Archive for December, 2014

December 15, 2014

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball

What a glorious thing this book is.

(From last weekend’s column):


Are the three Manuela Draeger stories in In The Time of the Blue Ball: Three Post-Exotic Tales, set before or after the end of the world? It’s hard to tell. Meteors rain down upon the earth; the police have disappeared; fire hasn’t quite been invented (though everyone knows what it is) but electricity and marshmallows have.

Approaching In the Time of the Blue Ball in translation (the translator is fantasist Brian DraegerEvenson) means that those of us who do not read French come to it without much context—the publisher’s note that provides some of this context is placed at the end of the book. So it’s only after the un-spoiled reader has read to the end that she learns that these are three of the (so far) ten Bobby Potemkine stories, that in France they are published in separate volumes for adolescent readers. She also learns that Draeger, as the book wonderfully puts it, “belongs to a community of imaginary authors”. She’s a pseudonym for Antoine Volodine, who is himself a pseudonym (or a Pessoa-style heteronym) for an unknown writer.

I was not an entirely unspoiled reader, but there’s something very appealing about taking these stories on their own terms.

Bobby Potemkine is this world’s version of a private detective. In the title story he and his dog Djinn investigate the disappearance of Lili Soutchane, the woman who invented fire. They do this with the help of the battes, insolent flying creatures (on one of whom, Lili Niagra, Bobby Potemkine has a crush), and an orchestra of flies.

There’s an emptiness about the world; a sense that it has been lived-in but then abandoned. Everyone is cold. Factories have been shut down and towns and houses appear un-occupied. The railway station has been destroyed by a meteorite and lies in ruins, still smoking. Children have become increasingly rare. Bobby Potemkine’s world has a past, but it’s impossible to imagine what that past might be.

And yet there is newness everywhere that speaks of beginnings, not endings. In “North of the Wolverines” Bobby Potemkine and his companions must rescue Auguste Diodon, one noodle among many on every plate, indistinguishable from them except for the fact that he has a name and that there’s something not quite right about eating something with a name (though “it can happen to anyone to be eaten by someone or to eat someone. It’s strange, but that’s how it is.”) In “Our Baby Pelicans” (translated by Brian and Valerie Evenson) baby pelicans appear across the city but display no sign of life. Not that our characters think of them as dead; Bobby Potemkine carries his around, strapped to his chest, and speaks to it reassuringly—to no response. It turns out the baby pelicans are merely waiting for their mothers to be invented and thus come into being—which they do when Soraya Gong, a creature who from Draeger’s description I imagine as a gigantic mass of foam, transforms into a mother pelican. Noodles and foam may come to life, living creatures may turn into other things (Lili Soutchane turns into a batte); nothing is fixed in this world and everything has potential.

Volodine/Draeger’s larger project is something he (?) describes as the post-exotic, a concept he’s written on at length in various venues, most of which remain un-translated. But it is a literature of estrangement, one in which things have gone badly wrong, one which treats French as if it too were a foreign language. All of that is visible in these three stories, but so are other things—like kindness, and hope and possibility. A friend compared them to Jansson’s Moomin books, with their small, kind stories against a vast bleak backdrop (“Everything’s happy, yet you feel like everything is destroyed.”) Yet the comparison that sits most comfortably in my head is with Kipling’s Just-So Stories, for their sense of being told, and of being of a time when the world is being set into shape. Volodine again describes the post-exotic as “a literature of elsewhere, from elsewhere, headed elsewhere,” and in In The Time of the Blue Ball I think we may have the Just-So Stories of another world.




December 8, 2014

Douglas Gresham and Pauline Baynes, The Official Narnia Cookbook

Still in the middle of the Narnia section of my thesis, and trying to convince myself that reading things like this counts as work.

It doesn’t.

From a column a couple of weeks ago.



The literary cookbook feels like it ought to be a recent phenomenon, another example of a marketing tie-in. But literary cookbooks have been around for a while—I’ve read, for example, a copy of the Chalet School Cookbook (first published in 1953) in which the characters of that series attempt to create a recipe book for a friend who is about to be married. Not all of the recipes that emerge look particularly tempting; though the book’s take on Chinese food might provide for interesting historical perspective.

Of the hundreds of literary cookbooks that now exist, many have only a tenuous connection with the literary works that inspired them. It’s possible to hunt down foodstuffs eaten in the novels of Jane Austen or the plays of Shakespeare, of course, but arguable whether food is really central to the ways in which we feel about those works.

But then there are the books where food is really a part of the experience. For fans, a big part of the pleasure of reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or watching Game of Thrones, the TV series based on the books) is in the world these stories exist in—one in which food plays a significant part, and it’s no surprise that a blog, then a book, based on the food mentioned in the series should have become a major success.

And then there’s children’s literature, in which food is everything. Like every postcolonial, English-reading child I grew up reading foods that seemed to come from an alien world—as removed from us by time as by space. It’s a cliché that Indian children grow up not knowing what kippers are and are disappointed by scones when we finally encounter them—what’s more interesting is that the picnics, and not the plots are what we remember the most.

