The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 3, 2016

A Sardinian Nuptials

In Michela Murgia's Accabadora, the oldest sister is getting married and the whole family rallies around to cook up sweetmeats. Sardinian delights ensue:

For three whole days the bride's home became an ants' nest of relatives and neighbours coming and going with baskets full of fresh ingredients and borrowed trays on which the finished cakes were laid. The Listru sisters worked almost without a break, alternating tasks to bring miraculously to life an army of capigliette decorated with sugar lace, kilos of tiliccas swollen with saba, baskets full of aranzadas with their spicy aroma, tin boxes full of crisp little sugar dolls, and hundreds of round almond gueffus, individually wrapped like sweets in white tissue paper with its edges fringed like the battlements of the Guelph towers. There was not a room in the house with space in it for anything more, and Giulia and Regina had to move basketfuls of finished delicacies off their beds before they could fall asleep in the gentle fragrance of orange-flower water.

I'm not sure that a recent third author writing crime fiction based in India constitutes a new trend, but after Tarquin Hall and Vasim Khan, it is the turn of yet another Brit, Abir Mukherjee, to take up the genre. Mukherjee, however, sets his new procedural A Rising Man, in the past - in Calcutta, where, in 1919, there is already a insurrectionist mood, and the imperial interlopers are feeling nervy. Into this arrives a veteran of the Great War - Wyndham - who, in true detective style, has a tragic past and an addiction problem. As he is new to India, he needs a big info dump, which is of course Mukherjee's way of educating the reader.

There seems to be a requirement these days to have a likeable protagonist, so Wyndham is suitably anti-imperialist, unsexist and unracist. Your typical modern liberal, in other words. To show him off as even more likeable, his deputy (another Brit) is a bigot; to demonstrate his manliness, his sergeant Banerjee is a nerd; to prove he is progressive, his love interests are all intelligent women.

Then there are the crimes: a murder of a British administrator, and a robbery and murder on a mail train. Naturally, there will be a connection and it will be unearthed by Wyndham, who has to battle not only his personal demons but also colleagues and rivals from other departments of the security establishment. As police procedurals go, this book ticks all the requisite points: a shifty witness at the crime site, autopsies and nauseous onlookers, bursts of derring-do, a twist or two in the tale. The novel strives to be bigger than that, with expository analyses of Bengali socio-economics and effete intellectuality. There are bitter outbursts about the iniquity of foreign occupation, the rootlessness of mixed-race people. There are long lectures by various characters. And you can't have Calcutta without a description of its imperial splendour and native squalour.

Soon after reading this book, I came across Barbara Cleverly's older series of historical crime fiction. This has Joe Sandilands, another decorated soldier and Scotland Yard detective, who arrives in India on some sort of lecture tour, but can't wait to leave. In the first book, titled The Last Kashmiri Rose, just as he is making tracks to leg it from India, he's dragged into investigating a death of a British woman at an outpost not far from Calcutta. Proceeding there, he soon comes to realise that this death is only the latest of a set. Once again, you have a likeable protagonist - somewhat naive, even - who is not swayed by imperial pretensions of superiority. You have a hyper-efficient Indian subaltern, a very clever Englishwoman who Sandilands is suddenly in love with  (and who also serves to educate both him and the reader on the mores and attitudes of the Raj and the natives), and various politicking Brits and suspicious babus. While Cleverly appears to have researched the milieu and era quite a bit, there are some jarring notes to an Indian ear: dubious mythologies and references to deities, some expressions that are quite unlikely to have been used at the time, and peculiar Indian names. The book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2002; it must have been a rather slow year for historical fiction for that paper.

Sep 3, 2016

Last Meal?

He brought us a litre of white wine. Then we each ordered a salad with octopus and fried whitebait as a starter, followed by spaghetti with mussels in tomato sauce, and for a main course marinated anchovies with broccoli rabe.  
Riccardo poured the wine. 
'To us,' he said, raising the glass. 
'And sod the others,' I said.

From Andrej Longo's short story Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness in Ten.

Aug 27, 2016


The other day I was in Brussels to see high school friends with whom I'd been in touch phonewise and WhatsAppily but not actually set eyes on for decades and I thought I should try a bit of French with the locals. Arriving, per directions, at a crossroads not entirely sure which of the streets led to Neelu's house (streets being unmarked and I not trusting Google Maps since it led a rail replacement bus badly astray not two months ago after I attended a wedding at Newmarket and strove to get to Cambridge), I decided to stop an elderly pedestrian and interrogate him.

