Thursday, 31 July 2008

Ramblings of a kitchen revolutionary

As I'm sure you know by now, the Man Booker longlist was announced earlier this week. As usual, it provoked quite a reaction, especially because of the inclusion a thriller (Tom Rob Smith's Child 44). For anyone who's interested, the full list is:

Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold - Girl in the Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry - The Secret Scripture
John Berger - From A to X
Michelle de Kretser - The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies
Philip Hensher - The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill - Netherland
Salman Rushdie - The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith - Child 44
Steve Toltz - A Fraction of the Whole

I've not read any of them, yet, which is unusual for me. From these, The Secret Scripture is the only one I'm definitely planning to read. I'll probably add The Sea of Poppies (I've wanted to read Ghosh for a while and this is the opening book of a planned trilogy) and Netherland (which I've started to notice around the book blogs I read and is apparently already the bookies' favourite). I must admit that Rushdie leaves me cold - I overdosed on Rushdie about 10 years ago and have been unable to summon the energy to read any of his new books since then. The mixed reviews The Enchantress of Florence has received turns me off even more - there are too many books I want to read this year than feeling like I should read this one.

I'd be much more interested to read the list of books submitted and called in by the judges (103 submitted and 9 called in), as it would be interesting to know what didn't make it on. However, the longlist is a means of generating publicity, both for the prize itself and for the actual books in the running. A publicity tool like this can save a book from sinking without a trace. Check out this article in the Bookseller for some sales stats about the numbers of copies sold of the longlist so far. Unsurprisingly, Rushdie leads the pack but the 363 copies of de Kretser's The Lost Dog since its May publication shows the sorry state that hardback literary fiction in the UK. If publishing a long list helps that in some way, then I'm happy with that.

In other bookish news from chez Logophile, I have fallen head over heels for a new book. I can safely say that the wonderful The Kitchen Revolution by Rosie Sykes, Polly Russell and Zoe Heron is transforming my life (check out the excellent website here). I'm not generally a fan of cookbooks. I've had my fingers burned in the past (mostly metaphorically!) trying to cook from cookbooks I quickly realised were duds, so these days we tend to stick almost exclusively to an old 60s edition of The Joy of Cooking. But The Kitchen Revolution is something special, and since I've been recommending it to friends and colleagues in real life I thought I'd blog about it too!

I first noticed The Kitchen Revolution when the Guardian wrote it up a couple of months ago. The whole premise is to maximise the choice of meals in a given week while minimising time in the kitchen and reducing food miles. This is music to my ears - my new commute is a whisker short of 20 hours a week, so the less time shopping and cooking the better and I'm always interested in ways to cut our carbon footprint. Each week features a big meal from scratch (this week we had duck breast with cherry sauce, roast baby veg and a salad - it was delicious!); something for nothing (two easy and quick meals that transform the leftovers from the first night into yet more delicious food); a seasonal supper (last night we had chilled courgette & avocado soup that honestly tasted like it came from a restaurant despite taking only minutes to make); a larder feast (using only store cupboard ingredients, for when the fridge is bare - tonight it was braised lentils with herb cream cheese); and a 2 for 1 meal (something that freezes well, so half can be eaten straight away and half can be frozen for future enjoyment). The website also features the recipes and shopping lists, so it's easy to print out the shopping list in advance.

This book has totally changed our cooking and eating habits, as well as reducing the amount of money we spend on meals out or takeaways. The weekly meal plans make it possible to enjoy a variety of meals without any stress, as well as expanding the range of food we're eating. What amazes me about it is that I'm spending less time than ever actually cooking yet eating excellent home cooked food every night (my husband enjoys it even more, since he was the chief cook in our household but I love this book so much I'm doing most of the cooking at the moment!). Now I just wish somebody would do a vegetarian version, so that I could make an even smaller impact on the planet...

Friday, 25 July 2008

1215: The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
Magna Carta, clause 39.

To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.
Magna Carta, clause 40.

The nobility of the ideals expressed in these two clauses has echoed down the ages, elevating Magna Carta, a piece of 13th century English legislation, to iconic status. It is now revered as the well spring of modern justice, particluarly because of its influence on the authors of the US Declaration of Independence. I debated whether to reproduce these quotes here, as this delightful book is about far more than how we view these two particular clauses nearly 800 years after the rebellious barons forced King John into signing Magna Carta. Danziger and Gillingham wear their learning lightly, resulting in an illuminating and enjoyable read that lifts the veil (or should that be pulls back the tapestry?) on life in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

Each chapter opens with a quote from Magna Carta, setting the theme for the pages that follow. Themes range from the domestic (castle building and castle life, family life and family strife, education) to warfare (the role of hunting and tournaments in preparing for war, how battles were conducted and the crusades) to the Church (the Lateran Council and Pope Innocent III's conflicts with King John) and England's place in the wider world. King John, that legendary villain, comes across as perhaps the first "English" monarch (as his brother Richard Lionheart/Coeur de Lion and the rest of his ancestors were essentially French), despite his scheming and overbearing style of leadership that provoked the rebellion that led to the signing of the charter. The breadth of themes covered allows the reader to get a firm hold of both the complexities of Plantagenet kingship as well as the ups and downs of everyday life.

I particularly enjoyed the authors' placing of England in the wider world at around the time of Magna Carta. In Asia Minor, the crusades were reaching their bloody climax in the decades on either side of 1215. The Muslim warrior leader Saladin captured Jerusalem, marking a turning point in the struggle for control of the city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims (the struggle that is still being felt today). Meanwhile, in China, Genghis Khan and his armies captured Beijing in 1215 after breaking through the Great Wall of China. In the years that followed, the Mongols moved through Central Asia before terrifying Europe with their speed and ruthless methods. Back in Europe, St Francis of Assisi was founding his mendicant order of monks, revolutionary in its austerity and detachment from worldly wealth. Pope Innocent III, by presiding over the Fourth Lateran Council, gave lasting shape to the subsequent structure of the Catholic Church as well as influencing justice throughout Christendom.

If you think this all sounds a little staid, the style is really quite funny at times, especially when quoting from The Book of the Civilised Man, an etiquette guide by Daniel of Beccles (sample advice: don't scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breeches or chest in public). Daniel seemed to be swimming against the tide in a society where Roland le Pettour (that is Roland the Farter) was rewarded with a country estate for entertaining the Royal Court by "leaping, whistling and farting before the king"!

Friday, 18 July 2008

Friday Notes

The move to Brighton went really well, I can see the sea as I cook in the kitchen and so far I'm coping with the much longer commute. It's funny, I keep getting sympathy from colleagues about the length of time on the train and I keep responding with "well, yes, it's certainly longer but I get a seat and I can read uninterrupted the whole way". I'm enjoying it a lot more than the scramble for space and jostling for elbow room that was the central or northern lines at rush hour!

The downside to moving house is that all of my books are still in boxes, which has thrown off my reading plans for the month (I'm especially conscious that time is a-tickin' on the Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge and if I don't get myself sorted soon I'll be way behind!). Luckily some books I mooched arrived the day before we left London, so during my train time this week I've finished a popular history book (about 1215, the year of Magna Carta) and am currently devouring Margarent Laurence's The Stone Angel. We're planning to search around the flea markets of Brighton tomorrow to see if we can find some shelves so that my books can escape their temporary cardboard prisons and breathe again.

The other major downside of moving is that we don't have internet at home yet. On the one hand it's quite nice - much easier to focus on unpacking when not tempted to wander through the blogosphere! - but it does mean I'm also falling behind (again!) with keeping up to date with the book blogging world. Am trying to fit it into my working day (not working so well at the moment as I am busy busy).

I did notice that the Society of Authors' Translators Association has released a list of the 50 outstanding translations from the last 50 years to celebrate its 50th anniversary (see here for the full list). It's an interesting selection, with much that's brand new to me. My irresistible urge with lists of any sort is to check off how many I've read. I'm rather ashamed to admit that I've only read 12 of these 50 titles!

The first thing I noticed is that Seamus Heaney is the only author to translate his own work (for his marvellous Beowulf). I've always wondered about the relationship between a translator and an author, what "belongs" to the author and what "belongs" to the translator (a great writer who also translates can be found at the excellent blog Incurable Logophilia)...Another interesting thing to note is the spread of the titles throughout the decades - there are 11 titles from this decade but only 9 from the 60s and a paltry 6 from the 70s. I wonder how much of this is accounted for by changing fashions in the world of translating. I admit to ignorance on this but I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks.

Anyway, I've got to rush off as I have a train to catch.

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

There is, stretching delicate as a bird's head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips its beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird's head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour...

With this opening, EVENING IS THE WHOLE DAY swept me up into the muggy climate of early post-colonial Malaysia, the first stop on my journey around the world as part of the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. Samarasan skillfully weaves the personal life of the one Indian family with the public stories of the birth pangs of modern Malaysia to create a lush, multi-layered tapestry of stories.

Set mainly in 1980, but using flashbacks to dart throughout the proceeding decades, this novel follows the fortunes of the Rajasekharan family, of the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, along with their servants and neighbours. As the novel progresses, and secrets are revealted, relationships strain and cracks appear. There is 6 year old Aasha, heart sick for the love and attention of her older sister Uma and so lonely that she plays with ghosts. As Aasha tracks Uma's every move through the house and garden, the once charming and exuberant Uma has locked herself away, shutting down on her family as she plots her own escape by means of a college scholarship to the US. The mother, a woman who married above her class and suffers the consequences of her own emotionally bereft upbringing, is locked in a loveless marriage with the father, a successful and influential lawyer but a distant father and ineffectual patriarch. The aging grandmother turns her physical decrepitude to a sort of tactical advantage, using her ailments and physical frailty to control the dynamics of the household.The middle child, a boy named Suresh, uses humour to swim through the emotional currents around him.

