Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Bernard McLaverty (Vintage: £8.99; e-book £4.99)
Gerry and Stella, in the twilight of their years, seem to be a comfortable couple. Gerry is a retired architect who loves Amsterdam because of its varied architecture, its history and vibrance. But Gerry is an alcoholic. Stella has begrudgingly accepted his weakness – it’s part of her husband's frail character; but is a middle-class February trip to Amsterdam really Stella’s opportunity to find the spiritual solace she has yearned for since the traumatic birth of their (now) adult son? Did she really take a vow at an imperilled moment? Should she adhere to it?
Ostensibly a romantic getaway, the trip is actually an opportunity for Stella to visit the Begijnhof, one of the oldest enclosed courtyards in Amsterdam, which was once home to the Beguines, “a Catholic sisterhood who lived alone as nuns, but without vows”. Stella hopes she can live there, but she learns that it’s not so simple. She can’t just leave Gerry and move into a life of piety and good works in one of the most desirable spots in Amsterdam.
Stella’s faith, and her defining moment of trauma, are completely at odds to Gerry’s values. The Catholic faith, abandoned by Gerry many years ago, is the most precious thing in Stella’s life. Strife, distance and lingering love late in a marriage. How will it resolve? Their conversations are a skilfully written record of defensive banter between two people politely growing apart.
This is a very powerful, soulful, yearning and intimate tale about the damage distance developed in a faithful relationship can have. Midwinter Break is an informative, evocative, novel analysing a couple's shared memories and the metaphors linking their two minds. Decades of marriage intermingle consciousnesses and experience, but between Gerry and Stella there is a void which will not be bridged. Perhaps the novel is a study in perspective, as the pair move between intimacy and distance.
Several times Gerry sees Stella from afar, lost in her thoughts or wrapped in prayer, and wonders if he knows her at all. Both climb above a city, Stella in Amsterdam and Gerry in Derry, rejoicing in a fresh view of the world below. Does one part of marriage ask a question and fear the reply? This is a beautifully written, quietly brilliant novel.
The Silent Death
Volker Kutscher (Sandstone Press: £8.99; e-book £3.76)
Readers will remember the review of Kutscher's first book translated from German, Babylon Berlin (Journal, April 2018). This second outing for Inspector Gereon Rath of the Berlin police is an even faster paced and more gripping story. The cinemas are transitioning from silent to the “talkies”. Betty Winter and her husband Victor Meisner are mid-scene on set when a lighting rig falls and Betty is killed. Accident or design? Across town a rival is producing “talkies”, and rivalry and sabotage become a feature of the investigation. Intertwined with this enquiry, Rath's father asks his son to assist to identify and resolve an attempt to blackmail Konrad Adenauer, then mayor of Cologne (and future Chancellor of post-war Germany), where Rath's father is the chief of police. More actresses disappear and the tension gently builds, all against a background of superbly evocative pre-1933 Berlin with ever greater tension between Rath and his boss as he goes it alone and avoids being part of the investigation. Well paced and superbly written. Goldstein (the third novel in the series) is out in English now, and as I have recently seen in Germany, Kutscher's six novel in the series has just been published. Much to look forward to.
Jack Grimwood (Michael Joseph £12.99; e-book £7.99)
Set against the backdrop of nuclear arms talks between the East and West in 1986 when many thought the Cold War was thawing, this gripping novel and topical story is well written and a superb read. Major Tom Fox is asked by his father in law to cross the Iron Curtain and assist in the return of Sir Cecil Blackburn, who had defected to the East some years before. However, straightforward it is not and Sir Cecil is killed. He is said to have written his memoirs, which the UK Government appears fearful may be disclosed and fall into the wrong hands, particularly when the arms negotiations are anticipated to bear fruit. However, where are they and who holds them? Sir Cecil's daughter comes on the scene, along with his Russian lover. Fox finds himself compromised and in the hands of the eastern authorities. Meantime his son is at boarding school in England and his wife is having an affair, with a man, said to be someone he would like in different circumstances. Beautifully balanced with flashbacks to post-war Berlin when the Allied Forces were just establishing their respective boundaries, the part played by the past and how it may fatally rupture the talks comes to the fore. Terrific – a must read.
The Missing Ingredient
The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour
Jenny Linford (Particular Books: £18.99; e-book £5.99)
This is a must read for any home cook or someone who enjoys good food. The author is a food writer who, in short chapters curated under segments of time (seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years), gives us a riveting tour de force on food, ingredients and the time that each plays in either the development of the product, or how our enjoyment of food may be enhanced through time.
Lindford brings intelligent insight to all aspects of food, whether enjoying, producing or preparing. In doing so, she highlights some of the current trends within food production. Tea, coffee and chocolate are but examples, as she describes with depth but a lightness of touch, the process from source to table and the efforts made by enthusiasts of their craft to bring delights to our attention.
The sensory aspects of eating are illuminating. Lindford attends a chocolate tasting course but, before eating the product, spends a morning developing knowledge of the flavours in chocolate, moving to smelling melted chocolate to identify flavours but then on to both crunching and melting chocolate in the mouth, identifying the difference in taste sensation and the olfactory contribution to taste. The author considers different cooking methods, from the quick (blanching), steaming through the Maillard effect on bread and steak, to hanging meat and smoking. There are revelations such as that the perfect omelette need take no more than 30 seconds to prepare, how the differing age of an egg makes it more suitable for one use or another, that the cost of fillet steak is due to the tiny proportion it is of the whole carcass. It's all here.
This is an imaginative, engrossing treatise on our relationship with food, those who seek to give us the best of produce and the extent to which they go to do so, leaving one with an overall sense (or, at least, desire) to revisit one's understanding of flavour, the enjoyment of food and a greater awareness of what stunning produce is there for our enjoyment.