Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #42: The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm

Yesterday evening I picked this up after it had been waiting on my shelf for a few years, and five minutes ago I closed it with a deep sigh of satisfaction. The storytelling is so good, taking you in unexpected directions, with so much life and humour and darkness wrapped up under that silly-sounding title, it’s was like getting a big hug. I feel like I’ve climbed out of a piping hot bath, relaxed and wistful.

The title is a touch of wonderfully Teutonic directness: the author sets out to discover the origin of currywurst, the famous streetfood he recalls eating as a child. This takes him to the woman who ran a food stall for thirty years, Lena Bruckner, now in her eighties, frail and blind. Did you invent curried sausage?

Yes, yes she did. But the how of it lies in her story of the last month of WWII in Hamburg.

This is a book about the war, then, from the perspective of a woman trying to survive in her ruined city. It’s also the story of the people around her, including Lammers, the die-hard Nazi building warden, who has long suspected her of a ‘defeatist attitude’. And the chef, Holzinger, who carefully upset the stomachs of high-ranking German officials and teaches Lena her skills with spices. And then there is Bremer, a naval officer she meets at a cinema. It is their story, really, a story which is a secret that needs to be unraveled to get to the accidental creation of curried sausage.

the wurst is yet to comeThe wurst is yet to come! 

The descriptions of the blackmarket economy that kept people alive after the war is particularly engaging. Timm also approaches the toughest revelation, of the death camps to the German people, in a careful but clear-eyed way.

This is a book with a touch of everything – food, family, sex, flavour, distance, and desperation.  A small revelation, like the first touch of curry powder on your tongue.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #41: Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr. Arthur Norris is a perfectly debauched creation, a fey man of middling years with the murkiest of pasts and a complete vacancy of morals. Meeting him on a train to Berlin in the ’30s, young English teacher William Bradshaw – another Isherwood stand-in – is taken by his acquaintance: “His smile had great charm. It diclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks.”

Amused by this delicate dandy with his equal parts fastidiousness and generosity, their friendship is cemented over the first of many drinks. Later, Bradshaw notes, “the second cognac worked wonders”, and in Norris and Bradshaw’s decadent Berlin, it generally does. The brownshirts and the political turmoil around them is a backdrop to Norris’s much more appealing transgressions – drunken evenings, sexual perversity, and disreputable company. And then there is the delicate topic of money, and how Norris funds his many proclivities. It is all, to Bradshaw, a bit of fun, despite what his other friends may thing of his odd duck friend. But then there is one con too many, and his Berlin adventures begin to get far more serious.

Isherwood condemned his own novel, twenty years later, as a heartless fairy-story. But as a description of one type of mischief that was lost with the Nazi regime, the unraveling of a sub-society, and the terrible rise of Hitler, it is effective and heartrending. After reading Orwell condemn just the sort of poncey halfassed Marxist that Isherwood clearly knew he was, this was an interesting counterpoint: we need many different kinds of stories about war and politics, and the exposure of people to evil, and the fact that even Norris is horrified by Hitler is a darkly funny testament to that. Not heartless at all, it’s a very funny work shot through with suppressed terror.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #40: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

levyLast week my train home was delayed by, according to the tired-of-this-shit station announcer, “At least 45 minutes.” It turned out to be closer to an hour twenty. I was thrilled. It was just enough time to finish reading Swimming Home, let the whiplash of the ending flip me back to re-read several passages, and walk off a little of the shock and satisfaction of this odd, intense novel.

Spinning a tale from that clunky old set-up, bickering English people on holiday somewhere hot and slightly exotic, Levy sets up a family group in a villa on the Riviera, and sticks a body in their swimming pool. The body is the very alive, very naked, Kitty Finch – a character who reminded me of Poison Ivy. She’s beautiful, and bonkers, and a botany student; she also writes poetry, toxic tendrils of which unfurl in the direction of alpha male Joe. Joe is a famous poet, an adulterer, a loving father, a man on holiday with some of his wife’s friends who don’t much care for him, and he knows that Kitty is dangerous. Everyone seems to see something dark in Kitty – except for Joe’s wife, Isabel, a war correspondent. Isabel invites Kitty to stay.

Thus the stage is set. People bake under the sun and plants wilt. Things begin to rot. Levy sends us through the bottom of the dark pool of an Agatha Christie plot and dredges up something that’s off. But the writing is limber and sparky, each word sinking deeply like a pebble hitting the water. It was kind of like watching a subtitled movie, one with many hazy long shots that you can’t quite puzzle out – you have to sink in to the resonance of emotion, and the otherness of the world created.

It’s an arty thriller, like The Secret History, but with a whole different set of references. It made me very glad to be staycationing in grey England and not somewhere hot and unsettling.


Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #39: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

The first reference to this book I can remember came from Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. What I recall is a line about Orwell ‘sneering’ at the locals and ‘slagging off’ the town, which may well be a complete mistake – I doubt Bryson had an ax to grind in his cheerful travel book. But that was the kind of thing I grew up assuming this was: a clever clogs Southern writer banging on about how grim it was Oop North. But The Road to Wigan Pier is a far stranger book than that, and much better. It’s many things – a historical document, a piece of longform investigative journalism, a slice of social realism, a political screed, a reasoned argument, an examination of self and society – and never less than vital and arresting.

It opens in a desperate boarding house that’s like something out of Hieronymus Bosch’s joke book, a squalid room crammed with unfortunate souls perched over a tripe shop. It’s queasy, blackly funny, and pathetic, and sets the scene for a penetrating exposure of an underbelly to English life that most people would rather ignore. But that’s not what Orwell does – having got our attention, he then begins to describe the slums of the Northern towns, and the architecture of misery that forms the lives in them. The way housing shortages, unemployment, poor nutrition, and political disenfranchisement converges on the working class, and how damaging it is. Then he goes down the mining pits, and from there paints a picture of what miner’s lives are like, contrary to the then-popular attitudes to them. Always interested in health and hygiene, he administers a thorough kicking to the myth that ‘miners would only use baths to store coal’. And far from sneering, the writer stands in unabashed awe at the work they do and the lives they lead.

From there, Orwell goes on to examine his own prejudices and snobbishness. The book concludes with a lengthy tract on how the contemporary Socialist movement has alienated the people it needs to help and to be effective. All this would be deary, except we’re in the hands of one of the greatest political writers ever, and he only sneers when he has built a case to sneer at.

Reading this now, I flipped between boggling at the ghastliness of the poverty, and bringing myself up short to recall that it’s by no means left in the past. Yes, largely speaking standards of housing and employment have vastly improved in the UK (there are still miners, and many millions of people living in unfathomable poverty so that we can live well), but I have friends who have been ‘invisibly homeless’, and I’ve seen squats being evicted and leaving whole families on the streets. I’ve never been in a squat with facilities as poor as the ones described in the opening chapters, which housed workers.

I giggled a little at his description of the rise of the machine age, and the attendant fears of it – then it’s struck me that this book was written only a handful of years before the death camps. His catch-all terms for the ineffectual cranks he found clogging up the left-wing movement are funny now – ‘fruit juice drinkers’ and ‘aspirin eaters’ – but the wider point, that in-fighting and alienation from a wider audience holds back movements devoted to justice, is one that’s bitterly still true. This line:

Possessing a technique which seems to explain everything, they do not often bother to discover what is going on in people’s heads

launches his critique of smug Marxists. It’s a factor that I’ve found all-too-common in academics, activists, cultural critics, and bores of all stripes. Orwell’s ability to hit the nail on the head of human fallibility is demonstrated throughout the book. Often, he concedes that one solution to the poverty he describes is merely the lesser of two evils, a pragmatic touch lacking from so much sociological analysis. His summing-up reinforces a long held suspicion of mine against anyone trying to sell a Utopia. That’s what’s still valuable about this document, as much as the view on a lost community. Richard Hoggart’s introduction points out that in 1937 Orwell points out that it is erroneously but popularly believed that class distinctions are fading, when they were clearly just shifting, and that thirty years later Hoggart himself was taken to task for making a similar point. It’s 2013 and class is still an important issue, one that’s hard to talk about (I think that’s one thing the Occupy movement was pretty good at), and here’s a recent snarky sample of how pernicious it is. Or check out this review of Owen Jones’ book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Orwell made many of these points here, in language as clear as his anger.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #38: Why I Write & Books vs. Cigarettes by George Orwell/Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy read at an event I went to recently, and maybe it was the gin in my system, the London night air, or her Marianne Faithful-esque sultry voice, but I fell head over heels for her. I’ve got a copy of Black Vodka, her short stories, but I’ve only dipped in to them for short sybaritic bursts. When I saw that Notting Hill‘s posho essay series had released her response to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’, called ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’, I figured I’d rip through the Orwell before getting stuck into Levy’s (handsomely presented in a royal blue mini-hardback).

But the thing about George Orwell is, you can’t just read a single essay. It’s like a bag of chips; who can stop at the first one? I couldn’t get a paperback of Shooting the Elephant so I rampaged, pachyderm-like, through these two samplers from Penguin’s (somewhat cringe-worthy) ‘Great Ideas’ series. All of Orwell’s essays are available online, not that I ever have to fill up a tiresome work hour. No siree bob.

Thing is, if you’re going to listen to someone’s views on Orwell, it’s just as easy to read him directly – he comes from that part of history just slipping from living memory, and has left such a huge legacy. It’s all too revealing to discuss him and really just reveal your own shortcomings and predjudices. His great mission, to make political argument that was both objectively truthful and beautiful, is still a much-needed and worthy one, and his gift of showing that politics and philosophy and literature are for (and should be for) everyone, and not just the domain of a privileged few, is really displayed in these short works. There’s a quote in the Wikipedia entry for him by historian John Rodden: “John Podhoretz did claim that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be standing with the neo-conservatives and against the Left. And the question arises, to what extent can you even begin to predict the political positions of somebody who’s been dead three decades and more by that time?”

It’s clear from reading these essays that Orwell would think it batty to judge a writer outside of his own social context, and also clear that he wouldn’t think much of the Tory buffoons currently dismantling the NHS – nor the pitiful Labour party opposing them. Instead, he’d criticize both sides, well aware that the problems were far more systematic than a simple right/left split.

Another eyebrow raiser from Rodden (via Wiki):

Rodden goes on to explain how, during the McCarthy era, the introduction to the Signet edition of Animal Farm, which sold more than 20 million copies, makes use of “the politics of ellipsis”:

If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay Why I Write: ‘Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism … dot, dot, dot, dot.’ “For Democratic Socialism” is vaporised, just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth, and that’s very much what happened at the beginning of the McCarthy era and just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted.

Why I Write does outline his commitment to Democratic Socialism. The longer work, The Lion and the Unicorn, written during bomb raids in London, outlines the need for a social revolt against capitalism as the only way for England to win WWII. If bombs were falling on my head, I wouldn’t be able to write-think-anything coherently, let alone produce a reasonable call for massive social upheaval, and it brought home to me the sheer extremes of the pressure of the time.

Deborah Levy’s essay – about 100 pages long – opens up with her crying on elevators. While Orwell uses his own history in ‘Why I Write’, his chronology is more straight-forward. Levy goes back and forth in her personal experience, using illuminating quotes from female writers like Duras, Sand, and Woolf, to bring out the story of her own voice.

I read it breathlessly. The prose is so beautiful, the way she tilts mundane issues (the motherhood/identity/domesticity grind, the labour of writing, the tedium of the suburbs, the confines of politics on children, and the stickiness of nationality) detonated in my little brain. I haven’t got it to hand – it was a borrowed copy! – and I’m feeling too dunderheaded to condense her brilliance with my thick fingered typing. But I think Orwell would approve of her response, which is the best compliment I can think of.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #37: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

I picked up this courtroom drama after my German BFF read it. She had been intrigued after the storming reviews of von Schirach’s two novellas (published in England together as Crime & Guilt), and knowing a bit about the author’s reputation as one of Germany’s leading criminal lawyers. Drawing on his own expertise, the author creates stories around darker quirks in contemporary law and ethical puzzles. He has also directly confronted his own family past – his grandfather was the head of the Hitler Youth. From an essay he wrote about Baldur von Schirach: “Indeed, it might just be that the only advantage of having a name like mine was that nothing could remain hidden.”

