Thursday, February 26, 2009

Let us pause and drink to that...

The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library)
Thinking of wine with dinner (see Willie, Dick & co, para 2) recalls a great book. Witty, eccentric, tender and wise, The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon is the oddest, most satisfying, most hilarious cookbook I have come across. It has made me burst into loud snorts of laughter in a theological library, on a crowded tram, and at home of a quiet evening. Many of the comments grow funnier the second or third time I read them, so I no longer have the excuse of being startled. Anyway...

I grew up fairly Baptist. By this I mean that my gracious parents, who grew up in no drinking, no smoking, no dancing* kind of households, gradually softened so that they perhaps consumed one or two glasses of wine a year. Me, I'm the big rebel. I began drinking wine at university, and have never looked back. I've been known to have wine with dinner several nights a week, even en famille. I have found it softens my end of day frazzle, and reduces the pitch of my two year old's constant chatter to a point that I can maintain a cheerful conversation with her even at hour eleven of her day. Or, at least, I don't yell at her. And yet, Baptist as I am, I feel qualms. Drinking anything was such a taboo when I was a child that I still perceive a single glass wine as that dreaded 'alcohol', even although I know it will turn a simple family meal into a more generous, more gracious, more loving occasion.

So it was with great joy that I read the chapter, Water in Excelsis. Father Capon, an Episcopalian priest, is a fervent believer in the importance of the real: real food, real bread, real drink, for it is in the real that we encounter the goodness of creation. In this chapter, which he frequently interrupts to call for a toast, Capon describes wine as that which has the "sovereign power to turn evenings into occasions, to lift eating beyond nourishment to conviviality, and to bring the race, for a few hours at least, to that happy state where men are wise and women beautiful, and even one's children begin to look promising". Finally, I have an ordained Protestant on my side.

Overall, the book is one long slow discusson of dinner. Each stage of the cooking brings him to new points, new tangents, new joyful declamations. Whether it's several pages devoted to the humble onion, how it is shaped, how it is filled with water, how it pulses with life force, how its pungency will impregnate your hands; or a chapter on knives ("a woman with cleaver in mid-swing is no mere woman. She breaks upon the eye of the beholder as an epiphany of power..."); or thickening stews (he uses an image of balls floating in an otherwise empty room); or how to make a dinner party glorious ("May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable... May we all sit long enough for reserve to make way for ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us" - immediately after he compares a woman to a cheese strudel ("in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its own")), Capon has much to say. The final chapter is on heartburn.

It's a lovely book, full of asides and diversions and joyful jokes. And the 'Hollandaise Sauce, Fast' is a winner.

*Why can't Baptists have sex standing up?
Because it might lead to dancing...

> Robert Farrar Capon The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library) (New York: Modern Library, 2002; original publication Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969). Recommended wine partner: Pedro Ximenez.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Willie, Dick, Stoat and Skink

Sick Puppy
I love being home with children. I like reading children's books aloud, and cuddling together in the hammock, and making funny little projects (most recently, a magnetised puppet theatre in a shoebox). I like being able to sit down for half an hour in the middle of the day and have a doze in a chair; and I love being able to make children overjoyed by buying blueberries, or helping them make a cake, or sending them out to pick grapes and tomatoes from the garden.

But when the baby wakes three times in the night, the two year old is testing all the boundaries, and the five year old's attitude is extreme, well... On those days, I go by the advice of an older friend of ours who has four children - open a bottle of wine with dinner - and then look for something to restore my shattered good humour.

Sometimes, it's a silly video. There's nothing like an Inspector Clouseau movie, some sloppy eighties nostalgia (Roxanne, When Harry met Sally, Romancing the Stone), or a bit of Buster Keaton, to make me laugh.

And sometimes, it's a good book. Top of the list for laughter at the end of the day is Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen is a journalist based in Florida, and he draws on years of experience to write his madcap novels. Sadly enough, the premise of his books - that the natural world is being destroyed by obscene greed - is the truth. Slimy politicians are more corrupt than our worst imaginings. Developers and lobbyists weasel their way into the corridors of power, distributing money and favours left right and centre. The natural world is desecrated. But what makes Hiaasen's books so much fun is the way it all unravels.

In Sick Puppy, we meet the worst kind of lobbyist. Palmer Stoat will do any job, as long as the money is right. He is utterly amoral, and utterly bewildered by anyone who attempts to draw attention to his misdoings. His current job is to ensure the development of an otherwise untouched Gulf island, which will involve wholesale environmental destruction. To smooth the deal, he has to locate an endangered black rhino so that a pair of Barbie lookalike twins can snort the powdered horn. Unfortunately for him, he crosses paths with a mad eco-terrorist, Twilly Spree, and the mayhem descends. Characters include a hooker who will only service Republicans; a friendly Labrador retriever being mailed bit by bit through the post; a carload of dung beetles; and a swamp-dwelling ex-governor who emerges in order to carve a message with vulture beaks into the current governor's buttocks.

