The elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Gallic)


“Marx has completely changed the way I view the world,” declared the Pallieres boy this morning, although ordinarily he says nary a word to me.”

PERHAPS it is just my personal taste, but it seems as if a new form of writing is taking shape that perhaps does not categorises as instantly as say psycho-geography but we might call for the moment psycho-intellectual. Anna Burns, Booker Prize winning The Milkman might be a case in point which reviewers referred to as dense and experimental which might be the case if you are coming off YA fiction or chick lit or some crimos – tightly written, carefully crafted, a novel with purpose. I could make case too that Noah Yuval’s Harari trilogy as a non fiction variation.

I could place this one in there too being almost psychotically psycho intellectual tale of the Parisian concierge and the volatile charges upstairs in the apartments she services. “this frozen palace, this glacial prison of power and idleness”.

….in fact we have a pair of hard thinking females heading for a conflagration. What exactly is it about? The plot emerges out of a wild mix of cultural clashes, out of rambles on philosophies, art, beauty, place and social and intellectual standings. The word consonance comes up quite a lot which apart from meaning compatibility and agreement also has a literary connotation in that it is a repetition of the same or similar consonants in neighbouring words, for example fridays felt forlorn but fiery which is precisely the interaction between the two heroines here.

Madame Michel, the concierge is mired in her classical readings which she gleans boraciously from the library and finds herself also coming out into the pop culture of the modern world. Her favourite movie is Hunt For Red October. Her doppleganger upstairs is the dangerous teenage manga-reading, sashimi eating, haiku apostle who is perhaps her equal. If, she had a cat.

Sentences are long and rambling like a big intellectual scarf for a winter’s walk. Grammatically Mme Michel can, and is, offended, by a coma out of place. Grammar is a way to beauty, a thought echoed by both protagonists. There is something here akin to the brilliance of Ruth Ozeki.

“When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far, a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?”

Fine language and a credit to the translation by Alison Anderson for catching that Parisian tone and sharpening the waspish, black humour. On admitting their grandmother to an old folks home the granddaughter asks: “is that the reward for emotional anorexia – a marble bathtub in a ruinously expensive bijou residence?”. Another inmate makes a dash for freedom after dressing up in “a polka dot dress and ruffles.”

Beyond the upstairs downstairs elements of rich and poor, she finds, perhaps they both find, an egalitarian universe in knowledge and reading, united in, for want of a better word, culture. And finally we discover that perhaps there is a more delightful enchantment to be found elsewhere than literature, albeit it is right here. A lovely, alpha novel.

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Talking to my daughter, a brief history of capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis (Vintage)


“All babies are born naked, but soon some are dressed in expensive clothes bought at the best boutiques while the majority wear rags”

THE very best way to write a book is to sit down on an idyllic Greek island and knock it off in nine days, like this one. In context you can place this on the bookshelf beside the bestselling  Yoav Noah Harrari trilogy. Here the subject is economics, markets and money.

Varoufakis was of course the finance minister in the Greek bailout from Europe which gives him an interesting perspective, and as he says maybe not all economists will agree. But like Harrari he credits an important dimension in banking to the imagination, the ability to imagine money, the parallel universe where money manifests itself on a ledger and is never expected to become coins or notes or even, so old fashioned, gold. At times he is even suggesting that maybe all that wealth is an illusion, which it certainly is to most of us. And maybe all those economic budgetary forecasts which we are all warned about, well maybe it is the same as going down the horse track. Markets are not predictable. Oh, dear.

“Fellow economists, as you can imagine, get very cross with me when I tell them we face a choice: we can keep pretending we are scientists, like astrologers do, or admit we are more like philosphers, who will never know the meaning of life for sure, no matter how wisely and rationally they argue”.

He warns sternly that in the future that money will become more not less political, that the moneyed class have developed their own shorthand which can only ascribe a monetary value to something. That in turn puts everything else at risk.

Do not entrust such people – governments, banks, corporates, their asociates –  with such powers because they are impotent in, for one example, that other eco debate ecology. Or climate change. Capitalism has run amok, or if it has not already done so will do sometime pretty soon. It is a train with no brakes.

