Posts Tagged ‘Simon Wroe’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

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Chop Chop

April 28, 2014

Lucca

Emilybooks has arrived in Lucca! Here she will stay for the next two glorious months – reading a great deal, writing – let’s hope – something, gazing at the many beautiful old buildings (while the architect husband sketches and is inspired by their brilliance), eating a colossal amount of pasta, and trying her hardest to speak Italian.

So far the attempts at the latter have met with a mixture of bemused smiles, answers in English, and occasional kind efforts to help. Yesterday morning, we stumbled into a café for a quick coffee before getting the train to Florence. I was busy eyeing up the croissant selection, so it fell to the husband to order his own coffee.

‘Caffe … con … um … what’s milk again Ems?’

‘Latte.’

‘Caffe con latte … oh yeah, caffe latte.’

The man laughed, concocted a powerful coffee, and then said, as he gave it to him, ‘anche, cappuccino’.

‘Caffe latte,’ the husband repeated, bewildered.

‘Si, anche cappuccino.’

‘He says it’s also called cappuccino,’ I translated.

The husband smiled vaguely, ‘Si, grazie.’

I tried to explain that he was ‘stanco’, tired, and the man looked non-comprehending so I wonder what I actually said. Then I said that my chocolate croissant was ‘delicioso’ and he looked rather fond of us, I thought. He must have realised we were English as he tried to talk to us about the weather, but unfortunately my vocabulary doesn’t stretch far in that direction. If only he’d got me on pizza toppings.

As we hurried to the train station, the husband woefully rubbed his head and said, ‘I’ve got to get some Italian in there.’

‘Well caffe latte is definitely a good start.’

‘That’s French anyway. He said it’s cappuccino.’

So we have a long way to go. I am determined that by the end of our trip, we will go into that same café, and have a lovely, fluent conversation with the kind man which goes beyond different names for a white coffee.

Italy books

We drove here through France, which meant that we could bring rather a lot of stuff. When I say stuff, I mean books. A huge box of them clogged up the boot, promising many happy hours spent with my head between their covers, and, on arriving, you can see I swiftly colonised a bookcase. I thought this the perfect opportunity to re-read some classics; I long to go back to various EM Forsters, Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of a Lady. I’ve also brought a few of those books that I’ve long meant to read and never quite found the time: The Sound and the Fury, The Rings of Saturn, The Grass is Singing (swapped for The Golden Notebook on a dear colleague’s fulsome recommendation), plus of course a couple of Persephone Books and a few other novels that look promising. We also have a great many guidebooks and then there are all the husband’s big architecture books. (When I say ‘we’ drove, I mean the husband did, while I ‘map-read’.)

Really, I suppose my first post should be about something like A Room with a View. I certainly felt a little like I’d stepped out of it, when we went to Florence yesterday to meet a couple of friends who happened to be staying there, at the end of their holiday. We met in Piazza della Signoria, and I had to stop myself from exclaiming, ‘Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker.’ I suppose the hordes of tourists somewhat lessened the feeling of being quite so grand, but no matter.

Chop Chop

But no, my first post is a week overdue (apologies…) and is in fact about the last book I read in England, over the Easter Weekend, which I spent with friends, including its author. Chop Chop is Simon Wroe’s first novel. He is a former chef – which was an added treat for the weekend – and has written this darkly funny book about what goes on in a Camden gastropub’s kitchen. I think the weekend was a rather unnerving experience for Simon, as Chop Chop seemed to be the only book that people were reading (apart from, coincidentally, A Room with a View, which someone else had brought along); I counted five copies on the go in total… We tried to persuade him to give us a little reading, but to no avail.

So now, as I think back to reading Chop Chop, I leave the domes and towers of Tuscany behind and am transported back to seedy Camden Town. I have to say it does make me feel rather smug to be away from it.

What struck me as most impressive about the book is its energy. It is so punchy, grabbing you by your jacket collar and mouthing off in your face. It’s full of banter, rough jokes, loud voices, noise, heat … Essentially Simon does a stupendously good job of capturing the atmosphere of a busy kitchen in the very texture of his prose.

It is impossible not to be caught up in this hot whirlwind, as we follow the fate of our naïve bookish protagonist, nicknamed ‘Monocle’, as he attempts to survive in the brutal world of the kitchen, replete with vile characters, for whom one ends up feeling a surprising amount of affection.

Beneath all the noise, heat and pressure of the kitchen, are rather more sinister undertones. Gradually we piece together Monocle’s past … We also venture into the seedy underworld of Camden Town, through the unforgettable character of The Fat Man:

The Fat Man eclipsed all else as he ate. And how he could eat! Three or four starters, and every main going. Tremendous amounts were consumed, seemingly without limit or pleasure. Despite his booming bonhomie and the sharp smiles he flashed at Bob or the nervous front-of-house staff, his face bore no trace of joy or appreciation as he ate … Yet every morsel was devoured, every plate wiped clean. He treated food as billionaires treat money, as showgirls treat presents from admirers. An entitlement he claimed even though it disgusted him

There are rumours that The Fat Man controls the Camden underworld. He is a man who commands a certain disgusted respect, a man to whom one cannot say no. He seems peripheral to the plot – just one of many well-drawn Camden characters – until Monocle, finds himself having to sous chef at a special dinner at his residence. The money is good, the task awful, as becomes clear as soon as they ask what they’re cooking:

‘A special something, my boys. A special something.’ He leaned in, eyes wide. ‘Have you ever heard of the ortalan?’

We had not.

‘It’s a tiny, rare songbird,’ The Fat Man explained. ‘You drown them in brandy and roast them in a clay pot. They’re so little you can crunch the bones.’

So the poor chefs must drown twenty songbirds, pluck them, and roast them. They are instructed to bring them to the diners when the bell is rung three times. Then, on carrying the birds into the dining room:

Five figures sat around the table, the head of each one bowed and covered by a sheet of black silk. Their faces were hidden, from God or from us, from both. They neither moved nor spoke. Fun or fulfillment was not their intent. Pleasant company had not brought them here. Theirs was a grimmer ceremony: of blood letting, of sin, of guilt and taking away.

Even in Italy, I am still haunted by this image of silk-draped sin. This is just the beginning of our view into The Fat Man’s sinister world – I will leave it there for fear of spoilers… I still shudder to think of it, this horrific man with so many people in his thrall, guzzling his food ‘as showgirls treat presents from admirers’. It’s almost enough to put me off my huge plates of pasta. (Although Simon, being a very well-informed foodie, has kindly sent me a list of restaurants in and around Lucca which sound so delicious that they are sure to eclipse the ghost of The Fat Man…)

Chop Chop is a terrific book. Its energetic prose pulls you into the fast, tough world of the kitchen, then reveals the dark secrets behind the bravado and banter, what lies beneath all the steam and the smoke. It’s exciting to discover a new voice, especially one so fresh that packs such a punch … I can’t wait to discover what he might write next.