Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
Kate has set us something a little different this month. We’re all starting from the point at which each of us ended last month. For me that was Janette Turner Hospital’s The Tiger in the Tiger Pit which I had to confess I’d read so long ago I could barely remember it but Google came to the rescue reminding me that it’s about a fraught family celebration.
I’m using the author’s unusual last name as my jumping off point, linking to Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing, which is set in a hospital, about a clinical researcher brought uncomfortably face-to-face with the disease he’s studying.
Workplaces rarely seem to feature in fiction although I’ve read several novels set in restaurants including Merrett Tierce’s Love Me Back narrated by Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse.
Kim Thúy’s lovely Mãn also features a restaurant, owned by the husband of a Vietnamese woman who has left her homeland to marry him without ever having met him, a match made for security rather than love.
Which leads me to The Refugees written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over twenty years, Nguyen’s stories explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances and its legacy.
From there it’s a very short leap to Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ breach, a collection of stories based on interviews with residents of the Calais refugee camp which came to be known as the Jungle, now disbanded.
breach is published by Peirene Press who produce just a handful of books a year, one of which was Guđmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All in 2018. It takes place over the brief bicycle ride that Kata takes to the village hall in preparation for the evening’s concert, taking in the stories of the villagers who catch sight of her out of the corner of their eyes
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from the familiar fictional territory of family reunions, secrets and lies to a two-minute bicycle ride around an Icelandic village. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the routes other bloggers take from each month’s jumping off point, although this month we’ll be starting from entirely different places. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.
Food features prominently on my agenda of pleasures in life, often overlapping neatly with travel, another priority for me. Naturally, I’ve spent many hours ogling cookery books with their gorgeous pictures of artfully arranged meals but I’m not averse to word pictures of food in fiction either. Here are five favourites which should get you salivating if you have a similar predilection. All but one have links to longer reviews if your appetite’s been whetted.
Kim Thuy’s slim, beautifully expressed Mãn is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language and food. It’s about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know – a match made for security rather than love. Her husband is older than her, a cafe owner who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés longing for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes until the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published and a TV show made. She finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella. It’s a quiet triumph – the kind of book that can be read and re-read many times. Kudos to Sheila Fischman for such a sensitive translation of a book in which the nuance of language is paramount.
With its gentle prose and quietly lyrical evocations of food, Mãn reminded me of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese cook, it’s a very different book but it shares the same lightness of touch and gorgeous delicacy in its use of language. In 1934 Binh is faced with a choice: accompany his employers to America, remain in France where he’s cooked for his ‘Mesdames’ for five years or return to Vietnam from which he fled in disgrace. Deliciously vivid descriptions of food are threaded through Binh’s thoughts and memories as he tries to decide what he should do, unfolding both his own story and that of the two eccentric women whose literary salon is about to be disbanded
N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter keeps us in Paris with the story of the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier who died the year after Binh was faced with his decision. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life – his wife desperate to have a dish named after her as the great man has done for so many others – Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Kelby’s novel recounts the trials and errors of the quest for a dish worthy of the wife Escoffier has adored for decades despite his passion for another woman.
In Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, we first meet the orphaned five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723 enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. He’s rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential throughout his life. He’s the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he’s a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Despite his many interests and responsibilities, he never loses his culinary curiosity. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is.
It was a toss-up between Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter for my fifth foodie title, both excellent novels set in restaurants. In the end, I plumped for Danler’s book, a twenty-first century Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Tess begins her training in what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, subjected to endless snipey backchat, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. Eventually she’s singled out by Simone, revered for her esoteric knowledge and expertise. Tess also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity, but finds herself drawn into the orbit of these two and their dangerous games. Danler writes beautifully about food in this thoroughly engrossing, acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.
Here we all are, hurtling towards the end of another year. Out there in the world, 2016 as proved to be pretty dreadful for liberals like me what with Brexit and Trump, not to mention the utter misery of Syria which surely touches us all. The reading world has been a much more comfortable place to be, although a little patchy in places for me. It certainly got off to a roaring start in January beginning with two books which share a similar theme. Set in 1960 against the backdrop of the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure sees a woman fighting for her family’s survival when her husband becomes caught up in an old friend’s treachery. Gripping storytelling, sharp characterisation and beautifully crafted prose all combine in this subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. Another Dunmore triumph.
The Cold War is still quietly raging in Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, set in the last few weeks of 1981. Stephen is a ‘listener’ at The Institute wading through tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When the loyalty of a colleague falls into question, Stephen is called upon to spy on him and finds himself obsessed by the operative’s wife. Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.
Entirely different, Rachel B. Glaser’s first novel, Paulina & Fran is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from when they first meet as students. It’s both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while eventually settling for the kind of job that would make her friend spit bile at its merest mention. It’s a very smart piece of fiction, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.
January’s fourth favourite is also a debut – Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that’s what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic. Love Me Back is a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tierce comes up with next.
February delivered a couple of excellent reads beginning with Kim Echlin’s superb Under the Visible Life. Like Paulina & Fran, it’s a story of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women able to withstand all that’s thrown at them, from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour.