'Ahem', said I, 'Excusez-moi, monsieur. La rue Coubertin est où?'

He stopped and looked around and a pensive mien descended upon his face.

'Attendez', he said, 'attendez.'

I attended.

'Un moment,' he continued.

I gave him a moment.

The pensive mien ascended and he brightened. 

'Là bas', he said.

He did not point. I bethought myself of his panache as he made a fish of his hand and whipped it around the periphery of the crossroads, wriggling his fingers in unison and making the following noises.

'Zut', and 'phwzzz' and 'bopp'.

The last sound signified a street diametrically across from where we stood.

He smiled.

'Merci', I said.

We parted.

By the time Nils Holgersson turned forty-eight, he already lived very far north, in Jokkmokk, the capital of Swedish Lapland, which could only with the utmost pretension be called a capital city, since it was no more than a small, remote village upon which, as Tacitus wrote, the sun never shone in the winter and never set in the summer. He worked as a custodian at the only local high school, which had three classes for each grade and a dormitory so that students who lived as far as 100, 200 or even 1000 kilometers away would have a place to stay. The school menu was standard for Sweden: mashed potatoes with butter and strips of bacon on Mondays, fried fish and potatoes on Tuesdays, pea soup and pancakes with jelly on Wednesdays, tuna salad on a roll on Thursdays, and noodles with ground beef on Fridays, which was the children’s favorite. He knew all this from his wife, Maria, who was the cook in the school where he worked as the custodian.
From The Princess, by Alit Karp, translated from the Hebrew by Ilana Kurshan, The Guardian, February 2, 2016.

Jul 3, 2016


You know what they say about Americans abroad: if the locals don't understand what they say, they speak louder and louder... In English. But check this:

We took our leave of Sóstófürdő with a modest lunch. In the square where the pub was, a wilds how advertising Sprite. Gangsta rap over loudspeakers while Hungarian kids on skateboards slalomed in and out of giant green bottles imagining themselves black brothers. At a table nearby, the father of the family called to the waiter in Polish,"Kotlet scshabowy z fryktami! Veal cutlet with fries! Veal cutlet, dummy!" No matter how much the man raised his voice, however, the Hungarian dummy didn't understand a word.

From Andrzej Stasiuk, The Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe.

Jun 3, 2016

Bedford in Bordeaux

We look, we inhale, we draw in our mouthful: we chew, we think. It is a slow process… utterly absorbing and near an ordeal — the raw tannin puckers the inside of the cheeks, rasps the throat like claws, while at the kernel one finds a notion of… what? Texture, structure, multiplicities of scents…
Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes.

May 3, 2016

Vladimir to Véra

All through those 1926 letters, [Nabokov] remembers to tell Véra what he has eaten — it’s slightly comic, because Vladimir is not an adventurous eater, and it becomes a litany of good plain food — ‘lamb chop, and apple mousse… meatballs with carrot and asparagus, a plain brothy soup, and a little plate of perfectly ripe cherries… broth with dumplings, meat roast with asparagus and coffee and cake… chicken with rice and rhubarb compote’. The point is that Véra will be interested, because it’s her man eating his meals far away from her; we are interested because the writer evokes and specifies.
Philip Hensher, "Nabokov’s love letters are some of the most rapturous ever written", The Spectator, Sep 27, 2014.

The standard dishes were allegedly geared to popular taste and were devised by a group of experts inside the Ministry of Public Health. A typical dish might consist of three slices of meat loaf, two baked onions, five mushy boiled potatoes, a lettuce leaf, half a tomato, some thick, flour-based sauce, a third of a litre of homogenised milk, three slices of bread or crispbread, a portion of vitamin-enriched margarine, a little tub of soft cheese, coffee in a plastic cup, and a cake. The next day it would be the same thing again, but with boiled fish instead of milk. The whole lot was served on hygienically packed plastic trays, covered in plastic film.
From Per Wahlöö's The Steel Spring.

Mar 3, 2016

A Bit of Cod

In Manuel Rivas' tale of Galician melancholy, All Is Silence, a man is intent on a particular meal.
My primary objective was to go and eat cod in the Viana do Castelo. No, not à la Margarida da Praça, nor à la Gomes de Sá. In the end what I had, let's see if I remember, was "sliced cod with maize bread on a bed of baked potatoes and salted turnip tops."

Feb 22, 2016

Anarchist Food

They were Bradford anarchists who survived on food recovered from supermarket skips... They would bring back their catch and improvise exquisite meals: trout with poached eggs and roasted beetroot; pork with bruised peaches and goat's cheese; serrano ham and celeriac hash; all washed down with a chablis lifted from the Tesco Metro.

