Book Review: A Chill in the Air

Iris Origo is perhaps best known as the author of her previous diary, War in Val d’Orcia, which she published to acclaim in 1947. It was praised for the positive effect it had on Anglo-Italian relations as it detailed the risks taken in the German occupied region of southern Italy, where Origo lived with her husband and daughter, to assist partisans, fugitives and refugees. A Chill in the Air is another of Origo’s diaries covering the years 1939/40, when Italy was looking to Mussolini to keep them out of a war slowly spreading across Europe. It details the rumours and propaganda of the time – the struggle to sift truth from a variety of news sources and the debates these sparked.

Origo was born to wealth and privilege. She had high placed connections in the arts as well as diplomatic circles. In 1924, aged twenty-two, she married Antonio Origo and they purchased an estate in southern Tuscany. Despite having a child (who died, aged 7) she continued to travel abroad periodically, indulging in occasional love affairs. She would return to her husband who was taking advantage of Mussolini’s ‘Battle of the Wheat’ to turn their arid land into productive farms worked by peasants.

The book offers a first hand account of a strange time written by a woman largely raised in Italy but not fully belonging due to her British and American parentage. As well as providing insight into the thinking of her peers and the local population, it offers thoughts on wider attitudes to the growing threat of conflict. Early on Origo recognises that governments must manipulate popular opinion by whatever means necessary if they are to get their way.

“It is now clear what form propaganda, in case of war, will take. The whole problem will be presented as an economic one. The “democratic countries”, i.e. the “haves”, will be presented as permanently blocking the way of the “have-nots” to economic expansion.”

There is resentment from wives and mothers as their husbands and sons are conscripted. They question the point of raising boys, of working hard for a better life, if the men they nurture can simply be taken away.

There are predictable prejudices and blind spots recounted, depending on who the author is talking to. Despite differences of opinion, few have any appetite for the coming war.

“A still, lovely summer’s evening; the grapes ripening, the oxen ploughing. Only man is mad.”

Nevertheless, as Hitler continues his expansion this mood must be changed – governments control through fear and suppression of resistance.

“Day after day, year after year, every paper gives us the same news, preaches the same doctrine. Plenty of people say, ‘We don’t believe what’s in the papers: it’s all a pack of lies!’ But all the same, something sinks in.”

Horrific tales of atrocities abroad are discussed. The German army, high on cocaine to retain energy, are reported as baiting and killing the ordinary Polish people they come into contact with. Businessmen make money from stolen property and commerce.

“The capitulation of Holland is announced with considerable Schadenfreude. On the same day a grocer in Florence receives a letter from a German firm – already offering him Dutch cheeses!”

More countries fall to Hitler’s occupying forces and freedoms are curtailed. News from abroad becomes harder to obtain. Attention focuses on what Italy’s future role will be.

“we hardly pay any attention to the news that Russia is occupying Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Japan is menacing Indo China. Banditry spreads fast.”

When Italy joins the war there is a feeling of inevitability. Within the new order, power is shifting.

“the contempt of the new world for the old, of the self-made man for those who have attained with ease what he has achieved with effort.”

It is interesting to read this Italian view of other nations, especially of England – regarded as corrupt and sterile – and of Churchill whose speeches are considered:

“vain boasts, based on no foundation of fact – a cynical last attempt to bolster up the English people to meet their inevitable destruction.”

The diaries cease abruptly when Origo goes into labour – her pregnancy had not been mentioned until she travelled to Rome for the birth.

In an Afterword, written by her granddaughter, we are offered a glimpse of the author’s later years.

These diaries offer a first person account reported with immediacy rather than hindsight. I did not find the entries entirely compelling but they challenged the history taught to me in school. For this I am glad to have read the book even if my interest did at times wane. The politics and loyalties of Italy under Mussolini are portrayed in an alternative and therefore thought provoking light.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li, is set within the Chinese immigrant community of Maryland, USA. Jimmy and Johnny Han run the Duck House restaurant having inherited it from their late father, Bobby. He established the popular eatery, thereby making the family fortune. Long time employees, Nan and Ah-Jack, continue to work the long, punishing hours required despite their advancing years as they struggle to support their dependents. Nan’s seventeen year old son, Pat, has recently been expelled from school so now works a lowly job at the restaurant where his mother can keep an eye on him. Ah-Jack’s wife has cancer so he must cover her medical bills.

