Posted on Leave a comment

Lit Review: ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ by Isabel Allende

Gripped by the plight of thousands of Spanish Republicans who fled the country at the end of the Spanish Civil War only to be interned in horrid concentration camps in France, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1939 chartered the cargo ship SS Winnipeg to ship 2,200 Republican refugees to Chile where they were welcomed with open arms.

This incredible humanitarian feat is the platform for the new historical novel by acclaimed Chilean author Isabel Allende titled A Long Petal of the Sea. Although Allende had grown up with direct, first-hand knowledge of the great rescue — her grandfather was amongst those who welcomed the refugees when they docked — it was only after she met Victor, one of the last surviving refugees who made the trip, and learnt about his story that the desire to write A Long Petal was sparked.

And what a glorious novel it is: expansive in scope — the novel’s timeline spans more than 50 years — and rich in historical detail. A Long Petal of the Sea, Neruda’s description of Chile, is a complex tapestry comprising myriad characters and narrative strands, but at its heart is the story of a young medical student, Victor Dalmau, and his dead brother’s expectant girlfriend and gifted pianist, Roser Bruguera. With the noose tightening around them in Francoist Spain, the desperate pair agrees to a marriage of convenience that would enable them passage on the SS Winnipeg and a new life in Chile.

Once there, the wealthy del Solar family take the Dalmaus under their wing. Victor returns to medical school and becomes a sought-after cardiologist while Roser becomes a successful musician. Together, they raise Marcel, Roser’s son from her relationship with Victor’s brother. The arrangement is a pragmatic one for the couple who essentially live separate lives: Victor has a brief but deeply consequential affair with Ofelia del Solar, while Roser pursues her own love interests as well. Nonetheless, as the years go by, the two find that their affection for each other has blossomed into something more than mere platonic love. But it doesn’t end there, for, when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s democratically elected president in 1973, the Dalmaus once again find themselves in danger because of their political allegiances.

Allende has written an engrossing tale that sweeps one back to the turbulent times of the Spanish civil war, and yet it is a tale that feels perfectly on pulse with today. It is a beautiful story of family, loss, survival, hope and belonging. But it is also a story of love and its many guises: familial and patriotic; love for your fellow humankind, for art, music and poetry, and also carnal love and the kind borne out of shared adversity that results in deep mutual respect and trust for one another.

Above all, the book is a tender homage to Neruda, his poetry, and his extraordinary deed of kindness — an urgent reminder of our shared humanity, and that the refugee crisis around the world today needs to be met with courage and compassion, with political will and direct action.

Verdict: A captivating drama anchored by a wonderful cast of characters and imbued with humanity and a lot of heart. This story will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90

Special thanks to Bloomsbury for the advance review copy of the book.

Posted on Leave a comment

Lit Review: ‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age is Kiley Reid’s debut novel which has drawn much admiration for its witty and sharp observations of modern life couched in fluent and pacey prose. The novel’s protagonist is Emira Tucker, a 20-something black babysitter fresh out of college with little direction and limited means to orient herself. Unlike her group of more successful friends—one of whom is a medical professional and another an upwardly-mobile business executive—Emira depends on her babysitting gig to make ends meet. While her well-off white employers, Alix and Peter, are generous enough to remunerate her above scale, Emira is aware that her situation is neither sustainable nor desirable (although that doesn’t stop her from buying a leather jacket when she comes into some money unexpectedly later on).

Events are set into motion when she is accosted one evening at an upscale grocery store by a security guard caught in the throes of white paranoia. Tasked by Alix to take two-year old Briar out from the house late one evening, Emira is accused by the security guard, on the word of a too-good Samaritan, of kidnapping her young ward. After a brief but heated confrontation reminiscent of the many #WhileBlack episodes that made the rounds on the internet this past year, Peter, the girl’s father, arrives to defuse the situation but the damage is done.

