Monthly Archives: June 2012

A COOK’S TOUR by Anthony Bourdain

Part travel book, part food writing this is one man’s account of the search for a perfect meal. He travels around the world sampling delights such as Vietnamese street food and Moroccan preserved lemons and mint tea – as well as a fair share of obscure body parts and insects. Unsurprisingly, he discovers the perfect meal is as much about the company, alcoholic lubrication and moment as it is the food. Some meals really stand out though including an incredible kaiseki meal in a seaside town just outside Tokyo, and a twenty course tasting menu from chef Thomas Keller in San Francisco. The chapter on England is really interesting with a focus on St Johns in London and our apparent obsession with celebrity chefs. Bourdain’s personality is big and bad – he has a real passion for food matched only it seems by his drinking habits and his hatred of vegetarians. Oddly enough he struggles each time he has to slaughter an animal himself or watch someone else do the job! It’s a great book though and you can’t help warming to someone who cares so much about the provenance of his meals and those who help prepare them.

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HALF ASLEEP IN FROG PAJAMAS by Tom Robbins

Gwen Mati has a boyfriend named Belford, who has a monkey named Andre that used to be a diamond thief but has been born again. She also has a fortune telling best friend named Q-Jo Huffington of whom she is slightly ashamed and who has gone missing. Broker Gwen has Easter weekend to find Q-Jo, cover the tracks of her less than ethical strategy for getting rich quick and decide whether her future is on Wall Street or in Timbuktu. Leading her astray is Larry Diamond who is in town on the trail of Dr Yamaguchi, who seems to have found the cure for cancer and the secret of which might just revive the stock market sufficiently for Gwen to salvage her reputation. Tom Robbins novels are always dazzling, funny and anarchic – and the theme of capitalism gone bad/mad is especially resonant in 2012. This one has an Indian living under a bowling alley meditating on a priceless Van Gogh, enough banana popsicles to entice Andre to rekindle his acquaintance with a life of crime, doctored tarot cards and a considerable fixation on toilet humour of a very superior kind.  It also has a whole new religion/philosophy underpinning it, of which Larry is a devotee and which revolves around Sirius the dog-star, amphibians, and the fun just beginning. All in all it’s a riot and hugely enjoyable despite the very wrong americanised spelling of pyjamas.

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HANGING HILL by Mo Hayder

First off I have to say that this book definitely gets the prize for most memorable ten pages or so describing how to dispose of a body using a chain saw, blender and lots of plastic bags. Not all of it is so grisly and Detective Inspector Zoe Benedict’s hunt for the killer of a teenage girl is gripping and tense. There’s a lot of fairly unbelievable coincidences but it’s always good to read a crime novel with strong women characters in it and this one really pushes the usual boundaries of what’s acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. I don’t spook easily but this book kept me awake one night – both with artificial fear and also thinking with sadness about how much violence in the world is gendered.

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THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

I can be quite contrary. If everyone else is reading a book I am likely to resist getting stuck in – I want to be one of those who discovered it early, not who jumped on the bandwagon late – so it has taken me a while to pick this novel up. I am very glad I finally did. It’s fantastic and left me desperate to know more about the lives of Aibileen, Minny, Skeeter and Celia. It works on so many levels – as a story about amazing women fighting to control their lives, as an exploration of the deeply complex relationships between white households and their ‘coloured’ help, as a tribute to friendship,  and, of course, as an insight into the racism and prejudice that infected 1960s Mississippi. The strong political message about race is complemented by a subtler one about women’s rights. One of my favourite elements of the book is Aibileen’s relationship with her employer’s young daughter, Mae Mobley, who is endlessly disappointing to her mother. As well as trying to teach Mae Mobley how people are the same regardless of their skin colour, Aibileen sets out to instill in her a sense of self-worth, each day repeating the mantra “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” This theme is picked up in the interplay between Skeeter and her mother, who is constantly complaining about her daughter’s appearance and lack of boyfriends; in Minny’s remaining with an abusive partner; in Celia’s ill-fated efforts to be accepted by Jackson society; and in all manner of anecdotes and episodes that give the book its quality and richness.

An aspiring writer, Skeeter decides to record the stories of Aibileen, Minny and the other women who work as maids in Jackson, cataloguing acts of human kindness alongside the reality of separate bathrooms to stop diseases from spreading between the different races, the constant threat of dismissal, rape, slave labour and accusations of theft. The back drop of an emerging civil rights movement does little to assuage the women’s fears about what could happen if any of them is discovered  – the copy of the Jack Crow laws that Skeeter finds in the “whites only” library makes it perfectly clear the extent to which racial segregation is enforced, whilst Minny and Aibileen’s church community is kept busy praying and caring for the victims of KKK beatings. The support and love of that community – which moved me tears more than once reading THE HELP –  is in stark contrast to the judgemental white community presided over by Skeeter’s childhood friend the bigoted Miss Hilly, who is ambitious, spiteful and proud. There’s also some interesting questions posed by members of the church about how best to take action in the face of racially motivated attacks and how to agitate for change.

THE HELP is both laugh out loud funny and painfully sad. It gives a voice to black and white women, including on sensitive issues like the love between white children and the black women who raise them and who may even have to give up their own offspring to do so, but never seeks to be more than what it is – a work of fiction. And my fears that it would seek to glamorise a disgraceful part of American history were unfounded. At its heart is a truth that the author refers to in an interview about the novel, quoting these lines from Aibileen:

We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

In future I will try not to be so contrary – I might miss out on something truly wonderful.

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THE TRAVELLING HORNPLAYER by Barbara Trapido

There are some – in my experience more often that not women –  writers who excel at capturing the extraordinary in day-to-day life and Barbara Trapido is one of them. She takes you through a range of emotions one after the other, often from laughter to despair, deftly and with apparent ease. The story here is built around what are basically preposterous coincidences and it is peppered with characters that are equally ridiculous – and yet lovable and credible too. There’s spoilt Stella with her allergies, hedonistic artistic genius Izzy, impotent, kind and sensible Peregrine, the adulterous Jonathan desperately trying to repeat what he now fears was a one-off literary success, his mistress the dominatrix Sonia and wife the selfless, stifled Katherine, the Conrad Scholar Roger who is sending his home counties caricature of a wife round the twist, eerie twins Hubert and Norbert,  a greyhound named Dilly, earnest Ellen who has lost a sister but gained psoriasis, and of course Lydia, the ghost who haunts them all in her own way. THE TRAVELLING HORNPLAYER tells how their paths cross and intermingle, culminating in a finale that reveals the influence each has inadvertently had on the others’ stories. A glorious and hilarious celebration of life – as well as a reminder that we should never take ourselves too seriously.

 

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