What more can I say?

Interestingly enough, hookers, drugs, violence and all, Hiaasen's novels are deeply moral. It's just that the moral characters tend to be pole dancers (Strip Tease) or collectors of human skulls (Stormy Weather). He reserves his scathing attitude, and most vicious punishments, for white collar developers, politicians, and ad-men. Fair enough, I say.

The villains are sexually depraved psychopaths in nice suits; the good guys are usually ambivalent about their role, often nerdy, and more than a little odd. Overall, the books are chaotic, riotous, violent, and laugh out loud funny. And they are satirical. Hiaasen vividly illustrates a society gone mad, lusting after no end of money, property, and power. The stories are thrilling partly because they imagine a world in which rapacious development might be halted by a few determined individuals; and corrupt perpetrators are punished in satisfyingly gory ways. Would that we had more eco-terrorists, willing to take drastic action to thwart wholesale destruction. Tamar Valley, anyone?

> Carl Hiaasen Sick Puppy (London: Pan, 2000); Strip Tease (London: Black Swan, 2005); Stormy Weather in The Carl Hiaasen Omnibus 2 (London: Picador, 2005).

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Divided Review

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood
What do you do when a book has a great concept, but a lousy execution? I don't know whether to recommend, excoriate or plain old ignore The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood by Rachel Power. It's one of those books I saved until a special day (yes, I hoard my treats), only to find it bitterly disappointing. And yet it's necessary and wonderful, too.

The book is a collection of interviews with women who combine art and motherhood. I am deeply moved by the stories and insights these women offer, whether it's about the physical demands of breastfeeding or more abstract observations about the gifts and struggles of family life. As someone who is a sometime writer and mother, I recognise myself in these stories. And, to some extent, all mothers will recognise themselves here. Juggling children, partners, work and an interior life is not a province exclusive to artists by any means.

But even more than recounting the great juggling act, many of the stories tell honestly of the contradictions in our hearts. We may desperately miss our children when we are working, and desperately want to work when we are hanging out with the kids. We may be happiest playing games and cooking with our children, but for that niggling voice that will not go away asking us to write, draw, work, sing. Having children can ground us and give us a deep foundation, and provide a rich well of experience to draw from, yet make it incredibly difficult to take the time to produce anything. So many of the stories touch on these contradictions, these divisions in our hearts, and it is a privilege to share the insights.

And yet the book is so disappointing. It is written in a breathless journalistic style. Each story retains an interview format, and we get tabloid details such as where the interview took place and what the subject looks like. People use floral cups and drink capuccinos.

Just as bad, these strong powerful women, all masters of expression through story, theatre or song, apparently sigh, laugh and exclaim their comments. I feel like I'm reading an Enid Blyton novel. I am just waiting for something to be utterly ghastly, or people to converse over lashings of ginger beer.

Worse, the author is clearly awed by her subjects, yet paradoxically doesn't have the grace to get out of the way. She intrudes her own, often inappropriate, voice into their accounts, sometimes for two or three pages before we even get to the interviewee. Names are dropped left right and centre, and it's as if she thinks everyone else's greatness might rub off if only we knew that she had spent time with them.

Personally, I don't care whether the author travelled in a taxi, a palanquin or a hot air balloon to meet someone, or if the interviews were performed on the telephone while the interviewee was sitting on the toilet. All that matters to me is that these important stories are recorded and shared, and that the interviewer get the hell out of the way so that we can hear her subjects' voices clearly.

It is a testament to the power of good stories that, despite the writing style, the breathlessness in the face of celebrity, and the authorial intrusion, they shine through. For although I am so frustrated by the writing that I want to throw the book against the wall, I also find myself lying awake at night thinking about this insight or that, all the richer for having read it.

This book may have been better had it been a collection of stories written by the women themselves, rather than a series of fawning interviews. Or perhaps these women's voices already speak to us through their work, and we could look there for any glimpses into the world of art and motherhood that they may wish to grant us.

> Rachel Power The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (Fitzroy: Red Dog, 2008).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Futtocks, shrouds, loblolly boys

Night Birds on Nantucket (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) Victory Master and Commander
After the birth of my third child a few months ago, I found myself with a desperate urge to read about shipboard life. I don't know whether it was a primal response to the watery nature of birth (my waters broke early so those few days were rather awash), or whether I was just yearning to be afloat, far far from the cares of attending to three pre-school children! Whatever the reason, I ran away to sea.

