Book Review: Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

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If you ask me my favourite author, I would probably give you two names: Will Self and Vladimir Nabokov. This has been a constant since I was 17, when I discovered both almost simultaneously. Self I came across quite by accident, picking up My Idea of Fun from the bookshelves in a holiday bolt-hole in Whitby. Nabokov, on the other hand, I sought out quite intentionally, starting, as many do, with the (in)famous Lolita.  

In Lolita, I found a beauty and emotion that I had never seen in a novel before, and have rarely seen matched since. To reduce it to simply a lewd story of paedophilic lust is to overlook the exquisite lyricism of the novel’s style and its power as an explosive account of obsession by one of literature’s most fascinatingly devious narrators. There are paragraphs in Lolita that give me butterflies, no matter how many times I read them. 

As Lolita’s fame perhaps eclipses that of its author, I perhaps would have read no further had it not been for a conversation with one of the English teachers at my school, who noticed me reading Lolita whilst waiting for a lesson to start, struck up a conversation, and recommended I try Ada.

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, to give it its full title, is a novel about the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister, set in an alternate reality. What’s not to love? It is broader in scope and more complex than Lolita, and probably Nabokov’s greatest masterpiece of style, depth and story. It is mad, and wonderful, and it’s my favourite. But I’m not here to talk about Ada. I am here to talk about Pnin.

Finally, Pnin. Over the years, I made my way through everything else Nabokov had written, the English novels, the Russian novels, Speak Memory, and I completely ignored Pnin. In some ways I was loathe to read it: the work of a deceased novelist being finite, it was a comfort knowing there was one more work waiting to be discovered. Otherwise, I just became used to not having it within my Nabokovian terms of reference. And so things went on, until Penguin brought out their beautiful new paperback modern classics editions, and eventually I saw Pnin and could no longer ignore it. 

Although there are comic elements in Nabokov’s other novels (Pale Fire in particular, and Lolita too has its surprising moments) Pnin is more overtly funny. It is a perfect comic novel, tinged with sadness. Set almost entirely on the campus of a fictional American university, the novel relates the misadventures of the eponymous Professor Timofey Pnin, a Russian emigre who is struggling to adapt to the life and language of the new world around him.  

The novel opens with Pnin on the wrong train to deliver a lecture, the reader discovering this mishap some pages ahead of Pnin himself. There are two sentences in this opening scene which, to me, perfectly exemplify Nabokov’s wonderful command of language, ever present in his works:

When inviting him to deliver a Friday-evening lecture at Cremona – some two hundred versts west of Waindell, Pnin’s academic perch since 1945 – the vice-president of the Cremona Women’s Club, a Miss Judith Clyde, had advised our friend that the most convenient train left Waindell at 1.52 p.m., reaching Cremona at 4.17; but Pnin – who like so many Russians, was inordinately fond of everything in the line of timetables, maps, catalogues, collected them, helped himself freely to them with the bracing pleasure of getting something for nothing, and took especial pride in puzzling out schedules for himself – had discovered, after some study, an inconspicuous reference mark against a still more convenient train (Lv. Waindell 2.19 p.m., Ar. Cremona 4.32 p.m.); the mark indicated that Fridays, and Fridays only, the two-nineteen stopped at Cremona on its way to a distant and much larger city, graced likewise with a mellow Italian name. Unfortunately for Pnin, his timetable was five years old and in part obsolete.

As the novel develops, so does the character, and although Pnin’s escapades are narrated with comic perfection, a greater depth emerges as Pnin struggles to maintain composure in the face of finding lodgings, a visit from his ex-wife, Liza, awkward interactions with his ex-wife’s son and ongoing linguistic difficulties. It is language which most isolates Pnin and renders him incapable of fully settling into his life in America, and a motif repeated throughout the novel is Pnin’s inability to pronounce his colleagues’ names, as well as their own difficulties pronouncing his. 

When around other Russians, Pnin is much more at ease. In a chapter which tells of a visit to the house of some fellow Russians, we get a glimpse of a different side of Pnin, astute and dignified, as well as some wider context to his circumstances: sitting in the garden, he is struck by the memory of Mira, a lover from his youth, who died in a Nazi concentration camp. It is one of the most moving moments in the novel:

In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened the peace of his mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.  

