Friday, 30 December 2011

Two super fast reviews - The Long Goodbye and Mr Norris Changes Trains

My god, look at the time. It's almost 2012. Last time I glanced up from frantically doing all the things it was only half way through December. I made Christmas dinner, I herded children, I wrote essays, I bought presents, I gave presents, I made things and cleaned things and fed people and went places and did things and I also read some books! I think. I can't even remember, really. So these two reviews will be short and to the point, and then I will go lie down in a darkened room and rest for ever.

First up: Mr Norris Changes Trains, which is confusingly called The Last of Mr Norris when in America. Presumably this is because trains are boring to Americans and/or publishers want you to spend more money, but in this case it's amusingly apt - it's a book all about wigs and international intrigue and it goes by several different aliases.

It's often published with, and almost the flipside to, Goodbye to Berlin (which I read and reviewed a few months ago). While Goodbye to Berlin sort of papers over all the terrible things that are happening politically, Mr Norris looks straight at them - which, oddly, has the effect of making its effect far less lingeringly stomach-churning than Goodbye to Berlin's.

For what is essentially a spy novel about the doomed Communist movement in Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains is - strange word, but the one I keep coming back to - unexpectedly charming. It's also the most gentle and funny look at homosexuality and extreme sexual fetishism that I've ever come across. The point I think it's trying to make (and, as far as I'm concerned, making very well) is that wanting to have sex with lithe German boys or asking a prostitute to whip you while you wear a dog collar and lick her boots is really far less offensive to humanity than going out and punching a Jewish man to death.

Mr Norris Changes Trains is a  wry, witty and distinctly not-your-average look at Berlin's underworld during Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s through the eyes of someone who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Isherwood (I get the feeling this may be a common theme throughout Isherwood's novels). It's exceedingly polite, exceedingly funny and an exceedingly good read.

3.5 stars.


After Mr Norris Changes Trains (possibly it gave me a taste for underhand activity) I read The Long Goodbye, a distinctly more grim look at a life of crime.

Even people who haven't read a Chandler novel will know, vaguely, what one contains. It will be full of grim, similar men loping about with guns in their pockets and menace on their faces, while the cicadas chirp and the dust settles on the side of the road as a symbolic sign of civilisation's decay. Bodies will pile up in hotels and motels and parlours, impeccably dressed and generally clutching the remains of their last drink (if anyone in a Raymond Chandler novel is sober, it's either an oversight or a passing phase). But what is surprising about Chandler is that under all that slang and punching ("Hand over your gat, shamus, or the dame gets a sock in the kisser" and so on, interminably) he's an extremely accomplished and fairly beautiful writer. I think he writes pulp better than most Booker prize winners write at all.

Of course, there's a nastier side to all that tough talk and hard hitting. The book is catastrophically racist, sexist and homophobic. The women are living dolls who say no and mean yes and then dance about in front of Philip Marlowe with all their assets showing (most of the time he heroically resists temptation but slaps them about a bit to relieve his feelings), the gay men are evil like Disney villains and so weak they can barely stand on their pointy-shoed feet and the Mexicans laugh shrilly, twirl their knives and need constant verbal and physical abuse to keep them in their rightful place. I've written about the problems with reading this sort of fiction before - how do you, as a sensible, thoughtful human being, justify enjoying a book that refers to Mexicans (among many, many other even more horrific slurs) as 'cockroaches' and opines that their employers ought to beat them more in order to - if I understood this odd logical leap correctly - keep them sweet? My conclusion then, as now, is that you can't let your anger run away with you. It's vile, but it's just as much part of Chandler's cultural moment as the highballs and gats and outrageous suits. I like Chandler's writing - I really like his writing - but all the same, I think what he writes about is often fairly odious.

In this case, The Long Goodbye is about the strange and meandering case of Terry Lennox, who does something terrible (or maybe he doesn't) and Roger Wade, who is a mean drunk (or maybe he isn't). There's the inevitable cast of evil babes, wicked billionaires and hard-nosed policemen, and of course Philip Marlowe, who makes smartass world-weary comments and untangles the many threads in the case. It's weird, it's atmospheric and it's often distasteful, but for all its unpleasant flaws I still can't help liking it a lot.

3 stars.

(And, for those that are following my 1001 Books progress, I'm up to 18.88% on the list. Auspicious. Bring on the New Year.)

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Review - Birdsong

OK. Readers of the world. What has Sebastian Faulks done to you? What dark arts has he been employing? Because that is the only reason I can think of to explain Birdsong's inclusion on numerous Best Of booklists (including my very own 1001) and for the glowing, goggly-eyed review snippets that are plastered across my edition's back cover.

Honestly, what did he do to persuade an actual human being (and a literary critic, at that) to declare that 'This is literature at its very best'? Because, dear readers, this is not literature at its very best. This is a bad book.

Actually, I don't think the writing is particularly terrible. It's just lazy - a random firing of adjectives and adverbs that don't fit and don't make an awful lot of sense. Sebastian Faulks seems not to understand how to make language work for him. Words aren't just collections of letters, they mean something, they have connotations and nuances, but Faulks appears to have missed this important creative writing lesson. How else do you explain his description of a husband in the middle of arguing with his unfaithful wife as rejuvenated, or mentioning that someone bursting into a packed meeting hall to start a riot has candid eyes? Yes, candid means open, honest, but it also (at least for me) has overtones of calm and friendly. Which I don't think you get much of at a riot.

When I was reading I had huge difficulty getting any sort of mental image from the scenes at all, because all those wrong words kept bursting in and disrupting my thoughts. Possibly as a result of this I found it very difficult to connect with any of Faulks's characters. 504 pages of Birdsong later, I would be hard pressed to give you any sort of explanation of what sort of person the hero Stephen actually is. What is he like? Well, I suppose I could say that he's got dark hair, he's weirdly mature for his age, the war makes him angry - but those things don't add up to a character. He's just a human-shaped word blur. But if Stephen is a blank slate, don't even start me on his 'love-interest' Isabelle. Her hair is strawberry-chestnut coloured (really. Seriously. We get told this more than once) and, er, she has really great skin (also repeatedly described), but in terms of a personality she's just a big hole for Stephen to put his issues and his penis into. I've read better love stories in Hello!

As far as plot goes, it's supposed to be a sweeping and tragic account of World War I, an epic romance, a tale of one woman finding out who she really is, and so on. Love story, soldiers, suffering, you know the sort of thing. But whatever the plot is at a macro level, most actual scenes can be summarised as follows:
The room was quiet. They looked at each other. Emotions passed between them. They shared an experience, such as sex or a dramatic and unlikely conversation, described using many unsuitable adjectives. The structure around them creaked ominously, because all life ends in death. Outside, the birds were singing.
 Oh god, the birds. The birds are EVERYWHERE, fluttering and cheeping and being meaningful - except that they're inserted as a metaphor so often that they cease to have any particular meaning at all. I guess Faulks meant to make some point about freedom and natural life, but all it did to me was to make me really hate birds for a while. 

