The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard (Picador)

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“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)

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“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

http://navfin.blogspot.com/2010/10/st-teresa-of-avila.html

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)

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“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)

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“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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Colour by Victoria Finlay (Random)

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“I had thought, when I set out on my travels – when I first tumbled through that paintbox – that I would somehow find, in the original stories of colours, something pure.”

THE many journeys Finlay undertakes in search of the sources of her artists’ colours mark this history as more than just a text book, rather it is a very visual, very personal, romance. She etches the characters she meets in like a painter herself brushing in a minor person in the crowd – the lonely Afghan lapis miner who replies to her question of what was the best time of his life: when my wife and I were newly wed and locked together like horses.

Like a great war reporter she spends as much time getting permissions and visas to travel to her sources in her great, global quest. She brings an artist’s eye to her expositions along with the histories of colours, now synthetically made but back in the day each had to be ground out in the chemist’s workshop to blend natural minerals and compounds that lie behind the perfect names on pencil shafts like cadmium red or the Persian blue so familiar now from Ming vases and which of course are the mark of all the great art before 1900. Finding colour at all was more than half the job of the apprentices, some concoctions were so extreme like orpiment or Chinese yellow they could be deadly. There was so much arsenic laced into the green and yellow of Napoleon’s bedroom wallpaper, it may even have killed him.

Finlay recites her father taking her to Chartres cathedral and pointing out a piece of blue stained glass as her point of inspiration. And then. “Dutch pink: a fugitive yellow lake made from buckthorn ‘made me swoon with its paradox, I was smitten’”.

So we embark on an odyssey starting in the Vatican archives, then to northern Australia for ochre and the morbid, tangled, shady history of Aboriginal masterpieces – a much more detailed and enlightening exposition than BBC4’s recent attempt – and so on, for each part of the globe has its own secret hue.

Not all is what it might seem, black for example. “In Claude Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare, the pitch black locomotives in his busy station are actually made up of extremely vivid colours – including bright vermillion red, French ultramarine blue, and emerald green”. Conservationists have revealed he hardly used any black pigment at all.

And then for yellow, we are in Bihar, which may have been the start of painting as we know it, to validate if the source of the famous Indian yellow could really be from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. That proves a riddle too far. For saffron we start in Kashmir, move up to Tibet, then to La Mancha and back to Saffron Walden where it arrived in the middle ages perhaps in a pilgrim’s hat but died out by 1790, to Iran now the world’s biggest supplier, all the time looking for a delicate flower that only blooms for a day a year, the lowly crocus, and has to be harvested in the morning.

Not only does she have a zeal for her subject and a traveller’s eye for the people she meets but she also has a way with words themselves:

“It is an irony that the old silk roads are the least smooth pathways in the world. In rocky road hierarchies this one was king, and our Soviet jeep had been protesting in a language of clonks and crunches for some hours. Some of the gradients against which the engine would curse in its diesel-fumed Russian were so seemingly impossible that it was a miracle we achieved them each time”.

The history of an everyday craft, a singular human activity, that brings our world, our collective struggles and achievements to light.

 

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The gallows pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose)

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“Soot and ash. Snot and spume. Quag and sump and clotted moss. Loam.”

THE opening playful poetry should not distract you… we are off to a flying start, it is 1767, we are on a secret errand, we pass the tortured body of the poacher hung for taking a stag, Mrs Hartley is pleasuring her husband and then we are accosted in the road by a menacing boy with a slingshot plus we already know that this is the stuff of legend, a real story even, from around the valleys of Halifax…

The language is rich and poetic. This is describing the local butcher

“How is that corn-mouthed, collop bollocked, jug eared bastard?”

It is akin to His Bloody Project but in technicolour with surround sound. It won the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction but did not make the Man Booker short list last year, which seems a bad aberration.

I might accept it is not necessarily a book for everyone. It sides with the visceral, the raw. The violence is Shakespearean. Women do not get much of a look in, but are canny enough to stash their savings in the chicken coop. This is a man’s world, as it might well have been. This is Deadwood, only it is Halifax, Yorkshire, a century before. You might imagine it being spun in a snug over a few pints of beer. A film version I hear is in the pipeline, a compelling thought which won’t have to drill as deep as the novel into the guts and grime.

The history is slipped in carefully, talk of the mills and industrialization, the arrival of the turnpike, these are free men of the moors whose world is being appropriated. Insurrection is in the air.

The writing is rich, leathery, brambly because more than everything, towering over everyone are the moors themselves, animated, lusted after, reducing men as in Ben’s dad the charcoal burner to mere smoke.

Try this passage

“Autumn arrived like a burning ghost ship on the landscape’s tide…the ravens took flight to the highest climes as leaves fell like flung bodies..

Or this one in the Red Lion…

“The sharp sting of several types of smoke scented he air: the burned leaves of a bonfire, the greasy oil smoke of the hanging lanterns and the narrow plumes from clay pipes that clicked against black and broken teeth”.

Myers catches a very northern idiom, of men coming together, his characters breathe, they have names, they have desires. Academics could tease out a parallel with the Bible and Judas, or even a contemporary Brexit style we-want-to-take-control. It is multi layered, an immersive travelogue down a time shaft to less comfortable world.

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