You may have noticed that all five of my books of 2016 so far have been by women as is the sixth: Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton for which I had high hopes as a Baileys contender, sadly dashed. It did, at least, make it on to the longlist but there it stuck, much to my mystification. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism which seems a good point at which to finish this post.
Six books covered already and it’s only the end of February but as I mentioned, it’s been a patchy reading year for me – the next post will leap ahead from March to June. Should you be interested, a click on any of the titles above will take you to my review.
Several jewels to look out for in August’s paperback crown, starting with one of the best books I’ve read this year: Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back. It’s the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with her daughter. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. That may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
Lucia Berlin would have been all too familiar with the seamier side of work, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s. AManual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her stories which draw heavily on her own life, was published last year to enormous and well deserved acclaim. There’s a striking immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Without wanting to be a proselytising zealot, I’ll just say that this collection played a large part in converting me to the pleasure of reading short stories.
Written in a lighthearted, mischievous style Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See is entirely different but succeeds in delivering quite a punch. When he hears a knock at his door, twenty-year-old Arthur Drefuss hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure as she is on-screen. Of course it’s nor Ms Johansson who, it turns out, didn’t like the idea of this book at all, managing to delay its publication for quite some time. Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness in this fable-like novel which puts our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire in an unflattering spotlight. It’s a little gem.
I’ve yet to get my hands on the following four starting with Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. Anais, the main protagonist of Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with this one which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.
I tend not to be a fan of historical novels, either, but Naomi J. Williams’ debut Landfallshas a very attractive structure. Set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785 on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery returning four years later, it’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay, where tragedy hits, to St Petersburg. It all sounds very ambitious but if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.
My last August choice is here thanks to Naomi’s description of it as ‘as close to perfect as it gets’ over at The Writes of Women. In Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Renuka keeps the household afloat while her husband works in Dubai. All seems on track for her aspirations to the New Indian Dream until she finds herself chatting to a stranger, wondering if it might not be time to shrug off the calls of duty a little. The publishers describe it as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity, from a dramatic new voice in Indian fiction’ but you might like to take a look at Naomi’s review.
That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first three, to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis for the next two and to The Writes of Women for Naomi’s review of the last one. And if you want to catch up with August’s hardback delights they’re here and here.
Sweetbitter is one of those books that turned out to be very much better than I expected. Its blurb reminded me a little of Merrit Tierce’s viscerally intense, short, sharp Love Me Back with its restaurant backdrop, the location changed from Texas to New York. I knew I’d probably read it but Tierce’s book had so impressed me that I expected Stephane Danler’s debut to fall short, going as far as to describe it as ‘fluff’ in my June preview. That’ll teach me to judge before reading. It follows twenty-two-year-old Tess who turns her back on smalltown Ohio and talks her way into working at a top New York restaurant.
In late June 2006 Tess drives to New York, finds herself a place to live in a ratty Williamsburg apartment and heads off to what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, determined to work there. She’s interviewed, somewhat eccentrically, by the general manager and is convinced she’s failed to get the job but Howard spots a ‘fifty-one percenter’, someone prepared to dedicate herself to the constant demands of the restaurant. Tess begins her training, subjected to endless snipey backchat, shouted at, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. As she proves her mettle, she’s pulled into after-work trips to the Park Bar, joining in the excesses, sometimes a little too enthusiastically. Eventually she gains the attention of Simone, so accomplished with guests that her tips are a steady twenty-seven per cent. Tess is entranced, thrilled to be singled out and inducted into Simone’s esoteric knowledge and expertise. She also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity. Tess is drawn further and further into the orbit of these two who are, it seems, more than close.
Danler has a keen eye for characterisation. Tess’s gaucheness, occasional flashes of brash confidence and her aching obsessive yearning for both Jake and Simone’s attention are sharply drawn. There’s a touch of LesLiaisons Dangereuses about these two, both magnetic but damaged personalities locked into a deeply dysfunctional relationship in which Tess becomes entangled. Small, subtle touches mark the passage of her year – she becomes ‘Tess’ when she passes her training, no longer the generic ‘new girl. Danler writes beautifully about food and delivers some neatly turned out phrases: Jake takes Tess on ‘a rough pantomime of a date’; staff are ‘fluent in rich people’. The sheer hard physicality of restaurant work coupled with maintaining the appearance of polished urbanity despite the controlled chaos of a working kitchen behind the scenes is vividly conveyed. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her. Sweetbitter comes complete with a paean of praise from Mr Bright Lights, Big City himself, Jay McInerney, and more than lives up to it. In other words, not fluffy at all…
Truth be told, Barkskins is only here out of nostalgia. Like so many readers, I was a huge fan of The Shipping News with its cast of eccentric, affectionately portrayed characters and its depiction of the wilds of Newfoundland. I also became a fan of Proulx’s short stories – Close Range had some wonderful, occasionally shocking and often funny pieces in it. I went off the boil with Accordion Crimes which told me far too much about accordions and not enough about the many cultures in which they’re played. Too much research which may well be an accusation levelled at Barkskins, weighing in at a doorstopping 730+ pages. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it follows Rene Sel and Charles Duquet who arrive in New France, penniless and willing to exchange their freedom for land for three years. Rene is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman but Duquet makes a name for himself, first as a fur trader then setting up a timber business. Proulx’s novel follows these two and their descendants across three hundred years, travelling across North America to Europe, China and New Zealand in what the publishers describe as ‘stunningly brutal conditions’. I wish I could say I was thrilled at the prospect but, in truth, my heart sinks…
I’m feeling much more enthusiastic about The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, set in an Essex village in the 1890s. Rich widow Cora Seabourne moves to Aldwinter where she and the local vicar are soon at odds over the Essex Serpent said to be rampaging through the marshes, taking lives as it does so. At a time when the newly emerging theories about the natural world clash cataclysmically with the Church and all it stands for, Cora, an enthusiastic naturalist, and Will find themselves embroiled in passionate debate. ‘Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take’ say the publishers.After Me Comes the Flood, Perry’s first novel, went down a storm so expectations for The Essex Serpent are high.