Actually, for a book that's all about emotion, I don't think I felt moved by it (in the ways I was obviously meant to) once. The characters either have the responses they ought to feel - which inevitably tend towards the melodramatic 'Alack, my love, the tragedy of our lives!' sort of thing - or they have bizarrely over-experienced, over-understood thoughts on the universe that, for me, ring equally false - because who ever heard of an Englishman saying, "I saw the void in your soul, and you saw mine?" No, when they want to convey that sort of deep love towards another human being they pause for a long time and then say something like, "Should be a nice day tomorrow." Now that's a conversation I could believe in.

I found Birdsong without suspense, without interest and without soul. The twists didn't suprise me, the story didn't carry me and the sex scenes just made me snigger on the Tube. Give the man a Bad Sex award by all means (he more than deserves it), but don't, for heaven's sake, read this book.

2.5 stars.

(My latest Litro blog, by the way, is getting into the Christmas spirit by singing the praises of books as gifts. This is not, in case you are wondering (or my family) a hint. I'm just, as you may have noticed, a fairly pro-book kind of person. Enjoy.)

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Reviews - Arthur and George and Detection Unlimited

NaNoWriMo 2011 is over, and I am officially a winner. Phew, look at that handsome purple colour on my stats. It was actually - strange as this is to admit - not that difficult to do. Maybe I write too much. Now that I'm done, though, I'm wondering what I'm I supposed to do with all my extra time I have. Leisure! What is it? I feel like a medieval scribe on day release.

Anyway, the final part of my November was busyness as usual. I did an interview with the talented and most interesting Polarbear - whose latest show finishes on the 3rd, but whom you should keep an eye out for in the future. He's a very nice guy and I only blanked out and said UM while I was talking to him once. Or maybe twice.

The Literary Review's Bad Sex Award shortlist 2011 has also been announced! Oh joy, oh happiness, oh crowning moment of my year. My personal favourite The Blue Book didn't make the cut (read my review of it for some choice examples of why I thought it should have), but there's some pretty choice stuff all the same. I've written an article about it for Litro (and for the record, I'm now backing David Guterson's Ed King. It's - wow. Just wow.)

And on to the reviews. This week's theme appears to be detective fiction (which is never far away, for me. I've got a bit of a thing for it, and when I start my dissertation in a few months' time you are all going end up SICK of me talking about crime and detection and people doing gruesome things to each other in barns and privies and country manors). The two books in question are from two writers who came at the concept of writing a mystery novel from two very different perspectives, and with - I think - varying degrees of success.

First up is Julian Barnes's Arthur and George. Admission time: this has been on my shelf for years. My mother bought it for me when it first came out, and with typical fifteen-year-old insularity I didn't see why I should bother with a book about people who didn't even have last names. So I ignored it until last week, when a friend informed me that it was a crime novel in disguise. I read it immediately.

It turns out that both Arthur and George do have last names, one of which is a very famous last name indeed. I'm not going to spoil it for you (although I was told myself) because there's a very nice little oh! moment when you realise who it is you've been reading about. In fact, who Arthur and George both are turns out to matter just as much, and both of their identities are central to the direction of the plot. It's a very clever bit of narrative engineering from Barnes.

At the heart of Arthur and George is the retelling of the story of a real-life late-Victorian trial (again, I'm not telling you which one, although if I did I doubt you'd be enlightened - this has slipped very much out of the frame of general knowledge, one of the reasons why Barnes has picked up on it). Barnes uses a brilliant mixture of detailed research and sensitive imagination to write an account of the crime and its consequences that feels both compelling and real. What he's got to tell is fascinating, if awful - an account of spectacular police bungling and a terrible miscarriage of justice - and the first 200 pages or so had me completely gripped.

From there, though, things got a bit more murky in terms of enjoyment. Arthur and George is one of those books in which, by the middle of the text, the main event has already taken place . It always strikes me as a very bad idea, structurally, because no matter how well you write, what you've got to say after this point is essentially the world's longest postscript. And so it is here. After the trial, Arthur and George suffers a crisis of identity. Is it about the life of a great man? Is it an examination of a religious movement? Is it the story of an affair? Is it a crusade for justice? It's all of those things to some extent, but none of them are enough to give it focus and direction.

Now, it's possible that I feel this way because I was sold Arthur and George as a crime novel. Crime novels are expected to snap along like nobody's business, whereas the mood of this book is far more restrained and introspective. All the same, I'm not sure if Barnes is technically accomplished enough to convey all the insight he's trying to pack in in lieu of plot. He's at his best when he's describing events, not musing on human nature.

Arthur and George was clever and interesting, and I definitely enjoyed it more than anything else I picked up for the first time last month. But all the same, it has its flaws, which are enough for me to give it a

3.5 stars.
Next, we've got Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer. These days, Heyer's more famous for her Regency romances - and, in fact, I only had the dimmest notion that she wrote crime novels too until I was reminded of it by long-time fan and fellow blogger Desperate Reader. 

Detection Unlimited is a murder mystery very much in the tradition of the English Golden Age, a froth of high artifice and extraordinarily impossible circumstance, what Raymond Chandler describes in his (brilliantly jaded) essay 'The Simple Art of Murder' as 

the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.

It's one of those books that you have to accept on its own terms, otherwise you'll go mad from plotholes and the sort of trickery-for-its-own-sake that 99% of actual human beings couldn't dream up in fifty years even with a gun (or a solid platinum poignard) being held to their throat. It's fun enough, it's ridiculous enough and at the denouement it's revealed that Heyer was playing a much bolder and more interesting hand of cards than I thought she was.

All the same, though, I had what can politely be described as Problems with it during my reading. While a mannered writing style is expected and to some extent even required, I'm not sure there is a book in existance that needs to use the word 'besought' to indicate speech more than three times. In fact, I think that once is one time too many. Heyer's detective, Inspector Hemingway, also caused me a lot of concern. Most Golden Age detectives have characteristics that give a modern reader serious pause in their attitude to those human beings unfortunate enough to be poor, odd or foreign, but Hemingway does it with such blissful license and obvious intention of being incredibly light-hearted and funny that he makes Josephine Tey's fearsome bigot Inspector Grant look like Albert Schweitzer.

It's ironic - and telling - that Inspector Hemingway bears a very close resemblance to the (real-life) Inspector in Barnes's novel whose insularity and narrow-mindedness ruins George's life. Inspector Anson decides that the schoolboy George is 'not a right sort', and from then on there's nothing George can do done to save himself. Similarly, when Hemingway hears that there's a Pole involved in the case he judges him before he even sets eyes on him (although as Not Guilty - in Hemingway's bemusing universe Poles are infuriating but totally irrelevant). In fact, everyone who is not upper class and in possession of at least a nice little historic red-brick in town does not matter in the slightest, nor are they suspects in the case - even though we're never really told why they should be so definitely ruled out. Hemingway works on whim and caprice, and though it's presented as a joke it feels at the very least like dangerously bad police work.

