Tag Archives: Things We Need

Five Days in Hamburg and a few books

SpeicherstadtGiven my ‘bah humbug’ attitude to Christmas it may seem a bit odd to fly off to the country which pretty well invented many of the UK’s most beloved festive bits and bobs: markets, fairy-lit trees and mulled wine come to mind. Hamburg might seem an even stranger choice – hardly top of most tourists’ lists – but four years ago, just before our first Berlin Christmas, Al Murray – aka The Pub Landlord – spent some time exploring the country lampooned by his xenophobic alter ego in a two-part documentary. Hamburg was one of the cities he visited, waxing lyrical about the beautifully ornamented red brick Speicherstadt – the city of warehouses. It stayed in my memory and that, together with the fact that we could fly from Bristol rather than tangling with Heathrow and all its misery, is the reason we spent this Christmas in Hamburg.

It’s an interesting city, proud of its place at the heart of the Hanseatic League which lasted from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries and stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea. The striking Rathaus harks back to that time with its fine Gothic clock and statuary. It’s also very much a working city proud of its industry. Upscale apartments in London’s Docklands look out at the City, stuffed with bankers and brokers, while the equivalent Hamburg apartment view is a port teeming with container ships. There’s lots to see besides wandering around Speicherstadt – we went to a very fine arts and crafts museum and had Kaiserschmarrnseveral lovely walks in the many parks around the city – but probably only enough for four rather than five days although H’s horrible end-of-term cold meant that we needed the full five to do it justice. We ended the holiday with an excellent lunch at a bustling city café topped off with a plate of kaisershmarrn, no finer way to end a winter break.

As for books, I finally got around to two I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The first was Herman Koch’s The Dinner which put me in mind of The Slap with its cast of particularly nasty characters. Its premise is the extent to which the wealthy privileged will stretch the bounds of morality  to protect their children regardless of the horrendous crimes they may have committed, and it’s a good one but giving the narrator a mental illness, gradually revealed during the dinner, possibly inherited by his son seemed to me to be a cop-out. The second book was John Williams’ Stoner which was everything The Dinner wasn’t: subtle, understated and poignant – a beautiful book, fully deserving of its word-of-mouth success a year or so ago. Sadly, my holiday reading ended on a sour note. Having saved Jennifer Close’s The Smart One for the plane home I found that I’d already read it – not the ditsy middle-aged mistake that I’m perfectly capable of making these days. It turns out that the hardback edition was published under a different title – Things We Need – which I reviewed here last year. Pah! Seems like pulling a fast one to me.

I hope you all had an enjoyable break, unspoiled by coughs, colds and travel mayhem, and that your New Year’s Eve will be a good one.

Things We Need: As Close to Anne Tyler as You Can Get

Cover Image When a book arrives with a press release proclaiming its author to be the new Anne Tyler it sets off alarm bells. Tyler’s fans love her for her wryly witty observations on social manners. Her novels are filled with the kind of characters her readers recognise in themselves, their families and friends. It’s much to Jennifer Close’s credit, then, that I hadn’t actually read the press release before I found myself comparing Things We Need to Tyler’s work. It’s the real deal.

It opens with Claire, still sore from her broken engagement to Doug, lurking in her apartment, facing yet another demand for rent she can’t pay and realising that the only option is to go home to her parents. Her sister Martha, bereft of social skills and something of a drama queen, has also returned home and is the obsessively tidy manager of a clothing store after finding that nursing wasn’t quite what she expected it to be. Weezy, their helicopter mother, is only too pleased to have them back while their father spends more and more time in his increasingly messy study. Add to this their younger and much loved brother Max, still in college but about to graduate, his eye poppingly gorgeous girlfriend Cleo and an unplanned pregnancy, and you have all the ingredients for a novel which explores the modern phenomenon of grown up children who won’t or can’t leave home. Close handles this social comedy beautifully, smoothly shifting her narrative so that each character’s voice sings out. Martha’s attention seeking neediness is cringe worthy as she takes every opportunity to parade her lesbian cousin’s credentials in front of her gay colleague convinced of her own liberal coolness. Claire finds herself sleeping with her ridiculously handsome high school crush, both of them obsessively dissecting their broken engagements. Weezy continues to have meetings with Claire’s wedding planner long after her split with Doug, unable to let go of the attention she’s been enjoying. Cleo, daughter of a single mother coolly focussed on her successful career, is so aghast at her pregnancy she tries to cover it up by wearing sweaters in summer. All of this delivered with a sly, affectionate wit. Close is undoubtedly stronger on female characters than male but this is a small criticism of what is a highly entertaining and enjoyable novel which leaves the Coffey family just that bit better adjusted than when it opened. More, please!