ANNA – Clifton, Bristol

A French patisserie with Scandinavian decor with friendly staff, varied selection of teas and an open kitchen that fills the café with the smell of fresh baking. There are examples of their beautiful wedding cakes on show and the whole place channels the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ – one of those wonderfully untranslatable words of which the closest, yet still inadequate, English equivalent is an atmosphere of contented coziness of a place or gathering. Visiting feels like a real indulgence even before you start on the cake, and it’s always nice to find somewhere that doesn’t mind you taking up residence in a corner for a good few hours with a book.

Sat reading Terry Pratchett who needs no introduction or review. His books are comic genius (for those who appreciate the wry ridiculousness of very British humour – which should be just about everyone). He left an amazing legacy, as well as a huge  void, when he passed away last year.

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Vie Française  – Jean-Paul Dubois

A brief history of modern France as viewed and experienced by a fictional frenchman. Having bought this after falling for the cover, which is not just beautiful but soft enough to make the physical process of reading really enjoyable, it was nice to find it contained a punchy and engaging story. It was very frank and there were a lot of gritty or unpleasant moments (and characters) but it still managed to be charming. It reads like an autobiography rather than a work of fiction and includes a lot of reference to contempary events in France in each time period. It still worked in translation but probably has another layer of meaning to those with a better knowledge of the country and its history. It was interesting to see the ripples these political and national events  caused in the private lives of the characters. If you dont mind unlikable characters and a lot of talk of sex, Dubois has turned an apparently unremarkable life into an interesting and thought-provoking read.

The wonderful wry tone of the narrator allows him to laugh at himself and everyone he meets while still expressing a great fondness for life.

On his childhood behaviour

The child is father to the man

On his boss

Spiridon became giddy from his adorably effervescent little sin of pride

And finally, a great quote from the Marquise de Montespen – Mistress of Louis XIV

The grandeur of a destiny arises as much from what one refuses as from what one gains

From: The French Embassy in New York. Really. Walking along the side of central park, coming out of Café Sabarsky and heading for the Frick, I stumbled across a sign saying French and English books for sale. This felt the most magical place, hidden past a beautiful marble entrance hall. I ended up buying this book in both English and French (not as pretty but a compact little thing that seems to be a standard in French publishing), an even smaller book of Rudyard Kipling’s work in French and a canvas bag with Jules Verne quotations. The French bookseller’s enthusiasm for this particular book was encouraging too!

Read: Nov 2015 in Seville over breakfast on the roof terrace.

Felt: like I was listening to someone reminiscing on their life over a bottle of red wine.

Liked: The honesty and realism with just a touch of the bizarre. The tree photography concept was also mesmerising.

Would recommend: to anyone wanting to learn more about France or French life, or to those who like life stories and books that are more than fluffy niceties.

The reluctant fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

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This is an extremely well written book on a difficult topic. Challenging the stereotyping and scaremongering that always surface around cultural or religious rifts, Hamid manages to keep the story engaging and even pleasant to read. The unusual conversational styling is well constructed and avoids being clunky or distracting. The language was beautiful and pitched just right to create the warm tone of an educated man, from a land with a proud tradition of poetry and storytelling, recollecting a series of events ranging from perplexing to incomprehensible. The narrator was not lovable or good but very human and understandable, a real and relatable person refusing to be wholly defined by their labels or circumstances. A brilliantly observant book that can be read and read into as much as you wish. If only it were less, rather than far more, poignant today than when it was written.

For a more detailed plot review head to the wonderfully written post by Miss quickly at the blue bore which inspired me to dig these thoughts out the archive.

It is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be. Something of us is now outside, and something of the outside is now within us.

From: the depths of the TBR shelf, origin unknown.

Read: April 2015 as my ‘it’s ok, I’m early’ backup book. I have never been so punctual as the week I was reading this!

Felt: like I was sat with them in the cafe, and ashamed of how familiar and common all those acts of prejudice were.

Liked: the clever construct and seamless switching between the past and present.

Would recommend: to everyone. Would read again someday.

 

Belonging – Umi Sinha

imageMy entire being wants to condemn this book for shoehorning every conceivable sadness into its pages, for representing India through the eyes of the empire and for being yet another book about one of the world wars. But I learned a lot. It was refreshing to see the Allies portrayed more realistically than just the glorious victorious and to highlight the racism, perpetuated by history’s omission, against the commonwealth countries that fought and died alongside the UK, USA and ANZAC forces.

It also felt important to have the hazy days of the empire cut through with the reality of a rule that could be brutal. That there was savagery on both sides was no mitigation of the atrocities committed. A recent survey about our attitudes to colonialism (will hunt down the link) shows that there is still so much ignorance in the UK on the subject and hopefully this book will encourage people to find out more.

As a novel, this is captivating writing and the characters are very real and their many flaws and terrible thoughts seem to make them all the more human and even a bit more likeable. I did spend the entire book going ‘really, more suffering? Seriously?’ and I had to put the book down and walk away for a bit when there was mention of ‘mixing races giving bad blood’. I know this may have been to highlight how ingrained prejudices were, but it makes for very difficult reading – perhaps all the more so because of it being not yet totally eradicated from society. The book served as a haunting reminder of how quick we are to trample each other for survival and forget that the ‘enemy’ is probably not the person we are facing (Mina’s character was a good example of this).

In short, it is a thought provoking but tough read. It was mercifully quite a quick read and probably worth it if you can stand the perpetual misery and have something cheerful lined up next or a lot of chocolate on hand.

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From: Heathrow Terminal 5 on the way to NYC

Read: Jan 2016 in lunch breaks and through stormy evenings

Felt: Horrified, frustrated

Liked: that neither the people or the regimes were seen as flawless or wholly good or bad.

Would recommend: tentatively to those who don’t mind a grisly read

From the land of Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe

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This is a transporting and absorbing read, yet to call it magical or enchanting feels far too flippant for writing that covers so much real suffering and violence. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s life story, from growing up in a catholic tribe in Burma to fighting in the jungle as a rebel, feels an important one to share. His keen observations and favouring of explanations in place of simple descriptions bring his narrative alive. The clarity of his writing and matter of fact approach do justice to both the delightfully fantastical and the unjustifiable atrocities he repeatedly witnessed. From the Padaung to Mandalay and on into the jungle, this is a captivating, educating and eye opening tale. Hand drawn illustrations and photographs underline the reality of both the wonders and the horrors.

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Looking for a few quotes, just one paragraph contained these two gems and every page is filled with meaningful and mesmerising passages.

On eating wasps

The meat of the baby wasp is tender, and the texture is somewhere between scrambled eggs and roast prawn….(many years later, I was to read Lewis Caroll. My descriptions sound quite like him but are literally true.) ….We regarded wasps as a delicacy, which is why we tried to be so precise in describing their taste – rather like wine-lovers in Europe.

On hanging honeycomb on doors to ward off spirits: Continue reading “From the land of Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe”