Tag Archives: books

Great House

24 Jan

As soon as I saw Great House in Exclusive Books, I had to have it! After the enthralling read of The History of Love and now Great House, I can safely call myself a great lover of Nicole Krauss’s work.

It all starts with a monologue by an unknown woman telling her life story to an unknown listener. But it is far more interesting than that; the woman keeps addressing the listener as “your honour” as if in court, yet her winding story has none of the characteristics of a testimony. To whom is she talking and why?

Just as I thought I became closer to answering these questions, Krauss swaps narratives. Each time I felt myself beginning to understand the particular story I was reading, and perhaps the link between it and the rest, I was whisked into another part of another story, always wondering how I would find my way out of the labyrinth to something resembling sense. It’s not that the stories are confusing, but readers have an innate deisre to make things fits, to link different stories and times if they are in one novel. We want it all to make sense.

This is what makes Nicole Krauss’s work so interesting. She plays on our need for logical progression in narrative, much like great film makers; she jumps around, feeding us bits and pieces until, in the final chapter, it all makes sense and, after some careful thought about time, we can close the book, finally satisfied that we “got it”. Or did we?

Great House is made up of four very different stories, but each have one item in common – a beautiful, if ominous, desk, is all that lets the reader have a vague idea that something is making the book cohesive. The desk however, is merely a tool that allows Krauss to cross time and geography, from London to New York, Budapest to Jerusalem. Each character that surrounds the desk has a sad story to tell of loss and deep loneliness, making Great House a somewhat tiring, if gripping read.

Krauss clearly has a deep interest in World War Two and the deep effects it has had on families, even the children who were not yet born, and those seeking out a new life. Great House explores the deep loneliness felt by those who carry secrets and loss with them throughout their lives. She draws excellent psychologoical landscapes, but without giving the impression that she understands or knows what it must be like. She has a great gift for showing the reader rather than telling.

Pick up Great House and be prepared to hide in your room for two days, reading, but make sure you have someone nearby to give you a hug once you finish – you will need it.

 

The History of Love

4 Jan

“How audacious!” These were my first thoughts when seeing the title The History of Love  on my sister’s bookshelf. How could one book claim to be the history of love? I picked up Nicole Krauss’s book more out of spite than real interest. I was going to prove that this was, to say the least, an ambitious title.  After a page , my spite disappeared and I was immersed in a truly beautiful novel, one that will stay with me for a long time.

The History of Love  follows two stories which eventually become one. Leo Gursky is an old man, a Polish refugee  of World War 2 living in New York. He is tired and scared of dying on a day when no one sees him. This causes him to create scenes, drop pennies in stores and bump into strangers. Once Leo was stong , young and a writer, now he is living out his promise to love only one woman, long after she could not let him.

Alma is a fourteen-year-old girl in another part of the city. She lives with her younger brother who becomes more obsessively religious by the day, and her mother, a translator. Alma only knows a few things about her father, but she cherishes them deeply, cultivating a myth around the man. About her own name, she knows only that she is named after a girl in a novel, The History of Love, which her father once gave her mother. She has never read it.

Alma and Leo’s stories are heartbreaking and breathtaking. I find it is generally the stories of the young and the very old that are. The naivety of the young Alma and the regrets of the old Leo add different dimensions to this tale. Krauss has woven these two, seemingly contradictory characters together so sensitively and cleverly that the story is one to be rememebered and held dear. Once I had finished the novel, I sat still for a long time; it is one of those books that slightly alters how you see the people and relationships around you.

Nicole Krauss

The style of The History of Love  does take some patience. It is unconventionally written, not only in narrative structure, but also in langauge. Leo and Alma’s voices are each characterised with turns of phrase and incomplete sentences that could be jarring to a reader who prefers the ordinary. The style reminded me

somehow of The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, as different as they may seem. Strangely enough, after making this observation I discovered that Nicole Krauss is in fact married to Jonathan Safran Foer. Bizarre.

The History of Love  is an intense book of regret, love and discovery. Read it now, while I move on to Krauss’s next book, Great House.

For more information on Nicole Krauss, head to her website.

Home Made

6 Nov

Cooking has grown on me slowly. It started with my mum’s easy peasy quiche when I started university and had to cook for myself. Then the baking bug bit me and has stayed under my skin ( see Cupcake Magic). Now I consider myself a competent, if somewhat nervous, cook. Combine this with my love of books and you have a recipe book junkie.

I stumbled across Home Made in the Exclusive Books sale and I had to have it. Not only is the name appealing to me, but the gorgeous cover design, photos and the fact it’s written by Gordon Ramsay’s wife, Tana, all convinced me it would be mine!

And so the book sat on our house’s beautifully cultivated cook book shelf. Until I decided enough was enough and it was time to invite the girls round for a dinner. The dinner would be entirely from Tana Ramsay’s Home Made  (and Woolworths) and I would roast…gasp… lamb!