It is impossible not to see something of Nabokov himself in Pnin, in particular his nostalgia as an emigre and his experiences in America. One particularly clear link between author and character is their shared experience of American dentistry: Pnin has his decayed teeth pulled and replaced with a gleaming set of dentures, as did Nabokov himself. But Pnin is not Nabokov. With a family around him and a total command of the English language, Nabokov avoided Pnin’s fate. After the events of the final chapters, we leave Pnin seemingly destined to remain an outsider. However, he has become so much more than just a figurehead for a series of comic escapades: in Pnin, Nabokov has created a multi-dimensional character who, despite the laughs, is intensely human. He will stay with me for a long time. 

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London in the sun

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In the capital

I caught the train to London after work on Friday, armed with the Dinner of Champions (cheese and onion sandwich and a gin in a tin). Mark had been staying in the capital for a conference at Birkbeck during the week and we decided to extend his stay by a couple of days so I could come down and join him.

The beautiful weather of the last few days was even more unexpected given that it is a bank holiday weekend, and therefore prone to weather fails. It was such a mild, still evening when I arrived at St Pancras at 9pm that I decided to walk over to Fitzrovia, where Mark was having dinner. The streets were full of people enjoying the warm weather and the crowds were spilling out of pubs and bars onto the streets, there was a real holiday atmosphere as I got towards Goodge Street.

Having tracked down Mark, along with several other philosophers, we made our way to Shochu Lounge for some fine Japanese whiskies before heading back to our hotel for a good night’s slumber.

Saturday morning saw us having to move hotel as Mark’s expenses would not extend to Saturday night. This involved a bit of battling with the tube as works on the Circle and District line rendered our trip to Aldgate East somewhat problematic. We eventually made it through, after an impromptu trip to King’s Cross where we made the best of it by deciding to get brunch at Caravan. We sat outside in the sun on Granary Square and it was wonderful.

After finding the new hotel and checking in, we headed up to the National Gallery, where we had tickets for the Monet and Architecture exhibition. Monet is one of my favourite artists, and I have such an incredibly emotional reaction to his works. Something about the skies… The exhibition focused on his use of buildings and structures in his paintings, from bridges and churches through to the Houses of Parliament: not entirely what we would normally associate with Monet, who is perhaps best known for painting natural scenes. It really was superb. There are almost 80 paintings, grouped roughly by geographical location, and in several cases there are series of paintings of the same scene, painted in different light or from different angles, seen together for the first time. The most striking part for me was three large canvases showing exactly the same view of the Houses of Parliament, hung on the opposite wall to several views of the Cathedral at Rouen. Each painting showed its subject in a completely different light: the London series showing sunset, fog and storm clouds, and when placed together appearing almost as a series of dreamlike visions. Beautiful.

From the exhibition we wandered out towards St James’ Park, where we enjoyed the last couple of hours of sun before it sunk below the trees, before heading back up to Barrafina for a reliably fantastic dinner as usual. It was super busy in Charing Cross and I didn’t really fancy facing crowds for a drink, so we took a long slow walk back along the river then through the deserted city and out the other side to the edge of Whitechapel and our hotel.

This morning, feeling refreshed, we checked out of the hotel early and caught a bus to Old Street to get a leisurely Sunday brunch at Lantana. I’d not been before, although Mark had, and it is a joyful place with a creative menu and excellent coffee. I enjoyed courgette bread topped with halloumi and a poached egg and we even got a lamington for pudding: like all good cafes, the Australian influence is strong. We spent the rest of the day ambling in the hot sun and checking out the markets at Spitalfields and Brick Lane, fuelled by freshly squeezed orange juice, the occasional coffee and a delightful tofu steamed bun, before getting the train home to Nottingham in time for dinner.

Having spent a large amount of time in London over recent years, both for work and fun, sometimes I find the city wears me out a little. I’m not a country person, but I’m not maybe a full-on big city person either. I’m a suburban person! But this trip has left me feeling so energised and inspired. I’ll try and get back for another visit soon.

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Trafalgar Square in glorious sunshine on Saturday, around 5pm.

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London architecture.

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St Pancras station. The beginning and the end.

Homemade Cashew Milk

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Giving up on dairy

I have been a pescetarian (that is to say, a fish-eating vegetarian) for over 15 years now. I don’t eat mammals or birds, but I do eat fish, eggs and dairy. 