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books are not only filled with descriptions of fantastical meals, but assign food (like everything else, to be fair) great moral import. In the first book within the series’ internal chronology, the not-eating of an apple (Lewis is not subtle in his religious references) is an important plot point. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie gorges himself on tainted Turkish Delight from the evil White Witch and is so unable to appreciate the wholesome fried fish and boiled potatoes offered to him by the good beavers shortly afterwards.

In The Official Narnia Cookbook Douglas Gresham claims that Turkish Delight is (un-ensorcelled) also a common Narnian treat. I rather suspect this is not the case; to me it seems clear that the exotic Eastern-ness of it forms part of the contrast with Mrs Beaver’s properly English marmalade roll. This is part of the usefulness of Narnia, and of so many other fantasies; that it can be familiar and strange, self and Other, as required. Even the mud in Narnia is desirable; in a scene in Prince Caspian we see dryads eating different sorts of loam and Lewis makes it somehow appealing.

This might not be the case with the Official Narnia Cookbook, however. Recipes for sherbet and Turkish Delight sit here next to others for sausage rolls and porridge, and those in turn are next to boiled potatoes and scrambled eggs. Distance flattens out difference; Gresham’s book is clearly pitched at American children who are young enough that cooking itself is new, so that things like boiling potatoes might need instructions. And the British food of 1950s children’s fiction is as far removed from them as lobster patties and sherbet might have been to Lewis’ original audience.

It’s this that makes the whole thing rather unappealing to an adult. There’s so much to do with food in the Narnia books—and a lot of it relies on a reader with some level of knowledge. In assuming a reader who knows very little (and perhaps those behind the book are right, though it’s hard to see why such a reader would want such a cookbook) the Official Narnia Cookbook leaves itself little to do but give us recipes for egg and cheese sandwiches.


December 5, 2014

November Reading

Mostly for work, as is probably obvious.


Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway: A reread for work, and another of those books that I have a very intense memory of reading when I was younger (I loved it then, I love it now), so that a reread now makes it very clear how differently (how much better) I read now. Perhaps it is also time to revisit To The Lighthouse.

Ghalib Islam, Fire in the Unnameable Country: Years ago my best friend spent ages trying to read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and failing because she was enjoying the first few pages so much that she couldn’t move on from them. I felt a bit like that about Ghalib Islam’s book. It took me months to read, a bit at a time, but I loved it. It’s also the subject of December’s Strange Horizons book club, so more detailed thoughts will be available there in a few weeks.

William Mayne, A Grass Rope: With a group of people who research children’s lit I’ve been reading through the former recipients of the Carnegie medal, one book per decade. I insisted on A Grass Rope because I love it and have complex feelings about it; most people did not feel about it as I did. They were wrong, obviously.

Mhairi McFarlane, It’s Not Me, It’s You: I enjoyed McFarlane’s first two books so got this pretty much the moment it came out. It’s a romance, and it’s partly set in Newcastle, and there’s a comic-within-the-story, so it really ought to be all the things that I like. Except that I found the scene-setting of the Newcastle bits awkward (yes, tell me again about how you had dinner at Rasa and exactly what you ordered) and the comic stuff didn’t feel like it added much, and a dog died. Still, it managed to be nuanced and realistic about break-ups, and often funny, and involved a heist sequence and so made for a good afternoon.

Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners: For work, and often gorgeous.

Douglas Gresham and Pauline Baynes, The Official Narnia Cookbook: I did a column on this and should probably put it here soon.

Lucy Boston, A Stranger at Green Knowe: For the abovementioned Carnegie reading project. I love The Children of Green Knowe, as readers of this blog are probably aware. I loved large parts of this as well–despite the sometimes clumsy depiction of the main character, an orphaned refugee from China. There’s a surprising amount Boston gets right in simply giving us the quiet, believable perspective of a non-white character (even if she imposes a name upon him that is clearly not his own), but perhaps the best way to talk about how awful it is to be a refugee is not to compare that situation to a gorilla in a really awful zoo. It is still less bad at writing about non-white characters than The Child’s Elephant, so well done the 1960s..

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball: Glorious. I wrote a column about this which will also be on the blog soon.

Eloisa James, Desperate Duchesses, An Affair Before Christmas, Duchess By Night, When the Duke Returns, This Duchess of Mine, A Duke of Her Own: During the Courtney Milan accidental book club, the book’s lack of  sexy chess (chess is central to The Duchess War) was raised, and Tansy Rayner Roberts recommended this series as one that contained such a thing. In the event I found the sexy chess itself a bit disappointing (they abandon it for actual sex; anyone could do that, I wanted to know who won the game) but the series itself was enjoyable. I normally like Eloisa James, I’m not sure why I hadn’t read these before.

Romilly and Katherine John, Death By Request: Also the subject of a column, which will be up here soon. I picked this up at Barter Books because it was part of the Hogarth crime series that has in the past contained things I like. I was surprised by it, and that is a good thing.