When the story opens Johnny is in Hong Kong and Jimmy is scheming to abandon the Duck House and open his own restaurant. To fund this he has turned to the wily Uncle Pang who is an associate of the Han family. It was Uncle Pang who helped Bobby set up his restaurant. Now he is offering a similar deal to the son, which would put Jimmy in debt to a man whose tentacles he would prefer to escape.

Pat is attracted to Annie, Johnny’s daughter. Both resent that the restaurant demands their parents’ time and attention and that now they are expected to work there. When Uncle Pang offers Pat a heap of money to carry out a small but illegal task, Pat takes Annie along to enjoy the spectacle. Things don’t go as they anticipated and the two young people are sucked into events that will horrify both them and their parents.

Sibling rivalry and a deep seated need to prove themselves drive Jimmy and Johnny to pursue their personal agendas. They still need the family money and this means involving their mother who now lives alone in her dusty mansion. The sons underestimate her strength and influence, reluctantly turning to each other, as they have always done, to cope with the challenges they end up bringing down on themselves.

Meanwhile Nan and Ah-Jack must finally deal with an attraction they have felt for each other since they first met. Pat needs his mother more than ever but she is distracted. Annie cannot fathom how to gain support from her father who has given up trying to interact with his truculent teenager. Wrapped up in their own concerns the parents do not notice as their children unravel.

This is a story of the resentments and ties of a demanding family that has mythologised its own success and expectations. It skilfully portrays the disconnect between generations who understand each other only in relation to themselves. Little is told of those who do not frequent the restaurant – it serves as a microcosm of the society and culture being portrayed.

The writing flows around a plot that offers a sticky, dark humour alongside the characters’ self inflicted difficulties. Although the supporting cast felt largely two-dimensional, serving to demonstrate key players’ continuing self-absorption, they added to the colour and shades of the depiction. I found it hard to like the protagonists but their situation is written with a degree of sympathy.

This was an interesting if not always satisfying read offering a window into the world of immigrants and their offspring. I enjoyed the insights offered of the inner workings of a busy restaurant. Mostly though it is a story of family that is universal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One (an imprint of Pushkin Press).

Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head

No Place to Lay One’s Head, by Françoise Frenkel (translated by Stephanie Smee), is a memoir written immediately following the author’s escape into Switzerland from Nazi occupied France in 1943. First published in 1945 by a Geneva based publishing house, the few copies printed were quickly forgotten. Rediscovered in 2015 the book was republished and subsequently translated. This edition includes a preface by Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano. He writes:

“That curious impression I had upon reading No Place to Lay One’s Head was also the effect of hearing the voice of somebody whose face one can’t quite make out in the half-light and who is recounting an episode from their life.”

The tone of Frenkel’s writing is strangely detached, perhaps reflecting the trauma so recently suffered. She was fifty-three years old when she crossed into Switzerland and lived for a further thirty years, dying in Nice. Little is known of these later decades.

Born in 1889 to a wealthy Jewish family in Piotrków Trybunalski, an industrial town in Poland, Frenkel enjoyed beautiful books, music and intellectual conversation from a young age. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she frequented the city’s libraries and bookshops. Her family back home lost many of their fine possessions during the occupation of the First World War but remained alive and well. The memoir does not detail what became of them later.

Frenkel’s first job was in a Parisian bookshop. It is known that she married yet her memoir makes no mention of her husband (he died in Auschwitz in 1942). When they decided to open a bookshop dedicated to French literature, their plan was to return to Poland. Finding that this market was already catered for they instead moved to Berlin and, in 1921, established a bookshop in what Frenkel describes as the city’s fashionable quarter. The enterprise quickly attracted

“experts in literature and languages, professors, students and members of that aristocracy whose education had been so strongly influenced by French culture”

The author writes warmly of this period, lasting for more than a decade, during which she befriended many of her clientele. The bookshop became a cultural focus, hosting events featuring many of the famous authors of the day. However, by the mid 1930s political events were intruding. As a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi Germany, Frenkel’s comfortable and intellectually rewarding way of life could not continue.