More recently, the incongruity of consuming dairy whilst refusing to eat an actual cow slowly began to dawn on me. After all, dairy farming is, by virtue of what it takes to make a cow produce milk, a rather more distressing process than meat production, and you can read a bit more about that here.

And so we started trying to cut out dairy. As someone who doesn’t actually like cow milk (one of my earliest memories is suddenly taking very violently against it as a very young child, sitting at my grandmother’s dining table in Chelmsford), giving up many uses of dairy wasn’t much of a challenge. I have never taken milk in tea, only in the occasional coffee, and nor do I eat typical, milk-heavy British breakfast products like cereal or porridge. I discovered very quickly that I very much prefer the taste of soy or almond milk in coffee, that vegan coconut oil spreads are a perfectly viable alternative to butter on good bread, and that Alpro soy yoghurts taste almost indistinguishable  (or even better) than their dairy equivalents. 

Dairy alternatives are not perfect however. Soy and nuts tend to come with significant air miles behind them, and also tend to come packaged in that well known nemesis of recycling, the Tetra Pak. Thinking that we could at least try to resolve the packaging problem, we started researching into making our own milk at home. 

Our thoughts first turned to oat milk, for the simple reasons that we have a local deli which sells oats in paper bags, and oats tend to be grown closer to home (ours in fact travel just a few miles to get to us). No air miles and no plastic, what could be better! We found instructions online and set to work, soaking the oats in a bowl overnight.

Things seemed to be going well as we blended, strained and bottled the milk the following day. However, the sieve didn’t quite strain as well as was needed, and the milk not only had a gritty texture but also kept thickening in the fridge, presumably as the oatmeal residue continued to swell. Our first effort was therefore a bit of a disaster, but we have since bought a cheesecloth nut milk bag and so will be trying again soon.

For our second attempt, we switched to cashews, as they don’t need to be strained. We again put them in a bowl to soak in water overnight, and then had a long conversation about which of our blenders would be best for dealing with the nut blending process (i.e. which would not break). We needn’t have worried: the next morning the nuts had become so soft you could actually squish them between your fingers. We ended up just using our smoothie maker (we have a Breville Blend Active) to make the milk, which is super easy because if you are feeling lazy you can soak, blend and store in the same container. Doing this reduces the time you need to be actively involved in the process to less than about 3 minutes. 

There are of course downsides to cashews, mainly the fact that they have travelled a long way to be here and that you almost always have to buy them in a plastic bag. However, you don’t need large quantities (about 1 cup or 100g of cashews makes almost 1 litre of milk), and there is something lovely about having a bottle of fresh milk you have made yourself in the fridge. I will never be a milk drinker but Mark thinks it’s delicious on his cereal, and with a texture and appearance almost identical to cow milk, it’s great for cooking or in a smoothie. We will persevere with oat, but this was a nice discovery in the meantime. 

Instructions

You will need:

  • 1 cup/100g cashews (raw/unroasted)
  • 4 cups/1 litre water

Method:

Soak the cashews in the water for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Put it all in a blender. Blend. It’s as easy as that. You could add a little cinnamon, honey or vanilla extract if you fancy.

You can of course make different quantities by following the same proportions if your blender/appetite is smaller/larger. 

A final top tip:

I would recommend investing in a funnel for easy moving between containers!

Book Review: The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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Re-discovering Muriel Spark

I would probably count Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington amongst my favourite novels. It is at once a brilliant study of human character, a rather neat critique of society, and a great story. It was also the first Spark I ever read, and I was excited by this new literary discovery. Unfortunately, for me, the next couple of her novels that I read didn’t quite live up to the splendour of A Far Cry From Kensington. Symposium was an enjoyable enough read, but the characters, seen only over the course of one evening, failed to make an impact and I quickly forgot it once I had finished. The Public Image, on the other hand, was quite an affecting read, with its themes of insecurity and duplicity. However, I ultimately found it somewhat one-dimensional, almost as though, in choosing to focus on a theme, Spark had overlooked the need for fully developed characters and setting. I know that it was shortlisted for the Booker prize the year after its publication in 1969, though, so I’m quite open to someone telling me I’ve missed something.

And so I left Spark for a while, mainly in favour of Margaret Drabble, who became my go to for what I would probably describe as ‘human experience’ novels.