Feb 3, 2016


In Amos Oz's Panther In The Basement, the twelve year old narrator is being babysat by Yardena, on whom he has a terrific crush. She cooks a remarkably fragrant chicken dish that has the boy drooling and hot.

Meanwhile, aflame with desire and anticipation and pangs of hunger, swallowing back the surging saliva, I laid the table for the two of us, facing each other like Mother and Father. I decided to leave my usual place empty. As I laid the table I could see Yardena out of the corner of my eye tossing chicken pieces in the frying pan, to remind them who they were, tasting the sauce, adjusting the seasoning, spooning it over the food which had taken on a wonderful hue of burnished brass or old gold, and her arms, her shoulders, and her hips came alive in a kind of dance inside her dress, protected by my mother's apron, as though the chicken pieces were shaking her whiel she shook them.

When we had eaten our fill, we sat facing each other picking at a bunch of sweet grapes; then we devoured half a water-melon and drank coffee together even though I told Yardena honestly and bravely that I wasn't allowed coffee, especially in the evening before going to bed.

Yardena said:

'They're not here.'

So, 2015 is over. This was the year my blogging ground to a halt, my habits became even more sedentary, my achievements negligible, and my travels were to Orlando, for heaven's sake. Another year like that and I might as well throw in a nearby towel and take up life on some bend in a river, pondering the existence of fish.

To be honest, this year is not off on the thumpingest of starts. My washing machine conked out and the delivery guys of a new one couldn't install it. My patience with incompetence is also thinning. I've been lugging heaps of apparel to a laundrette and obtaining a renewed appreciation for subcontinental people who breaks stones with clothes. At the same time, various neighbours and municipal councillors have been casting beady eyes on a bit of renovation we're planning. I have half a mind to invite some illegals to occupy the jungly garden at the back and encourage them to throw nightly parties just to keep the neighbours bright and interested.


The reading was down on the previous three years. I managed 118 books. In this I'm way behind that powerhouse, M. Orthofer, doyen of the Complete Review, who polishes off probably three hundred books a year and manages to review ⅔ of them.

Some books were brilliant and others were absolute dogs. This is no news.

But here are some stats to start off:

Fiction - 80%
Women authors - 30%
Translations - 43%
Countries (non-English) - 14
Languages other than English - 25

My first Basque translation, I think, and my first book by an Eritrean author. And my first Dogri and Rajasthani translations.


For a quick roundup of recommended titles, I start with non-fiction.

Catherine Merridale, Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History: a riveting account of the Moscow Kremlin, from its earliest to latest incarnations, and the worrisomely brutal types that lived in it, destroyed it, refashioned it, and bent it to their own interpretations of history.

Caleb Scharf, The Copernicus Complex: The Quest for Our Cosmic (In)Significance: what an incredible repositioning of the human experience bang into the centre of the Universe! One of the biggest advances of science has been the demotion of humanity and the Earth from their egocentric position in the cosmos and the realisation that in almost every respect and at every scale of the Universe, we are negligible and not special. But Scharf reveals the latest thinking in cosmology and quantum physics that shows this 'Copernican' principle needs to be modified in the light of all sorts of special events that should have taken place for the Universe to be as it is, for the solar system to have developed, and for our remarkable appearance at a particular juncture in time when we can actually learn something of the Universe. Superb.

Mariusz Szczygieł, Gottland : Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia: Indians would no doubt fondly recall Bata, that ever-present purveyor of shoes. The story of his ruthless rise to power is well told in this Polish author's superb collection of essays (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) on lesser-known aspects of Czechoslovakia's Communist and capitalist avatars. As a fellow Iron Curtain survivor, his insights into the paranoia and delusions of the Czechs are sympathetic, accurate and mordant.

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets: a wonderful, detailed and erudite study of what water means for a planet, how it gets there, what happens to it, how it escapes it, and - the atmosphere! plate tectonics! evolution! life! extraterrestrial worlds! It's all mind-blowing and absolutely superb.

I should mention Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, which was a best-seller in India, if less covered in the mainstream press in the UK: although it purports to be a non-Eurocentric perspective of world history, to me it did seem more like a study of the effects of the rest of the world on Europe than a proper history of that rest of the world. I'm not putting it very well, but ultimately it disappointed me for its lack of coverage of enormous swathes of the planet - Africa and Latin America were almost completely ignored, and Oceania and China were given rather short shrift. There was much talk of trade links but very little of scientific and cultural cross-pollination. I suspect a properly non-Eurocentric world history can be fashioned from this one, using its superb bibliography, which by itself is worth the price of the book.