“Oh the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness or pity…
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”

In 1939 the author fled to Paris. When France fell to the Germans she travelled to Avignon. This was the start of many months spent moving from place to place as she sought safety from the ever increasing politically motivated dangers. Jews were being rounded up and deported to camps. Frenkel was fortunate in having good friends willing to risk their own lives to protect her.

One aspect that is not explained, yet undoubtedly enabled her to survive, is the author’s wealth. When she was forced to abandon her beloved bookshop and leave Germany she was denied currency and took with her only what she could carry in two suitcases. Despite this she lives in hotels and eats in restaurants. When the round-ups start she pays exorbitant rates to board in small rooms. She bribes those she hopes will lead her to safety. Her French friends are vital in seeking out contacts and posting letters to those abroad who may be willing to assist but there is no suggestion that they provided the funds she required.

Life in France at this time was hard for everyone with the occupying forces requisitioning food supplies leading to a burgeoning black market. Many French citizens believed the propaganda and blamed foreigners and Jews for their difficulties. There were still good people willing to help the refugees but also many who took advantage, whatever the human cost, regarding the situation as an opportunity to make money.

This is a fascinating personal account of an horrific period of history. Its publication is timely given our current political situation. Frenkel writes factually, almost dispassionately, with little attempt to garner sympathy. Her words offer a lesson in the importance of retaining our humanity, whatever indoctrination is being disseminated on behalf of self-serving politicians.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Vanish in an Instant

Vanish in an Instant, by Margaret Millar, is an old time crime thriller set in small town America’s mid west. First published in 1952 it needs to be read with an awareness of attitudes at the time. The women all appear to be looking for a husband, the men for a woman who takes care of her appearance. A new romance that blossoms was the one aspect I couldn’t make sense of in what is otherwise a carefully crafted tale.

The story opens with a concerned mother, Mrs Hamilton, flying into town to help her married daughter, Virginia, who is being held at the county jail following a murder. Virginia, was picked up by local police, seriously drunk and covered in the blood of the victim. They had been out together the night before. Virginia cannot remember anything about what happened at the cottage where the body of the married man was found.

A local lawyer, Eric Meecham, has been called in by Virginia’s husband, Paul. Mrs Hamilton takes an instant dislike to Eric. The mother is resentful that her son-in-law hasn’t managed to prevent the possibility of such a situation occurring. She appears overbearing but not entirely surprised at developments.

Before Eric can make progress with uncovering what happened, a witness appears whose evidence allows Virginia to walk free. Late night meetings and a series of unhappy marriages bring with them the whiff of dodgy deals. A further death takes Eric out of town where he becomes embroiled in the well being of an elderly alcoholic who the second victim was trying to help.

There are the requisite twists and blind alleys as the affected families and those associated with them reveal their links to both victims. Eric appears content to work without payment, despite it being offered on numerous occasions, as he follows leads and tries to uncover the truth of a sorry situation.

The writing flows and the plot is well structured. The denouement provides answers to the puzzle with the scattered clues now making sense. The era evoked brings to the fore the dissatisfaction and frustrations of, particularly, the female characters. This may be old time crime – lacking forensic analysis and effective, dogged police work –  but it offers a window into sociological aspects that are still not as distant as many of us desire.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

Book Review: In the Restaurant

“To eat together, to drink, to entrust oneself to others’ care: this turns the restaurant into a place where the open society is both celebrated and lived out every day.”

In the Restaurant, by Christoph Ribbat (translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli), provides a potted history of the restaurant alongside the sociology and psychology of those who work in and frequent such establishments. Written in short bites of piquant text each entry is easily digested. This is a fun and fascinating account of the eatery’s growth and development.

What a modern European would think of as a restaurant came into being in Paris around 1760. The upper classes were enticed to eat at a new style of the ubiquitous inn, one which served ‘restorative’ bouillons for those who considered their palates sensitive. Customers were given a table to themselves rather than having to share benches with strangers. They could choose when they wanted to eat and select their choice of dish from a menu. Ambience and service were of the utmost importance.

Unlike other upper class venues at the time, anyone who could pay for their food and drink was admitted. Restaurants were furnished with niches and alcoves enabling a degree of privacy despite the public setting. Unusually, men and women appeared together. Before long these early restaurants were serving more than just bouillon. Specialities developed with views on quality and innovation disseminated by newly emerging writers – the restaurant critic. Interest in these Parisian ventures encouraged others to open restaurants around the world.

From the beginning staff were stratified with rigid, snobbish hierarchies emerging. The chef ruled in the kitchen which was kept hidden from customers. Waiters were go-betweens, tasked with making the customer feel welcome and valued. Despite the hard work and long hours, salaries were low – mortality amongst employees subjected to the health hazards in busy kitchens was high.

Chefs published cookbooks to raise their profile and that of their place of work. The dishes they developed evolved as increased tourism brought with it new culinary skills, ideas and tastes. Increased efficiency in the kitchen was achieved by introducing specialisms.

George Orwell was one of the first authors to draw attention to the more unsavoury aspects of a restaurant’s kitchen practices, based of his experience working there. Meanwhile critics were feted and the famous fed for free to raise an establishment’s profile. Over time food fashions changed as chefs sought to capture the zeitgeist. Customers continued to seek

“sophistication rather than satiation”

From a simple idea the restaurant developed in many directions. Industrialisation and automation brought with it fast food chains. The quest for Michelin stars encouraged the creation of labour intensive art to be consumed. Staff are still badly paid.

“It is possible to make a living from only one in five jobs in the American food industry.”

Although presented in anecdotal style with reference to individuals and particular establishments, the source notes for the numerous entries in this book are extensive. Detailed references are provided in a section at the end. What comes across is how much has changed and yet also remained the same. The restaurant remains

“a theatre for all the senses”

The players rely on both the artisanal and industrial workers. While customers may be hedonistic, enjoying the performance and eating experience, there remains widespread exploitation of staff and those who provide the base ingredients.

There are now many types of restaurant with wide varieties of operating philosophies. These cater for: the time strapped; those seeking comfort food; demands for fresh produce; the semblance of ethical practices; health fads and fashions. Although now everyday destinations for many, at the high end of the market success brings its own problems. One example cited was of the newly listed three Michelin star establishment that was asked by a potential customer where they could land their helicopter. The cost of such meals may appear obscene while people go hungry. Demand remains.

And such tales add to the interest of what is an entertaining and intelligent glimpse into the kitchens and public spaces of restaurants operating within a multitude of environments: capitalist and communist states; bustling cities and small town America; remote Spanish beach sides and Nordic forest. The author treads lightly yet gets to the heart of the issues faced by staff and proprietors. This is an entertaining smorgasbord of reading pleasure for anyone who has worked in or frequented a restaurant.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The Teahouse Detective

“Crime interests me only when it resembles a clever game of chess, with many intricate moves”

First published in 1908, The Teahouse Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, by Baroness Orczy (probably best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel novels), is a collection of cosy crime mysteries of varying length that were serialised in magazines in response to the success of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

The unnamed sleuth is a pale, thin, balding man who sits down uninvited at a teashop table in London opposite a young journalist – Polly Burton. Noticing what she is reading he proceeds to explain to her how he has solved cases that have baffled the police and puzzled readers of daily newspapers – which provide details of ongoing investigations. He holds his own abilities in high regard and is contemptuous of the establishment tasked with apprehending and convicting law breakers.

“I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime.”

As he talks the old man habitually knots and unknots a length of string. He recalls details of each crime, producing photographs of key places and players which he shows to Molly. He tells her of related court hearings he attends, describing the people he observes there. He challenges Molly to learn from his methods of deduction and work out for herself who the true perpetrators could be.

