I’m not sure that in normal circumstances I would have picked up Maggie and Me by Damian Barr.
But what do I mean ‘normal circumstances’? I think I mean ‘of my own volition’. I have to confess that much of my book buying I now done online (yes, I own a kindle, and I LOVE it). There is less of that happy bookshop browsing time in my life, although I must confess to an impulse purchase of Jackie Kay‘s ‘Fiere’ when I took the scenic route via Looking Glass Books back to my office the other week.
So, what I am saying is that if I’d happened upon Maggie and Me in a bookshop I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance.
But luck is on my side. I worked for several years at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (@edbookfest) which wasn’t just the loveliest team in the world, it was also a brilliant provider and recommender of good reading material. Of course. And, although I no longer work there, their Associate Director (@RolandGulliver) is my daily commuting buddy. And one of his many talents is his skill in recommending books. It helps that we both adore Niccolo Amaniti (and are both disappointed in his latest novel).
So, Roland recommended I read Maggie and Me. In fact he issued it as homework when I took week off.
Reading is a slightly different experience with a kindle, as opposed to a physical book with papery pages. For a start you probably won’t have turned it over and read the back, or the inside back cover about the author. You won’t see a picture of the cover every time you pick up the book to read it. So, in effect, all you can go on are the words on the ‘page’. This should be a good thing. And often it is. But it also means that I regularly can’t remember the name of the book or the author I am currently reading.
I remembered Maggie and Me. And Damian Barr. Probably because the book references Margaret Thatcher (the Maggie of Maggie and Me) so regularly, and vividly (opening with the writer’s memory of the night of the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing by the IRA, and Maggie walking out un-harmed, apparently un-fazed). And Damian? Why do I remember his name? Perhaps because he is called names at school, or perhaps just because I tried to remember his name so that I could lookout for more of his writing. Yes, it’s that good.
In Maggie and Me, Damian recreates Scotland in the 80s; it is the era of Thatcher, of her power, but also of the very real hatred of her in many homes in Scotland. Damian’s father works at ‘the Craig’ (Ravenscraig) which is threatened with closure. Wee Damian is convinced that Maggie won’t allow this to happen, but we all know the outcome – there would be no more second sunsets. His parents have separated by this time and Damian is living in the roughest and most violent flat in a rough and violent estate. He finds solace at the Carfin grotto, which says it all about the writer’s ability to find humour in what was an appallingly difficult childhood.
I laughed out loud. I cried. But I didn’t want this book to end. Go buy it. Go buy tickets to see Damian Barr at a Book Festival, or just follow him on twitter – he deserves your attention.
Maggie and Me will certainly make it onto the ‘favourite books of the year’ list for 2013.
Inspiration is a strange thing. You never know where you’re going to find it. Sometimes it’s from another person, a conversation you have, something they mention. Sometimes it’s from something you read, or hear about. Or with cooking it can be from the raw ingredients, what’s available, fresh and seasonal, or just left over in your cupboard. Or from something else you taste. Or a smell, or a memory, or a piece of equipment, or a serving dish, or piece of crockery. And sometimes it just springs up from somewhere inside you and you have no idea how it appeared.
Much of my inspiration comes from what I read, or what ingredients I have to hand, or spy in the shop/market.
Two books which are inspiring me just now include:
Lucas Hollweg’s Good Things To Eat. A very recent purchase, and bought entirely because I love his regular feature in the Sunday Times, our weekend paper of choice. Today I didn’t bother with inspiration, I just made one of the recipes as it was written: a salad of cucumber, strawberry and watercress. Just divine, with a sharp sweet vinegary dressing and more black pepper to add further bite to it. Let me know if you want the full recipe.
Darina Allen’s The Forgotten Skills of Cooking. I’ve owned this book for several years, and find myself constantly going back to it. Recently it was for a recipe for soda bread and its variations, and before that it was elderflower fizz and vinegar. It’s not just a go-to book for certain recipes it is also the perfect book for browsing – I have a fantasy about making a cold smoker, to smoke my own meat and fish and this book shows me how. She also shows you how to to cure bacon, store fruit, make suet, skin a wood pigeon and writes beautifully about her memories of the local pig killer. In fact, what makes this book is the human element – the memories and the stories bring her food to life. If you’re even vaguely interested in what I would call ‘traditional’ cooking skills and recipes then buy this book. It will delight and inspire you.
I have many cookbooks. I know that won’t surprise you. I love books and I love cooking, so of course I have many cookbooks. And I also live in two different places. It’s taken me a while to admit this, but I do. Through the week I am in a wee flat in Edinburgh, and at weekends I am in the Clyde Valley with my boyfriend. I’m living the dream.
But dreams can occasionally be confusing. I don’t always have the clothes I want or need in the place I want them. Or the right necklace to go with whatever I’m wearing. I know, I know, real first world problems.