Now a bit of fiction.

When I read bildungsromans like Stefanie de Velasco's Tiger Milk, it occurs to me I completely missed out during my teen years. No sneaking out of the house at odd hours, no wild parties, no unprotected sex with people with mid-life crises, no adulterated liquors, no drugs, no creativity. Damn. I was a nerd, so that might explain much of the relative joylessness, but the young girls in this German novel (translated by Tim Mohr) are bright and sensitive and yet get into such heaps of self-inflicted tribulations, I'm glad (in retrospect) I grew up completely boring.

Alena Graedon has fashioned a very scary near future in The Word Exchange where people's addictions to their smart devices and information retrieval via instant Google searches can be co-opted for profit by private enterprises. Already there's research showing people think they're smarter than they are because they can look up facts on the internet, and simultaneously there's a devaluation of people and cultures that are not present on the web (note the widespread consequences of gender and cultural biases in Wikipedia). Graedon's dystopia is only slightly incredible but it's frightening - grab it for some sleepless nights of worry.

The Sudanese writer Amir Tag Elsir's Arabic novel African Titanics (translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby) is the story of desperate emigrants trying every way to get to Europe. Topical, of course, but adumbrated by the stories they tell each other, this book lends another perspective to the horrors of their crossing.

(I'm in awe of Charis Bredin, who I think is still a student and yet she has a couple of translations published already. In awe and deeply envious.)

I was so taken up by Esmahan Aykol's Baksheesh, (translated by Ruth Whitehouse), one of her series of crime novels featuring Kati Hirschel, a feisty Istanbullu detective-book-shop owner, that I went and created a Wikipedia article for the author.

What is the use of those obscene Emiratis and Saudis and Qataris who do nothing of any artistic or scientific consequence with their immense wealth, in comparison to the indigent Egyptians and Maghrebis and Syrians? Take the writer Ali Al-Muqri's Hurma (translated T. M. Aplin) - what an insight into the lives of Yemeni women and their desperate attempts to take ownership of themselves in a claustrophobically patriarchal and hypocritical society.

I should also mention Jacob and Dulce, a bitingly satirical dissection of Indo-Portuguese life in Goa in those pre-Independence days by Gip (nom-de-plume of Francisco João da Costa; translated by Alvaro Noronha da Costa), one of the very few really readable translations from the Sahitya Akademi.

And finally the sharply observed short stories of Ahmed Essop, South-African writer of Indian origin, Hajji Musa and the Hindu Fire-walker are well worth the read.


Have a superb 2016, folks.

In Habib Selmi's The Scents of Marie-Claire, the Tunisian narrator dreams that his dead mother and he are visiting his girlfriend's mother's house. The latter urges his mother to try various cheeses.
"I want you to try this piece of Roquefort, Madame Turki," said Marie-Claire's mother as she leaned over a big plate full of various cheeses. "All these cheeses are from our country." My mother devoured a piece of cheese and presented her plate immediately to Marie-Claire's mother, who was happy to see my mother's unexpected appetite for her cheeses. 
"And now, how about a small piece of Pont-l'Évêque?" 
"Delicious," said my mother as she passed her plate back again. 
"Have a piece of this Chaussée Aux Moix; and this piece of Camembert; and this piece of Brie de Meaux; and this and this .... "

Dec 3, 2015

Daily Menu

In Pham Ti Hoai's lovely collection of short stories, Sunday Menu, the title tale has a hapless girl trying hard to keep the peace between her ailing grandmother and her mother. 
On the second day of the previous New Year, Mother made a special effort to cook a mushrooms-in-aspic dish and told me to take it to Grandma. When Grandma upturned the dish onto a plate, the sloppy jelly wobbled but luckily it stayed in one piece. Normally, Mother's aspic jelly is so runny that I could faint just looking at it. I was pleased and waited for Grandma to eat it, but she didn't. Instead, she said, 'Take it back to your mother and tell her to use a fine cloth as a sieve to drain the pork skin first; the peppers hold be toasted lightly - swirl them around twice only in a hot pan; the mushrooms should be pared right to the base; and tell her to stop trying to poison me with indiscriminate use of gourmet powder.' I threw the lot into Hoan Kiem Lake on the way home but told Mother that Grandma had enjoyed it. I wanted to bring Mother and Grandma a little closer; cyclo-driver food served on a red lacquered tray would mark the beginning of a new trend in culinary fashion.

