I loved this book, and Nella. It's the wartime Mass Observation diaries of Nella Last, "Housewife, 49" of Barrow-in-Furness. I've read other similar d...moreI loved this book, and Nella. It's the wartime Mass Observation diaries of Nella Last, "Housewife, 49" of Barrow-in-Furness. I've read other similar diaries, most notably the ones in Our Hidden Lives, and they are interesting, but none has captivated me as this book did.
She starts out cautiously but is soon using the diaries as a safety valve to express her frustrations with life. She writes beautifully and naturally, but what's most interesting is the way she changes as the war progresses. At the beginning she is sickly and weak, plagued with arthritis, and refers to a "breakdown" she had a few years before. But she determines to "do something" for the war effort and joins the WVS. From there she goes from strength to strength, and the evolution of her ideas is fascinating; she comes to see her conventional marriage to an old stick of a husband as "slavery". She's also very observant and perceptive of the people around her.
She had me hooked on page 20, when she writes:
[Mr Murphy, her cat] is not anything to look at, and is not too particular about keeping his white bits as clean as he could, but he has a kind and thoughtful nature for a cat.
... "kind" and "thoughtful" are such inappropriate adjectives for a cat, but it shows she knows him. But she also writes lyrically of walks home by moonlight, trips out to the countryside at Coniston Water, the stresses of the blitz, the challenges of getting palatable meals on the table every day, and everyday squabbles and power games at the WVS. She has a truly open mind, always questioning and wondering what the future holds for her sons and the other young people she knows.
I don't want to say too much about it; just read it. It's one of those books where you long to meet the author; she really does seem like someone you know and admire. "Next to being a mother, I'd have loved to write books," she wrote. If only she knew how much pleasure and enlightenment people would get from her "scribblings" 60 years later.(less)
**spoiler alert** This is a very good book, not just in terms of a genre (hardly travel writing, more reportage) but on a larger scale, about what it...more**spoiler alert** This is a very good book, not just in terms of a genre (hardly travel writing, more reportage) but on a larger scale, about what it means to be alive.
It opens with American Bill Carter hitching a ride to besieged Sarajevo with a rather wacky aid organisation called The Serious Road Trip, who deliver food dressed as clowns. Why is he there? Over the next few chapters we gradually learn about a difficult childhood and a love affair cut short by his girlfriend Corrina's death in a car accident. Since then Bill has been trying to make sense of his life, to no avail.
It gradually begins to seem that Bill is channelling his love for Corrina into an urgent desire to help the Sarajevans. He is far from a dispassionate observer -- he soon feels he is one of them (although not all of them would agree!). At any rate he shares their privations, living for months in a bomb-scarred office block with no electricity or water, surviving on jars of baby food. He is very far from being a professional journalist, but a chance meeting results in him setting up satellite links from Sarajevo to U2 concerts throughout Europe, thus raising awareness of the war, and he ends up making an award-winning documentary, Miss Sarajevo.
He writes beautifully and passionately about his experience and how it changed him, with lyrical, almost nostalgic reminiscences of the friends he makes in Sarajevo. Initially naive, he soon develops a painfully clear-eyed view of the horrors suffered by Bosnians, and the West's cynical and inadequate response. He is honest too (as far as one can tell), describing how after months in Sarajevo living on almost nothing, and virtuously refusing financial support, he accepts $8,000 from U2, reasoning that he is worth at least as much as the despised UN-financed bureaucrats colluding in Serb atrocities or cynical Western journalists sitting eating hot food (a rare luxury for him) in the Holiday Inn. But later he reflects that "the moment I had started to want something from my work, whether it was money, fame, or recognition, everything had stopped working."