One solution he suggests that might help is to create administrative decomcracies for things we value, like say rainforests that do not have an obvious monetary value but on which we all depend and we can vote on protecting them. Ummm.

The whole financial edifice is a fraud albeit one that exists because of our own faith and trust. The business of making money has moved on to a level where it has become self fullfilling and is increasingly disconnected from…well from all of us who are not a part of the banking machine. As Greece suffers…

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The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard (Picador)

“The sun is a cold star. Its heart, spines of ice. Its light unforgiving.”

FROM this simple, fairy tale short opening, you may deduce that things we know are not all they seem. Let us open up the catastrophe that was World War 2. How did we get there?

There is a sting in the tail of this masterful piece of journalistic faction that recreates from different perspectives and sources the arrival of Nazism. Vuillard’s writing – and Mark Polizzotti’s translation from the French – match the import of the subject, opening with the “24 calculating machines standing at the gates of Hell”.

Vuillard is angry and outraged, his storytelling has purpose, glaring a torchlight on the skeletons of the participants as we edge towards war and holocaust. At moments it is high farce, high drama, high pathos, high tragedy, He has read the testimonies, the biographies, watched the newsreels again. In simple terms he tells his tale of downfall, annexation, of hubris, of the power of a bluff.

Each chapter head speaks for itself: A Secret Meeting. Masks. A Courtesy Call, Intimidations. Carefully he mixes recollections with the novelists’s eye for visualising a drama. This was how, he contends, the real modern Europe was constructed. The humour is sardonic and concise – the book is only 129 pages of type spaced at a generous 18.5 point as if at pains to be sure as many people can read it as possible. He shuffles his scenes into a climax befitting his task.

It won the Prix Goncourt 2017. Proper writing, proper translation, proper publishing. Intelligent and topical.

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Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber)


“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”

THE prose is wonderfully joyful and rambling. The Guardian refers to this winner of last year’s Man Booker prize as experimental but that does it a disservice. The madness is Belfast as much as that of our heroine narrator’s predicament. Even the more brutal events are dealt with lashings of humanity and dark humour.

Burns writes about something that matters, Belfast circa late 1970s, the troubles, her troubles, The Troubles, even trouble himself, aka the milkman of the title, even Milkman, but not the real milkman, whom no one loves. Never mind borders, it is a novel in the grand Irish tradition. I have seen Burns writing likened to that of James Joyce and I would not argue. Brian O’Nolan also comes to mind. This is individual and distinct. Although fiction, a true record, one suspects of a town which is still dismantling itself. A town “where everything was so back-to-front… nothing could get said here or not said but it was turned into gospel.” And so you double and triple realities.

Everyone is anonymous as if wearing masks or balaclavas so we have SomebodyMcSomebody, the wee sisters, the third brother in law, the maybe-boyfriend, nuclear boy, tablet girl, ma herself, the wonderful ma who almost manifests herself as if from another era, a throwback to intractable, stone-set, pious beliefs, always at cross purposes with her daughter, a manifestation of chaos. Anonymous in name perhaps but not in personality. Everyone is married to the insane violence of the time. At one point she, our narrator and author, is being spoken to and “and here he said my name, my first name, forename”. You feel the intrusion, the outrage.

Places too have no names, they are just – over there, over the road, over the water, the ghostly 10 minute area, the parks & reservoirs – notice the ampersand – the district’s most popular drinking club etc All of which serves to focus on our narrator’s increasingly encroached upon head space. “It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors.”

And it is all very prescient; the first page still reverberates through the story. It is in the now of events, at its hub a teenage girl emerging into a closed town divided by sex, religion, politics, even by cats and dogs, seemingly anything at all, a world in which different invisible opinions and rumours count where all she wants is to get away on Tuesday night to see maybe-boyfriend. A world patrolled by much hated peacekeepers, paramilitaries, of surveillance cameras that click, helicopters that hover, of women with better things to do…

Burns writes in a compelling style, repeating herself, like she is looking for a musical riff or chorus. Sentences roll: “depressions, da had had them: big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions….” And then straight away afterwards, the sly drama of: “Ma herself did not get depressions, didn’t either, tolerate depressions…”

There is humour in the set ups – the dismantling of the prized sports car, the women discussing their slice of toast on the bus, the fearsome molls in the toilet at the club, the couple who abandon their children to follow their dream to become ball room dancers… neighbours appear at the door at the drop of something happening…and as to the nuns and saint Teresa de Avila, there is a background here because you may need to know the story

Part of its charm is its complexity. There are few books that can manage to have a wooden chair by way of finale. Everyone has a side story, one of their own, a half truth perhaps, which allows for depth and width, 3d in the storytelling. Plus there is the literary slant: she is known as the girl-who-reads-while-walking. Not the done thing. Her taste is for old fiction, as escape, but the wonderfully precocious wee sisters demand she read to them from the more modern Thomas Hardy.

The Booker chair judge Kwame Anthony Appiah gave it perhaps the worst of endorsements: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard”. That might well be applied to a few recent winners, but not this, it is a totally brilliant book – not as popular maybe as some of the other contenders, both Sally Rooney and Michael Ondatje, as I wrote back in the summer, might been happy winners but did not make the shortlist – but it is fake news to overlook the genius here. This is a stand out novel.

Topically speaking, everyone discussing the so called Irish BackStop these days could do worse than sit down quietly for a couple of days to read this before arriving at any conclusions of their own, thank you very much. One argument for Europe was that it helped put a stop to such things, and not just, for sure, in Northern Ireland. Anna herself, I notice, now lives in west Sussex. No wonder.

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The vegetarian option by Simon Hopkinson (Quadrille)


“One evening in the late summer of 2007, and probably a Sunday, I found myself rummaging around in the salad drawer of my fridge.”

I AM alarmed to see the historian Simon Schama pronouncing on the new reprint of MFK Fisher’s whimsical Consider the Oyster. She is, he says, the greatest food writer who has ever lived. Wow a GFWWHEL! Where I might accept Simon’s opinions on Jewish scriptures or an old Dutch master or a pyramid even, I am not too sure about cookery. Cookery, Simon? Simon? Ms Fisher? The greatest?

What about Eliza Acton who locked herself away for 10 years testing recipes for her Modern Cookery published in 1845 and which was later largely plundered by the ubiquitous and unscrupulous publishers of Mrs Beeton? Or the charming Virginia Housewife by the former society boarding house madam Mary Randolph published in 1824? Or Alexandre Dumas, son of a slave, better known for his Three Musketeers but who regarded his own Dictionary of Gastronomy as his finest work. I could go to Italy for Ada Bono. Or any number of candidates in France all of which were written before Ms Fisher’s (Mary Frances Kennedy, as you ask, usually Mary) work. There are others, these just come to mind. And after her there is Elizabeth David of course, the earlier writings of Jane Grigson…

I have even written (yes me) a better book about oysters than MFK. The difference is that mine is about oysters, hers is about a rich American socialite and her acquaintances and a celebrity gush. Her appeal is a lifestyle of trips to Europe, writing gags for Hollywood, restaurant reviews for the New Yorker and more than one or two affairs…in essence it is more about Considering a rather privileged Mary, than so many bivalves.

Also reissued this Christmas is Simon Hopkinson’s the Vegetarian Option first published in 2009, now in an elegant two colours (green, obviously). Side by side it is a bit of a no contest. Hopkinson’s writing sometimes packs more punch than his own cooking. He has some other suggestions for a GFWWHEL. He gives us Paul Bocuse’s squash soup cooked in the shell with cream and gruyere and croutons, Marc Meneau’s vegetable broth slow cooked in a glass jar. He mentions Quentin Crewe and Anthony Blake, and credits Bruce Cost. And Richard Olney. And Constance Spry etc

Like Fisher, Hopkinson is unembarrassed by his enthusiasms:

“Does not this recipe qualify as one of the most simple and delicious in this book? – well delicious in anyone’s book come to that. The secret of course is its simplicity together with the sheer beauty of the thing, once carefully assembled”.