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There is an online reading group on the Guardian website, which I occasionally dip into. (I am incredibly middle class, I know, for which I can only apologise, in a true middle-class manner.)  The online reading group told me that February 2018 marked the centenary of Spark’s birth, and so one of her novels would be chosen as the group’s book for February. Readers were invited to make suggestions, and a couple of articles were published. The ensuing debate below the line reminded me of how much I loved A Far Cry From Kensington, and how embarrassingly poorly read I was when it came to her other novels, particularly some of the early ones for which she is perhaps best known. And so I went promptly to Waterstones and bought The Girls of Slender Means.

Like many of Spark’s novels, The Girls of Slender Means is short, perhaps little more than a novella, and would be easy to read in the course of a single day. Some novels are great to read like that, others burn more slowly and you need to allow them to sink in. For me, this is one of the latter. I dipped in and out of The Girls of Slender Means over a week, which gave it time to float around and settle in my head.

The story is set in London in 1945, just after the end of the war, although it is framed, flashback-style, by conversations taking place between the characters in the ‘present day’ (presumably some 15 years later, in the early 1960s, when the novel was published).The setting is the May of Teck Club, a tall house providing dormitory accommodation for “the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London”. The main characters all reside at the Club, and it is this shared experience which binds them all together, despite their differences.

The novel opens with tragic news being shared between the characters, now scattered in their separate lives, in a brief ‘present-day’ scene. This has little impact on the story, but hangs over it like a dark cloud, encouraging you to look for clues about what is to come. Until the final few pages and the novel’s dramatic denouement, very little action actually comes to pass, but in the characters comings, goings, and dealings with each other you start to feel that you are experiencing the depth of their lives, with all the privations and aspirations almost unique to these few months in British history.

With almost the entirety of the novel being set inside the Club, the house is brought to life through the descriptions of its living conditions and how those who live there adapt to them. Sound is a big part of this experience: the prose is peppered with lines and stanzas from classic poetry, overheard by the characters being recited by the character Joanna, who gives elocution lessons in her room. The sound of the wireless, and the “background echo of voices” also drift frequently through the house, distracting Jane (“fat but intellectually glamorous by virtue of the fact that she worked for a publisher”) who tries to concentrate on her ‘brain-work’. Even detail of the new (and unpopular) brown wallpaper is crammed into less than 150 pages of novel, thanks in no small part to Spark’s sparse yet perfectly precise prose style, which is so easy to read and yet, you suspect, requires quite a skill to actually write.

I really enjoyed The Girls of Slender Means. It’s length is deceptive: there is a lot going on and you are left feeling very close to the characters and intertwined in their lives. Despite its light, straightforward style, there is a dark undertone throughout and the final scenes have left the novel well and truly ingrained in my mind.

At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

Horror films for cold nights…

I am not really much of a horror film viewer, but I have been strangely addicted to the horror section on Netflix over the past couple of months. The wintery weather just makes me want to hide inside in the dark and watch something engrossing. There are some truly, utterly terrible films on there, but also a few hidden gems. Here are my top 3, so you can go straight to them without having to dig through 85785 Paranormal Activity sequels first:

Green Room

 

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Green Room tells the story of a punk band, who get a late booking to play a show at an isolated club, deep in the woods. Unfortunately, the audience turns out to be a load of neo-Nazi skinheads. Discomfort turns to horror as the band accidentally witness a dead body in the green room, and things escalate quickly into a fight for survival. There are no ghosts or monsters here: the main threat is pure inhumanity, and the remote setting creates a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere where normal societal rules do not apply. Patrick Stewart also features as the sadistic owner of the bar and is brilliantly unsettling.

It’s an utterly brutal, hyper-stylised, ultra-violent gore-fest. Pure joy.

It Follows

 

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I put off watching this for ages because, to be honest, the premise sounded a bit rubbish. A fatal curse is passed on from victim to victim through sexual encounters. When you are cursed, you are relentlessly pursued (at a gentle walking pace) by a ‘thing’ that wants to kill you, and which takes different human forms: maybe an old lady in a crowd, a girl at the beach, or even, and most troublingly, someone you know.