Aasha, an unwilling pawn in the power play going on above her head, is a wonderful character. While she is too young to understand all of the struggles going on, she is sensitive and perceptive. Samarasan's descriptions of the six year old orbiting around her older sister had me laughing sometimes (it must be irritating for the teenage Uma!) and sighing at other times. The author really captures the way that children too young to understand what is really going on can blame themselves or make warped decisions about the truth. I also think the author perfectly captures the way people are products of their upbringing and past, especially the mother. She wriggles uncomfortably in her skin, despite having the nearly perfect veneer of the groomed and perfumed rich society wife. She in turn passes a hollow legacy to her children.

EVENING IS THE WHOLE DAY is a compelling read. The large cast of characters and mixture of public and private histories reminds me of a sweeping 19th epic, but even cameo or minor characters are rendered so humanely that none of the characters felt superfluous. The overall effect is that this novel is a page-turner, the sort of book I didn't want to end (I read those last 50 pages as slowly as I could!) and definitely my favourite contemporary novel of the year so far. What's even more impressive is that this is a debut!

With regards to the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, this novel captured the sense of place so well that I have a much better understanding of Malaysia now, especially the complexities of three races finding a place in society alongside each other. It is one of the best post-colonial novels I've ever read. If I were given to ratings, then this novel would be five stars for me.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Reading (and blogging) in my real life

In the last week, two close friends have asked if I've given up blogging. And while the answer's a resounding no the question has made me step back and think about why I've been so silent on here in recent weeks. And why I've been so absent from my favourite blogs.

Initially, my law revision suffocated my reading. It was a gradual process, starting back in April when I'd feel guilty for enjoying fiction when I should have been revising acquisitions law (or some other such topic). By May, I was struggling with books I'd expected to love - books that had sat in my tbr stack next to my bed exuding "read me"-ness, books that I'd read great things about and was excited to pick up (step forward Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles). When I picked them up and turned the pages I knew I was physically reading, I mean my eyes were following the words, but nothing was happening. No veil was descending. Something was blocking me from entering the worlds unfolding on the page. I felt like I was locked out of my favourite place - I could see the good times to be had behind the gate but I just couldn't get in. Reading Lolita was particularly galling, as I could see how much Nafisi loves reading and just knew how much I'd love this book if only I could find the key. Of course, it was my mind's way of telling me that I needed to stop procrastinating and buckle down to some serious revision! Which is exactly what I did. I set aside all the juicy fiction I'm planning to read and kept my reading strictly to the work- and study-related variety.

But no reading meant no blogging as I felt I just had so little to say. And working and studying meant time was at a premium - no time to be browsing happily through the blogosphere reading reviews by bloggers whose taste I've come to respect and admire.

My exams finally finished two weeks ago. After four years of full-time work and part-time law school, I've been more than a little demob happy. I've crammed more socialising into the last two weeks than I did in the previous six months (weekends in Dublin and Edinburgh, a night and day in the Lake District, concerts, drinks & dinners with friends). While slightly dazed (I'm off to Dublin again tonight for another weekend away - my little sister's hen weekend!), I feel like I've emerged from black-and-white into full technicolour splendour, with the colour the exams had leached out of my reading well and truly returned.

The first post-exam novel I finished was With My Lazy Eye by Julia Kelly. While the cover blurb had my hopes high ("the freshest voice in Irish fiction" - John Banville), I enjoyed this less than I was expecting. This first novel follows Lucy Bastonme from childhood to womanhood in 1980s Ireland and London, particularly her relationship with her ever receding father. It's enjoyable, but mainly because it evoked the flavours and sounds of an 1980s childhood so well (reminding me of my own childhood - nothing like a nostalgia read every now and again). Some details niggled me, particularly the use of email in the late 80s and early 90s London office the character works in, but overall an enjoyable read.

The most recent book I've finished is the excellent Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan. I loved this book, becoming fully immersed in the world of the Big House with its characters (six year old Aasha in particular). I ended up reading this as slowly as I could, eking it out as I just didn't want it to end...I'll write up a full review soon but this is definitely one of my favourite books this year, and certainly the best debut novel I've read in a long time. It's been the perfect re-introduction to the joys of reading - savouring the experiences contained between the covers - and there were lots of new words for me to look up too as Samarasan uses language to stunning effect.

So while the last couple of months have presented the biggest challenge to my attempts to find a balance between the demands of work and reading and the choice of blogging - it's a dilemma that I'm sure every blogger faces - it's actually been interesting. It's forced me to think about why I'm doing something, or rather not doing something. There's still a lot of upheaval in the Logophile household - we're moving from London to Brighton next weekend - but now that my reading is back in rude health I'm sure my blogging will follow.

My hand luggage for Dublin has The Dubliners tucked in - a re-read but I've never read it while actually being in Dublin. And Nabokov's Lolita is coming up. In fact, there are too many books I want to read at the moment!