and sweets is a genuine treat."

Q&A with the author:

1) What was the inspiration for TRUE CONFECTIONS? Your previous four novels have ranged across a wide variety of themes and settings, and each time you have written something very different. Is TRUE CONFECTIONS once again a complete departure from anything you have written before?

Actually, True Confections is a departure from my pattern, because it does have a connection to my last novel. Triangle has at its heart the Triangle Waist Company sweatshop, the factory that was the scene of the tragic fire in 1911. True Confections has at its heart a candy factory. Both novels are also very much about the American immigrant experience into subsequent generations. And the new novel flows from Triangle in another sense. In 2006, I published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on the 95th anniversary of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. Focused on children in factories, I wrote about recent Third World factory fires in which children are still dying while making cheap goods for American consumers (which is to say these days we outsource our tragedies, too). Although it wasn't factory work, I came across many references to child slave labor on African cacao plantations today. And so although it turned into a novel about a chocolate candy factory in New Haven, the origins of True Confections are in Cote D'Ivoire, on the west coast of Africa. Child slave labor is a troubling reality in many of the cacao plantations in that African country which supplies 40% of the world's chocolate. A runaway slave from a cacao plantation rescued by a guilty American candy maker could be a way into the story. Although that element, while key, is no longer central to the novel, it's where True Confections began.

2) TRUE CONFECTIONS is hard to categorize, and could be described as belonging to several genres. It's about chocolate, and there is a lot of wonderful candy history here, but it is also a novel about a family business in crisis, and a bitter divorce, and meanwhile the book also takes up important issues such as racism, issues of mixed marriage, and the little-known Madagascar Plan of the Third Reich during World War II. At the same time, it could be called a comedy. How do you describe the novel?

Describing True Confections depends on context, as it is certainly all of those things. True Confections is a novel about chocolate, love and betrayal. It's a novel about a candy factory. It's a novel about a family business in crisis. It's a novel about a mixed marriage, and race, and racism. It's a novel about the realization of the Great American Dream of so many immigrants in the beginning of the 20th century. It's a novel about the limits of really ever knowing another person, let alone the truth of history. Is the real question whether it is a literary novel or a fun read? Yes!

3) Your narrator, Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, is unreliable, yet she's oddly sympathetic. Did you dream her up the way she comes across in the pages of TRUE CONFECTIONS, or did she develop as you were writing the story?

I certainly set out to make Alice sympathetic as the novel begins, but at a certain point I also very much wanted to challenge the reader to keep rooting for Alice, despite the growing evidence of her craziness and unreliability. Her voice inevitably developed in the course of the writing, which inevitably altered the course of the story. I have my editor to thank for demanding that I pay very close attention to this issue. I recognize that many readers these days seem to have a rather simplistic belief that the main characters in appealing novels are supposed to be wonderful people one would want to know personally and have as a friend or neighbor. I have never thought this was a valid way to judge a character in a novel, any more than it is a valid way to choose one's presidential candidate. It's easy to love the lovable and to be charmed by the charming. Alice is definitely complex and difficult. I wanted to challenge the reader to care about her through the novel even if you also want to slap her.

4) A major underlying theme of this book seems to be the way certain privileged groups of people regard outsiders. Alice, a Protestant, has married into the Jewish Ziplinsky family, but she never wins acceptance from her mother-in-law Frieda. The Ziplinsky family has made its fortune manufacturing three candies (Little Sammies, Mumbo Jumbos, and Tigermelts) inspired by Little Black Sambo, but until Alice came along, the family has never recognized anything inherently racist in their products. How did you come to focus on this central issue of racism and insider/outsider relationships? Are you concerned that readers will be offended by the racism in True Confections?

I make no particular claim for a special understanding of racism and xenophobia, but it has certainly always been a subject I feel is at the center of most conflict in the world. I grew up in a household in which political issues were much discussed, and my father, whom the FBI regarded as a Communist, was at various times in his life involved in supporting political groups, from the Free Spain movement to the Hollywood Ten. One of my early memories is sitting on the stairs outside my bedroom at age six, peeking down at a huge Freedom Ride fundraising party for CORE (Congress on Racial Equality), a gathering that alarmed the neighbors because of the number of what were then called Negroes who attended, when at that time, in our neighborhood (Forest Hill Gardens in New York City), the Negroes one encountered were working as maids and gardeners. The corrosiveness of racism is even greater in certain ways when it is unconscious, and as a novelist that interests me very much. Mocking racism seems like a worthy literary undertaking to me. The only people who are likely to be offended by True Confections are racists. I have no problem at all being offensive to racists.

5) Zip's Candies has the motto "Say, Dat's Tasty!" on all of its candy. The phrase is also the tagline of the jingle in the 1960 television commercial for Little Sammies described in the book and available on the web at Youtube and at www.zipscandies.com. Can you explain where this slogan comes from? And was there really a television commercial for Little Sammies?