Actually, despite the premise, this is a pretty good film. You never find out what the ‘thing’ is or entirely how it works, so the suspense stays at jaw-clenching level throughout. It’s also quite cleverly made, in that there are all sorts of elements which unsettle you without you realising it at the time: the seasons seem all mixed up, the time period is baffling (modern cars mingle with classic models, there are mobile devices but no phones, and all TVs seem to show is weird black-and-white era films).

There’s also more to it than just horror: It Follows is also a really great film about teenage life and the power of friendship. Well worth a couple of hours of clawing the skin off your hands in terror and spending the next week panicking whenever someone starts walking towards you.

The Babadook

 

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The Babadook is just proper good, classic psychological horror. A strange children’s book appears in the house of a single mother, Amelia, and her 6 year old son Sam, telling the creepy tale of a mysterious tormentor dressed in a long black robe, Mister Babadook. Sam’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and difficult to manage as he starts to claim the Babadook is real, and as events progress, Amelia too begins to suffer strange visions, eventually reaching a traumatic peak.

The psychological aspect adds some great depth to this film. We know that the pair have suffered a devastating family tragedy, and both Sam and Amelia contribute increasingly to each other’s mental decline: Sam’s behaviour causes Amelia to stop sleeping, while her increasing stress levels and short temper leads her to push him away.  It’s not really clear which of the characters’ perspectives is driving the film and which of them starts to unravel first,  and the little twist in the final scene only serves to increase the debate over what exactly it is that you have just watched.

The Coffee Awards 2017

This year’s edition of the STWFW Coffee Awards (formerly the Weimar Republic Coffee Awards) has many tempting potential subtitles: ‘the USA edition’, ‘the dairy-free edition’, ‘the macchiato edition’ or ‘the year I was briefly forced to give up coffee on medical grounds edition’ to name but a few strong contenders. But let’s not confuse things. Let’s stick to what we know. So here is 2017’s Coffee Awards run-down:

Cartwheel Cafe and Roastery, 16 Low Pavement, Nottingham

Cartwheel sort-of won last year’s Coffee Awards (there are no winners, it’s the taking part that counts) and here they are again in this year’s line up. I just love this place. Amazing food (you will basically die of smashed avo), excellent service and super coffee, all done by people who really know what they are doing. In my efforts to be a better vegan this year I drank a lot of black coffee, and you cannot get better black coffee than one of these beautiful, rich, velvety pour-overs. I love you, Cartwheel. Never leave me.

The Specialty Coffee Shop, 50 Friar Lane, Nottingham

Another returning star from last year’s awards, and pictured is a lovely, creamy flat white with oat milk. Oat milk is probably my favourite dairy alternative, and although I have grown to love the nuttiness of soy I will always take oat if it’s available. Specialty have introduced new menus this year and it’s a great place to drop into for a a light brunch or lunch.

Society Cafe, Narrow Quay, Bristol (also in Bath and Oxford)

Newsflash!!! Society is now in Bristol!!! The devoted followers of the Coffee Awards amongst you may recall that Society ‘won’ (there are no winners) the inaugural 2013 edition of the Coffee Awards, back when we were the Weimar Republic. Since then, Society has opened up in Bristol so you don’t even need to get a train to enjoy one of their beautiful, tangy coffees. This is an almond milk flat white. It may not be able to win the Coffee Awards, but it won at life.

Boston Tea Party, 293 Gloucester Road, Bristol (also multiple locations across Bristol and the West Country, with forays into the West Midlands)

Oh Boston Tea Party, one of my most long-standing cafe loves. You have been a teenage hangout (Park Street branch), the scene of many happy brunches with family and friends (Gloucester Road and Cheltenham Road branches), and a retreat when times were hard (Exeter branch, which provided an hour of comfort and familiarity after an arduous work trip, and Gloucester Road, again, where I sat alone and stared for two hours into an empty coffee cup on a Sunday morning, the day after Mark’s dad died). Every branch does a consistently good coffee, pictured is a soy flat white. Also some of the best brunches in the UK (objective fact) and top-notch lemonade and green smoothies. I also feel compelled to mention that Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians is probably one of the great works of modern literature. Probably the greatest modern novel there is. Read it now. If you can read it in a branch of Boston Tea Party, even better.