Back to the twentieth-first century for the rest of June’s titles, several of which herald the holiday reading season beginning with one that I’ve spotted on Twitter and particularly like the look of. Alice Adams’ Invincible Summeruses an irresistible structure following four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy. ‘Invincible Summer is a dazzling depiction of the highs and lows of adulthood and the greater forces that shape us‘ say the publishers. I’m hoping for a nice slice of self-indulgent entertainment although nothing too sickly. This kind of novel needs a little bit of a bite to work for me.
Dean Bakopoulos’sSummerLong is aimed fairly and squarely at readers wanting to immerse themselves in an engrossing piece of entertainment by the look of it. Its main attraction for me is its small-town American setting. Realtor Don Lowry is busy hiding the fact that the marital home is in foreclosure while his wife Claire spends her time lusting after Charles, the failed actor who has come home to put his father’s affairs in order. As the temperature rises, inhibitions fall by the wayside setting the scene nicely for a bit of domestic drama. ‘Summerlong is a deft and hilarious exploration of the simmering tensions beneath the surface of a contented marriage that explode in the bedrooms and backyards of a small town over the course of a long, hot summer’ according to the publishers. Sounds like a winner.
As does Stephanie Danler’s debut Sweetbitterwith its New York restaurant setting. Twenty-two-year-old Tess is determined to escape her provincial home and lands herself a job as a ‘backwaiter’ at a well-known restaurant where her colleagues are convinced that fame and fortune are just around the corner. It’s the restaurant setting – and of course, the young character making her way in New York – that attracts me perhaps in the hope of another Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce’s riveting debut which I read earlier in the year. Setting the bar far too high there, I’m sure, but you never know.
Much more sobering, Jung Yun’s Shelterseems to question the intergenerational debt when Kyung Cho, a struggling academic up to his eyes in money troubles, is faced with what to do when his prosperous parents’ lives are thrown into disarray by an act of violence. Kyung’s childhood was one of material privilege but emotional deprivation. When he decides to take his parents in, he begins to question his own qualities as a husband and father. ‘Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound’ say the publishers which sounds like something to get your teeth into after the fluff of Bittersweet and Invincible Summer.
Ending what’s become something of a mixed bag, Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Everything I Don’t Rememberpicks up the life of Samuel, a young man who has died in a car crash, and tries to piece it together through conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours each of whom seems to have a different view of the young man they knew. It’s also the story of the writer who is re-assembling Samuel’s life ‘trying to grasp a universal truth – in the end, how do we account for the substance of a life?’ A very big question on which to end this second selection of June’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis. And if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, here it is.
Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:
I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.
What about you? I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.
I have a weakness for debuts. There’s always the hope that I’m about to be introduced to an author who will make their mark or take me somewhere I haven’t been before. It’s not unusual, either, for a writer’s first novel to be their best. Perhaps it’s all that time spent perfecting the writing, none spent on the endless round of promotion that authors must indulge us readers in once they’re published. Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back repaid that hope handsomely. It’s the story of Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. It may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into.
Pregnant at sixteen and divorced by seventeen, Marie conceived her daughter while volunteering on a church project in Mexico, scuppering her chances of going to Harvard. Briefly married to Ana’s eighteen-year-old father, Marie finds herself unable to cope with motherhood, moving out of the marital home and finding work as a waitress. Working her way up, she lands a job at The Restaurant, catering to the demands of the Dallas rich. She knows exactly how to work her clients, what she has to do to reap the rewards of the staggeringly large tips that take her from living in a sleazy apartment to a smart duplex. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with Ana. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty.
Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that, of course, is what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic: ‘I don’t hear my whole life being written for me inside my body’ thinks Marie of the morning after Ana’s conception while ‘Her body was like an outfit she never took off’ neatly fits the startling figure of a regular with whom so many men seem besotted. The novel’s structure is episodic rather than linear – snippets of Marie’s story trickle into a stream of anecdotes about restaurant life – a brave choice for a first novel but it works, intensifying the chaotic inner life disguised by Marie’s carefully constructed professional persona. Inevitably Tierce’s novel brought to mind Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential with its portrayal of high adrenaline restaurant life. Hard to imagine that Tierce hasn’t spent some time working in the trade. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.