Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Be My Guest by Priya Basil: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity

Cover imageWhen I spotted Priya Basil’s beautifully jacketed Be My Guest it was the third word in its subtitle that caught my eye. Food is pretty high up my agenda, mixing well with that other passion, travel. Basil’s book looked like the sort of comfort reading that would restore my faith in human nature which has taken a battering recently, despite my turning away a little from the 24-hour news cycle, but it turned out to be rather more than that.

Each bite holds the flavour of the past and the present, a lifetime of my mother’s love, her unstinting hospitality.

Basil begins with a declaration that we start our lives as guests, at first in our mothers’ wombs, then as recipients of care and attention until we become independent. She goes on to describe the dish that symbolises her mother’s nurturing to her, always available when she visits until one day it isn’t, and she realises her mother is ageing. Food is an important part of Basil’s family life, the foundation of her grandmother’s marriage, cooking for the man she hoped to marry to save her from disgrace and continuing to do so until it has become both an expression of love and almost a means of control. Drawing on her family history and her own life, Basil explores the meaning and symbolism of food, the responsibilities of being a host and those of being a guest and the importance of communal hospitality in the face of rising individualism.

Food sustains us physically, yet to be fully nourished we must be fed by ideas, feelings, experiences.

This brief, eloquent book ranges far wider in just over a hundred pages than the hymn of praise to food and hospitality I’d been expecting. Politically engaged, Basil explores the idea of generosity through the roles of guest and host, extrapolating it to migration, in particular the opening of her adopted country Germany’s doors to migrants in 2015 and its consequences. She’s a passionate believer in the generosity of the EU’s freedom of movement, disappointed by its failure to deal with the refugee crisis. Brexit, of course, rears its head as that generosity’s counterpoint with its determination to squeeze immigration. Against this backdrop, Basil threads family anecdotes, cultural attitudes to hospitality and musings on her own endearingly self-confessed greed. She has an elegant turn of phrase, describing storytelling as an invitation to readers who repay the courtesy with their attention, and she’s funny, too. The section on reciprocity and the etiquette of taking the last portion – ‘Do you love anyone enough to give them the last Rolo?’ – had me thinking about what happens in our house. My partner went to boarding school – he often can’t help himself. Always best to open negotiations early, I’ve found.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786898494 122 pages Hardback

Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens: A little light relief

Cover imageI was casting around for a spot of diversion after a string of excellent but particularly dark novels when Nell Stevens’ Mrs Gaskell and Me arrived. I’d been eyeing it up for a little while, wondering if I’d enjoy it and now seemed the perfect time to find out. Stevens’ account of her doctoral research into Mrs Gaskell’s correspondence with a young man she met in Rome together with her own love story turned out to be very appealing, although perhaps not as light hearted as I’d expected.

Stevens had been struggling for a little while, trying to get a grip on her thesis, watching her fellow post-grad students, all displaying the classic signs of the PhD candidate – obsession with one’s subject, inability to talk about anyone’s else’s subject, a tendency to prickliness – but finding nothing of their passion in her own research. She’s constantly distracted by fantasies about Max, the friend she met on a creative writing course in Boston, with whom she’s fallen in apparently unrequited love. When he invites her to Paris, where he’s trying to write, she goes armed with a declaration that this can’t go on, that she adores him but can no longer see him platonically. After an awkward supper, things take a surprising turn back at Max’s apartment. Not long after, the focus of Stevens’ research becomes clear to her. Anticipating opprobrium on the publication of her biography of her dear friend Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell took herself off to Rome where she immersed herself in the English-speaking artistic community, meeting the likes of Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning and making the acquaintance of Charles Eliot Newton with whom she formed a deep connection. It’s this that Stevens decides to research, based on their correspondence.

Unlike Mrs Gaskell, who informed her publisher that she wanted to libel those she felt had let Brontë down, Stevens makes no bones about her book being a ‘work of imagination’, weaving imagined episodes in Rome through her own story and addressing some sections directly to Mrs Gaskell herself. I may well not have picked this book up without the Gaskell hook but I found myself rushing through these sections eager to get on and find out what was happening between Stevens and Max. There’s plenty of heartbreak here, despite the light tone, but there’s also a good deal of humour to enjoy particularly if you’ve had anything to do with academic life. I see from her biographical notes that Stevens teaches creative writing and I suspect she’s much more comfortable with that than in a literature department. I raced through her book, rooting for her all the way. Happy endings often make for dull fiction but give me a real life one any day. I hope Stevens has found hers.

Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World edited by Henry Hitchings

Cover imageThis is the kind of book I’d have had stacked up at till points back in my bookselling days, aiming it squarely at the Christmas stockings of the bookish. It brought to mind Jorge Carrión’s Bookshops which I reviewed here a few years ago but Browse is much more of a book to dip into. Henry Hitchings’ introduction recalls some of his own bookshop experiences setting us up nicely for the essays to come, each very personal.