This only deserves a gasp because I had never done it before. And how easy it turned out to be.  Home Made  lives up to it’s byline – “Good, honest food made easy” My menu for the evening was:

  • Leg of lamb with pancetta, rosemary and tomato sauce
  • crushed new potatoes with feta
  • green salad
  • Woolworths plaited bread with feta, spinach and mushroom (buy it – it’s delish!)
  • Peach cobbler
  • Itatian kisses (Woolworths again!)

The lamb was incredibly easy to make, asking only a few minutes attention before popping it into a hot oven for 20 minutes. After this the oven must be turned down and I had to get making the pancetta and tomato sauce. I used bacon instead of pancetta but I don’t think it compromised the taste at all. Again, the sauce was very simple. A few hours in the oven, alongside the potatoes and the lamb was ready.

I was nervous for the girls to taste my first attempt at lamb, but I needn’t have been. I was greeted with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ which are very gratifying when all I did was follow an excellent recipe! The best part was when I took the left over lamb to work (2,2kg fed seven girls, plus five hungry teachers the next day!)  One of our lovable Maths teachers is a respectable Greek gentleman and he asked for a second helping of lamb. Tana Ramsay – you have given me a reputation for great Greek lamb!

But I haven’t mentioned dessert – the best part of any meal! Ramsay’s baked peach coobler is the most gratifying baked dessert for the least effort I have come across. I have just eaten another helping while writing this because, three days after my dinner, I had to make it again to show my mum 🙂 This needs to be tasted, not described, so here it the recipe below, (the way I made it, which is a little different)- please make it yourself soon, even if it is summer!

Ingredients:

2 – 410g tins peach halves

115g self-raising flour

50g castor sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

60g butter

1 egg yolk

60 ml buttermilk

Put the peaches and syrup in a sauce pan and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn down the heat and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. In the meantime, sift flour, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Rub in the cold butter until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Stir in the yolk and buttermilk. Put the peaches and syrup in a flat ovenproof dish. Dollop spoonfuls of batter around the peaches. Bake at 180C for 30-40 mins or until golden brown with bubbly syrup. Serve with anything. WOW!

Tana Ramsay

I am so glad I bought Home Made. Tana Ramsay writes very clear instructions and the ingredients are easy to get hold of or easy to replace. I say this because the fish section is dominated by typical English fish, like cod, monkfish and sardines, but one can easily find a South African equivalent.

The only difference I had to make to the recipes was to cook everything slightly longer, but I have a very small oven, so as soon as lamb and potatoes are both in the oven, the temperature is sucked up very quickly.

Now I will hold my head with pride as I say, “Why, yes, I can make a leg of lamb. Can’t everyone?’ And I’ll know I have Ramsay on my side.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

29 Sep

“Swirl” must be Kim Edward’s favourite word. She uses it to describe the movement of water, snowflakes, voices and even darkness. She really needs a new word. This overuse of “swirl” irritated me, like most of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.

The story starts in 1964 with Dr David Henry and his young, pregnant wife, Norah. Norah’s water breask in the middle of a snow storm (amid so many “swirling” snowflakes) and David is forced to deliver his own child with the help of one nurse – Caroline Gill. Except there isn’t only one child, Norah gives birth to twins – a boy and a girl. David recognises at once that the baby girl is Down syndrome and he hands her over to the nurse to take to an institution. The novel hinges on this moment and its consequences.

Of course, Caroline, who is also in love with David, can’t face leaving the child in an institution and runs away with her as her own child. In the meantime, David has told Norah that their daughter died at birth and tries to make her focus on their son. Heartache, tension and drama result as the novel follows the consequences of David’s decision.

The story isn’t weak as such, and there are some interesting themes. The story deals with the difficulties of Down syndrome in the 60s, 70s and 80s, particularly getting an education for a disabled child. As the novel progresses there are more issues dealt with about the future and possibilities available for a person with Down syndrome. Unfortunately in telling a decent story, Edwards swaps between narrating from David, Norah and Caroline’s perspective. All of them are melodramatic and pretty self-indulgent characters. It is only at the end, when she writes from the far simpler perspective of the son, Paul, that the writing feels at all natural.

The style of the novel also detracts hugely from enjoyment of the story. Edwards’ writing is over the top, overwritten if you will. She seems to have learnt that a good sentence must be long, contain lots of adjectives, and a few phrases following one after the other to repeat the rest of the sentence. This only works for flaky romantics. Anyone who actually appreciates real literature will probably find this sickening. In fact, the only reason I kept reading beyond page 27 is because I had to see if the book improved (and because I secretly relished the idea of writing a bad review!). I mention page 27 because this is where I found the following paragraph:

“He had brown hair with a reddish tinge and his face was lean, his expression attentive, assessing. He was not distinguished, yet there was something in his stance, his manner – some quiet alertness, some quality of listening – that set him apart. Caroline’s heart quickened and she felt a tingling on her skin, both pleasurable and irritating, like the unexpected brush of a moth’s wing [another favourite comparison, used too often.] His eye’s caught hers – and she knew. Before he crossed the room to shake her hand, before he opened his mouth to speak his name, David Henry, in a neutral accent that placed his as an outsider. Before all this, Caroline was sure of a single fact: the person she’d been waiting for had come. “

This paragraph made me gag, ever so slightly. It is typical of Edward’s style and sentimentality which continues throughout the novel. If The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was like dipping my toe in the Chick-lit ocean, I can assure you I’m not going to dive in, especially if the first page contains “swirling”.