In the end, living alone in an adobe house in Tucson, and still missing Corrina, he does achieve some kind of epiphany and the whole book is testimony to the resilience of the human spirit in extreme circumstances. Reading back over what I've written, I can see I really haven't done this terrific book justice. So just find a copy second-hand (it's out of print) and read it.(less)
This is a harrowing book. Reading it immediately after Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness made me feel Alexandra Fuller's family had got of...moreThis is a harrowing book. Reading it immediately after Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness made me feel Alexandra Fuller's family had got off quite lightly. The history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe over the past century is like a showcase of the worst that human beings can be. It makes me almost despair of the human race. Godwin recounts the calamitous results of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship on a country that was once the breadbasket of Africa and is now one of the poorest in the world, and how it affected his own family.
Parts of this book made me feel sick with revulsion. It seems almost incredible that a Jew could escape from the Warsaw ghetto in 1939, reinvent himself as English, escape to Africa, and then find himself persecuted again, purely for being white -- something more difficult to disguise than Jewishness. For me, this book ranks with Bill Carter's Fools Rush in and even Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. And it is shameful that Robert Mugabe still has his foot on the necks of all Zimbabwe's people, black and white.(less)
For my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journal...moreFor my money, Ryszard Kapuscinski should be better-known than he is, despite a difficult-to-pronounce name -- he's one of the most outstanding journalists of the 20th century. As the Polish Press Agency's only reporter in Africa, he has covered just about every coup, revolution, civil war, and natural disaster there since 1957 (and also found time to cover conflicts in various other parts of the world as well).
There's an important difference between Kapuscinski and reporters from Western democracies -- unlike them, he has no money. So whereas the other reporters stay at the Hilton and buy or hire Landrovers or planes when they want to go somewhere, Kapuscinski stays in cockroach- and mosquito-infested hovels, catches malaria and TB, and cadges lifts on lorries or private planes. This gets him into some perilous situations (I am constantly amazed by the insouciant way he shrugs off his numerous brushes with death) and it also obviously gives him a different perspective on Africa. He has a gift for engaging with people, and this book is full of encounters with ordinary Africans who would normally just figure as a backdrop to reports on war, famine, or whatever. To him, they are not a homogeneous, starving and desperate mass, but individuals doing their best to get on with their everyday lives in virtually impossible conditions. At one point, he rents an insalubrious room in the "native quarter" of Lagos, despite dire warnings from other westerners of what will happen to him. Their opinions only diverge on one point: whether he will be murdered, or simply die from the effects of the unhygienic conditions. Undaunted, Ryszard carries on anyway. All is well, except that his room is regularly burgled whenever he is absent for a few days. At first, he is enraged. But then a Nigerian, Suleiman, explains to him that in fact the thefts are a gesture of acceptance: they are a way of telling him he is useful to the locals. He will be quite safe so long as he doesn't attempt to find the culprits and punish them. A week later, Suleiman returns with a bunch of white cock feathers and hangs them over the door. The burglaries stop.
The book is full of little vignettes like this (another memorable one is the moment when, sitting on a rock in the desert smoking, he realises he is about to stub out his cigarette on the head of a deadly viper which will bite him if he moves). He's written elsewhere about the horrors of civil war (see notably his earlier book The Soccer War, the title of which refers to a war that broke out between Honduras and El Salvador over a football match). While this book does include eyewitness accounts of coups, it's mostly a vivid, kaleidoscopic view of Africa's multiple landscapes and cultures, mingling personal histories, with brief, effective expositions of history and politics. Despite the grimness of many of the scenes he paints, and the apparent hopelessness of the political and economic situation in every country he visits, the book is genuinely entertaining, and he ends it on a note of hope: a Tanzanian tells him, "The spirit of Africa always takes the form of an elephant, because an elephant cannot be defeated by any other animal -- not the lion, nor the buffalo, nor the snake." Kapuscinski breaks through the stereotyped view of Africa as a continent of famine, corruption, and conflict, and shows you its hidden riches.
