I've read Adam Roberts' weblog for nearly a decade now, starting just after this book was first published, and until I found it in a bookshop last monI've read Adam Roberts' weblog for nearly a decade now, starting just after this book was first published, and until I found it in a bookshop last month I completed forgot it existed. I'd always meant to pick it up, but it somehow didn't happen for ten years. This isn't like me. I'm amazing at buying books. You could make a very strong argument that I'm better at buying them than reading them.
If you've ever read Roberts' weblog, you'll know that it's his combination of enthusiasm and humour that really pulls the reader in. His writing is relaxing and enjoyable to read, and he captures those little moments of a new cook so well, like the sense of pride that comes from throwing together a new meal from whatever's in the fridge and pantry.
His food writing also stands out because it's from the point of view of an amateur. He didn't start cooking at all until university, so you aren't reading a Michelin star chef's memories of how it felt to learn to cook. You're reading from the point of view of someone who is actively in the process of learning how to cook, so every new technique he's excited about, every new ingredient he discovers, and every new milestone he reaches all feel genuine. It's not remembered enthusiasm; it's his excitement as it happens.
This book loses some of that energy, and I think the hint to the problem is in the subtitle - How to Shop, Chop and Table Hop Like a Pro. He tries to spin each chapter into a learning experience, and it just doesn't really work. The worst chapter was on how to fine dine like a professional, in which he invites Ruth Reichl, food writer and former food critic for The New York Times, out to lunch to discuss how one should eat in a restaurant, and it was almost painful to read. He just bombarded her the most inane questions for the entire meal. I really thought (and, to be honest, hoped) it was going to end with Reichl physically attacking him.
There are some great bits. I loved his chapter on the anxiety of eating alone at an high-end restaurant in Paris. It was funny and interesting and the 'how-to moral' didn't feel forced. I also enjoyed the chapter in which he introduces his Korean American friend to Jewish food and she introduces him to Korean dishes. In "Cook for a Date", he walks a friend through cooking a meal for a new girlfriend, and that was quite funny while also capturing how to prepare a meal ahead of time without the stress. I also really enjoyed the last chapter, which flashes between him cooking a large feast for a group of friends and his time in university as he realizes the law career he's pursuing won't make him happy.
Roberts recently got back to blogging after a two year hiatus, and I've really been enjoying his latest posts. I hope he'll go on to publish another collection of food writing at some point in the future. He did publish a recipe book, which I own but haven't fully read yet, but I'd love to see something narrative-driven without the self-help angle. A book where each chapter is just him describing a food-related scenario, like visiting a renown restaurant or travelling to a country to try a specific dish - really just anything in a more natural format. Something heavier on the amateur and lighter on the pro.
I love Steinbeck and I love travelogues, so I had high hopes going into this one, and thankfully it did not disappoint. It's the first of his non-fictI love Steinbeck and I love travelogues, so I had high hopes going into this one, and thankfully it did not disappoint. It's the first of his non-fiction work that I've tried, and I'm excited to read more. His fiction is often quite dark, and while there certainly is humour, he has to hold it back a bit to maintain the tone. He's free to let loose in this book, and the result is a continuously amusing account of his trip around America in 1960.
Charley, full name Charles le Chien, is an elderly black French poodle, and Steinbeck decides to take him on the trip for a little companionship. They have a sweet relationship, and I really love how he wrote about Charley, getting in his head and finding motivation for each action. It really brought him forward as a character, rather than just another generic dog companion.
The two of them hop in his camper truck, named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse, and leaves his home in Long Island. He drives up New England with a brief stop at the Canadian border and then back down and westwards across the country. His trip takes him right over to the west coast, down to California, through Texas and into the deep south, and then back up home, essentially completing a loop of the entire country. Steinbeck said he'd spent his life writing about America, but he had lost touch with the country and needed to reconnect.
I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation - a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.
At one point, Steinbeck stops in Texas for a 'Thanksgiving orgy'. In Canada, orgies are more of an Easter tradition, so I was briefly taken aback. I'm still unsure if this was a common usage of the term in the 60s or if Steinbeck just decided to employ it to give the Thanksgiving party a sense of vulgar gluttony. It was a meal of Chili con Carne, and I feel like the two images don't mix well. I read quite a lot of older literature, so I'm used to outdated vernacular. I don't give a second thought when Watson ejaculates mid-conversation or Batman pulls a boner, but this was my first encounter with an innocuous holiday orgy.
There were scenes in this that did feel embellished, conversations and scenarios that seemed to fit a little too perfectly. After finishing, I read a bit more on the book and there is some confusion over what is and isn't fictionalized. He was 58 with some health issues when he left on this trip, apparently against the recommendation of his doctor, so many people believe he only slept under the stars a few times and mostly stayed in expensive hotels.