There's just a lack of logic here, a skipping over from A to G without any basis for the leap, and I ended up feeling completely swallowed up by the gaping plot holes that Heyer barely even bothers to paper over. I can't give it more than

2 stars.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Cooking the (Cultural History) Books - Thanksgiving

I exist due to the joint wonders of globalisation and grammar schools. Thanks to them, my father made his way from Leicester to Haverford, Pennsylvania and met my mother, who had just begun to despair of ever making her Mormon relatives stop asking her WHEN SHE WAS GOING TO FIND A NICE HUSBAND. I am, therefore, the unlikely product of the Midlands and the Midwest, the owner of two passports (useful) but someone whom neither the CIA nor MI5 will ever trust enough to hire (disappointing).

The unachievable ideal
I generally consider myself very culturally blessed. I am the inheritor of Doctor Who and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Dr. Seuss and queueing - and, most importantly, I get to celebrate all the great American festivals, which, because Americans LOVE ritual, happen roughly once every two weeks. Thanksgiving, though, is a particular favourite of mine. It's all the eating of Christmas with none of the gift stress, and it goes on for just long enough for you to end up feeling fond of your family rather than sour about them.

This year is my first Thanksgiving cooking solo, a momentous occasion in the life of any American. Granted, the part of my turkey is going to be played by a chicken (we will make it a turkey with the power of belief) and the sweet potatoes are going to be roasted rather than covered with marshmallows (because I am English enough to realise that some American traditions are disgusting), but the stuffing, at least, comes with true American pedigree. It is not, indeed, just any stuffing recipe, because I have been entrusted with Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey. This marvellous and venerable piece of family tradition calls for, among other things, 15 cents of sausage meat. Fifteen cents of sausage meat! It's like a little piece of economic history in my hands.

Cooking from a handed-down recipe is like cooking with your ancestors right there in the kitchen with you, poking the electric scales and making disparaging comments about the price of butter these days. The fact of a family recipe is often much more important than what it actually tastes like - we have one recipe, the gloriously over-titled 'Phyllis's Mom's Icebox Rolls', which is brought out every Christmas morning and makes five trays of rock-hard, over-sugared death buns that then sit in the freezer for the next five months. And yet there's something about the teeth-chipping head-rush they bring that's part of what makes Christmas in the Bird household so special. Or 'special'. Take your pick.

And so, in honour of Thanksgiving, I give you Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey, with added translations by my mother.
Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey
 
1 1/2 loaves of stale bread crumbs (ca. 1 lb)
The onion and celery being softened up
large onion fried in butter
Celery.  Use about the same amount as the onion and chop them up.  Fry them with the onions.
3 eggs
ca 1 Tbsp thyme
2 tsp sage
1 tsp parsley
15 cents worth of pork sausage (!)  I think this is about 1 pound.
(she says onion salt and celery salt, but I don't use these)
pepper
2 level tsp salt

Mix everything together except the eggs.  Pour boiling water over the mixture until it's moist.

When you're ready to cook the turkey, beat the eggs and add 2 level tsp baking powder.  Mix into the stuffing mixture and cook right away.

Too much sausage?
Crumbly bread
I particularly like the way the presence of baking powder is buried in the instructions, like some sort of condiment ninja. The mysterious 15 cents of sausage appears to equate to about eight to ten big sausages (and I suspect this may have been too many, it looked suspiciously meaty). Also, when you crumble up the bread you can use the crusts, though leave out the bits that have gone like masonry. But apart from that, I mixed it up, I stuffed it up the chicken and I cooked that chicken for two hours. And then I cooked the stuffing a bit more outside the chicken to make sure I didn't kill my guests. Done.

And talking about what it says on tins, my family's other great Thanksgiving classic, our pumpkin pie recipe, deserves a mention here too. English friends I feed it to often ask for the recipe, imagining, I think, something involving pre-dawn pumpkin gathering rituals and long hours boiling the gourds down to pulp afterwards.

Er. Not exactly.

What you do is:
1) source one tin of Libby's Pumpkin Pie Mix.
2) Follow the instructions on the back of it.
3) Pie.

The pastry and the pumpkin tin
You can, of course, fancy things up by making your own pastry - this time I used Dan Lepard's sweet pastry recipe. It turned out well, but one thing I will say is: do not be afraid if your pastry looks like goop before it goes in the fridge to chill. Have faith and it will come out perfectly pastry-like and firm.

Ready to blind-bake
Blind-bake said pastry at about 180 C for 10-15 minutes, until the bottom of the pie base is firm (pro tip: don't use red lentils like I did, they're too light and it won't have the proper effect), and then whack the filling ingredients into the bowl as follows (I'm copying from my trustly Libby's tin - obviously if you don't have Libby's and you do have time you can substitute your own handmade pumpkin paste - find a recipe for it anywhere on the interwebs):

Cheat's Pumpkin Pie

Filling goo in all its glory
2 eggs, lightly beaten
425 g Libby's pumpkin filling
6 oz sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 pint (284 ml) Carnation evaporated milk - this is about 2/3 of the tin you get in supermarkets.
Put it in your pastry case, put that in the oven at 170 C and cook for 40-50 minutes. Leave to cool and then serve with whipped cream. And then have a heart attack.
The finished pie.

So, happy Thanksgiving, Americans and those who love them! If you haven't eaten your body weight by the time the day's over then you haven't really been trying.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

1001 Books Review - Orlando

1) The lovely people over at Writersdock have re-published two more of my reviews, of 1984 and Angels and Insects.This is very kind of them and makes me extremely delighted.

2) My latest blog for Litro is all about old men in hot pants, the word lentor and my criminal inability to learn languages.

And now, a 1001 Books review with a difference.

The difference is, I'm sorry to say, that this is a cheat. Not only have I read Orlando at least three times before, but I am only reading it now for one of my MA modules, and didn't I tell you I would never subject you to my MA books?

Nevertheless.

Orlando is one of my all-time favourite, love-of-my-life books, one of those pieces of writing that, for me, that only gets better and more astonishing each time I go back to it. This time around I started Orlando at ten thirty a few nights ago, intending to read the first chapter. At one o'clock in the morning, on page 150, I came to myself and realised that I should probably go to sleep at some point.