This is apparently the first volume of a projected trilogy which will cover Africa, Latin America, and Asia -- I can hardly wait for the rest. If you haven't discovered Kapuscinski yet, you should.(less)
This really is a misery memoir; Nigel Slater lived a life of Riley compared to Andrea Ashworth. It's a tough read -- you feel angry with her mother an...moreThis really is a misery memoir; Nigel Slater lived a life of Riley compared to Andrea Ashworth. It's a tough read -- you feel angry with her mother and successive stepfathers for being such inadequate and dangerous parents, but at the same time you have to feel sorry for them. Andrea's mother was clearly incapable of bringing up children on her own, having not grown up emotionally herself. But she was also incapable of choosing the right person to help her, and in the deprived milieu in which she lived in 1970s Manchester, there was little to no help available to her. Again and again she returned to her abusive partners, ignoring the advice of friends and family and putting herself and her children in danger, because she couldn't bear the thought of being alone.
Andrea's tough will to survive and at the same time protect her family and somehow hold it together reminded me of the young Maya Angelou. In the last few chapters, you are on tenterhooks, and it's a relief when Andrea finally sails off into her future. She will survive, but will her mother?
During her school days, part of Andrea's survival technique was writing poetry and this book is rich with allusion, metaphor, and creative use of words, which sets it above many other memoirs of this sort, while evoking the clammy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the various slums the family lived in while 1980s prosperity happened to other people. (less)
I knew what this book was about before I started, but the novelistic quality of it still took me aback when I started reading it. It was hard to belie...moreI knew what this book was about before I started, but the novelistic quality of it still took me aback when I started reading it. It was hard to believe it was non-fiction. How did Katherine Boo get inside the heads of these Mumbai slumdwellers and describe scenes she couldn't possibly have witnessed? But it's so well written that I soon got absorbed in the story and stopped wondering. If this aspect does bother you, I recommend reading the afterword first, in which Boo explains how she researched it.
It's a masterful piece of work -- a compelling story of individuals struggling to at best better themselves and at worst simply survive in a shanty town next to a lake of sewage, a stone's throw from Mumbai airport and its luxury hotel. What makes it powerful is that it's not just a story; Boo links it to Indian society and government as a whole, and to the apparently inexorable process of globalization. At one point she seems to suggest that globalization is a good thing for these slumdwellers -- hard to believe given what they are going through just metres away from privileged Westerners clinking glasses on their hotel terraces. Towards the end, as the global recession hits, the situation reminded me of the famous Labour poster from the 1930s. "Let's all step down one rung," says the capitalist at the top of the ladder. The unemployed man's head is only just above water as it is.
It's a depressing read. Teenagers commit suicide using rat poison, people are tried for nonexistent crimes and asked to bribe their way out of trouble, neighbours walk past a dying man by the side of the road, doing nothing to help. At the beginning of the book, teenager Manju, hoping to be Annawadi's first college graduate, is running a school in her shanty. By the end, her mother has figured out that colluding with a corrupt politician pretending to run several schools with fictitious employees and pocketing a slice of the money is much more cost-effective.
In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.
And yet in the end, Boo notes, some people in these circumstances do try to be good -- especially the children. But even then:
I am continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even those in circumstances so desperate that selfishness would be an asset. ... by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away when a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. [...] Where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be.
You just have to hope that if enough of them can actually get an education, things may slowly improve.(less)
I was going to write a review of this, but then I came across this review, which very eloquently conveys what I would have said. It's not a page-turne...moreI was going to write a review of this, but then I came across this review, which very eloquently conveys what I would have said. It's not a page-turner like The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, but Summerscale has done a wonderful job of putting the affair in context. Did they or didn't they? Isabella is the epitome of an unreliable narrator, swept away by her own wishes and fantasies. But it hardly matters in a sense; Summerscale succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating how simultaneously terrified and fascinated the Victorians were by female sexuality.
