Sunday, 22 November 2015

Four Kinds of Fish

"Day of Atonement", Jay Rayner

There are times when you end up with a novel that confounds expectations. Tempted by a free promotion on it for Yom Kippur, Jay Rayner's Day of Atonement has been sitting on my phone for a while, and when, stuck for something to read on the tube, it was opened, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.

The last cookery novel I can recall reading (and I'm sure there's been something since) was going through Anthony Bourdain's Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo, which managed to be simultaneously entertaining and depressingly dark, so in terms of expectation management Rayner's Day of Atonement has a bit of baggage.

Starting with an elderly ex con on the contemporary Kent coast there's an initial feeling that we might be in Bourdain territory, but that's soon stripped away and we've got an engaging wide ranging rites of passage cultural narrative of London Jewish entrepreneurs through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. There's a rich sense of place and culture with the distinctive argot of London's Jewish community richly captured combining veracity and an ability to make you smile.

Deep down Day of Atonement isn't really a crime novel, but it's not one where the expected deeply bad things happen. Somehow while there are where you suspect it might be about to turn all a little bit Goodfellas it doesn't. People don't end up necessarily in a shallow grave, and a level of cocaine dependency in the 1970s shouldn't really come as a huge surprise to anyone.

So Day of Atonement was free, so I can't even ask a question of whether even as a discount purchase, was it worth it? But there is a more sophisticated question revolving around whether it rewarded my time and here happily things can be a lot more conclusive: of course it was. Mal and Solly become characters whose stories compel as they move from adolescence to old age, and while it is at heart a morality play, there is a sense of predominantly reasonable wholesome fun (even including Judy the Blow Job Queen) that suffuses the novel.

And yes, it does make clear that the epitome of a good and lavish party is making sure that you don't just have three, but four fishes served. This is probably a life lesson for all of us, gentile or otherwise.

Jay Rayner makes it clear that this is a pre 9/11 novel, a product thus of the very short 21st century where there was a window to see the world through something of a different lens, which gives Day of Atonement it's particular flavour. Try it, I think it's one you might relish, a little like chicken soup.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Got wood?

"Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way", Lars Mytting

Autumn took a while to get going this year. Barely a week ago we were talking about how unseasonably mild it was. That said there have been a few times when November dampness creeps into the bones, and there's nothing quite like a wood fire to sort that out.

Of course now we're properly into blustery autumn, and I'm eyeing up my woodpile, wondering how far through the winter it'll get me, and very grateful for the wood stove in the sitting room (a Charnwood C4 for those interested in such details).

Into this environment comes Norwegian Wood. Not a track by the Beatles, nor a Haruki Murakami novel, but instead a beautifully produced tome on, you guessed it, Norwegian wood. As a country Norway does winter rather more profoundly than the UK - that's geography for you I guess - so it's maybe understandable that their approach to chopping and burning wood is a little more thoughtful. Not for them the indifferent net of soggy logs procured from the petrol station - in Scandinavia it's a process that involves taking a long view, something to go with aquavit and lutefisk to help you through the long dark winter.

This is something that suffuses Norwegian Wood. It's not the sort of work that you can read linearly, instead it rewards dipping into, grasping an element of wood lore that you can apply to your own wood piles and fires, and through this gain an insight to the accompanying cultural context.

Looking at this way Norwegian Wood is a genuinely useful book. To take one example, people have long told me that contrary to popular wisdom of starting with paper, layering kindling on top, and then some small logs, really you should set a fire using a top down approach. Nothing about this seemed to make sense - heat rises right? So surely starting from the top is counter intuitive and flying in the face of reason? 

Norwegian Wood in a matter of fact way explains things. Put a bed of logs on the bottom of your stove, then build paper and kindling on top, this will generate enough heat to help the bigger logs to start to smoulder, and their gasses, rising up, will then combust as they meet the flames from the kindling - simples. It means the process of lighting the fire is less a case of earnestly monitoring it, adding carefully selected pieces of wood, and more a matter of lighting it and letting it run. It's a small thing, but makes a difference.

That's Norwegian Wood in a nutshell. It's a combination of small things that can make your experience with a log fire inherently more enjoyable. It's probably not something to have as your train book, nor necessarily one for bedtime, but there's an argument to be made that having it around where you can pick it up as you go about your day will improve your life.

Disclosure: a review copy of this book was supplied by Maclehose Pres.