A tightly-wound thriller, it’s language is clear and concise, and the characters are well-drawn in a few strokes. Opening with the brutal killing of elderly industrialist Hans Meyer, the novel then introduces a young and ambitious defense lawyer who accepts the defense case of Herr Collini, the killer. Caspar, the lawyer, doesn’t realise at first who the victim was – Meyer was a close family friend of his, and Meyer’s granddaughter Johanna the first love of his life. Worse still, the case is close to impossible for him to defend. Collini admits he killed Meyer, but refuses to say why. Nothing in his history suggests that this previously law-abiding sixty-something Italian immigrant had any connection or motive to commit cold-blooded murder.

A genuinely tense read, the denouement falls like a hammer blow. In the end, it’s finished almost too soon, but there’s a sense that this is a realistic touch – real life does relentlessly carry on, even when individual lives are altered forever.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #36: Dorothy Parker in Her Own Words by Barry Day

I found out about Dorothy Parker in one of those bog-standard Famous Quotes books, or a trivia guide, or the Book of Lists (I loved that kind of proto-Buzzfeed information-entertainment stuff as a kid). Knowing diddly about the Jazz Age or American Literature outside of the Baby-Sitters Club books, I pieced together an idea of what she was, one that cleaved with the still potent myth of Parker: she was a New York writer who enjoyed men and drink, and became famous because of her razor-sharp wit.

That was enough: instant life role model. Just the idea that a woman could rival Wilde with smart one-liners and become rich and famous for it was mindhole blowing. I knew about the many female roles I wouldn’t be very suited to, but this alternative was tantalising. At nine I told my teacher that when I grew up I wanted to be ‘a writer living in New York’. And as I got a little older, the idea of taking a string of lovers and being able to drink anyone under the table seemed like a preferable option than anything promised by Disney Princesses.

Once I told my mum that Parker was my idol, and she groaned: “But she was such a miserable woman!” I outlined the advantages – booze, beaus, infamy – to her, but by then I knew more about Parker’s life and work, and that she was almost as legendary for her misery as her rapier wit.

In a way, the legend of Dorothy Parker is like that of Wilde – I think it’s most attractive when you’re young, and the difference between history and myth, the gray areas of biography, mean less than the romance and tragedy (and the sizzling burns delivered upon one’s enemies). Growing up, comparatively witless, I’m at least able to appreciate her more as a real person, one who struggled with her fame instead of trying to capitalise on it.

This book should’ve been a great idyll, a mixture of the myth and the reality. There’s plenty of odd twists and turns to her life – the 15 (!) years spent in Hollywood, the political rallying, her trip to the Spanish Civil War, her bequest to Martin Luther King, Jnr. The legendary years of the Round Table and her frenemies there are also rich. The structure is simple enough – Day’s framed a short biography around her own quotes, excerpts from her work and interviews. But I found it frustrating to read, and put it aside for a week. The problem isn’t the bitterness of her personality or her awful life choices, but Barry Day’s insistence on trying to be witty in the text, as well as some dodgy flaws in the telling.

Continue reading

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #35: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

I very rarely re-read books, but when Hesperus Press re-issued L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle I could barely stop myself. At first I just picked at it, looking for tidbits to amuse myself, but before long I had to curl up and lose myself all over again. This is a pure comfort read for me, a soppy tale based around the most hackneyed cliche of a woman only finding life when she encounters death. It’s full of sass and vigour and beautiful nature writing, and one of literature’s great spinsters, Valancy Stirling.

Like moi, Valancy is an unmarried woman of a certain age, but unlike moi she doesn’t enjoy the spinster comforts of gin-drinking, debauched company, and Magic Mike .gifs. She’s not even allowed to read novels, by the command of her overpowering and constantly disappointed mother Mrs. Frederick. One thing my re-visit to this book picked up on much more was that, for unmarried women in an earlier age – the book is set in the early 20s, in smalltown Canada – the economic ties that bound them to their family did bind them so much to acceptable behaviour.

Without even fiction as a solace, Valancy turns to her rich inner life in a fantasy Blue Castle. But even that can’t help her on the morning of her 29th birthday, when she’s faced with a long loveless future in the ghastly household she endures with Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles, and a social life composed of her stuffy, judgmental, hectoring relatives. She also has these chest pains which are getting worse and worse, but does she have the gumption to go to a doctor behind her mother’s back? One rainy morning, she does – and like romantic comedy heroines through the years, she finds out she has a fatal heart condition, and will be dead in a year.