One of the confusions I wouldn’t have predicted was the recipe confusion. I’m never sure if I’ll have the right cookbook with the recipe I need in the place I’m cooking at the time. Or if I want to plan what to make at the weekend, I can’t browse a cookbook and plan it till I get there.
My new favourite thing is EatYourBooks. It’s a website where you can keep track of your cookbooks. If that was all it did you wouldn’t be very impressed would you? So of course it does more. It has a vast database of indexed cookbooks. And for each indexed cookbook it includes each recipe, and the key ingredients in each recipe. How genius is that?
So, imagine I know I want to cook something with aubergines and chicken. I search ‘my bookshelf’ and I find I have 23 recipes with these two ingredients, ranging from Miso Roasted Chicken (Donna Hay) and Green Chicken Curry (Vatch’s Thai Street Food) to Grilled Breast of Chicken with Provencal Vegetables and Aioli (Simon Hopkinson). And, as I tagged each book as I added it to my shelf, I know which books are in Edinburgh and which in the Valley. And of course the website lists the ingredients I need for each recipe (a straight list, without quantities) so I know if I’ll need to buy an extras to make the dish. Oh, and it includes various magazines as well. I tell you, it is perfectly genius, and I love it.
And it includes cookery blogs. And it highlights new articles from its featured blogs, so today I learnt how to make my own creme fraiche from Food52. You do know Food52 don’t you? It’s food porn. But useful porn, if such a thing exists. Go find out for yourself.
I love Ann Patchett. I didn’t know I loved Ann Patchett, but really I think I do.
She’s one of those authors who have crept up on me. I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of her and then I started coming across Bel Canto a few years ago, and it became one of those books that I ended up having to read, or it felt like it would keep cropping up in my life until I did. But let’s face it, it was no hardship to read it was it? If you haven’t been there yet, just buy it this weekend and find a comfy spot and start reading. You’ll thank me.
Then I saw Ann Patchett at the Book Festival in Edinburgh a few years ago. She was with another author, Valerie Martin I think, and I have a feeling that it was the other author I was initially interested in. Anyway, I no longer recall why I was quite so determined to see this event… out of around 800 events with world class authors, thinkers, politicians, commentators, illustrators, historians, philosophers, scientists, et al why would it be this one that I actually go to? You see, although I worked at the world’s largest (and possibly greatest) book festival for a number of years my attendance at live literature events was woefully low. But I read a lot, and had a great time, so no regrets!
Anyway, back to Ann P. I bought her novel ‘Run’ off the back of seeing her in conversation with Valerie Martin. And it didn’t disappoint either.
So, when I saw that State of Wonder was shortlisted for the Orange, I knew I had to read it. That was all I knew about State of Wonder though – it was written by Ann P and had been shortlisted for the Orange prize. So, two good reasons to read it really.
It’s interesting when you start reading a book with no real idea of ‘what it’s about’. Especially if you read on an e-reader and so don’t see even the front cover as a clue, or the blurb on the back to give you an idea of what might be within. I realise that ‘what it’s about’ is often not what makes a book great – recently I have read about an orphan, shopping malls, the life of Achilles, a second marriage, a child in a poor estate in south London, and so on….
Anyway, I wasn’t expecting a research scientist from a large pharmaceutical company to shlep off to the Amazon to try to get a major research project back on track, and find out what happened to her colleague who had been despatched to do the same job some weeks earlier. But State of Wonder isn’t just about any of those things, is it? It will be about different things to different people I’m sure, but for me it’s about where you belong, and about loss and being lost. And found. And about parenthood. It’s about dreams. And nightmares. About ideals and compromise; about hopes, dreams and desires. It’s beautifully written, evoking the intense heat and sheer ‘foreign-ness’ of arriving in a town on the Amazon. The main characters are all women and all strong women, but each with their own vulnerabilities. Ann P is so good at drawing characters, people you feel you know from the first encounter with them, and then as you read, you just get to know them better.
I studied science many years ago. In my naivety at school I had hoped to be a research scientist, discovering the cures for all the world’s ills, or at least cancer (AIDS hadn’t appeared in our lives at that point. Yes, I’m that old!). So, I studied for a degree in Medicinal Chemistry. And quickly realised that I would never work for a large pharmaceutical company and would never discover any cures. I’d already worked out that scientific research probably wasn’t my vocation in life (really? I have to do exactly the same experiment over and over and over again every day for weeks and weeks and weeks just tweaking at the different components and reporting on any changes? How dull). But when the pharma companies started the ‘milk round’ of recruitment of fresh young graduates the remaining vestiges of that enthusiastic naivety and hope for the future died. They were oh so proud of a drug they had produced which reduced the symptoms of ulcers (and therefore made them lots of $$$ from stressed American businessmen). In the very next sentence they told us they were cancelling all research into a drug which had the potential in the future to eradicate a third world disease (was it cholera? Malaria? Or something altogether different, I can’t recall). But it would never make them any money. So the research was being pulled.