Re-reading something that means as much to you as Orlando does to me is like meeting someone you love at International Arrivals. You see them and you're overcome with ridiculous joy and recognition, almost irregardless of the merits of the person in question - but, in this case, I think that all the praise I can give it is entirely deserved. Orlando is an astonishing, virtuoso piece of smart, funny, poetic wordplay from a writer who understands the language so well that she's able to do things with it that ought to be entirely impossible. Virginia Woolf can sometimes be so technically high-flown that she's almost entirely impenetrable (read The Waves and see if you can understand more than about half of it), but in Orlando she reigns herself in just the right amount. Unusually for a novel by a high Modernist writer, there are distinct characters and an actual linear plot(!) as well as beautiful images of rubies and falling leaves, and the result is an insane, delightfully out-of-left-field gallop through the last 500 years of English history and literature. Written as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Virginia Woolf's friend (and girlfriend) Vita Sackville West, it's the maddest biography you'll ever come across, a completely ridiculous story set in a world where literally anything can happen.

Orlando is unbelievably believable, full of brilliantly tall tales of villagers turning to stone during particularly cold winters and cats being mistaken for coals and put on the fire. It's got the most casual attitude to time travel and eternal life you'll ever come across - in it, some people just go on living for four hundred years, not aging, without it being remarked upon at all. I read a Guardian article in which Ursula Le Guin said that Orlando was one of the books that made her want to become a science fiction writer, and I think (as usual with Ursula Le Guin) she's absolutely right. Orlando (with a charming wink in the direction of the audience) turns most of the physical laws of the universe upside down and ties the rest of them in knots. Hours can last years, you can see all of England from the top of a hill and people can change their sex at the drop of a pair of trousers.

This is where Orlando is at its most outrageously clever and witty. Women dress up as men, men act like women (or are they actually women in particularly good disguise?) and the main character, Orlando, lives the first two hundred years of his life as a man before going to sleep for seven days and waking up a woman. Physical gender becomes something like the ridiculous paper hats you might put on at a party - you swap them round, you wear two at once, it's all a bit of a joke and none of it means anything anyway.

Orlando really is a very funny book (though it's laugh-in-the-head rather than laugh-from-the-stomach), a joke at the expense of great authors, high-minded biography and boring history. Worse than that, it enjoys itself immensely, it was clearly written for the sheer jolly love of it, and there are pictures. All of this makes critics terribly nervous. Great Literature should not be funny, it should be full of people sobbing and dying and giving birth under haystacks while it rains, and unspoken conventions like this are why I sometimes get very tired of academics.

In this case, they are wrong, and Orlando is right. In fact, Orlando is wonderful. You should all read it five times in a row and be amazed. It's possible I'm biased, but the nice thing about reading is that it's entirely subjective. I'm free to love this no matter what the critics say.

5 stars.

Friday, 11 November 2011

1001 Books Review - The Leopard

Housekeeping again:

If you are assuming I have not been posting very much lately because I have been hard at work on my MA, you are very sweet and I admire your belief in human nature. Obviously, you are right. Yesterday, for example, I went to the British Library, where in the course of some very serious essay research I read the following sentence:
In February 1847, two elephants performing at Astley's Amphitheatre were presented with lots of bouquets. The elephants, we are told, had rather hoped for carrots and turnips.
(This is, in case you are interested, taken from The London Stage in the Nineteenth Century by Robert Tanitch, and I HIGHLY recommend it to you if you're interested in theatre history. It is not only factually fascinating but also delightfully snide). And if you are interested in what else I found out about the weird and wonderful on the London stage, you can read all about it over here.

During my time off from all this strenuous academic activity, though, I have been doing NaNoWriMo. If you don't know what this is, I have handily written a Litro blog about it. As of today I am 18540 words up and someone just died, so things are Going Well in that respect.

In the interests of linked-in completeness, I have also recently blogged about your furniture coming to life and eating you and written a (scathing) review of Richard Ellmann's biography of Oscar Wilde. Enjoy! Oh, and I also read a book! Look at that. I haven't been totally wasting my time.

I have to admit, though, that I had a very major case of Not Getting Along with The Leopard. I could probably have finished it in a few days, but I'd read a few pages of it and then realise that BY GOD the bathroom could do with a clean and I needed to bake bread for lunch and how about that essay due in next week. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading this for fun.

I think this is a prime example of the huge difference that exists between knowing that something is written well and actually liking it on a personal level. With the English MA student side of my brain I can see that The Leopard is meant to be a haunting evocation of the beauty of a vanished system and the transience of an individual life, but what I actually thought when I finished the novel was that Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa is kind of tiresomely self-indulgent, and that keeping a badly stuffed dog beside your bed for fifty years is gross.

Part of this has to be that The Leopard's atmosphere - and the novel is practically all atmosphere - really annoyed me. The whole thing takes place in an overwhelming state of rococo decay. Whenever characters appear they have to fight their way past profuse mountains of rotting roses and moulting silk sofas and five thousand Blessed Virgins with their paint coming off; and doing battle with all this scenery means that the poor things are exhausted and morose before they even begin to talk. Add to this the fact that they're in Sicily, where it's exhausingly hot all the time, and it's not entirely surprising that most of the scenes are variations on the theme of one character turning to another and saying, "Dude, I can't. Let's go lie down."

The plot of the novel is basically Prince Fabrizio (the Leopard of the title) not doing things, and then feeling sort of morose about it, but not morose enough to do anything except lie down. Occasionally he lies down with whores, and then he feels vaguely bad about it, which makes him have to lie down, which makes him realise that he is OLD and THE LAST OF HIS KIND and DOOMED TO DEATH, which is coincidentally a lot like LYING DOWN FOR EVER. Woe.

It's possible that I'm not that sympathetic to the Sicilian mindset (it was very heavily stressed that this attitude to life is Very Sicilian). It's also possible that I suffered from not understanding what on earth is going on historically - I just about know that Garibaldi was a man as well as a biscuit, a state of ignorance in a reader that obviously never occurred to Lampedusa. There are very few handy hints about historical background, and to make it worse Lampedusa has sort of half-assed an attempt to make the novel a knowing piece of post-modernity. What this means in practice is that the text will be totally immersed in the idioms and references of the 1860s and then all of a sudden a character's state of mind will be explained by reference to a MOTORWAY or an AIRPLANE or something equally weird and out of place. I think Lampedusa was going for a 'clever and humorous' angle, but to me it just felt awkward and half-way-to-nothing, like a fish with a human face stuck on it.

I'll admit, there were some moments that did work - there's a chapter about a weird erotic game of hide-and-seek through an enormous house that I thought was gorgeously written - but overall The Leopard just didn't do it for me. People are, of course, perfectly entitled to say that it's the greatest Italian novel ever, but I am likewise entitled not to agree with them at all.

Anyway, thank goodness, it's over now. One more 1001 Books book down! Only hundreds and hundreds to go! And for my next trick, I'm going to read something fun.

2.5 stars.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Book review - Angels and Insects

Housekeeping first - my maiden blog for The Other Place is up, dealing sensitively with why Shakespeare, if he was alive in 2011, would be an internet troll. I hope you like it.

And now, on to your regularly scheduled review.

This year A. S. Byatt has come out of almost nowhere to become one of my favourite writers. For quite a while after I read Possession I was afraid to read anything else by her, in case she was only pretending to be amazing, but then I took the plunge with Ragnarok and then The Children's Book and it turns out that A. S. Byatt is always amazing, consistently so, until it's almost depressing. I think I've said this before, but the woman does not let up.

I'm not sure if I'm more in love with her style or the things she chooses to write about. She's got a fierce eye for colour and a weird, intricate turn of phrase that makes the reader really able to see the mad things she imagines - in the two stories that make up Angels and Insects, for example, we get a girl with a dress covered in live butterflies and a supernatural visitation from something like a giant glass vase on fire. She creates these fantastic pocket universes, boiling over with life, each of them full of stories within stories, and tiny little stories within those, like Victorian curiosity cabinets. There's so much to look at in her books, and so much to think about, too.

Byatt (who is interested in everything, almost exhaustingly so) likes to go both enormously big and incredibly small, just to keep you on your toes, and Angels and Insects manages to be about Natural Selection and an anthill, the whole of the Afterlife and a drawing-room seance. Byatt loves the Victorians  - for everything that was strange and wrong about them as much as for everything they did right - and (luckily for me) her idea of their greatest hits is very similar to my own. Animals and ghosts! Tennyson and ferocious jungles full of lurking wild beasts! Sex and death and really great dresses!

The two stories that make up Angels and Insects - 'Morpho Eugenia' and 'The Conjugal Angel' are two gorgeous pieces of Victoriana, but Victoriana with teeth. In 'Morpho Eugenia', about a naturalist who falls in love with his patron's whiter-than-white daughter, the characters aren't just compared to insects. In an undefinably creepy way they actually become them. Eugenia, object of William's affections, begins as a butterfly and then morphs into an enormous Queen of the Ants, with the house itself her anthill and all the other female characters her workers.

'The Conjugal Angel', meanwhile, tells the story of a medium and a seance, but a seance where the supernatural beings the characters call up are disgustingly real. Apart from the burning vase-creature, there's a ghost who appears to the medium in her room, 'his brows and lashes caked with clay', a nasty image that sticks in your head because it makes an uncomfortable amount of logical sense. If ghosts are a manifestation of the dead, and the dead are rotting away in the ground - well, you see where this is going. When the angel appears at the end of the story, it's not an attractive Biblical being but an unpleasantly literal representation of Plato's idea that each person is half of an eternal whole. One half of it is shiny and bird-like, and on the other -
On the other side, turned into the shadow, it was grey like wet clay, and formless, putting out stumps that were not arms, moving what was not a mouth in a thin whisper.
Nightmares for days.

There are plenty of stories like 'Morpho Eugenia' and 'The Conjugal Angel' written during the Victorian Era, or at least written about the same topics, but at the same time you won't find anything with quite the same slant to them. They're Victorian pastiches, sure, but at the same time they're a lot more than that. Byatt's adept at using Victorian writing styles, which is impressive enough, but you always know you're not just reading another Victorian novel. In Angels and Insects, Byatt has taken two not-particularly-original ideas and used her incredible imagination to turn them into stories that are both lively and unexpected. There are several twists in each tale that I won't spoil you for, but if you know your Victorians you'll be delighted and if you don't - well, you'll still be delighted.

Can I get an A. S. Byatt altar set up in this blog already?

4.5 stars.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

1001 Books Review - 1984

Two rather nice announcements first.

1) I've been given an internship at Litro magazine, a literary magazine that's big into giving exposure to new writers. It's well worth a look if you're a writerly type - here are its facebook, twitter and real-world subscription pages for your convenience. So from now on I'll be splitting my blogging between there and here, which is quite exciting and only slightly daunting.

2) The lovely people at Writersdock have been kind enough to publish my Animal Farm review on their site. Look at that! My words on someone else's website! Isn't that nice?

But anyway, on to the review, which today (aptly enough) is George Orwell's 1984. Here goes.

Last night I finished reading 1984. I'm quite proud of myself. After all, I only began it 10 years ago.

You can blame my thirteen-year-old self for this. The me that bought my copy of 1984, way back in 2001, was still coming off a childhood filled with books in which Good Triumphed, Bad Failed and Love Conquered All, and I believed in this. And then came 1984.

I started to read 1984 under the vague impression that Things, although bad at the beginning, would be All Right In The End, and I must (judging from what seems familiar on my second attempt) have gotten almost to the end of Part I, before something made me decide to turn back and read the Introduction. (This experience, by the way, is why I am heavily against scholarly introductions at the front of books. What are they doing there? Why, since they describe what happens in the book, aren't they at the end where they belong?) Of course, it spoiled me horribly. I found out the entire plot of the novel - and, most importantly, what happens to Winston.

I remember feeling utterly tricked. I don't know why I was so upset - self-preservation, as a concept, always made a lot of sense to me. I used to get very annoyed with the Christian Martyrs because I couldn't work out why they didn't just worship Zeus a bit, with their fingers crossed, and then go back to Jesus on the sly. Being holy, in my view, was no consolation for being dead. Somehow, though, I couldn't extend this to 1984. Love was a thing that I very much (theoretically) believed in, and I think I had assumed I was reading a love story - but of course, much like poor Winston and Julia, I was being had.

I won't give you the details (I'm not as cruel as Ben Pimlott), but suffice it to say that 1984 - the dystopian story of Winston Smith's struggle against Ingsoc and its leader Big Brother - does not end well. In a way this is nicely realistic - because, really, how likely is it that one man could actually bring down the evil empire? It's a lovely idea, and one that's very familiar to us but, er, it's not particularly feasible. (If you look carefully, by the way, there is an interesting bit at the very end of 1984 that does hint at the eventual downfall of the Ingsoc regime, but you've got to really squint to feel optimistic.)

But if you're looking for uplift in your sci fi, why the hell are you reading George Orwell? He's got a brand of pessimism that strikes me as remarkably British - his image the future is not only depressing, but incredibly detailed in a way that's both brilliantly clever and extremely pedantic. It's also, of course, fondly rude about the British people. In 1984, we as a nation have become ugly, puny boozers who hate ourselves. So nothing's new, then.

I think that's part of the reason why we've taken 1984 to heart as much as we have. In my Animal Farm review I remarked on just how many slogans and ideas from it have seeped into our cultural mindset, and, if anything, it's even more astonishingly true in 1984. Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak, Thought Police, Doublethink, Thoughtcrime - for a crazy dystopian vision of the future it's bizarre how far it has shaped how we see our own present-day society. But while 1984 is sharply, embarrassingly right about a lot of things, I'm still not sure that I buy its bigger vision of the future. That's not because I have great belief in human nature - on the contrary, I think that humanity's saving grace is its immense and charming essential laziness.

