So, you are so worried that the KGB will come calling one night that you can't sleep. And because you can't sleep, neither can your wife. So you pack a small suitcase with a change of underwear, pyjamas and some cigarettes. Then you stand on the landing, by the lift, waiting... And thinking.
An involving account of what it might have been like for an artist to live under Soviet rule. Was Shostakovich a coward as he thought? Or just a survivor?
Whatever; this is an involving book. Highly recommended.
Once upon a time, when he was only moderately famous, Julian Barnes wrote a column for The Guardian called The Pedant In The Kitchen. The idea was that a “Late Onset Cook” would slavishly adhere to recipes and run aghast at the idea of improvisation in the kitchen. This book bring together those columns into a single (very) slim volume padded with pictures.
The concept appealed to me – I am an enthusiastic cook and would happily spend a day following recipes of some considerable complication. I do so to the letter; I see cooking as a co-production between myself as the technician and the writer as the conceptualiser. I think there’s a dose of art on both parts, but I know I will never be able to generate my own culinary ideas.
It was therefore reassuring to find Julian Barnes to be a soulmate. He has an obvious care and passion to put out the best food he possibly can. He too will adopts one or two recipes in a book whilst leaving many untested for no obvious reason. And he shares my frustration at imprecise wording or processes that are logistically impossible (such as the instruction to cook pork chops and halved endives face down in the same pan at the same time). It was even more heartening to find it all written with a delightful, self-deprecating humour. Julian Barnes’s recipe books are very much of his generation – Sophie Grigson and Elizabeth David rather than the names that fill my shelves – and he spends rather longer talking about soufflés than he might. What even is a soufflé? .
However, the columns run out of steam. After the initial rantings against specific recipes and specific writers, we depart into name dropping where Barnes discusses recipes with the various celebrity chefs, even eats at their homes. Then, in a futile attempt to breathe life into the series, Barnes falls back on cookery as discussed in literature. The series ends with a sort of whimper as Barnes tells us he’d rather be in his kitchen, trying out something new. By this point, so too are his readers.
The Pedant In The Kitchen is worth reading, is funny and is very human. The home cook will see himself or herself in at least some of the descriptions. The work will not take long to read, may not leave a deep impression, but will offer reassurance that what we try in the kitchen is OK. It’s OK to muff things up. It’s OK to buy stuff in. The only way to fail would be to stop trying.
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Arthur and George grow up worlds and miles apart in late nineteenth-century Britain: Arthur in shabby-genteel Edinburgh, George in the vicarage of a small Staffordshire village. Arthur becomes a doctor, and then a writer; George a solicitor in Birmingham. Arthur is to become one of the most famous men of his age, George remains in hardworking obscurity. But as the new century begins, they are brought together by a sequence of events which made sensational headlines at the time as The Great Wyrley Outrages.
George Edjali?s father is Indian, his mother Scottish. When the family begins to receive vicious anonymous letters, many about their son, they put it down to racial prejudice. They appeal to the police, to no less than the Chief Constable, but to their dismay he appears to suspect George of being the letters? author. Then someone starts slashing horses and livestock. Again the police seem to suspect the shy, aloof Birmingham solicitor. He is arrested and, on the flimsiest evidence, sent to trial, found guilty and sentenced to seven years? hard labour.
Arthur Conan Doyle, famous as the creator of the world?s greatest detective, is mourning his first wife (having been chastely in love for ten years with the woman who was to become his second) when he hears about the Edjali case. Incensed at this obvious miscarriage of justice, he is galvanised into trying to clear George?s name.
With a mixture of detailed research and vivid imagination, Julian Barnes brings to life not just this long-forgotten case, but the inner lives of these two very different men. The reader sees them both with stunning clarity, and almost inhabits them as they face the vicissitudes of their lives, whether in the dock hearing a verdict of guilty, or trying to live an honourable life while desperately in love with another woman. This is a novel in which the events of a hundred years ago constantly set off contemporary echoes, a novel about low crime and high spirituality, guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race; about what we think, what we believe, and what we know.Julian Barnes has long been recognised as one of Britain?s most remarkable writers. While those already familiar with his work will enjoy its elegance, its wit, its profound wisdom about the human condition, Arthur & George will surely find him an entirely new audience.
Not read Arthur and George, nor after Flaubert's Parrot am I in a hurry to do so, though I've skimmed through bits of it in Waterstone's.
This is my real pitch - and bitch . . . How does a series of notes on one's favourite author, together with a meticulous bibliography, a potted biography and snide comments on critics and self, make a novel that gets shortlisted for honours? OK, the narrator is technically not JB but a malcontent sunk in Flaubert, with whom he compares himself. Both he and F are loveless obsessives, clinically solipsistic and unable to make 'meaningful relationships.' They are bores as people and extremely unpleasant. The difference is that one wrote a masterpiece and the other couldn't if he tried. Is this the point of this whole kerfuffle about a parrot that meant the holy ghost to the Simple Heart of Flaubert's Un Coeur Simple? Did anyone else have time for this clever box of tricks masquerading as a novel?
This is part memoir, but mostly a philosophical discussion on death. The author discusses his personal feelings towards death as he passes 60. His own parents deaths are examined and those of writers he admires. Discussions on God, the after life, evolution and Dawkins. He treats the subject with humour, suggesting that despite authors trying to live on after death, all writers will have their last reader as trends change and time passes, and if you are his last reader, why haven't you recommended him to others, You Bastard!
I was quite taken with some of the theories put forward from other theorists eg. the planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and we are the current peak of evolution, but the Sun has another 5 billion years left, so it is very vain to think we will still remain the pinnacle til then - we may be like amoeba to what comes later or it might revert to beetles grazing over long buried layers of human remains...
Personally I don't fear death; I know there is nothing afterwards. You just have to enjoy the time you are given.
Eternal life - the thought of it is enough to drive you to kill yourself.