Htichings has rustled up contributors from around the world from Ali Smith to Dorthe Nors, Yiyun Li to Ala Al Aswany. There are fifteen essays in all, some entertaining some more sober, all interesting to the anoraks amongst us. I enjoyed each of them but should you need your appetite whetted here are some of my favourites beginning with Ali Smith who volunteers in her local Amnesty International bookshop where the bits and pieces of people’s lives found in the books they donate tell her as much about the locals as its eclectic stock.

Alaa Al Aswany recalls his signing at a Cairo bookshop on the eve of the 2011 Tahrir Square occupation and his realisation that his country’s plight was far worse than he’d thought.

Pankaj Mishra pays tribute to the erudite owner – infuriated both by well-heeled customers demanding discounts and ignorant sales reps – of Fact and Fiction, a small bookshop in South Delhi which he first visited in 1989, acknowledging Ajit’s formative influence on him.

Bukinist in Chernivtsi, Ukraine is one of the many second-hand bookshops in which Andrey Kurkov conducted his fruitless search for a The Ballads of Kukutis under the indulgent eye of its owner, used to an ‘eccentric urban bibliophile, always searching for something that doesn’t exist’.

Daniel Kehlmann takes us to Dussman, a bookshop I fell in love with on my last trip to Berlin, with his amusing conversation between two writers, one singing the praises of Dussman to the other as a model of the popular idea of Germany: neat, ordered and staffed by knowledgeable booksellers who restrain themselves from forcing their own taste on their customers.

Bosnian writer Saša Stanišić offers a witty piece about the anxiety of finding a dealer to feed his habit in his new home city only to be approached by one who introduces him to all manner of ‘substances’.

I’ll leave you with Ian Sansom’s memories of working at Foyles in the ’90s when Christina Foyle still ruled the roost and Danny La Rue lived above the shop. Sansom left after two years, although he jumped rather than waiting to be pushed as so many Foyles booksellers were in those days, just before their employment rights kicked in. I wonder if the new Foyles, now under Waterstones’ wing, will have strategic piles of Browse, artfully displayed next to tills.

In the Restaurant by Christoph Ribbat (transl. by Jamie Searle Romanelli): Society in Four Courses

Cover imageEating out is one of my favourite things. It can be sociable or not, a treat in itself or a quick bite before the cinema, something to round off a day on holiday or a step off the interminable wheel of everyday cooking. Whatever the occasion, there’s always a feeling of pleasurable anticipation which is why Christoph Ribbat’s whirlwind tour of the history of the restaurant instantly appealed.

In the Restaurant begins novelistically with a woman rushing through the Chicago crowds hoping to find herself a job as a waitress. It’s 1917 and the woman is Frances Donovan who is embarking on a research project which will culminate in The Woman Who Waits, published in 1920, but we won’t know that for several more pages. Next we leap backwards to a restaurant in China serving all manner of sophisticated exotica in 1275. Then we’re in Paris in 1760 at the birth of the European restaurant, a term derived from its ‘restorative bouillons’. The etiquette, cuisine and conventions of the restaurant will remain firmly in French hands for quite some time. Organised into four sections, Ribbat’s book takes us from the origins and development of these Parisian palaces of restaurant luxury to the popularisation of eating out in the post-war period with the rise of the fast food chain then to the foodie fetishes of the present, mining a wide range of kitchen memoirs, biographies, sociological investigations, fiction and reviews as he does so. Heston Blumentahl, Nigel Slater, Bill Buford and Barbara Ehrenreich all make an appearance

If it’s not too early to mention Christmas shopping, you could do worse than think about this book for the keen diners among your friends and family. It’s wonderfully entertaining, stuffed full of anecdote and juicy bits of trivia, one of the most striking of which for me was American restaurant critic Gael Greene’s memory of the fried egg sandwich Elvis Presley ordered after they’d been to bed but not the sex. Written in short fragments, Ribbat’s narrative jumps around episodically, often doubling back to pick up a story or a point, which takes a little getting used to but eventually becomes quite addictive. He has his tongue firmly in his cheek for the more  extravagant exploits – eight (unpaid) cooks at the much revered El Bulli popping out 250 ‘lentils which aren’t lentils’ made from dough to be floated in a soup referencing lentils springs to mind – but it’s not just about luxury and obsession. Ribbat throws open the kitchen doors via Anthony Bourdain and George Orwell’s memoirs, shining a light on the inequality, exploitation and dubious hygiene of which we diners may be blissfully unaware out in the beautifully decorated front of house. Given that Ribbat is a professor the final brief but rather more serious section read to me a bit like an apology for a lack of academic rigour but who cares. It’s hugely enjoyable, and it has a meticulous bibliography which may well have you making your own foodie reading list.