The news understandably upsets her, but instead of informing her miserable clan, she embarks on a surprising quest to make her last year count for something. Will there be lessons learnt, will her bullying relatives get shown up, is there a chance for love for Valancy, after all? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work it out, but Valancy’s magical year is enchanting to read about.

As well as the wish-fulfillment and the soppiness, I felt a lot of common ground with Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl, a realist take on the Cinderella myth. Both the heroines are spinsters marooned in life by social mores and family situations, who hitch their stars to unlikely wagons.

Unlike Zweig, Montgomery doesn’t go in for blistering social realism. But if you want to press a book to your chest and heave a great sigh of joy when that long-awaited first kiss happens, then she can deftly construct the enchantment needed. Sometimes realism can go hang. The ending is utterly satisfying, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again and again.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #34: The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

I’m pretty sure I saw this recommended here on Cannonball Read, so thank you to whoever mentioned it. It’s a nifty mix of history, sociology, and science, with a smattering of that super-fashionable sort of Big Idea Meta Thinking Furturism stuff that TED talks are based on. The latter turns me off – there’s a neatness to that kind of thinking that I find a little hinky – but the book is such an enjoyable read, and Johnson for the most part maintains a lightness of touch with his ‘theory of urban networks’ thesis.

Next time you enjoy a glass of tap water, or have a shower, or flush a toilet, give up thanks to Dr. John Snow* and also the Rev. Henry Whitehead, for their work in proving that cholera is a waterborne disease. Snow’s (literally) groundbreaking work came about with a devastating cholera epidemic hit Golden Square in Soho in 1854. Johnson creates a vivid sense of what central London was like in Victorian times, drawing heavily on Dicken’s angry depictions of children in poverty, making the point that London then was the beginning of the modern city as we know it – but also a completely different, alien world.

Reading this armed me with lots of fascinating facts about poo, which is always dandy for a certain kind of after dinner crowd. And having just seen a performance piece based on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, made me that much more in awe of my adopted home. No matter what Boris Johnson does to London, it’s seen worse plagues than him, and survived. Two days ago I walked through Soho in the sun, looking at the spot where the Broad St. water pump used to stand, and got shivers.

The last chapter does take off from the facts about Snow’s discovery in to a wider view of the oncoming future, what with megacities, super viruses, germ terrorism, and global warming to contend with. I’m enough of a wuss that I skimmed it. But the story of how the waterborne idea was proved, and the consequences of that work, was gripping.

*Not that one. He knew something.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #33: The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah

proxyPart of Hammer Horror’s new book series, where they get well-known novelists to write them horror novellas (though most seem to push the definition of novella, size-wise), this is a bone-rattling hair-curling good read from poet/crime novelist Hannah. It starts off with a total first world problem – the thoroughly upper-middle-class Louise has her bedtime disturbed by a noisy neighbour. Louise lives in Cambridge, in a million-pound Victorian  terrace house. Her slightly wet husband is planning home renovation – classic displacement act, apparently – while she is quietly bereft of her son, seven years old and at boarding school. The boarding school is part of the gilded trap she lives in. Everyone thinks it’s a wonderful opportunity for her son, Joseph, a talented singer now part of an elite choir, and he’s happy there. But Louise can’t stand not having him at home, and her frayed nerves are torn to shreds by the 80s soft rock anthems her neighbour inflicts on her during his weekend parties.

As someone who once came home from surgery, lay down on her bed, and was instantly woken by a builder playing bloody Coldplay metres from her head, my sympathies were with Louise. Her neighbour is a classic boor, a selfish stoner who mocks her when she asks him to turn it down, and during those scenes I was white knuckled with rage, not fear. Hannah is brilliant at this – winding you up with primal fears hidden in domestic settings. Her wry sense of humour shines through, especially in Louise’s assessment of her fellow choir parents and the patronising choirmaster. The drip, drip of micro-aggressions, lack of understanding from her duffer of a husband, and sleep deprivation drive her to desperation.

The second half of the story is where the spookiness ramps up. In the book’s afterword, the author says she set out to write a proper ghost story, and not leave the reader with an ambiguous ‘was it real or was it in her head?’ Turn of the Screw-style ending. I think she’s effective at that, though personally I think I enjoyed the first half’s depiction of suburban contentment falling to pieces more than the eerie second section. This probably says a lot about me. But it was a satisfying read, and carried off the first person narrator very well.