We are talking about blood orange and white onion salad.

Hopkinson has the edge over Fisher for my money in that he also has the recipes, his quest is for a gastronomic understanding. Fisher is unusually good about herself, good fun as she is, a sort of gastro Dorothy Parker (who was more interested in drinking).

Hopkinson on the other hand can give you a recipe for artichoke soup with black truffles. And also his mother’s cauliflower cheese recipe. And her leek and cheese pie. What comes across most in his book are his Lancashire roots, so French beans are essentially given two quite different treatments at the same time – with shallots and vinaigrette, so far so French, but then diluted with Anglo, whipping cream and chopped parsley. It is not that you need to know how to cook to use this book, just perhaps if you cook well you will appreciate the subtleties like that. And when we get to peas, a la francaise, mon dieu, the instruction is one hour in the oven…tres norf country. He has leanings towards malt vinegar and even here and there are parsimonious additions of a couple of tablespoons of water in his sauces.

The Fisher oyster book also gets a puff from from Felicity Cloake who also has her own book out – Completely Perfect (Penguin) – where she patiently tests 120 popular dishes for her Guardian column – which might – like Hopkinson’s – hang around your kitchen shelves rather longer. Both might be commendable Christmas presents.

Apart from a few notable exceptions reading old cookery books for me largely just shows how good the modern writers are and why the food back in the day was so awful. The watershed perhaps, at least for me,  was 1981 with the publication of John Tovey’s Feast of Vegetables, another candidate for a GFWWHEL (a mentor to Delia Smith) although he was more cook and showman than wordsmith, which is often a divide.

Behind the scenes, Oyster is a re-issue from DB, better known as Daunt Books, the travel bookshop who have started their own list of old, presumably out of copyright, texts. The bookshop subsumes author, agent, publisher and incorporates all the benefits in itself which seems morally, creatively and intellectually moribund.

Recipe writing sadly is no stranger to such practices. Isabella Beeton in fact died aged 28, hardly old enough to have acquired the knowledge attributed to her between four unhappy pregnancies in four years. On her death her husband Samuel carelessly signed over the copyright to the publishers Ward Lock who maintained the fiction that she was still alive and writing recipes. The book is still in currency and the profits still roll into Hachette.

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How’s the pain? by Pascal Garnier (Gallic)

“The sound coming from somewhere in the darkness was barekly audible, but it was enough…


I AM unsure about the title, douleur can be translated as pain, but it also implies grief, soreness, aching, distress and misery as in a heartbreak or a long suffering illness or predicament. It is imbued with a romantic fatalism of the kind that affects most of the older protoganists here. I might have preferred a title like The Pact or the Assassin’s Accomplice. It is ‘60s rural France. There is a background appearance of the crooner Jean Ferrat, the alcoholic mother Anais’s favourite, snatched shopping in the market…in fact he was mayor of Atraigues sur Volane which is 12 miles north of Vals-des Bains which does indeed have (six) thermal springs and a casino and a central hotel Grand Hotel de Lyon and a restaurant Chez Mireille where Simon invites young Bertrand to supper of daube de bouef which it still serves.

All this detailed warm realism allows the characters to ascend confidently into rich fantastical expressions of their innermost selves: The ageing gunslinger, the lost boy, the rich widow, the orphan girl and Anais herself who has one of those great moments which might be described as an alcoholic’s worst nightmare.

Here she has got dressed up for this stranger from out of town “in all her showiest finery: moth eaten silks, faded lace, oil stained satin, multi-string bead necklaces, clattering metal bangles, globe sized earing, Moroccan slippers with worn out soles, and a frayed turban.”

Another woman later is described as having hair like macaroni.

Simon says he is a pest controller and needs a driver for a job because he is not well enough to drive himself. Bernard is at a loose end having lost two fingers in a factory accident when he was drunk.

