Thursday, 21 July 2011

Veggie Books: The New Goodbye

I've watched Neil Ayres' The New Goodbye go through a number of incarnations, and each time it's become a little bit stronger. Now, available from this week as an E-book, it's absolutely right. And it's wonderful.

With the sounds of cutlery and pans coming from the thin galley kitchen Vicente had disappeared into, Mila scanned a cheap CD tower of records. She found an R&B compilation and fed it into the player. The opening bars of Sam & Dave's Soul Man filled the apartment. In the kitchen, Vicente was dancing as he cooked and emulating the guitar fills as best he could with his terrible singing voice. Mila went to stand by the kitchen door.

'Ham, mushroom and onion. Hope that's okay.' He had already laid salad out on a wooden chopping block about a foot square: avocado, red lettuce, tomatoes, diamonds of cucumber and a handful of cress and some mint leaves, with lemon juice squeezed over it all. Mila hadn't eaten since breakfast and the smell of the omelette frying caused her stomach to growl. She drank a large mouthful from her glass in an effort to quieten it.

'Hungry?' Vicente said, teasing her with the fact this hunger would be satiated imminently.

'Peckish', she admitted.

'Here then.' Vicente flipped a browned omelette out onto the wooden block and picked up the neck of a bottle of olive oil and two forks wrapped in paper napkins. 'Let's go and eat.'

He carried the block into the lounge. Sam and Dave had given way to Nina Simone. Mila and Vicente sat on a soft and deep-seated sofa and Vicente set the food down between them.

'Bon apetit.'

'Looks good.'

'Thanks. So long as it tastes that way.'

They ate without speaking, each manoeuvring across the plate to meet in the middle at the heart of the omelette.

'Go ahead,' Vicente said.

Mila waved her arm to gesture for him to have it, but knocked the bottle of olive oil over. It had begun to glug over the skin of her thigh before Vicente had managed to right it. He held up one of the paper napkins.

'Here, let me.'

Mila didn't move, just let the towel soak off some of the oil from her skin and then massaged the rest in. Vicente pulled the towel away. The oil had soaked through to his palm. He put the paper down on the wood block and licked at his hand. Mila watched his tongue flick out a couple of times to caress the skin.

'If that works for you,' she said, upturning the bottle and letting the rich gold liquid pour out and run onto her lap, 'I'm sure it would work for me.'

Neil has a wonderful sense of tempo to his writing. It's always about the speed at which events happen, and he can slow a moment to a stroll through tender emotions. I admire his writing enormously and I think he deserves to be read more widely. So buy it now at an absolutely bargain price, and enjoy reading a story that's about the reality of being human.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Veggie Books: We Were the Mulvaneys

Some books bulge with vegetables. Usually these books are cookbooks by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (I love him) but sometimes these books are novels. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates is awash with vegetables, and fruit, and growing, and life, and death, and organic emotions of love and hate and pain and more death. And forgiveness. And vegetables. The book even looks ripe. The pages don't sit flat. They curl outwards, as if they are flowers responding to sunlight.

Mainly that's because I left it out in the sunlight last Saturday, though.

It's exhausting to be inside the heads of characters in the way that Joyce Carol Oates puts you inside the heads of characters. You feel like you've been digging in fields for hours at a time, excavating personality-dirt.

The Mulvaneys were a very happy family, but the only daughter goes through a terrible experience and instead of helping her, the family falls apart. Why is that? The image was more important than the reality for them, I think. But this is open to interpretation. All good literary novels going into this amount of psychological depth allow you to add your own interpretation, right? That's what this kind of novel is for. It's not going to give you answers. It's going to make you work.

I can see why people read Mills and Boons occasionally.

It's a wonderful book, even if it does make you sweat. Here's a veg-heavy section where the daughter, Marianne, goes to visit her brother Patrick in college. He cannot forgive what has happened to her. Yet she never blamed anybody but herself. Marianne cooks a meal. She's become a wonderful cook; she likes to give freely of her food. She brought the ingredients with her specially.

They sat down to eat. Marianne's minestrone was the most delicious soup Patrick had ever tasted; steaming-hot, in stoneware bowls, a thick broth seasoned with fresh basil and oregano, containing chunks of celery, tomato, carrots, red onion, beans, chickpeas and macaroni. The nine-grain whole wheat bread was crumbly, chewy, delicious, too. And a green salad with red leaf lettuce and endive, cucumber, peper, alfalfa sprouts, a vinegar-and-oil dressing flavoured with dill. Patrick was surprised at his appetite, his hunger.

Doesn't that paragraph make you feel full up? Phew. It's a novel about the unsaid, and what living in the darkness of secrecy does to people. Well worth the effort if you want something chewy.