Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.
The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)
The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.
The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.
With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.
Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)
Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.
For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”
I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.
With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)
My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.
Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.
Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.
The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.
First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)
Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.
The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.
Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
A couple of months ago we finally rescued the last boxes (we think) of our possessions out of my in-laws’ attic and storage cupboard…only five years after we moved out! As I was sorting through a box of my husband’s childhood books, I found a couple that he had won through school prizes – both of which seem to prefigure his love of British wildlife, and badgers in particular.
We also found another book he accidentally inherited from his school when the library burned down – along with the Gerald Durrell memoir and a paperback copy of Animal Farm, that makes three books that never made it back to the school even after they rebuilt. Oops!
I gave some thought to the other personal inscriptions in our book collection. Although we don’t have all that many examples in total, my mother (whom I generally call “Marm”) is the queen of inscriptions: you can count on her to write the date, the occasion, and a heartfelt message inside the front cover of any book she gives as a gift. It’s terribly sweet.
I got the Betty Crocker cookbook as a birthday present just as I was setting off for my Master’s year in Leeds – the first time I ever had to cook for myself. Over the last 11.5 years it’s gotten a lot of use, as the missing fragments of the ring binder show.
Another cookbook with some sentimental value to us is Delia Smith’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course – a classic of English cuisine that we got as a wedding present. It’s extra special as the giver, my husband’s Auntie Joan (not actually an aunt, but a first cousin once removed or something like that), passed away earlier this year.
Do you like writing and/or receiving personal inscriptions in books?
With my birthday coming up in the middle of the month, it’s time to start thinking about what treats I want to help me celebrate. Where better for a bibliophile to turn than to these two pun-filled bookish cookbooks?
I got Scone with the Wind from my in-laws for last year’s birthday, and found Tequila Mockingbird at the Salvation Army shop in Cambridge for 70 pence the other week. There’s some mighty tempting options in both. The Woman in Black Forest Gâteau? Finnegans Cake (chocolate/stout flavored)?
And to drink, perhaps The Lime of the Ancient Mariner (gin with lime and grapefruit juices in a salted glass) or Gin Eyre (if I can find something to substitute for orange bitters)? We don’t keep a lot of spirits around, but gin and rum are always in our drinks cupboard, so that’s a good place to start.
If you can’t handle puns, look away from these books now! However, if you or someone you know likes them, these make great gift books for the coffee table. I’ll report back on my culinary trials!
“Time devours all things: love and murder and secrets.”
I loved Martine Bailey’s first novel, last year’s An Appetite for Violets. My description of that one – “lively, well-researched historical fiction, seasoned with mystery and culinary tradition” – is apt here, although this doesn’t quite live up to Bailey’s debut. As in Violets, the setting is the English Midlands in the late eighteenth century, and one of the main characters is a cook at a grand home. However, whereas cook Biddy Leigh herself was the narrator of Violets, through journal entries, here the first-person perspective is that of the mistress of Delafosse Hall (in Greaves, Lancashire), Grace Croxon.
After being dissuaded from making an unfortunate love match, Grace has been pressed into marriage with Michael Croxon, a brooding, almost possessed character. It soon becomes clear that his affections lie elsewhere and he has married Grace for her money, which will fund his ill-fated attempt to set up a mill. My favorite section of the book is the middle, in which Grace is like the Gothic heroine trapped in a spooky house with a distant husband and all kinds of strange goings-on that she doesn’t understand. She reminded me most of the protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
At the same time as Grace is trying to figure out what is happening at Delafosse, we also learn the surprising story of how Peg Blissett came to be the Croxons’ new cook. Under another name, she suffered tremendous trials, including transportation to Australia and a dramatic escape to live with New Zealand natives. She also lost her true love, Jack, and on her return to England determines to have her revenge on the man responsible for sending her to prison.
It takes a while to figure out how Peg’s story ties in with Grace and Michael’s, and the plot gets very melodramatic towards the end, with hints of the Victorian sensation novel, but overall it’s a satisfying and atmospheric tale. It’s mostly in comparison with Violets that I locate this book’s weaknesses: a first-person narrative from Peg would have been more interesting, as well as fairer to her own story (and she would seem less like a pantomime villainess towards the end); and the date and place information plus recipes heading each section feel largely unnecessary, whereas they were integral to the previous book.
I kept getting a funny feeling as I was reading that this book must have been written first and later revised to capitalize on the success of Violets, which might account for the way that the culinary theme seems slightly shoehorned in here. Still, Bailey comes up with memorable characters and plots, with the kinds of twists and turns that keep you wondering where it will all lead. I hope that her third novel will break new ground rather than just repeating themes and structures she’s used before.
I was delighted to win a free copy through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.