Incidentally, the book is much shorter than it looks; close to 25% of it is end notes!(less)
I'm not sure I'll ever finish this, so I'm doing half a review here, since I've read a bit more than half of it. It's always been proclaimed as a grea...moreI'm not sure I'll ever finish this, so I'm doing half a review here, since I've read a bit more than half of it. It's always been proclaimed as a great travel literature classic ... but now I can't help wondering how many of the proclaimers have actually made it to the end. I'm reading it on the Kindle and I did notice that the popular highlights petered out after about page 200 :)
Not that it's a bad book. Rebecca West is awe-inspiringly erudite and she's a good writer. The part where she visits Sarajevo and talks to people who were there when Franz Ferdinand was shot is fascinating. It's what history books should be like, cleverly illuminating the interaction of personalities with geopolitical issues. She concludes:
Nobody worked to ensure the murder on either side so hard as the people who were murdered. And they, though murdered, are not as pitiable as victims should be. They manifested a mixture of obstinate invocation of disaster and anguished complaint against it which is often associated with unsuccessful crime, with the petty thief in the dock.
But sometimes she's a bit too erudite for me, and it gets exhausting. She knows everything about the history of the Balkans since the year dot, and often expounds on it at great length. It's very easy to get confused with all the kings, queens, and assassins milling about. She's also a bit too interested in architecture. As a glimpse of her erudition, this is allegedly the conversation she has with her husband, before they have even had breakfast:
“But wait a minute, wait a minute,” said my husband. “I have just thought of something very curious. It has just occurred to me, does not Seton-Watson say in his book Sarajevo that Chabrinovitch was the son of a Bosnian Serb who was a spy in the service of the Austro-Hungarian Government?” “Why, so he did!” I exclaimed. “And now I come to think of it, Stephen Graham says so, too, in St. Vims’ Day.“ “This is most extraordinary,” said my husband, “for Seton-Watson is never wrong, he is in himself a standard for Greenwich time.” “And Stephen Graham may slip now and then, but in all essential matters he is in his own vague way precise,” I said.
Many of her attitudes will seem odd to modern ears too; nations and their citizens are ascribed distinct characters which persist through centuries. And then there are things like this that cause a sharp intake of breath:
There is nothing unpleasant in the gesture known as “cherry-picking,” provided it is a Negro or Negress who performs it; the dancer stands with feet apart and knees bent, and stretches the arms upwards while the fingers pull an invisible abundance out of the high air. But it is gross and revolting, a reversion to animalism, when it is performed by a white person.
Modern readers may also be a little surprised by her ardent admiration of Serbia, saviour of Europe from the threat of Islamic Turkey. She also has some prejudice against Germans, but in 1937 that is hardly surprising.
Anyway, I forgive her for her faults because she can write lines like: "the stumbling weighty hostility of bears, the incorporated rapacity of wolves". Or:
The puce-faced old soldier who held the line in front of us shook and heaved, producing laughter from some place one would never keep it unless one was in the habit of packing things away as safely as possible.
It seems I don't need to review this book, because there are 383 reviews already :) I've heard of, but not read, her previous book, Don't Let's Go to...moreIt seems I don't need to review this book, because there are 383 reviews already :) I've heard of, but not read, her previous book, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight; this one was a birthday present, or I might have read the other one first.
I enjoyed this book; it's an original biographical approach to Fuller's eccentric mother. Despite what most people nowadays would consider "bad parenting", Fuller clearly has a good relationship with her parents and has been able to convey her mother's unique voice. I suspect that if I met "Nicola Fuller of Central Africa" in real like, I'd find her exhausting and overbearing (not to mention politically incorrect). But Alexandra sympathetically conveys the reality of her mother's difficult life. Sometimes she lets its vicissitudes overwhelm her, but she always picks herself up and carries on. Whatever her faults, lack of courage is not one of them. It's warming to see Fuller's parents enjoying their "twilight years" working hard on their banana and fish farm in their beloved Africa.(less)
At the beginning of the 1980s, I was poor and footloose, living from one short-term contract to another. At the end, I was well-off: married, a mortga...moreAt the beginning of the 1980s, I was poor and footloose, living from one short-term contract to another. At the end, I was well-off: married, a mortgage, a nice house in a good area, a well-paid job. I was in the part of the population Thatcherism was designed to help.That doesn't stop it being my least favourite decade. The events that mark it for me are the Falklands War, the miners' strike, the dispute at Wapping, Greenham Common.