Bookshops by Jorge Carrión (translated by Peter Bush): An anorak’s delight

Cover imageI suppose it was inevitable that I’d read and review Bookshops having worked in one for over a decade and spent a great deal of time in many others, both in my own country and abroad. It’s quite some time since I could call myself a bookseller but I still tidy up those table displays, surreptitiously move misfiled books to where they should be and scan shelves tutting to myself when significant titles are missing. Jorge Carrión isn’t a bookseller, current or ex, but he has spent an inordinate amount of time in bookshops across the world and has a great deal of interest to say about them.

Carrión begins what he describes as an essay by explaining that his inspiration was Stephan Zweig’s short story ‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ about an itinerant bookseller, a Russian Jew, with the gift of a prodigious memory which, as every bookseller knows, is an essential tool of the trade. From there he takes his readers on a journey around the world, dropping in on his favourite bookshops, from his home town of Barcelona to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Tangier, Paris to Denver, Colorado. It’s stuffed with anecdote, eruditely discursive, full of bookselling history and passionate in its tone. Carrión explores bookshops as reflections of society and engines of social change, as places of resistance, cultural centres, meeting places and havens. San Francisco’s celebrated City Lights and Shakespeare and Company in Paris both crop up frequently but many far more obscure bookshops make an appearance too. Carrión frames his bookshop thumbnails with often fascinating historical context, from Christina Foyle’s trip to Stalinist Russia to negotiate a deal for books slated for burning to a short disquisition on paper making which takes us from China to Turkey.

For those who find themselves drawn into bookshops wherever they are, even in countries where there’s no hope of understanding what’s between the covers, this book is a joy. Carrión manages to steer clear of fetishizing bookshops – just – exploring the idea of them as museums and tourist attractions (City Lights and Shakespeare and Company again) and suggesting that ‘style is more important than content in the global circulation of the image’ bringing to mind all those pictures of beautiful or outlandish bookshops which do the rounds on Buzzfeed and the like. He ends on a pleasingly optimistic note about the future of the bookshop, albeit a very different future from its history. A nice touch would have been to include a separate chapter on the bookshop in literature although there are references and quotations woven throughout. It won’t suit everyone – truth be told I suspect you have to be something of an anorak to enjoy it as much as I did – but it might make the more obsessive and literary booky person in your circle happy this Christmas which I’m sure is what its publishers are hoping you’ll think.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Cover imageI was attracted to Olivia Laing’s new book partly because of its setting – that old New York lure – partly because I’d enjoyed her exploration of the relationship between writers and drink, The Trip to Echo Spring. In The Lonely City she explores loneliness through the work of four artists – Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol and Henry Darger – prompted by her own descent into chronic loneliness after a love affair collapsed leaving her untethered.

Laing applies the same forensic research skills to her artists as she did to the four writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, videos and the artists’ works. Anyone who has ever seen a reproduction of Nighthawks will understand why she chose Hopper as one of her subjects. Warhol may seem a less likely choice given the incessant party that seemed to surround him but, as she persuasively argues, that was a symptom of his loneliness. Both David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger were new to me although when I googled him I was struck by the familiarity of an image of Wojnarowicz, lips stitched together as part of his work as an AIDS activist. You may recognise the svelte young man shot at various New York locations wearing a Rimbaud mask which seems to be his best known work. Darger’s art seems the most strange with its watercolours depicting children rebelling against their enslavement by adults. Darger spent much of his life as a janitor and was almost certainly mentally ill. His paintings were found by a neighbour just weeks before he died. Woven through her studies of these four are Laing’s own experiences and her exploration of urban loneliness in the modern age.

I remember being struck by Laing’s graceful writing style in The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City is marked by the same elegance of expression – her descriptions of some of the artworks make you want to get on the next plane to see them. That said, this is not an easy book to read: it’s intensely cerebral at times but that’s not the reason. Laing’s own experience of loneliness is raw and painful, and her eloquence makes it all the more so. She unflinchingly articulates the shame loneliness makes us feel, the assumption that only the pathetic are lonely despite statistics which suggest its increase in modern society. Her exploration of loneliness during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s is particularly affecting – the isolation of both the bereaved and those stigmatised by the ignorance of others, starved of touch or company, is heartrending. As she points out her observations on our love affair with connectedness via the internet and its effects on our increasing physical alienation may not be original but they’re no less persuasive for all that and her exploration of its history is fascinating, if hair-raising, with its descriptions of internet entrepreneur Josh Harris‘s willingness to put every aspect of his relationship online. Laing concludes her study with the observation that ‘loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive’ – comforting words for those who need it and wise ones, too.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for Laing’s book you might like to read an extract and the feature it prompted in the Observer a week or so ago.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated by Anne Goldstein): A passion for language