Toby’s Estate (West Village), 44 Charles Street, New York (other locations across New York)

Across the pond now. Toby’s Estate served us well as we marauded through New York. For some reason I started drinking a lot of soy macchiatos while we were away, and the above was our order for a Sunday afternoon in the West Village, after a lunch of Chinese pancakes at Smorgasburg Manhattan.  After this we walked the High Line. The sun was shining and I was so happy I thought my heart might stop.

Blue Bottle, Westfield World Trade Centre, New York (other locations across New York)

Blue Bottle has a branch just by the 9/11 Memorial in downtown New York. At this point I need to give a huge shout out to the guy that served us soy macchiatos twice in this branch, for giving us all sorts of insider knowledge about how to best get free tickets for the MOMA and what to look for in the current exhibitions, and what day was best to go to the Frick collection. We followed all his advice and it was spot on. Also, the soy macchiatos were very welcome, particularly on our first visit on a bitterly cold day (hereafter known as ‘The Day it was Minus 3 Degrees Centigrade’), after an emotionally gruelling visit to the memorial.

Little Skips, 941 Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn

And finally. If there were a winner of the Coffee Awards 2017 (there isn’t), this would perhaps be it. Little Skips was probably one of my favourite places in the whole of New York. Reached from our apartment in Bed-Stuy via a slightly mental bus ride and somewhat dubious walk into Bushwick (what my mother would refer to as a ‘slice of life’), Little Skips is like a creative mecca of brain-stimulating amazingness.  Great coffee, great toasted sandwiches (I had a vegan BLT. YES, a VEGAN BLT. I know, I know. I might cry with joy), super-fun people watching (serious punks and hipster heaven) and generally just a total delight. If I was living my dream of living in a Brooklyn brownstone and being a writer, this is where the magic would happen.

 

Fly like paper, get high like planes

I didn’t think it was possible to love a city more than I loved Sydney. But maybe it is.

I am still working that one out.

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Mark was a visiting academic at New York University this past semester, and spent most of September to December living in Brooklyn. I managed to get over to see him for a couple of weeks in November, my first trip to New York City.

About half way through my stay, Mark asked me what I thought of the city. I said that it feels like the centre of the world. And it really does.

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After New York, nowhere else feels like it really matters.

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It is immense and multi-dimensional. Everything everywhere is loud and moving and bright and fast. But if you get tired of that you can find peace and quiet: you can go to Greenpoint and sit on the wharf and look across the water to a gleaming view of Manhattan, you can go to a dark little bar in Bed-Stuy and drink bourbon, you can find a bench in Central Park and watch the squirrels rummage through the carpet of red leaves, you can wander the industrial streets of Bushwick admiring the huge graffiti murals, you can go to the Frick collection and find the little Vermeers, hung unassumingly in the hallway, opposite an eye-catching Renoir.

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There is always a surprise in New York. Even when you think you know what you are getting into, there is always a surprise. Brooklyn’s beautiful brownstones, strolling unexpectedly across that iconic view of the Manhattan Bridge, rye whisky flavoured with rosemary in a Williamsburg bar, Hans Holbein’s portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, hung staring across at each other on either side of the fireplace at the Frick collection, looking back part way across the Brooklyn Bridge to the stunning Manhattan skyline, a singalong to Hey Jude at the Imagine mosaic at Strawberry Fields, the memorial garden Yoko Ono created for John Lennon after his death, the incredible beauty and grandeur of Grand Central, and, perhaps best of all, the moment in the MOMA when we came around the corner to find Van Gogh’s The Starry Night hanging before us, brighter and more glorious than anything else in the room (I might have cried just a little bit).

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Nottingham days

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I feel like I get so down on Nottingham sometimes. I’ve lived here on and off since I was 18, and a total of 12 years, but I still don’t really think of it as home. I grew up in Bristol and spent 3 years in Sydney in my 20s, so it just feels a bit small really.

But Nottingham isn’t a bad place, really. There’s a lot of cool, independent shops and cafes and restaurants and it’s pretty creative. At the weekend I reminded myself of this by spending an afternoon and evening marauding around, starting with an amazing crepe in Aubrey’s Traditional Creperie (in the West End Arcade).

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This is one of their current specials – dark chocolate, salted caramel, vanilla ice cream and a pour-over espresso shot. Later, we investigated the new cocktail bar, Lost Property, hidden away down an alley in Hockley and accessed by pulling the correct handle on a certain red briefcase… it’s a pretty crazy place, done out just like an old fashioned lost property office, piled high with suitcases, birdcages, books and all manner of bizarre objects.