When Mrs Thatcher entered Downing Street for the first time, she said "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony." I didn't believe it at the time, and I was quickly proved right. By the end of the decade Britain was two different nations, broadly divided between north and south. In the south, where we lived, many comfortably off people neither knew nor cared what happened to the people in the north who formerly mined coal, bashed metal, built cars and the like, but now sat idle. The only time they saw them was on the TV, in pitched battles with the police, hence clearly in the wrong. Soon the two countries had almost nothing in common. Looking after number one was elevated to a national religion; those who failed only had themselves to blame.
In this book, Alwyn Turner wears his heart even more clearly on his sleeve than in Crisis? What Crisis?. Few people were indifferent to Mrs Thatcher, and he was one of the haters. It doesn't stop him providing a rounded view of the decade though, and just as in the previous volume he reminded me of things I had forgotten. Interesting little snippets: the British Medical Journal reported that the suicide rate doubled in the month that followed each of Thatcher's election victories (I vividly remember the despair of the third -- it seemed as if she was never going to go).
And despite the claims of economic competence, and necessary reform: "'At the beginning of the war,' wrote Ian Gilmour, 'beggars vanished and were not seen for forty years. Then in the 1980s they reappeared on the streets of London' [...] When Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited London in 1988 and toured the sites [where homeless people slept], she was horrified at what she saw: 'I didn't know what to say. There were tears in my eyes.'" And finally, "Unemployment was much higher when she left than when she arrived, inflation never stabilised and was now increasing, and GDP had grown by an average of just 1.8 per cent per annum, little of that in the area of manufacturing (in the dark days of the 1970s, the average rise had been 2.4 per cent). Wealth inequality had increased substantially, with a fall in the income of the poorest 10 per cent of society, and there were 60 per cent more people dependent on the state for their income than in 1979. Even taxation, as a share of GDP, had increased."
So in macroeconomic terms, Thatcherism didn't work, its monetarist claims completely unfounded. But still, "Economics are the method," she insisted. "The object is to change the soul." In that, unfortunately, she appears to have been successful -- Britain felt like a meaner, shallower place at the end of her tenure. (less)
This is a perfect companion to the two books I've recently read about the 1970s, by Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett. Unlike them, Alwyn Turner mere...moreThis is a perfect companion to the two books I've recently read about the 1970s, by Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett. Unlike them, Alwyn Turner merely summarises political events and concentrates on social and cultural history, which he does superbly well. As one reviewer says, he seems to have spent most of the decade watching television and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of soaps, TV series, comedy shows, and popular films. He's good on music too, and manages to unearth both obscure and better-known novels, using them to illustrate the zeitgeist. This book, more than the others, vividly brought back buried memories. Even if some of them would have been better remaining buried, for example Middle of the Road's hit Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. And how distant that moral world seems, where Wimpy burger bars could ban lone women from its premises after midnight since they could only be prostitutes if they were out on their own at that time.
I realised too that what he says about the three-day week in 1973-4 and the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 was true -- the memories had somehow become amalgamated in my mind as one occurrence, confusingly combining Edward Heath trying to face down the miners, and Jim Callaghan (not) saying "Crisis? What crisis?" as he returned from Guadeloupe to strike-bound Britain ... "so that the Labour Party became associated with all the ills of 1970s Britain, as though the pre-Thatcher Tories had never really existed".
While not outrageously one-sided, he does wear his heart on his sleeve more than the other two authors, at one point likening Margaret Thatcher to Big Daddy's domination of wrestling: "what had been a diverse and multicultural tradition was crushed by twenty-five stones of sentimentality, patriotism and predictability."