The writing broods eloquently around this douleur. “Time did not follow its usual course in hotel rooms; it stagnated like the dead arm of a river.” Simon looks down on his own body and remarks that “his knees were like banister knobs.”

Quick passages of description fold into a plot that erupts in progressive surreal realisations of dashed hopes and new ambitions. Like Anais and Simon the town is reaching the end of its livelihood. “Tourists wandered aimlessly as if roaming the ruins of a lost civilisation”. The axis is the handing over of generations bound up into a crime noire. Masculine, macabre, black humour at its best.

Well known in France as a novelist with more than 60 titles to his name, Garnier is often compared to George Simenon, but with wit. He died in 2010.

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21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape)


“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power”

YUVAL – after three books I feel we are on first person terms – has a political yardstick of communism, liberalism and fascism, which is fair enough, although as he opines here all three tenets have somehow flunked out leaving us  – the literate, book buying elite that remains – faced with an option worse than all three, no faith, no religion, at all, nihilism in fact. Bewilderment at world events.

Yuval is not against breaking out of these political constraints as if he also has other accepted beliefs like faith, empathy, sympathy, compassion, friendship, companionship, veganism, existentialism even, all safely locked up in his own personal larder, thank you very much. And then there is the question of when he says we, does he really mean we, as in me, as in readers in general, as in you/us, as in us undergraduates enrolled in the university of Harari? Or is he writing for some superhuman human, (as predicted by Stephen Hawking) about to inherit the planet, or perhaps he is applying for a job, major domo to said future superman/woman. It is a point Yuval touches on as we go along. The question of identity.

Which also asks the question if thought or thinking can alter the course of say climate change or any other foreseen calamity? Knowing there were Nazis around the corner did not stop them coming around and killing those of a non arian persuasions. We know about climate change, but what to do? Our parochial national political frameworks were not designed for such challenges.

Is there a point that for some, perhaps for most us, all this is irrelevant because we will be washed away anyway? Yuval set out as some liberal samurai but as time has passed – he cities Trump and Brexit as axiomatic truths of the modern era and if Russia did not meddle in those elections he takes it as a given someone will soon – events are upon us, or if not us, then somebody else. It is not such a comfortable perspective if you were/are looking from the Middle East or China or Asia or Russia…or in Palu. Are these just lessons for the affluent? For decision makers?

That said there is a certain flattering frisson in being treated as a master of the universe. Bask in this great sunshine of academia. Read this on a park bench to reassure others that you have things under control. You are taking here accepted texts. Be Moses for a day. Be an intellectual. Buy a life raft tomorrow…move to New Zealand, southern island.

The point of departure as Yuval looks into the future is bewilderment. Accept that life is complicated. Let us not be daunted. That just maybe machines and algorithms might help. And then we move into potential impacts, AI on jobs, algorithms in medicine, compassion as in nursing or looking after the elderly may it seems may still survive as new jobs. Some of this is not so new at all I suspect to many of us for whom Amazon is already busy supplying us with new reading suggestions each week and whose smart phones are hacked by advertisements of just the right saucepan that I did not know I needed but do now.

How much better might it be if Amazon’s algorithm might also suggest new partners for us based on our buying choices? Or a new more suitable job? Maybe Amazon’s big A could do it better because, as he points, out although we make a big deal of our free will, we as humans, don’t always make particularly good choices of career, loved ones or anything else however precious we regard our notional freedom of choice. Progress. The difficult part, he unnervingly suggests, is we are not very good with changes as radical as those in the pipeline.

“Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech,” he points out. There are intricate reasons for this assertion but in one explanation it is globalization, which on the one hand horizontally speaking brings down borders between countries but on the other perspective, the vertical, it reduces each of us to anonymous, potentially irrelevant cogs depending on our access or ability to afford to Big Data. And that is the nub. Who owns the data? And what will they use it for?

The pleasing thing amid all this nervousness is that Yuval is wonderfully articulate, like an engine driver pulling us passengers along. Toot Toot. The nearest thing that I can ascribe to this towering piece of thinking is that he has become the Karl Marx of our day.



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