First I re-read an old favourite, Night Birds on Nantucket (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase). It begins with the delightful Dido Twite comatose on the deck of a whaling boat, being kept alive with whale oil and molasses, and moves on to a fiendish plot to blow up the English House of Parliament with a long gun positioned on Nantucket. Simple pleasure. Then I moved on to Victory by Susan Cooper, which tells the tale of a girl in the present, born into a sailing family, and her connection with a sailor on the HMS Victory. I read it in a single sitting, and it brought a tear to my eye. After that, I considered Moby Dick, but I don't have a copy and wasn't about to head out to my local library in my pajamas, leaky breasts and all, just so I could stay afloat between feeds.

Then, serendipity. I remembered seeing pictures of boats on some books at a friend's house. I called my friend, and he provided a home delivery service of the first half dozen books in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian - along with an enormous wodge of French cheese. (Incidentally, but not unimportantly, let me note here that if you ever want to give a real gift to a postpartum mum (and I'm not talking baby socks), give her French cheese. After nine months of cheese free pregnancy, and a day of labour, and a week of sleepless nights, French cheese is just the thing to raise her from the dead. Fromager d'Affinois, to be precise.) Anyway, the time (and the cheese) was ripe, I launched in, and I've been at sea with Jack and Stephen ever since. (I'm now in book 8.)

The books, which begin with Master and Commander and improve after this, chart the relationship between a ship's captain, Jack Aubrey, and his best friend and surgeon, Stephen Maturin. Jack is jovial, fat, and much given to weak witticisms, which make him collapse with laughter. He's a brilliant sailor, and an utter naif ashore. Conversely, Stephen is sallow, dour, an oaf at sea, but a cunning intelligence agent, a renowned naturalist and a gifted surgeon. The story follows their adventures through the wars between England and France, Spain and the United States (not to mention the minor powers).

It's a modern Odyssey, and should be approached as one story over a leisurely 20 (yes, 20) books. Threads disappear and reappear several books later, whether it is a love interest, an old enemy, a surgical incident, or a little joke. The dialogue reminds me of Jane Austen's gentle wit. O'Brian has an acute ear for conversation, and picks out idiosyncrasies which enthral the reader. Jack, for example, frequently begins one platitude, and ends with another.

For all Jack's cheerful idiocies, he is a canny sailor and a gifted violinist. Jack and Stephen, who plays the 'cello, spend evenings in the captain's cabin trying out new music, and practicing old favourites. In peacetime, when they're not playing music, or attending poetry competitions, they enjoy wonderful food - fresh roasted coffee, drowned baby, soused hog's head - that is, until the food runs out and they're down to salt pork and ship's biscuits. I learned that weevils taste bitter; maggots just feel soft and cold in your mouth.

Stephen is a gift to the landlubber reader. I've barely been on a boat, let alone at sea on a sailing ship, and so I am grateful for him. When he decides to go for a spontaneous solo swim, just as the boat is turning and thus narrowly avoids drowning; when he trips over ropes and is hit in the head by spars; when he absent-mindedly walks through tar then all over the newly washed decks; when he mixes up east and west, north and south, starboard and larboard; when, after a decade at sea, he still can't get into or out of a boat safely, then I feel there's a place on the ship for me.

The books are written with great good humour; I find myself laughing out loud at them in public places (trams, trains, waiting rooms). And they are gripping; even I, who thought myself completely disinterested in war, am utterly enthralled by the fire and heat of battle, and the gory surgery that must follow. The language is beautiful: the words are rich and gracious, and redolent of the nineteenth century. Close male friends address each other as 'joy' (belowdecks use far fouler language), and some of the mannerisms are so addictive that I find them slipping out in my own conversation. I recently startled my husband by saying Prithee...

Although my friends are probably not so grateful (they now roll their eyes when I mention these books), I thank heavens that this is a long series. Because when it ends, I'm going to cry, and then start at the start again. I'm so hooked that I've even diversified. I found a picture book of cross-sections of the HMS Victory, and fish it out to show poor unsuspecting dinner guests where the orlop is. And I spent a small fortune on an old book, Epics of the Square-Rigged Ships, just because it had photographs of a barque in full sail, and of the heart stopping view up the mainmast.

> Joan Aiken Night Birds on Nantucket (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966, but new editions are widely available); Susan Cooper Victory (London: Random House, 2006); Patrick O'Brian Master and Commander (first in a long series) (lots of editions); Stephen Biesty Cross-Sections: Man of War (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1993); DW Domville-Fife Epics of the Square-Rigged Ships (London: Seeley, 1958).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Catch, Mr Wintergarten!

Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten
I’m a parent of young children. As any parent would know, young children like to read the same story over and over and over and over and over and over again. So it’s important for parents to decide exactly what books they are happy to read aloud approximately fifteen thousand times and then get them into the house. Conversely, they have a responsibility to their children and to themselves to divest themselves of the books they hate. There’s no shame in getting rid of a horrible kids book (even if it was a gift) because you loathe and detest the very sight of it. If you are troubled by the thought of chucking out (even ripping up) a book, let me reassure you. Some children's books are so truly awful that you are only doing the world a kindness by eliminating every last copy that you come across. They can be patronising, inept, humourless and utterly soul-destroying. Passing such books on, or even keeping them contained within your own four walls, is quite probably a sin.

What I want for my daughters are books which are funny, joyful, witty, thought-provoking and interesting. I want books with intelligent pictures, in which more is going on than is spelled out in the text. I want books which respect the reader, even if the reader is pre-verbal. With a bit of luck, a picture book will even include some precise terminology or archaic word - maybe capstan, vestibule, or cully - which will intrigue the reader, and help inculcate a love of language.

With these demands in mind, let us turn to the very first book to be reviewed here. In Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten, a picture story book by Bob Graham, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and fairy cakes disarm the neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

The book is, of course, quite simply an illustration of Love thy neighbour. A most valuable moral, common to most world religions and ethical systems, and something I want my daughters to pick up. But unlike a 'Christian' storybook (most of which should be put through the shredder for their blatant moralising, patronising tones, paucity of imagination and sterility of language), this story is told for its own sake. It is genuine, authentic, and subtle. No moral is spelled out; the reader is not told the long-term outcome of Rose's actions. Instead, we have to work it out from the tone of the last page, and the illustrations on the end papers.

The illustrations are hallmark Bob Graham. Very simple, clean colours, and joyful subjects. A chicken pokes round a kitchen; a sheep sits on the roof; the girls have stripey stockings. Even these simple drawings, however, reward an attentive audience - my daughters were thrilled when they found a hidden crocodile in Mr Wintergarten's garden.

This is a book I have read out loud hundreds of times, and will always be happy to read again. I suggest you find yourself a three year old, and read it!

> Bob Graham Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten (London: Walker Books, 1992).

Notes on reading

What’s this blog about? Well, I’m a fussy reader. I’m opinionated. And I often tell people what I think they should be reading. So friends of mine told me to start a blog of book reviews. They would follow it, and maybe other people might find it interesting too. So here goes.

First thoughts, on finding time to read. Reading makes me introverted. I have three young children, so this is a problem. If I don’t read, I get grumpy. If I do read and then have to be attentive to their needs, I get grumpy. What’s the balance?

Books in the toilet: hmmm. Gross in theory, useful in practice if you really want to snatch in a few extra pages. I once knew a guy who had two kids and no time at all to himself. He put up a bookshelf in his toilet, put all his textbooks there, and did all his study sitting on the loo. It was the only place in the house his kids wouldn’t bother him. But my kids hammer on the wall and then laugh themselves sick, so that doesn’t really work at our house.

Books by the coffee machine? No! Although I can snatch a couple of pages while the machine heats up, the kids interrupt and I get testy. Who wants a testy mum? I mostly hide my books away when the kids are awake so I’m not tempted to pick them up. Thus I don’t get interrupted, and stay cheerful! (Attic of the dolls’ house, in case you’re wondering.)

Books on the train? Aha! Anytime someone else has the kids, I catch public transport to get where I’m headed. Then I can sit back in comfort (or stand in squashy discomfort) and read. Train cancelled? Terrific, I’ll get another chapter in. Missed my connection? Such a pity! I’ll just have to stand here and read.

Doctor’s waiting rooms? I found myself a doctor who always runs late. I get someone else to mind the kids (‘I’m seeing the doctor about, you know, women’s business - don’t really want the kids there…’), and arrive on time. Then I can read in the waiting room. When I finally see her, the doctor’s always terribly apologetic about the wait, and I can give her my most understanding smile.

Television substitute? Well, der. I made it hard to turn on the television. Television is mostly boring; even so, I can still switch it on and watch it regardless. But when it’s hard to turn on, then I find it easier to pick up a book – and end the evening feeling satisfied, enthralled, even slightly virtuous. So our television is switched off at the set and the wall, and kept in a cupboard.

Siesta time? I need sleep too! I have a baby after all. But if I do stay awake, I read a short story, so when my older kids get up I’m not half way through something. There are enough reasons to be a grumpy mum without adding book, interrupted to them.

So there you go. I read late at night, on public transport, and in waiting rooms. My reading time is limited, and my taste is narrow. Posts will be about books old and new, adult, junior and picture books. Just good books, and I’ll tell you why I think you should read them. Because who has time to finish a crap book? Not me, that’s for sure!