Like the other two books, Turner does bring home the negative aspects of the 1970s. But at the same time, he quotes Doris Lessing, who rightly wrote:
While everything, all forms of social organization, broke up, we lived on, adjusting our lives, as if nothing fundamental was happening. It was amazing how determined, how stubborn, how self-renewing, were the attempts to lead an ordinary life.
And he's good on the positive changes and their associated legislation: feminism, the wider acceptance of homosexuality, even the effective popular defeat of the National Front by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League -- making it simply uncool to be a fascist.
In summary, while it's by no means a comprehensive history of the 1970s and is not intended to be, there are lots of penetrating insights, and it's an entertaining read too. I'm now moving on to Turner's Rejoice! Rejoice!, about the 1980s. It gets off to a good start with the iconic cover image of a handbagged Mrs T proudly bestriding an industrial wasteland in (I think) Middlesbrough.(less)
Published in 1957, this book is of historical interest really, since it describes a way of Spanish life that is, thankfully, mostly history now (altho...morePublished in 1957, this book is of historical interest really, since it describes a way of Spanish life that is, thankfully, mostly history now (although Spaniards do still have a penchant for religious pageant and prostitution -- Wright is interesting on both of these). It's not a history book though -- it's a very personal view of a country that Wright was not that familiar with. He had done some research, of course, but there's the odd factual error (Charles V's "cathedral" in the Alhambra for example). And his dislike of Catholicism means he does not spend too much time exploring the religious background to the pagan ceremonies he witnesses, but derives his own meanings and symbols from them.
The writing is fresh and unhampered by presuppositions. Perhaps because of his own experience of oppression as a black American, Wright is particularly good at empathising with the women he meets. "Spanish men have built a state," he writes, "but they have never built a society, and the only society that there is in Spain is in the hearts and minds and habits and love and devotion of its women."
Perhaps one of the most striking passages is his long description of a bullfight in Barcelona. Unlike Hemingway, he focuses on the emotional and ritual aspects. It didn't change my mind about the barbarism of the spectacle, but it was interesting to realise that bullfighting is not about fitness, agility, or strength. It's about being capable of standing completely still while a massive, angry bull charges towards you. Wright is able to become engaged in the spectacle while still observing carefully and rationally.(less)
This is a very depressing read. It's less autobiographical than Godwin's previous two books about Zimbabwe (which are excellent) and more reportage of...moreThis is a very depressing read. It's less autobiographical than Godwin's previous two books about Zimbabwe (which are excellent) and more reportage of the events following the election in 2008. Which Robert Mugabe didn't win. So clearly the solution was to fiddle the results, and then send goons out to torture, rape and murder thousands of people who had had the temerity not to vote for him. Some parts of this book made me feel physically sick. It really makes you despair of human nature ... except for the courage of those tortured beings who stand up to him even after their bodies have been broken. Sadly, their efforts seem to have been in vain -- Mugabe appears to be untouchable. It's terrible to see Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of Africa, reduced to grinding poverty because of the megalomania of one man.(less)
I don't really have much to add to the other reviews here. Read this and you will probably never want to buy olive oil from a supermarket again. It's...moreI don't really have much to add to the other reviews here. Read this and you will probably never want to buy olive oil from a supermarket again. It's depressing that human cupidity and greed mean that the words "extra virgin" on the label of a bottle of oil are utterly meaningless in 98% of cases. Worse, the degrading of the term makes it almost impossible for those who truly care about producing real extra virgin oil to earn a living from it. Vicious circle.
I rather wished he hadn't focused so much on Italy (obviously because he lives there). I'd have been interested to learn more about the Spanish olive oil industry ... since that's where I but my olive oil. I don't suppose it's any better than Italy in terms of corruption and adulteration, unfortunately.