Extreme evil, like extreme good, seems to take an awful lot of effort, so much so that I don't think most human beings are up to it in the long term. Sure, they'll try it for a while, but show them a boot stamping on a human face for ever and they're liable to wonder whether the person doing the stamping gets a lunch break and if they can do it sitting down. Why bother? Why not just have a cup of tea? This, I think, is why both Fascism and Communism were always bound to fail - they require people to be EXTREMELY WORKED UP, ALL OF THE TIME, and that, in practice, is exhausting. Human beings just want to muddle along, and that's the natural level that they'll always return to. At least, I hope so.

Ten years on, I actually ended up enjoying 1984. I must be more hardened to emotional betrayal in books these days, because 1984's version of it hardly bothered twenty-three-year-old me at all. I thought it was clever (isn't Orwell always?) and acute, if a bit idealistically overblown. It's definitely a better story than Animal Farm - Winston, thank goodness, is a person as well as a symbol, and so it's much easier to spend time with him than Manor Farm's animal-shaped politicians. Because I didn't have to read 1984 theoretically, I found myself more willing to do it - and, as I've said, I think what 1984 has to say is very interesting, even if I don't totally buy into it.

So, in conclusion: I liked it, I'm glad I don't live in Oceania, and Room 101 was extremely badly named.

3.5 stars. 18.48% of the list completed.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

National Poetry Day: Have a Poet and a Poem

Aw hell, it's National Poetry Day today! Nobody tells me things. But anyway, in the spirit of this day I am going to do something I've been meaning to for a while, and introduce you to a very much forgotten poet, James Elroy Flecker.

I'm very fond of Flecker, partly because no one else seems to be interested in him at all. Here he, is in his Edwardian get-up, with a small and charming dog (I think it's a dog. Unless it's a very small sheep?). Note particularly his fabulous moustache. He wrote some poems, he wrote a play, he married a lady and then he died of TB when he was 30.

Flecker, bless him, was an Aesthete and very into saucy exoticism, and his poetry can be quite full of wafting roses and naked marble statues and ladies with naughty eyes. He's also apt to tip over into rather overblown teenage emotion, but at the same time I think there's something quite lovely about him. He tries, and though sometimes it all goes a bit wrong, sometimes he really does manage something pretty great. Career-wise, he seems to have come in at exactly the wrong time, when Tennyson, as A Thing, was way over and even Swinburne (who is like a later Tennyson but with added whips and chains) was a bit passe, and because of that he's very much ignored. I'm not saying he deserves a retrospective Laureateship, or anything, but there are plenty of far worse poets who have managed to stick around like mould and so I always feel a little sad about how very much Flecker doesn't get a look in.

I first came across Flecker in the epigraph to an Agatha Christie novel, Postern of Fate - which, it turns out, is a quotation from his poem 'The Gates of Damascus'. So off I went to find this unknown poem, and I found it on the internet, and then it blew my teenage mind.

What I thought at the time - and still think now - is that 'The Gates of Damascus' is an amazing fantasy novel that happens to have been written as a poem. It's just so weird and mad and full of things that you don't understand but want to. At times it tips over into complete fever-dream territory and you get lines like
Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?
I mean, what is that? That's terrifying! That's a Doctor Who episode in waiting, is what that is. Actually, the whole first section of the poem is like that, with mad stalking bird men and people dying of various inventive causes and awesome, gruesome lines like
The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,
The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!
And then you get to the second section and things get even better, if possible, because we're off to sea for an adventure. At this point Flecker comes up with my all-time favourite description of the sea:
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
Not only does it scan beautifully, but it's full of booze and sea monsters. And on these mythical-creature infested waves Flecker goes and makes up his own creepy, crazy version of the Odyssey, which features not only pterodactyls and bleeding rocks but also ROBOTS:
Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.

Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.

Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.

Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.
Do you see yet why I think it's a fantasy novel in disguise? I had a year or so when got obsessed with it and made several awful and luckily abortive attempts to write the book hiding in it, because the book hiding in it would be amazing.

Things sort of tail off after the sea-shanty part, excitement-wise, and we get a bit about saucy Eastern commercialism and then another bit about emotive Eastern mysticism, but all the same, I love this poem. I love it ridiculously and unreservedly and despite the undeniable fact that it's bloody weird. Actually, that's why I love it. That, and it sounds really nice when you read it out loud.

So there you have it: 'The Gates of Damascus' by James Elroy Flecker, my favourite book-that-isn't.

And a happy National Poetry Day to you.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Review - Howards End (AKA: Douchebags in Romantic Literature)

Gertrude Stein and her ego
I have come to a decision: if I read a book for my MA course, I do not have to review it on this blog. This is to prevent me from ending up in a gibbering heap of madness, hiding behind Watson the lizard's cage, and to prevent you from having to hear my thoughts on books with titles like Gendering the Natural: Virginia Woolf and her Use of Root Vegetables as Phallic Symbols in To The Lighthouse. (Actually, if I do ever read that book I will certainly write about it. It sounds great.)

Therefore, I do not need to take any more notice of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas here than to remark on the absolutely enormous size of Gertrude Stein's ego. It bursts up through the pages of the book like a rapidly inflating airbag and leaves the reader lying in a stunned heap upon the floor. Although maybe I would be like that if Picasso, Matisse and Man Ray had all done portraits of me. I don't know.

Crazy blurb edition
But anyway, I did read E. M. Forster's Howards End (yes, no comma), and that was not for my MA, and so I am now going to review it. So here we go.

My copy of Howards End is a Penguin from the 60s, era of charmingly hilarious back-cover blurbs (my all-time favourite is the back of The Waves, which informs the reader that 'Virginia Woolf is the wife of Leonard Woolf'. How times change), and true to form this one begins by cutting straight to the heart of the matter with the immortal line 'Mr E. M. Forster is not a prolific novelist.' How interesting. Did he perhaps like cheese? What was the name of his dog? This is all so relevant. Tell us more.

The blurb goes on to say that
An attempt to outline the story of Howards End would do paltry justice... to the delicate pattern of its composition.
Which, like most literary brown-nosing, is nonsense. Howards End is about the two Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby, but no one really talks about him) and their relationships with the Wilcox family, who are kind of assholes. When Mrs Wilcox (not a Wilcox by birth, so not actually an asshole) dies, she leaves a written request for Margaret to be given her beloved country house Howards End, but of course, because they are assholes, the living Wilcoxes ignore this. The rest of the book is a series of cosmic coincidences that end up with (you guessed it) Margaret and Helen getting possession of Howards End and the Wilcoxes being karmically punished for their assholitude. Simple.

Shut up woman get on my horse
Reading books like Howards End makes me realise just how very glad I am to have been born in the 1980s, into a world where the Pankhursts have already been and gone and made their point. It's true that there is still a long way to go in terms of women getting equal pay and not getting groped and laughed at for no reason, but all the same those 90+ years since 1918 have done absolute wonders for the mental state of eligible males as a group. It's fairly sobering to realise that, until really quite recently, men like Monsieur Paul and Mr Wilcox were, without a hint of irony, the good ones. If you wanted a husband pre-1970 you appear to have had to hope like hell that the one you found would just call you stupid and disagree with everything that came out of your mouth, rather than ignoring you, taking all your money or chasing you round and round the room with a stick.