Molly grows used to sitting with this man on subsequent visits to the teashop. She begins to ask him about particular cases that have intrigued her. Although at times nervous and somewhat excitable, the facts and views the man presents are as interesting as his detailed knowledge of them is puzzling.

The various crimes committed involve: murder, forgery, theft, deception. The settings vary but are mostly in British cities. The victims and villains are largely drawn from the wealthier classes. They are portrayed as gentlemen, the implication being that this means they should be trustworthy, although lifestyles described do not come across as noble to modern sensibilities. Women are presented as adjuncts despite several playing important roles. The testimony of servants is not granted as much weight as that from their employers.

The writing is very much of its time with the era well evoked and sympathetically rendered. Each story provides a puzzle that the reader may enjoy trying to solve before its final reveal. Violence is involved in many of the crimes yet these remain gently told tales. The reasoned deductions and carefully planted clues keep fresh an inquisitive reader’s interest in narrative from a bygone age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Giveaway

If you would like to win a copy of this book then head over to my Twitter account here as, in true festive spirit, I am running a giveaway. To enter, follow me on Twitter and RT the relevant tweet by 8am GMT on 12 December 2018. Two winners will be drawn at random from all qualifying entries – the giveaway is UK only.

Winners will need to provide me with their postal address via Twitter DM within 48 hours of being notified of their win. I will pass these addresses on to the publisher who will post the books direct.

All personal data provided will be deleted by both myself and the publisher once the books have been sent. My thanks to Pushkin Press for providing this prize.

 

Book Review: The Cake Tree In The Ruins

The Cake Tree In The Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), is a collection of twelve short stories set in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. In 1945 the author watched the Allied fire bombing of Kobe kill his adoptive parents. He subsequently witnessed his sister starving to death. These stories are based on his experiences. They are dark and at times savage but this seems apt given the subject matter. Most end on the 15th of August 1945 when Japan surrendered leaving a population numb, subsisting amongst the ruins of the many towns and villages razed.

The collection opens with the tale of a lonely whale that mistakes a submarine for a potential mate. Excited by the thought that he may finally be able to raise a family, he accompanies it as it heads into danger. As with many of the stories this one does not have a happy ending.

The Parrot And The Boy is one of several stories that depicts a human survivor finding solace in an innocent creature. The eight year old protagonist has managed to keep the bird his late father gave him alive despite complaints from neighbours at his use of scarce food. When the town is fire bombed the boy and his parrot find themselves alone in a shelter. The shock of what has happened renders the boy mute, much to the consternation of his talking pet.

Mothers are lost to young children who, unable to grasp what has happened, wait for their return. In My Home Bunker it is a father who comforts a young boy. Before leaving for the front the man had provided his family with a shelter. Here his son goes to remember the work this took and to play out his games of helping defend his country. Unaware of the succour the child derives from this trench under their house, which she had never felt necessary, the mother assumes it is her thoughts and fears that are shared.

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach depicts a kamikaze pilot as he faces what will be his final flight. Towards the end of the war Japan was turning anything it could think of into a weapon in an attempt to thwart the evil Allies.

With all the men away fighting, children were required to help with the war effort. A Balloon In August describes how even paper and glue were used to create a device that could carry incendiaries into enemy heartlands.

The lack of food became a serious issue and forced people to take risks, creating bad feeling amongst survivors. The Elephant and its Keeper reminds the reader that humans were not the only creatures affected. As well as the provisions required to keep them alive, there was concern about what would happen if bombs destroyed zoo enclosures and dangerous animals escaped. A decree to kill these innocent yet potential predators became challenging to implement.

The Soldier and the Horse is another story that explores the bond between an animal and the young man tasked with keeping it safe that it may be worked beyond its capabilities for the war effort. Bombs do not just kill people.

The stories are haunting and heart-wrenching but bring to the fore the true horror of war and the effect of propaganda in perpetuating its cruelties. Official bodies talk of heroes and honour while people and other creatures starve or die in brutal circumstances.

As we commemorate the fallen this is a timely reminder of the realities of conflict – one that people in other lands are still living with. There is no glory in enabling such suffering, death and destruction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.