Anyway, this is a good read if you are curious about where your food comes from, and what happens to it on its way to you.(less)
This book is based on a deep knowledge of everyday life in Spain, which shines through most notably in the chapters on rural life (the author lives on...moreThis book is based on a deep knowledge of everyday life in Spain, which shines through most notably in the chapters on rural life (the author lives on a smallholding in Extremadura). He does a good job of explaining the differences between regions; and Spain is above all a country of very diverse regions. I liked the organisation too, starting on the coast, then going inland to rural Spain, and finally visiting cities. Some chapters were very evocative -- the one about Asturias immediately made me want to visit -- though it's clear that the author knows some regions of Spain much better than others. I was a little disappointed in its thin coverage of the Basque country, basically dwelling on San Sebastian and haute cuisine.
In fact, there's a little too much emphasis on haute cuisine and meticulous accounts of meals in Michelin-starred restaurants, where the chef just happens to be on hand to present him with his very own menú degustación and a friendly chat. Not that these aren't important -- you can hardly write a book about food culture in Spain and not mention Ferran Adria and Martin Beresategui - but they don't reflect the food world of most Spaniards. His views are at times a little rosy -- or else stretching the truth. On several occasions he arrives in a strange town, selects a restaurant apparently at random, and has a wonderful lunch. In real life, this Would Not Happen. At least, it would occasionally, but you would be bound to stumble into one of the majority of indifferent Spanish restaurants and have a terrible, if cheap, meal. It's obvious he'd done research beforehand -- he's a food journalist for heaven's sake -- so why not say so?
Ferran Adria has it right: "People accuse me of lowering standards: 'It's your fault there are so many young kids trying to do modern food, and doing it badly.' Maybe, but isn't it much worse that there are millions of tortillas and paellas all over the country that are cooked so badly? Ordinary food in Spain is in a much worse state than haute cuisine, and that's a fact."
For me the key feature of Spanish food is that Spain was virtually a third-world country in terms of living standards until about the 1970s. So it's hardly surprising that food was cheap and filling, the stuff of poverty. There was no Spanish tradition of haute cuisine as there was in France -- which is why the Basque chefs looked to France for their inspiration:
More than anything, the cooking of rural Spain is a collective response to the realities of climate, weather, organised religion ... and, above all, the need to provide the body with the calories needed for hard physical work. (p 97)
I was surprised that Richardson didn't mention the culture of the menú del día in Spain. I'm sure I read somewhere that Franco instituted it to ensure that manual workers had a large, nutritious meal at lunchtime, and it must have played a large part in maintaining the dead hands of tradition and cheap stodge that still weigh heavily on Spanish restaurant food outside the rarefied temples of gastronomy. But it was interesting to read about the revolution that started in San Sebastian on the death of Franco, asserting Basque identity through modern riffs on traditional food, and then spread through the country. He makes it clear too that it's no accident that the most creative and adventurous chefs are from the rich provinces of the Basque country and Catalonia, both with easy access to mountains and sea, and with richer culinary heritages because of their voyaging past.
Further interesting facts: I knew that the Reyes Católicos were responsible for the Spanish obsession with pork, promoting it because it was a good way of winkling out closet Jews and Moors. But I hadn't heard that in the 1950s, as part of a deal with the Americans over military bases, the Spanish government imported millions of litres of American rapeseed oil. Spaniards weren't going to let go of their aceite de oliva without a fight, so in order to shift the imported oil a publicity campaign was started to convince them that olive oil was thoroughly unhealthy. Consumption plummeted until the scandal of the contaminated vegetable oil in the early 1980s that killed over a thousand people and persuaded the Spanish to switch back to the home-produced stuff.
Anyway, I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it -- it's a great read for foodies planning to travel to Spain and wanting to understand more about the country and its culture. He even has a list of recommended restaurants, if your wallet will stretch to them.
Graham Robb is a fantastic writer and a historian like no other. The first few chapters of this book are completely fascinating, history as novellas....moreGraham Robb is a fantastic writer and a historian like no other. The first few chapters of this book are completely fascinating, history as novellas. Inevitably with such a range of subjects and styles, some parts are more successful than others, and in general the earlier parts are better than the later. To enjoy it to the full you need a) some patience as he toys with you, letting slip key facts late on in each chapter, b) a strong interest in French history and c) ideally at least basic knowledge of significant events in France since 1789.