Cover imageI was more than a little surprised to be sent a new Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m pretty up and together on my ‘Books to Look Out For’ previews and I’d seen nothing in the fiction schedules. Then I spotted that it had been translated which discombobulated me further. Reading the press release I found that In Other Words is the product of Lahiri’s passion for the Italian language, a passion so great that she uprooted her family from the States to live in Rome for a year to immerse herself in it. Her book is a set of essays – intimate reflections on learning the language – presented as a parallel text: one page in Italian written by Lahiri; the facing page in English translated by Anne Goldstein. There are also two short stories.

Lahiri begins with her struggles to learn Italian in the States after her first trip to Florence with her sister back in 1994. It’s a frustrating experience, and even more so when she finds that when she returns to Italy years later as a successful writer she can understand all that’s said to her but is unable to be understood herself. Eventually, the teacher with whom she’s had most success tells her the only way to achieve what she wants is to live in Italy. Six months before leaving she decides to read nothing but Italian finding it a liberation: ‘Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility’. Writing, however is a different matter: ‘When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveller… …When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter’. Throughout this set of essays, Lahiri reflects on her relationship with language and the way in which each of her three languages affects her identity. Born in America, her ‘mother tongue’ is Bengali, the first language she spoke and continued to speak until starting school; her ‘stepmother tongue’ is English and the one she feels most comfortable in. As she says in her Afterword, this is her first work of non-fiction but the themes remain the same as in her fiction: it’s about ‘identity, alienation, belonging’.

Lahiri fans may be wondering if this is a book for them and I think that depends on your own relationship with language. I’ve been interested in words since learning Latin at school and discovering its relationship with English hence my enjoyment of the book, although I did find some of the essays covered the same ground. Lahiri’s writing is often intimate, introspective and always eloquent, a vivid description of the process of learning a language and our relationship with our different ways of communication. At one point she finds she has an extensive vocabulary, much of it outdated as if she’s ‘dressed in an outlandish manner, wearing a long, elegant skirt of another era, a T-shirt, a straw hat and slippers’ – beautifully translated by Goldstein, of course,  At times I was reminded of Eva Hoffman’s brilliant autobiography Lost in Translation in which she writes about the loss of her native language after emigrating to Canada at the age of thirteen and the long slow process of trying to find her way back to the nuance and intimacy with which she expressed herself in Polish. In her Afterword, Lahiri describes herself as being at a crossroads, facing her departure from Rome and unable to decide if she will continue to read and write only in Italian. That seems to me to be quite a challenge outside of Italy but it will be interesting to see which road she takes.

The Trip to Echo Spring: Why writers drink

Cover imageOlivia Laing’s book opens with a vivid anecdote about two men, both visiting lecturers at the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One is a well-established author with many accolades under his belt, the other soon will be. Both of them are in deep trouble: they’re on their way to the liquor store – it’s nine o’clock in the morning and they’re already drunk. The writers are John Cheever and Raymond Carver, two of the six authors through whom Laing chooses to explore the relationship between alcohol and writing. The other four are Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John Berryman. In her introduction Laing explains that it’s something about which she’s long been curious but that she also has a more personal interest – she grew up in family where alcohol was a problem.

Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, biographies and the writers’ work, Laing examines their problems with drink in forensic detail. She decides that the best way to make sense of her extensive research is to take a trip around the States, following in her subjects’ footsteps. She travels to New York, New Orleans and Key West, then to Port Angeles in the far North West and it is in the passages describing her journey that her own writing sings out. Some of her descriptions of the landscape she travels through are quite lovely, and her observations of fellow passengers are sometimes funny, always astute. She visits a therapist, goes to an AA meeting and delves through medical analyses of alcoholism, weaving her experiences into the lives of her subjects and quoting from their writing extensively. It’s an impressive piece of work written with empathy and insight but I have to confess that towards the end I found myself skipping through some chapters, particularly after reading about John Berryman whose struggles with drink are particularly bleak. The final chapter holds out some hope – Laing begins it by telling us that her mother’s partner, now friend rather than lover, has been sober for twenty-three years and that both Cheever and Carver won their battles, much-needed good news after the two suicides (Hemingway and Berryman), string of broken marriages, ill-health and breakdowns that have come before.

And the title? It’s a reference to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which one of the characters says ‘I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring’, a nickname for the liquor cabinet named after a brand of bourbon. Laing interprets it as ‘the obliteration of troubled thoughts that comes, temporarily at least, with a sufficiency of booze.’ Well worth a read but not for the faint-hearted.