State of Wonder reminded me of my earlier self, and the erosion of my state of wonder. But I’m glad I’m not a research scientist. I would have been pretty rubbish at it, and I never looked good in a white coat anyway.
A colleague has lent her kindle to a mutual friend who is in hospital. As a result she is buying REAL books and lending out ones she loves. So, on a recent trip to London and Brighton she bought The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, and by the time she’d returned to Edinburgh she had finished it and was desperate for me to read it so we could talk about it.
And I’m SO pleased she lent it to me to read; it’s a great book. I’m not giving anything away by telling you it’s about an Irish woman who is having an affair with a married man. And yes, it absolutely is about that. It’s about the course of the relationship, from the moment she first sees him at the bottom of her sister’s garden at a barbecue…. I won’t say where it goes, as I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Except that in many ways, the story isn’t what I found so remarkable about this book. Gina, who is having the affair, is the narrator. She is an IT professional in her mid 30s. Her husband is a like-able bear of a man. Her lover has ‘too beautiful’ eyes and a daughter who is captivating and strange. The writer captures the detail of the emotional roller-coaster the adulterer goes through. But more than that she captures the minutiae of daily life, down to the noise made by the rubber strip as you pull open the fridge door.
By the end of the novel the economic boom has bust. But has the same happened to the relationship? Read it and find out.
The Forgotten Waltz has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction; it’s the second of this year’s shorltist that I’ve read, so watch this space for the remaining books. They are on my wishlist.
- Anne Enright meets the Guardian book club – podcast (guardian.co.uk)
I went to a World Book Night event last week (or possibly the week before) with Maggie O’Farrell and Jenny Brown.
I read Esme Lennox years ago, and didn’t particularly enjoy it, but I didn’t hate it either so I read Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book before I went to the live event. I was glad I had: I loved the book and I felt that I got more out of the event having read it.
Anyway, that’s all some background to say that after the event I decided I really wanted to read another, and so I picked My Lover’s Lover off my shelf, where it had been languishing for some years and started it.
I feel somewhat disappointed now, but also cheered by the thought that the author is probably getting better with each book she has written.
My Lover’s Lover is a Rebecca-like tale of Lily and her new lover, Marcus. And Lily’s obsession with Sinead, who is ‘no longer with us’ … but was very much with Marcus until recently. Lily narrates the first part of the novel, and like the new Mrs de Winter seems to be a bit of a mouse of a creature, who ends up in bed with the glamorous,older architect, Marcus, living in the warehouse apartment he designed himself. She starts seeing Sinead everywhere, and believes her ghost has come back to tell her something.
For me, the warehouse apartment is almost the strongest character in the book (more echoes of Rebecca with Manderley?).
I wonder if my disappointment in this book was related to the fact I’d loved the live event so much? Or that I had just read both Rebecca and Rebecca’s Tale? It certainly drew from Rebecca, with the two lovers even watching Hitchcock’s Rebecca in an early scene in the book.
I’m now reading Oliver Twist for book group, but think that the next book should be Ewan Morrison’s Menage. I like reading books that feel as though they have some link with what you’ve just read, and this seems perfect.
- World Book Night: Stephen Fry joins million giveaway (guardian.co.uk)
- The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell (doctordolittle.wordpress.com)
I love recipe books, and have a relatively large collection. One I’ve owned for a while, but have cooked little from is Leon’s Naturally Fast Food. It’s a beautiful thing, lovely design (although will it seem very dated when I look back at it in 10 years time?) and some great recipes for making fast, fresh food.
This morning before I left for work I had a quick flick through the recipes and decided to make their South Indian Pepper Chicken. It’s a beautifully simple recipe, and pretty low fat, so it’s my kinda healthy too.
South Indian Pepper Chicken
- A drizzle of olive oil (use the stuff from the spray bottle if you care, otherwise use about a teaspoonful)
- About 500g skinless, boneless chicken thighs, diced
- Maldon sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 4 garlic cloves chopped
- about 1″ root ginger, chopped fine
- 1 large onion, cut in half, then sliced finely to give thin crescent shapes
- a heaped tsp turmeric
- 2 tomatoes, roughly diced
- Heat the oil in large frying pan, add the chicken pieces, then sprinkle on a good pinch of sea salt and LOTS of black pepper. Stir it about then add some more black pepper
- Cook for a few minutes, till the chicken browns. Then tip it out of the pan into a bowl and set aside
- Add the garlic, onion, ginger and turmeric to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes
- Add the tomatoes and a good glug of water and stir together
- Add the chicken back into the pan and cook with a lid on for about 10 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Take the lid off and reduce the sauce down a little if it’s all too wet still.