Regardless of how much of this is true, it's still a fantastic read. I love how he writes, his insights into human nature, and how he manages to find comedy in the mundane. The chapters near the end detailing the racist attitudes he found down south, and his witnessing the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in which a group of middle-class housewives calling themselves The Cheerleaders would scream vitriol at the black children trying to attend school, was heartbreaking to read. I obviously knew these things happened, but I often forget just how recent it was. The young girl, Ruby Bridges, is only 63 today. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that traces of that hate, so strong that grown adults would scream like animals at those poor children, can still be found in America today.
Beyond my failings as a racist, I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not want witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.
I love Steinbeck even more after reading this. It also left me wanting to jump in a truck and travel the country with my dog. Although, if I were to do such a thing, I would also be secretly staying in comfortable hotels the entire trip, if only to be well-rested for the Thanksgiving orgy.
"A 'Bummel'," I explained, "I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it's over."
The three men, sans dog, decide to take a cycling trip through the German Black Forest. Like the first book, the trip is really just there to provide an opportunity for Jerome to deliver his witty observations. It was interesting how relatable most aspects of the trip still were today, 117 years later - from trying to communicate through phrases in a guide book to struggling to understand your train ticket. A big difference in Three Men on the Bummel is that each scene feels more structured, with more focus put on the set piece itself rather than the anecdotes and rambling thoughts that come with it, but in a way the confinement of a slightly more refined narrative is what holds this book back from the level the first reached.
A barrage of rambling thoughts and anecdotes with no plot to hold it together would not normally be a positive for me, but every page of Three Men in a Boat was hilarious and insightful. There might literally be a quotable line on every page. This book has some hilarious moments, and I very much enjoyed reading it, but I don't think it will stick with me in the same way. In fact, I know it won't, because I read this a couple of months ago (I'm behind, don't judge) and managed to lose my notes when switching phones, and I am having a bit of trouble recalling more than a few specific scenes. Not sure if that's an indication of this being less memorable, though, or just the normal for my awful goldfish memory.
I hate when people come back from a trip and suddenly decide they have insights into the psyche of that country's citizens, from speaking to a couple of people on a train, a bartender, and a taxi driver, but that said, this observation at the end of the novel did jump out at me as somewhat chilling, considering the wars that were still to come:
The German can rule others, and be ruled by others, but he cannot rule himself. [...] Their everlasting teaching is duty. It is a fine ideal for any people; but before buckling to it, one would wish to have a clear understanding as to what this "duty" is. The German idea of it would appear to be: "blind obedience to everything in buttons. [...] When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.
Despite my lack of gushing, I did thoroughly enjoy this. Jerome K. Jerome was a comic genius, and I plan to read everything he's written.
I've stated before that I enjoy unlikable curmudgeons for protagonists. Not in every book I read, but when I come across one I do consider it a treat.I've stated before that I enjoy unlikable curmudgeons for protagonists. Not in every book I read, but when I come across one I do consider it a treat. There's something exciting about reading a character who completely personifies your worst Monday morning attitude, and this is one area where The Dinner succeeds.
Two couples meet at an expensive restaurant. The husbands are brothers, one was a school teacher and the other is a politician months away from an inevitable win. Over the course of the dinner, a dark family truth is revealed and we learn how they discovered this and how they plan to cope.
It's a difficult novel to summarize, because a large part of the enjoyment of this is the slow reveal of the truth throughout the novel, the truth of the events that occurred as well as the true personalities of the characters. The novel, when not in flashback, takes place entirely in and around the restaurant. It's the sort of story that depends completely on pacing, and Herman Koch really nailed that.
A terrible criminal act was committed, and the question of the novel is how the family will react and why they'll react how they do. It's interesting to see unfold, particularly when the characters are unsavoury and unpredictable.
(view spoiler)[What I didn't enjoy is how Koch explained the behaviour of the protagonist and his son, how he essentially implied that Asperger's was the cause of these people being violent sociopaths. He said in interviews that he didn't want to name a disease, that he kept it vague to avoid people calling it a crude caricature, but in so obviously hinting at it the result was the same, even if he tried to rid himself of any personal responsibility.
There was really no need to even include this in the story. Trying to link this behaviour to a hereditary medical issue actually comes across as less believable than linking it to his environment and upbringing. (hide spoiler)]
Anyhoo, despite some problems, I found this to be a compelling read. Having a story take place throughout a dinner, with the actual narrative being divided up by course, was fun as well. I liked how he gave character clues around how they interacted with the food and service staff. The reviews on this seem to be very divided, with some people absolutely hating it, but I had a fun time listening to this one on audiobook.