Basically (giving the plot away somewhat, but Howards End isn't exactly a thriller), at one point Mr Wilcox falls for Margaret and proposes to her. Margaret's considerations on the subject go something like: "OK, so, he hates everything I stand for, and I disagree with him, and he's a soulless ass, and his forehead is weird, but hey, it could be so much worse." And so she marries him.

You can't tell, but she's barefoot and pregnant too
I can't really decide what E. M. Forster thinks about all this. I read A Passage To India last year and I was completely astonished by how balanced and understanding he was about racism and the effects of imperialism. But when it comes to The Woman Question things get a bit more dodgy. There's just an uncomfortable amount of "Women don't need the vote! They should simply be influencing their husbands with their eyes and breasts! Also most of them are stupid." I don't know E. M. Forster's life - and to be fair to him, Margaret and Helen get a hell of a moral victory on Mr Wilcox at the end of the novel - but there's still something that doesn't feel right about his attitude throughout. I guess that's another confirmation of my point: when you have a society that legally treated half of its members like drooling imbeciles, even good, sensible guys end up with idiotic opinions. And what's worse, those opinions tend to stick around.

It's interesting to read the big feminist books of the 60s and 70s (think The Golden Notebook and Lady Oracle) in light of this obvious but somehow easily forgotten point. Once you do, you realise that a very big part of the reason why all of the women in them are so horribly depressed all the time is because although they've bettered themselves, and accepted new ideas, when they start looking for a mate they realise that ALL THE MEN ARE STILL BUSY BEING ASSHOLES. They've got nothing else to choose from. Essentially, they're screwed.

I'd like to think in 2011 that we're (mostly) out of that dark, dark place. I possess two (male) housemates and a (male) boyfriend, all of whom have high-level cooking, cleaning and washing-things-up skills and, because they grew up in a world where women were seen as basically rational, functioning human beings, tend to treat the women they come across in the same way. At the very least, I don't think any of them would even consider unironically arriving at their mistress's house at ten o'clock at night and screaming WOMAN WHERE IS MY POT ROAST (this happens in The Golden Notebook, more or less). Call me crazy, but I find that sort of thing not particularly desirable in a man.

So hooray for Pankhursts (junior and senior) and also all the non-Pankhursts (both those run over by horses and those not), and thank god I don't need to marry a Mr Wilcox any more. Margaret, he's all yours. Have fun.

3 stars. And 18.38% completed.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Cooking the Books: Frank Tallis

When I started this blog I thought half of it was going to be about baking. It turns out, though, that whenever I bake something I always just end up eating it before I remember to take pictures. This is obviously not good enough, and so I have come to a decision. This decision is that whenever I read a book with really exciting food in it I am going, in the spirit of research, to make that food. And I am going to blog about it.

The rules of the game are as follows:

1) The foodstuff must, obviously, appear in the book in question.
2) it must be mentioned by name.
3) Preferably it should be described in some way.
4) Bonus points if the description is sexually delicious.
5) I really do have to take pictures of it. Google images will not do.

The first food-centric book on my list is Death and the Maiden, by erotic pastry writer extraordinaire Frank Tallis. I've written before about Frank Tallis's probably very Freudian relationship with cake, and also about how reading his books makes me want to go bury my face in the front window of a Patisserie Valerie.  

Death and the Maiden, it turns out, is not as sugar-laced as Frank Tallis's previous efforts (I felt somewhat cheated - I want cake with my death!) However, cake still gets mentioned by name nine times (that's not counting savoury foods or all the times the characters are just 'eating pastries'), so the foodstuffs I get to choose from for my first experiment are: Guglhupf, Mohnstrudel, Topfenstrudel, Apfelstrudel, Palatschinken, Mannerschnitten biscuits, Sachertorte, Marillenknodel and Vanillestern biscuits. Of these, Mannerschnitten turn out to be wafers that come in plastic packets, Marillen are apricots, which are not in season, Schinken are pancakes, which are not very inspiring, Mohn means poppy seed, which is not exciting either, Apfelstrudel we all know far too well anyway and I had Sachertorte in the actual Hotel Sacher last year and thought it was disgusting.

So I went with the Guglhupf. It is described in Death and the Maiden, with masterful brevity, as
a sponge slice, sprinkled with icing sugar
Which is perfectly delicious sounding, but not particularly helpful to someone actually trying to cook it.

Now, I've been fascinated by Guglhupf for quite a while. It keeps coming up in Austrian-themed books, quite mysteriously. No one seems to ever quite be able to describe what it is, although it is unanimously seen as A Good Thing. It turns out, once I began to scan Google for recipes for it, that no one on the internet can agree on the recipe for it either. Sometimes it has chocolate in it, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it has orange juice and raisins and rum, often (but not always) it has almonds, sometimes it is made with icing sugar and, most interestingly, sometimes the recipe calls for yeast. This, I think, is the important thing, since when I went onto Wikipedia in desperation I discovered that -hupf means jump. A jumping cake! I like it.

In the end I went with a recipe without chocolate (since I think that would be Schokoguglhupf and slightly different) and with yeast: basically, this one from Food.com but without the almonds (I hate almonds) and with more sugar (Guglhupf can be savoury sometimes, and that is fine for other people but very definitely Not What I Was Going For). Yes, it's in American, but proper cup measures are fairly easy to find in England these days and if you don't have those there's always the miracle of Google.

So, in the name of Science, here's my modified Guglhupf recipe.

The romantic ideal
Yeasty part
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

Cake part
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon dark rum
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
6 tbsp sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large egg yolks
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 

BUTTER
Heavily butter a Guglhupf tin, or a Bundt tin (which is what I have), or any other sort of round and holey cake tin you fancy.

Heat the milk in a saucepan until it is lukewarm. This took an astonishingly short time - I ended up overheating it and then having to wait for it to cool down. Basically, ten seconds will do it. Pour the milk into a bowl, add the yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons turns out to be one of those little Hovis fast-action packets, so save time and just chuck the contents of one of those in), stir it about and add the flour. Cover with clingfilm and leave in a warm place.
Rum raisins. Excellent.

MEANWHILE! Add the rum to the raisins in a bowl and let them sit. I'll be honest, I added more than a tbsp of rum - it seemed somewhat stingy. I like rum.

Watch 20 minutes of Celebrity Masterchef. Return.

Fluffy yeasty bit. With lemon.
For the ordinary cakey bit, cream together butter, sugar (90g of each, if you don't have a US tablespoon) and salt, then add the vanilla and the lemon zest. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, THEN add your puffed-up yeasty mixture. The original recipe is so bloody vague about the difference between 'dough' and 'sponge' that I did not notice this direction and just went straight ahead and added the rum and other flour. So don't be like me. Add the yeast stuff, mix; sieve the rum out of the raisins (leave the raisins out for later) and add that, mix; add the rest of the flour, mix; let the mixture sit.