My favourite chapters were the one about the incredible true story behind the Count of Monte Cristo, the one about the catacombs (a fascinating and little-known aspect of Parisian history), and the one about Marie Antoinette getting lost in Paris at night. At the other extreme, he lost a star for the annoying, self-indulgent chapter about Juliette Greco and Miles Davis, which took the form of a film script. Too clever by half. The last chapter seemed a bit pointless. And the chapter about the occupation, focussing on the Vel d'Hiv, was surprisingly cliched; I'd expected him to find a more original angle than this. Overall, though, anyone interested in Paris will find something to enjoy here, and you can't help but marvel at his ability to distil masses of research into compelling human stories.(less)
I derived deep enjoyment from reading this book. Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, grew up in Mallorca, went to universit...moreI derived deep enjoyment from reading this book. Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, grew up in Mallorca, went to university in Oxford, and then married a Catalan and brought up her family in a village just outside Barcelona. This position gives her a unique and piercing insight into Catalan culture and society during and after the Franco years -- both an inside view, from her Mallorcan childhood and education in a Catholic school, like any other young Spanish girl, and simultaneously an outsider's view -- like Persephone, she lives in two worlds. I was already an adult when I moved to France, but much of what she says about the fine line inside her head between her different languages and cultures resonated with me. She's both observant and astute, painting a vivid picture of changing Catalan society.
It's not a conventional autobiography -- rather than a sequence of events, it's a series of meditations on events in her life, and the lives of the women around her, from the village midwife to an exiled Latvian prima ballerina, reduced to running a ballet school in Palma. She skilfully reveals their hidden strengths and their ways of coping with oppressive Spanish mores during the dictatorship. There's a lot of sadness and stifled potential in these women's stories. The book is also about translation -- hardly surprising that this became her career, and she writes well both on the challenges of finding the right nuances when translating between languages, and on the difficulties she herself faced reconciling her English upbringing with the restrictions of life in Spain. Belonging or not belonging is a strong theme: feeling at home, yet being seen as a foreigner. If you have ever felt like this, you will enjoy this book. (less)
I've already read Fuller's second book about her family's life in Africa, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, so this wasn't as surprising...moreI've already read Fuller's second book about her family's life in Africa, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, so this wasn't as surprising a read as it might have been. Many of the events are the same, but this is Alexandra's view of her life in Africa, up to her marriage, so we see them from a different perspective. There's less insight into her mother's state of mind, but it's still very clear how difficult her parents' life was, and how much courage and determination they had, living through civil wars, mental illness, the deaths of children, and hand-to-mouth poverty, sustained by their love of Africa. "Bad parenting"? Maybe, but the love between parents and children shines through, even in hard times. Fuller's style is vivid and compelling.
Yes of course they are politically incorrect -- that was the environment they grew up in. But Alexandra is clear-eyed enough to recognise this, and even as a teenager comes to understand that their poverty is riches compared to the lives of their black neighbours.
If you liked this, I highly recommend Peter Godwin's books about the same era, which are a more harrowing read.(less)
I wasn't sure about this book to start with, but I was gradually drawn in. Recovering from a long and debilitating illness, Fiennes comes across a cop...moreI wasn't sure about this book to start with, but I was gradually drawn in. Recovering from a long and debilitating illness, Fiennes comes across a copy of Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, which he read as a child, and is prompted to follow migrating snow geese from Texas to the Arctic tundra. His journey away from the confines of home gradually reawakens for him the joy of being alive, but like the birds he eventually also longs to return to the familiar himself.
This is a slow, comtemplative book. You get the impression of a silent, solitary figure, who says little about himself but carefully observes the world around him and the people he meets, then painstakingly sets telling details down on paper, meticulously choosing each word. This reticence means that you aren't even sure whether he likes or dislikes the people he meets on his journey. But his descriptions of the emptiness and silence of the tundra at the end of the book are amazing.(less)