The Grocery Store Incident (GSI) will be a pivotal moment for several characters in the novel (incidentally all white) but, and this is not without a little irony, not for Emira who’s too busy trying to make rent and eat. Characters notably affected by the GSI are:

  1. Mrs Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s employer and go-getter who’s lost her groove after leaving New York City. A social media type who initially got famous by writing polite letters to brands and corporations for freebies (and subsequently changed her name from Alex to Alix) and founder of the #LetHerSpeak woman’s movement, Alix is equally troubled by the GSI and her apperception of the stagnation in her professional and personal lives. Following a conference call with her inner circle of friends, all of whom are highly accomplished and of the “I’m being a good friend right now and asking how much weight you’ve gained” variety, Alix decides that she needs to put her life in order, which in her world means first keeping hold of Emira as her sitter whatever the cost. Ostensibly to keep her precocious two-year old Briar company, but, more importantly, as a project that would somehow be equally validating for both her and Emira.
  2. Kelley Copeland, a seemingly well-intentioned witness to the GSI who video-records the exchange between Emira and the security guard (as a precaution in the event that things went south). It turns out that Kelley is a successful IT-type and both he and Emira eventually start dating. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Kelley has a type: all his friends are black, he is completely immersed in black culture and casually dips into black lexicon in both speech and manner. Kelley is super-woke, which brings with it all the baggage such enlightenment implies. Additionally, it turns out that Kelley may have had a run-in with Alix in the past.

Alix and Kelley become increasingly involved in Emira’s life, constructing a narrative for her that becomes stifling and unwelcome particularly when Alix resorts to cunning means to manipulate her sitter. Emira, who has no interest in being a martyr and is bound to Alix only by her affection for Briar, finds the growing attention and the high-handed approaches of both Alix and Kelley unbearable, and things come to a head. Neither Alix nor Kelley are malicious, of course, and they both demonstrate genuine concern for Emira’s well-being. However, it becomes problematic when the two of them start seeing Emira as an extension of themselves rather than who she really is.

Gushing reviewers have compared Reid’s Such a Fun Age to the novels of the other young, virtuoso writer, Sally Rooney. Central to the two writers is the way they impute meaning to millennial life which is often unfairly depicted as shallow and trivial. But Reid, as with Rooney, writes sympathetically of the unique challenges of modern life, which in her case is the hyper-aware, hyper-polarised sociopolitical landscape (read “fun” age—see what she did there?). Reid also has a sterling ear for writing dialogue, be it in describing the lively exchanges between Emira and her friends in black vernacular, or the kid-friendly tone when Emira is dealing with Briar (Reid was a babysitter before she became a writer and that experience probably came in handy).

On the whole, the novel is charming and skirts the edges of cliché but pulls back from the brink to provide a refreshing take on the rather well-used life-as-a-minority trope. There is a verve to her writing style that can be aggressive and tender in equal measure, and she expertly weaves in nuanced observations of race and modern life that are alternately funny, cutting and wry. There is a concern that the subject matter of the novel may be too localised to be relatable to readers who are neither young nor American, but Reid is talented enough of a writer to spin a compelling yarn all the same. The characters, especially the white ones, also seemed a little one-dimensional with little self-awareness, but perhaps that depiction is also a deliberate one.

Verdict: Good, and will likely be one of those massively talked about books in 2020. (7/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM65.90

Posted on Leave a comment

Chew on this: Five food books to indulge in

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We, as a species, have a unique relationship with food. No longer mere fuel for our bodies — that uncomplicated relationship has gone the way of cavemen and woolly mammoths — food is the instantiation and expression of culture, of class both economic and social, of religiosity and, indeed, of our very basic identities.

What else explains the millions upon millions of food pictures now clogging up our social media feeds? Or the envious oohs and aahs that accompany said pictures? Or the countless hours and billions of dollars expended in search of authentic and unique cuisine, and in developing new textures and tastes to excite the palate? After all, gold loses its lustre while fame grows tiresome: perhaps like love, food is an appetite for which we never weary.

It also explains why food writing remains so incredibly popular with readers and publishers alike. The following are our selections of some recently published food books we think worth reading.

Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it All with Rene Redzepi, the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier (RM89.90)
Jeff Gordinier was a food writer at the New York Times when he received an invitation of a lifetime: to be part of the entourage on several gastronomic and culinary trips to Mexico, Australia, Denmark and Norway with none other than chef extraordinaire, René Redzepi, whose restaurant, Noma, had topped the World’s Best Restaurant list for several years. What follows is a rollicking account of landing in new destinations to seek out exotic ingredients and sample exquisite flavours, all so that Redzepi and his team could chart new territory in their offering of haute cuisine. Gordinier writes with admiration on the inner-workings of the Danish chef’s mind — he observed the man’s manic drive for perfection, his obsessive creative process and constant search for inspiration, and his sheer imagination. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Redzepi to enjoy this delectable food and travel memoir that will likely leave you hungry for more.

Milk: A 10,000-Year History by Mark Kurlansky (RM69.90)
The best-selling author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A World History returns with this fascinating cultural, economic, and culinary monograph on milk and all things dairy. Ever since the domestication of animals more than 10,000 years ago, humans have used milk of other mammals as a source of nourishment and turned it into foods such as cheese, yogurt, kefir and ice cream. Kurlansky traces milk’s history from antiquity to the present, from families keeping dairy cows to produce their own milk to mass production and the introduction of pasteurisation. Today, milk is still a test case among the most pressing issues in food politics, from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurisation. Written in his signature entertaining style, Milk demonstrates Kurlansky’s unparalleled ability to dive deep into a single subject revealing secret histories and remarkable stories in a highly entertaining fashion.

The Best American Food Writing 2019 (RM89.90)
In this evocative and wonderfully diverse anthology, award-winning author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Samin Nosrat has gathered a mouth-watering collection of 2019’s finest writing about food and drink in the US. There are stories for every taste and preference: there’s a piece on the reclamation of the queer history of tapas, another on the dizzying array of Kit Kats in Japan, a spotlight on a day in the life of a restaurant inspector, and an essay about eggs that segues into an exploration of purity myths, gender and sex, to name a few. The stories here will not only inspire but also provoke critical thinking and new perspectives about the food we eat (or don’t). In each case, the stories also reveal just how much our food is a part of our identity and how much time and effort we spend to make our food just right.

Only in Tokyo: Two Chefs, 24 Hours, the Ultimate Food City by Michael Ryan & Luke Burgess (RM119.50)
Tokyo, Japan is undoubtedly a food-lover’s paradise that offers up a plethora of epicurean delights. But with such a dizzying array of choices, it can be a bit overwhelming. In Only in Tokyo, Australian chefs (and Japanophiles) Michael Ryan and Luke Burgess narrow down the choices for you by highlighting genuinely local food experiences — no tourist traps here — with compelling stories and insight into the individuals behind the restaurants, cafés, bars and tea houses. Most of the venues featured are towards the west of Tokyo (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Meguro and Minato), and the book starts with breakfast haunts and moves through to lunch venues, mid-afternoon joints, dinner destinations, and watering holes. The short, punchy text is complemented with charming photos by Burgess, and the notes on favourite dishes make this a delightfully personal and compelling guidebook.

Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan (RM149.90)
Yasmin Khan is an award-winning author, campaigner and cook who is passionate about sharing people’s stories through food. Her second book, Zaitoun, is part cookbook, part travelogue that focuses on Palestine, its people and cuisine. Palestinian food can best be described as fresh and bright, as it revolves around colourful mezze dishes that feature the region’s bountiful produce and earthy spices. The cuisine has evolved over several millennia through the influences of Arabic, Jewish, Armenian, Persian, Turkish and Bedouin cultures and civilisations. Featuring more than 80 modern recipes, captivating stories and stunning travel photography, Zaitoun unlocks the flavours and fragrances of modern Palestine, from the sun-kissed pomegranate stalls of Akka on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea through evergreen oases of date plantations in the Jordan Valley, to the fading fish markets of Gaza City.

This article appears in the January 2020 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.