Lourdes also proceeded to demonstrate, to my amazement, that (at least in this region of the stratosphere) there was no apparent relation between the amount of food its inhabitants put away and the ligne of their figures. To put it bluntly, she gorged as though she had skipped lunch, but came out of it looking like the Sugar Plum Fairy, albeit one with truly wonderful breasts. She wanted some caviar en blini. She insisted that I try some of her duck liver, not forgetting one or two of its abundant nuggets of black truffle. If Laurent had had ortolans en caissette, those tiny and rare buntings served whole in fluted paper cases, I am sure her relentless and champing jaws would have disposed of half a dozen before proceeding to the civet de lièvre avec pommes soufflées, and thence to the tart of Anjou pears with a little rhyming pear sorbet on the side, and finally, like some marathon runner breaking the tape, to the immense trolley of cheeses. She ate her way through all this without the slightest appearance of strain. It was I who sweated and inwardly groaned, for my menu had prices on it whereas, in the chauvinistic manner of French restaurants then, hers did not.
From "The Spectacle of Skill", by Robert Hughes. 

Nov 3, 2015

Auschwitz Violinist

In Maria Àngels Anglada's The Auschwitz Violin, the young luthier Daniel remembers Passover feasts.
He would imagine the two holiday meals at Passover with all the relatives, uncles and cousins. The basket with the haroseth, the bitter herbs that would have tasted so good now, the hard-boiled eggs, the white silk cloth with blue stripes that covered them … What he would have given for a hard-boiled egg today! Or better still, a piece of lamb. He remembered the taste of the matzo - the unleavened bread - and the fun of searching for the hidden piece, the prize for the child who found it. He didn't want to think about the songs or the three toasts. If he could just have a few spoonfuls of cholent - the terrine of rice, eggs, dried beans and goose that had to be cooked all night in the community oven. As a young boy, he'd been sent more than once to fetch it.

Oct 15, 2015

Black Books

I read Hend Al Qassemi's Black Book of Arabia with an increasing sense of frustration. At a time when few books by international authors get published in the major presses, it seems unconscionable that an example of such pedestrian plodding prose would be released by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. The tales in this book are supposedly stories told in secret to the author (who is a publisher of a Middle Eastern magazine called Velvet), and have some innate points of interest in them, but have been written at the level of a somewhat unimaginative teenager. 
I was seated next to my husband Eissa when the brain surgeon at Hamad General Hospital in Doha, Qatar, informed us that my partner of seventeen years had brain cancer. Had it been any other form of cancer I might have reacted more collectedly as recovery rates for many forms of cancer are well above fifty percent. But brain cancer is different. Its recovery rates remain low, and its treatment is difficult and painful. My father had died of another form of cancer, lung cancer, and the nightmare of his agony flashed before me. Cancer was taking everyone I loved from me. When were they going to invent a cure for this Black Death?
Kuwait, UAE, Saudi and Qatar, rich, holier-than-thou, are spoiled, cultural wastelands, with little to offer the rest of the world. What have they done with their ugly billions? And now you have Al Qassemi, Emirati royalty married into Qatari royalty, getting published. It smacks of ticking yet another box among her hobbies. Published author, tick. What is Bloomsbury thinking? There's enough superb literature coming out of the Arab world that such dross should be ignored.

In Irene Rozdobudko's The Lost Button, a manic pixie girl called Lika has a bit of Transcarpathian blackberry wine.

And what wine it was! The first drop was like blistering viscid resin. Sweet and thick lava flowed down my throat, its stream ran further, washing off all my insides. It was as if I saw myself from inside, felt my every cell - just like I did in the morning and ... I lost feeling in my legs. It was as if a butterfly-swallowtail was trying to open its glued wings inside my chest. The thick liquid had the taste of time - the bitterness of twenty-year-old dust ingrained into the glass of the bottle, the roughness of the wild berries that died long ago, and the sweetness of yellow sugar (of the kind that no longer can be found!). And also - a particular aroma of some kind of unknown potion. My lips nestled eagerly on the mug, and I tore myself away only when they had turned black and when whiteness glimmered on the bottom.

To Zi’an, Look out from the Riverside in Sadness

Myriads of maple leaves 
upon myriads of maple leaves 
silhouetted against the bridge, 
a few sails return late in the dusk.

 How do I miss you? 

 My thoughts run like 
the water in the West River, 
flowing eastward, never-ending, 
day and night

Yu Xuanji (844?-871?), Tang dynasty poet and courtesan