Month: July 2017

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.

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Spring in Amsterdam

Back in May, Mark had a work trip to the Netherlands. Fancying a short break, I decided to go over with him for the first long weekend, before leaving him to knuckle down for the rest of the week.

I strongly believe in avoiding air travel wherever possible. There is no excuse for that level of environmental impact when you can take the train, and Amsterdam is perfectly accessible by train from the UK if you are not too far from London and not in too much of a rush. We headed into London early on a Thursday morning and a Eurostar with a change in Brussels later, we were soon pulling into Amsterdam just in time for cocktail hour.

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We headed into De Pijp for dinner, my favourite area of Amsterdam and full of all manner of bars and restaurants. We decided on pizza at De Pizzakamer, followed by a gander into the central red-light area of the city for some beers at Brouwerij de Prael, a chilled out bar and microbrewery, despite its location. I tend to find the centre of the city, with its raucous groups of tourists, stag and hen parties a bit much, but it’s fun to dip in every now and again.

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On Friday we were up early for a train ride to Utrecht, a smaller university city about 30 minutes from Amsterdam. Mark gave a lunchtime seminar at the philosophy faculty, but before and after we took some time to look round the city.

Utrecht is a little like a smaller, quieter Amsterdam, and had lots of lovely canal-lined streets, interesting shops and lovely cafes. Unfortunately, it was rubbish weather: a bit moist and really dark and cloudy all day. So we spent a lot of time hopping in and out of the cafes, such as the lovely Gys, in the photo below.

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Back to Amsterdam that evening, for Italian food and cocktails back in De Pijp. It was at least warm, so we sat out on the pavement of a cafe and watched the bicycles racing past.

I absolutely love how bicycle-orientated Amsterdam is. The great thing about the Amsterdam story is that it wasn’t always like it is now. Amsterdam was a very car orientated city until the 1960s, when a rising number of road deaths sparked a huge overhaul in public opinion. The cycling culture feels like it has been that way forever, but is actually the fairly recent result of mass human intervention to change the way they live. It is like a glimpse of how life could be everywhere, although sadly I feel we are a very long way off that much mental adjustment in the UK at the moment.

Saturday saw a bit of sun in between a few showers, so we headed for a walk around the Vondelpark, which is huge and lustrous.

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I am just about to sneeze in that photo, not posing.

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We headed to Koffie Academie for lunch: delicious goats cheese toasted sandwich and a little flat white to keep me going for our next stop, which was the Van Gogh Museum.

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Sunflowers in the flowerbeds around the museum! The museum is excellent and very much worth a visit. It traces the whole history of Van Goghs’s career, including one of the famous ‘sunflowers’ paintings, and gives lots of information about his life, family, friends and of course his illness. It was a really inspiring, engrossing couple of hours.

We emerged into beautiful sunshine, so headed back into De Pijp for a glass of wine, followed by a lazy walk along the canals before it was time to head for dinner with friends.

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On Sunday, it was time for me to head for home, but not before a delightful kiwi-brazilian style brunch at Bakers and Roasters. Eggs and toast and coffee and juice…mmmm. Until next time, Amsterdam!