Beatrice and Virgil

25 Sep

There is a range of familiar emotions I expect to feel from at the end of any book: angry at the characters or the ending; desperate for the story to continue and the characters not to disappear; sad for the outcome of the plot and what it meant for humanity; satisfied that I had read the book; appalled about a weak ending. But Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil made me feel none of these things. When I put the book down I was strangely empty.

Henry is a writer who has been disappointed by the publisher’s response to his latest attempt. He stops writing, but finds many other interests. Luckily, his first novel still sells well enough to provide for him and his wife. He still receives letters from readers and it is one such letter from an old taxidermist living in his city that creates the story.

The taxidermist needs help with his Beckett-style play revolving around Beatrice and Virgil. They are constantly hungry and discussing what to do next, without ever doing anything. To the dramatists among you, this may sound familiar. My favourite conversation between them involves Virgil describing a pear to Beatrice, over the course of seven pages! (It really is quite inspiring, especially to a fruit farmer’s daughter.)

But what starts out as a light-hearted glimpse of two men’s lives intersecting quickly becomes a dark look at the Holocaust and human suffering. Martel’s prose ends abruptly and the transition doesn’t allow the reader time to absorb what is actually taking place.

Martel studied Philosophy before taking to writing and this does lie at the heart of his novels. Life of Pi has won acclaim from all sides, but Beatrice and Virgil falls far short of that beautiful book. Rather read Life of Pi and bask in his stunning style with a plot that can capture you and quietly lead you to your own decisions, rather than Beatrice and Virgil which throws how you are meant to feel at the end in your face. This kind of force is what left me empty.

The Lacuna

31 Aug

A lacuna is a gap in knowledge, an open space, in history and literary theory. Barbara Kingsolver takes advantage of this definition by leaving much for the reader to figure out in this exquisite book about love, politics, fear and loss.

Harrison Shepherd is a shy young boy, dragged to Mexico from his home in the United States by his Mexican flapper mother (this is the 1920 after all). She flits from man to man, following the money she so desperately needs.  Harrison needs to adapt to his new surroundings and language, but he never quite finds a place to fit in – except when swimming in the sea.

Harrison is again moved to Mexico City and, forced to find an income, fate leads him to Diego Rivera as he is painting his mural in the National Palace. From being a plaster mixer, Harrison finds his life irretrievably united with that of Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo and exiled Communist figure, Leon Trotsky.

This epic novel stands out as it is not Harrison Shepherd himself who is a revolutionary, a dreamer or martyr, but his life is so interwoven with the politics of his time that he is swept up and cannot lead the simple life he craves. 

From revolutionary Mexico in the 1920s to the Red fearing USA post-World War 2, The Lacuna involves a side of history which is ugly and often left undiscussed . This is not only America’s hypocrisy and fear of Communism and all it entails, but also the profound misunderstanding and misinformation that lies at the heart of this fear.

Kingsolver writes The Lacuna through two narrative voices – Harrison Shepherd through his journals and letters and Violet Brown, his assistant who has compiled all his writings. With these dual voices, Kingsolver creates a rounded image of a man who does not understand the importance of his place in history and his deep discomfort with himself. Violet Brown’s voice is strong, believable and sure, whereas Harrison Shepherd’s voice is unsure, nervous and vulnerable. At times the voice created for Shepherd feels too old for his character, too affected, but that is part of his discomfort with himself.

Frida Kahlo is portrayed as a fiery woman, much like she is by Salma Hayek in the film Frida. Her connection with Harrison is special is it is only with him she shares her weaknesses and Harrison his. The relationship between them is integral to the novel and she provides much of the drama.

I loved reading The Lacuna and, at 670 pages, it was easy to read and left me wanting to find out more about this time in US and Mexican History. This is Kingsolver’s best work – it does not have the sentimental ending of The Poisonwood Bible and it is no wonder she has taken so long to write it. One has to wonder whether she had similar arguments with publishers about the title as Harrison Shepherd does in the novel.

P.S. This is a work of fiction – Harrison Shepherd, as much as it pains me write it, did not exist, but I hope you all know that Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky were definitely real people!

Cupcake Magic update

28 Aug

There has been so much interest in this stunning little book. It is available through Kalahari.net for only R121,51 or Exclusives Books for R135.The ISBN number is 9781862058101. Get yourself a copy – even if you seldom use it, it makes a lovely addition to the kitchen shelf. I have discovered that Kate Shirazi has also published Chocolate Magic and Baking Magic. I think I will need to visit the book shop very soon!