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After sushi for dinner, we eventually finished the night in Jam Cafe on Heathcote Street, with a bottle of red wine at their monthly ‘Tropical Beats’ club night (basically calypso – basically amazing). Nottingham isn’t so bad sometimes!

 

The Book Pile

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I don’t like to plan ahead too much when it comes to reading: I prefer to just pick up whatever I’m in the mood for when I finish the previous book. But I do usually have a small handful of books that I am quite keen to get to, and this little pile represents the current shape of things to come.

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

I bought a copy of this off eBay last month after reading about it in the last issue of my favourite magazine, Oh Comely. It was included in a list of banned books, and although I had never heard of it before the review grabbed my attention. I am not sure it will be a very cheery read(!) but I am looking forward to it all the same.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride 

I read McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, whilst on holiday in Cornwall last month and absolutely loved it. It was about the most alive I had ever felt reading a novel. This is her first novel, and if it’s anything like The Lesser Bohemians then I can’t wait.

Autumn by Ali Smith

I actually got this as a Christmas present last year and intended to devote the Christmas break to it. I always think Ali Smith’s writing benefits from reading in a state of intense devotion. I never got to it in the end though, having picked up The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry on a whim the week before and getting entirely engrossed in that. It seemed seasonally wrong to then pick this up on my subsequent holiday, in warm Spring weather, so I am waiting for this autumn to kick in so I can spend some evenings in with this.

Book Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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In the opening pages of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, the novel’s protagonist Sofia describes being stung by medusa jellyfish whilst swimming in the sea off the coast of Almeria in southern Spain. She heads across the beach to the injury hut, where she is asked to complete her details on a form that looked like a petition, “to keep the injury hut open in the Spanish recession”.

He handed me a pencil stub and asked me to please fill in the form.

Name: Sofia Papastergiadis

Age: 25

Country of origin: UK

Occupation:

The jellyfish don’t care about my occupation, so what is the point? It is a sore point, more painful than my sting and more of a problem than my surname which no one can say or spell. I told him I have a degree in anthropology but for the time being I work in a cafe in West London – it’s called the Coffee House and it’s got free Wi-Fi and renovated church pews. We roast our own beans and make three types of artisan espresso…so I don’t know what to put under ‘Occupation’.

Any other purpose Sofia may have in life has been overridden by her role as carer to her mother, Rose, who suffers from a mysterious illness affecting her feet and legs. But she is not just carer, she is also the “main witness” to her mother’s condition and carries out a kind of ongoing study of her inconsistent symptoms.

They are in Spain for Rose to receive treatment from the Gomez Clinic, an institution of unusual and unorthodox medical practice, run by Mr Gomez, a doctor of unclear medical training and specialty.  Rose and Sofia’s experiences at the clinic take on an almost dreamlike experience, with a series of strange consultations in strange surroundings. Occasionally escaping her mother’s oppression, the rest of Sofia’s life in Spain takes a similarly unsettling, dreamlike course. She meets Ingrid Bauer, an unconventional German ex-pat living locally with her boyfriend Matthew, and who earns money by re-modelling and embroidering vintage clothes to sell. Ingrid is mysterious, threatening and exciting, and Sofia struggles to establish her place in their relationship, just as in the rest of her life. She ultimately finds herself in an arrangement which is part love affair, part power struggle, and which remains unpredictable to the end.

Even the most grounded section of the novel, in which Sofia travels to Athens to visit her estranged father and his new young family, caught up in the midst of the greek financial crisis, has its sense of otherworldliness. Her father’s new wife is just four years older than herself, their apartment is covered in framed posters of Donald Duck, and her father seems fixated on ensuring his family is frequently asleep. He is “the anaesthetist of their household”.

This is the first novel by Deborah Levy that I have read, and I absolutely loved the writing style. Told from the point of view of Sofia, the writing tracks the inner workings of her mind as she makes her way through this strange world so simply and so beautifully. Sofia is self-centred but perceptive, and her narration only adds to the somewhat hallucinatory feel of the novel. I very much recommend Hot Milk as a truly immersive read, and I will definitely be looking out for Levy’s other novels in future.