Watch 10 minutes of Celebrity Masterchef. Return.

Dough. Buttered.
Beat the dough a bit more, until it's smooth and elastic (I think what you're doing here is equivalent to kneading) and then beat in the raisins (and almonds, if you're using them). At this stage the batter tastes somewhat like Stollen, that is, nice and yet odd.

At this point, the recipe says  
Scrape the dough into a buttered bowl and turn it over so that the top is buttered. 
I find this direction confusing, mainly because it seems so deeply unnecessary and also makes me have to wash up another bowl. I did do it, but I suspect the cake would be OK without it. Now cover this new bowl of yours with cling film and leave it in a warm place to rise again. (There is a lot of rising in this recipe. Definitely not one for the temporally challenged.)

NOT RISING
Do 20 minutes critical reading that you should have done before you watched Celebrity Masterchef but you didn't want to. Return.

Scrape your batter into your mightily buttered cake tin, then cover with a tea towel or some buttered (!) cling film (what is it with this author and buttering things?). Then leave in a warm place 'until it is doubled'. The recipe helpfully makes no mention of how long this should take, and 30 minutes after I first left it IT HAD NOT RISEN AT ALL. I got so desperate that I put it on my desk so it could get the sun. Unfortunately this did not seem to do anything for it.

Ready to be ovened.
After 45 minutes I got bored and annoyed and just turned on the oven to 190 C (or 170 C for a fan oven) to preheat. Fifteen minutes later, I put in my stubbornly un-hupfy Guglhupf and left it to bake it until 'well risen and deep golden' - the recipe says about 40-45 minutes but it took my oven 30. This may have had something to do with the lack of rising beforehand. (Pro tip for cake doneness measuring: Stick a fork into it and if its prongs come out clean you're there.)

Out of the oven.
Take it out and leave to cool for ten minutes, then flip over and get it out of the tin. GENTLY. Leave to cool the rest of the way and then sprinkle with icing sugar for fancy effect.

And there you have your Guglhupf.

I'm sure it was because I abused the yeast in some unknowable way, but I am a bit sad at how very un-hupfy my Gugl turned out. It seems to make the time I spent sitting about waiting for it to rise slightly futile, in retrospect. This Schokoguglhupf recipe seems much more achievable (whipped egg whites instead of yeast) and I may try it for contrast some time.

The not entirely romantic reality
But then I took the finished cake to dinner at a friend's house, and it actually turned out to be very nice. It definitely did have a bready Stollen sort of thing going on - buttery lemony raisiny goodness with that nice tangy kick that booze leaves behind when it cooks. As one of my friends pointed out, it would be especially excellent at Christmas time (she also suggested adding a few plastic reindeer and Father Christmases around the top but I think this would be down to personal taste). I admit that it was a bit heavy - you could probably hurl it at someone and do them a fair injury - but this is because of my mistake rather than any fault of the poor recipe's.

Anyway, a tasty if slightly perplexing recipe, and one that convinces me more than ever that Austrian baking is Where It Is At. And now this book is most definitely on my Christmas wish list. (I bet Frank Tallis would like it too. You know, in case you were trying to find a present for him. Which you might be. I don't know your lives.)

Friday, 23 September 2011

1001 Books Review - Austerlitz

It's very easy to get World War II Fatigue when it comes to literature. A lot of writers behave as though they believe that history began in 1939 and ended shortly afterwards in 1945, and this, as a reader, can be annoying. All the same, though, there's something very attractive about World War II from a writer's perspective. It's not just that it was very BIG, and that the good guys were Good and the bad guys were Bad (and in easily recognisable uniforms), but, because of generations of exclusively 39-to-45 history lessons, all of your potential readers know the period, in a deep-down, under-the-skin way. Those dates are in our brains; it makes up an almost unique shared historical shorthand. We've all got these mental countdown clocks, with September 1939 bright red and labelled YOU ARE ALL BUGGERED NOW. Read 1938 and you think one year left!, read 1943 and you start calculating how long it is to summer 1945, and read Jewish and Poland and 1942 and you think, oh shit.

That's what makes it so interesting that Austerlitz's main character, Jacques Austerlitz, who arrived in Wales in 1939 as a very young child as part of the Kindertransport scheme, doesn't know anything about what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1945. He spends the first half of his life trying - mainly unconsciously - to blank it all out, so effectively that when he does come to investigate his past he discovers that he has no idea of the larger background to what really happened to him. We hear the facts of his early life - Czech Jew, four years old in 1939 and we know what he's escaped from, and what must have happened to his lost parents, but he's got to discover it all for himself, as though it was completely new.

It's a weird concept, which is fitting, because Austerlitz itself is an extremely strange book. I've never read anything else quite like it. Really what it is is a work of art that happens to be made up of a lot of words. It's set out as an intense stream-of-conscious meditation on the everything (including moths, battlements, tree roots, railway station architecture, European history, underwater villages and hats), in vast rambling sentences with almost no paragraph breaks. It's to the enormous credit of Sebald's astonishingly beautiful writing style that reading it doesn't feel like being beaten in the face by language - that, and the pictures that appear in it every page or so.

I like pictures a lot, and am all in favour of them where books, especially long and serious ones, are concerned. I have the Artistic Version of The Interpretation of Dreams, which is great - every time the words are about to wear you out, you turn the page and see A GIANT PICTURE OF A FISH EATING A TIGER and you are refreshed. The pictures in Austerlitz are even cleverer, because they actually make up part of the story that's being told. Sebald'll be describing the window display of a shop in some tiny town in the Czech Republic, with a squirrel holding a banjo, and there the squirrel is in photo form, like a visual clue from a massive Europe-wide treasure hunt. Sebald must have actually travelled to every place he mentions in the book and taken pictures of them all, which makes him a nutter, but a very visionary and thorough one.

Austerlitz really is the work of a craftsman.There is so much skill, and so much knowledge in the book that you could read it five times over and see something totally new in it every time. It's like one of those paintings by Bruegel with five hundred tiny people all doing seven things at once in very bright colours, except without the bright colours. Everything in Austerlitz is misty and sombre, all the streets are deserted and all the buildings are crumbling and it is always late afternoon in autumn and everyone is sad. Or dead.

This is not, as you might have guessed, a cheerful book. It's a treasure hunt with no resolution (we never do find Austerlitz's parents) it's a personal tragedy and it's the story, of course, of an international tragedy on a mindboggling scale. Even though I loved it, actually reading it left me feeling sort of hollow and grey inside. I'd still highly, highly recommend it, though. It's stunningly lovely in so many weird and perspective-altering ways, and it manages to make World War II as a topic seem almost new. Just make sure you're feeling really optimistic before you pick it up.

4 stars. And 18.18% complete.