If anyone thinks they can recall this jingle and this television commercial from 1960, who am I to argue with them? Zip's Candies is, however, an entirely fictional family business. I wrote the jingle myself, with terrific assistance from both my friend the musician Aaron Gandy, who arranged it and recorded it and shares with me the pseudonym "Frieda Ziplinsky," and from the singer Klea Blackhurst, who willingly took on the role of Alice's mother-in-law Frieda, who is described in the novel as not only the author of the jingle, but also the voice heard in the commercial.

With my previous novels I have been so frequently confronted by unexpected confusions on the part of readers about what I have invented versus what is "real" that this time I have deliberately put out the bait this time. I invented the slogan, inspired in part by the actual slogan on the Amos 'n' Andy candy bar, which was "Um-Um, Ain't Dat Sumpin!" I wanted something believable and regrettable, which is to say, intrinsically racist. All three of the Zip's Candies products carry the trademark green umbrella with this slogan, inspired, like the candies themselves, by Little Black Sambo, who carried a green umbrella on his adventure with the tigers.

6) TRUE CONFECTIONS purports to be Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky's Affidavit laying out her version of events in what is apparently an ongoing struggle for control of the family business, Zip's Candies, one of the consequences of the end of her 33-year marriage to Howdy Ziplinsky. This isn't the first time your fiction has utilized documents or other artifacts. Why did you write this novel in the form of a document?

Although I have never set out to write any of my novels in some predetermined format, I do seem to have some sort of unconscious narrative inclination that runs through all five of my novels. Oddly enough, this became really obvious to me only as I worked on True Confections. I had a detailed map of the elements and events of the novel, but I hadn't really settled comfortably on the narrative strategy. Then I had a brainstorm and found the perfect fit for the story. And then I realized that for the fifth time, with no forethought or contextual intention, I was writing a novel which acknowledges its own artifactness as part of the story.

In my first novel, the first part is a journal of letters that gets lost. In the last part of the novel, a character turns up with that journal under his arm. My second novel is a secret journal kept by a woman involved in a political plot to kidnap a painting by Vermeer from the Queen. My third novel is really a novel within a novel, and perhaps a third of it consists of intrusive reader's notes from two of the actual people on whom the novel is based, commenting on the text, followed by the author's notes (she herself is also a character in her novel) defending the text. (Needless to say, it's all fiction.) My fourth novel is stitched from all sorts of fictional artifacts and documents about the Triangle fire, from newspaper articles to oral history interviews to trial transcripts. True Confections follows this pattern. It is a rant, an off-kilter persuasion in the form of an Affidavit, yet another narrative as document. I resisted this strategy for a while, concerned that I was repeating myself. But Alice's narrative, this artifactness, is only the same in the broadest sense. This is how I find voice. Voice is how I drive the narrative. This is how I write.

7) Can you describe your ideal reader for TRUE CONFECTIONS?

The very shortest answer would be any carbon-based life form in possession of the price of the book. Seriously. My ideal reader has always been anyone willing to engage with what I have to offer. I would never draw a defining line around my work such as the rather invidious "high art literary tradition" characterization that got a certain novelist into so much trouble a few years ago. That said, I certainly hope that my readers enjoy my novels at whatever depth they choose to read them. I hope for thoughtful and sensitive readers who are willing to be surprised, but so does every novelist I know. I write my novels hoping that my readers to be moved and entertained in equal measure.

8) What are you writing now? Are you already at work on your next novel?

If I say that I am at work on my next novel, my editor and publisher will probably come right to my house and make me sit at my desk and work on my memoir, SYMPTOMS OF FICTION, which was due before now and is now due in the next few months for publication in 2011. It's what I am (mostly*) writing now. It's a book about family stories and memory, and about the ways that stories were told and retold in my family, and how that was probably central to my becoming a writer of fiction. So I will be writing about the echoes of those experiences and stories that occur in my novels. Mainly, I am writing about my experiences growing up, saturated in family stories and surrounded by my oddball relatives, some of whom were people of note or notoriety. My fascination with documents and artifacts began in my childhood, with the discovery, when I was an insomniac ten year old roaming around the house in the middle of the night, of letters and other objects in our attic, all raising questions if not answers about a variety of secrets and lies in the family. Who tells the story and how the story is told in different contexts also fascinates me. Who owns history? Whose version can be deemed "true" when there is always another version? So, for example, 800 pages of FBI records about my father tell his story differently from my own experience of those same years in my childhood.

* My next three novels are fairly thoroughly mapped and noted, though the actual writing will inevitably change a great deal about each one. It always does. My next novel is about someone in the background of a tragic home invasion and murder, and then comes a novel about a monkey helper, and after that an Amish story.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Good Discussion"by ktcasey9 (see profile) 05/11/10

It was slow and choppy, but I have to say that it was a very lively book group discussion. Not only were people critiquing the writing, but the topic of candy certainly brought back a lot of memories... (read more)

 
  "Slooooooow"by lollygil (see profile) 02/14/10

I did not enjoy reading True Confections. The storyline was flat and it was told as a narration through the voice of an employee that married into the family business. It was slow moving and choppy. I... (read more)

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