Is that the scent of pineapple fritters? Sand? Does sand have a scent? Salt water then – I’m talking about summer. As good a time as any to indulge in some light or heavy reading, depending on your location and whether you’re willing to reapply sunscreen in a few hours (wherever you are). Pelican is keeping it as fresh as a refrigerator, bringing you the hot reads of the 2016 summer, past, present and your very own possible future (after reading these reviews).
I took High Fidelity as my holiday reading when I realised I’d already read all the other Penguin Classics in the airport bookshop. High Fidelity is the story of a 30-something deadbeat who decides his life is over as his long-term girlfriend leaves him because he’s a massive, whingey, manipulative jerk. After some soul searching, mainly centred around tearing down the other deadbeats who frequent his failing record store and having awkward sex with a folk musician, he contacts all the women who have dumped him in the past in an attempt to find out what it is that makes him a deadbeat – and maybe even fix it.
So far, we’re doing well, at about two-thirds through a novel of stubborn, entitled whinging.
Finally a few of the women agree to meet him – to go out of their lives and talk about their past with him. Like that Adele song, and in many ways just as annoying. Not because there’s no value in this, but this fucker waltzes into their hesitantly open arms and immediately proves any caution correct by systematically cutting down their achievements; presumably to make himself feel better about being the most ungrateful tosser in England. Delicate though Hornby’s portraiture is, I resent knowing this stagnant character so intimately, and with so little in-text reward peppered against the humiliation of his otherwise subtle, human women characters and goddamn lists of Beatles records.
No revelation is reached. His most immediate ex returns to him because her father has died, and well, it’s just too hard to think about dating again right now. He’s overjoyed, because being the “eh, f it” option is the best he’s achieved so far, and instantly considers cheating on her again. He comes to the realisation that it’s his own fear of death that makes him unable to settle, and we leave the happy (?) couple with their old disco night set up again to the delight of their community. By her. She set it up. For him. Because cheating on her, owing thousands in debt to her, getting weirdly aggressive over an unplanned pregnancy, and then spitting on a series of women whom he asks to help him while complaining about his life for a few hundred pages, that’s what makes a keeper.
There’s definitely value in a book like this. It’s an accurate and subtly crafted portrayal of a man like many, and his eventual realisations are poignant, delicate things that many may never be able to glimpse in the same way Hornby helps deliver. What irks me is why people for some reason walked away from it with an overall impression of “good, fluffy, fun book about records” rather than an “excruciating portrait of a man with the self-awareness of a bowl of rancid cereal milk.” Recommended for people who like desert island lists of classic rock records sprinkled through their brutal reminders of how fucking low-key terrible people can be. Pick it up at a hostel in Brisbane beneath a dent in the drywall.
Pair it with: straight tequila
Richard En just can’t stand ska
Susanna Clarke’s 1000-page novel is an alt-historical fantasy. It has wizards and magic and ancient kings, but at the heart of it, it is a study of the English identity. More specifically, it is an investigation into the conflicts between the expectations of the English gentry and the responsibilities of a scholar.
The novel can be summarised in a singular quote:
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.”
Set in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars, the revival of practical magic is approached as any other scholarly discipline. Mr Norrell, a magic practitioner, arrives in London with the aim of raising the status of magicians by offering his assistance in the war efforts. Like any other academic, he spends his solitary days studying in his private library, translating passages, writing essays and citing his sources, presumably in the Oxford referencing style. Norrell is alone in his field, and like any scholar, craves intellectual companionship. He takes on the younger Jonathan Strange as his apprentice; yet Strange is more daring, less fixed in his opinions, and their approaches towards the study of magic deviate. Their personal and professional relationship becomes like that of Freud and Jung. It becomes clear that this book is not about magic at all; rather, it is about how all academic disciplines, whether philosophical, moral, scientific or political, change and branch and evolve.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a novel with a unique setting and intriguing system of magic. It subverts tropes of the fantasy genre, and satirises academia and the idea of the English gentleman while maintaining a warm fondness for it all. The BBC adaptation is also fantastic.
Pair it with: a very English Tanqueray Gin & Tonic
Prema Arasu still doesn’t understand Postmodernism
I picked this book up as I have done every summer, with the intention of perusing its pages in a wholehearted attempt to make me instantly good/willing to participate in any form of cooking. It is likely my growing resentment and hesitance concerning making a meal is affecting my unwillingness to cook more than my ability, but there is something about all the mess and the potential for chaos that has me reaching for ready-made meals. Like grapes or carrots. Yet every time I read this cookbook and the weirdly unstructured recipes that are more anecdotal than anything else, my could-be-cooking soul is soothed.
On this summer’s annual reading I realised that this really is some serious archival stuff. Recently, Jamie has been going on a wheat grass shot foray into the health world, and most notably utilising the cinematography only a substantial sum of money can buy to get some sleeker-than-an-eggplant-skin shots of him standing in a babbling brook, zooming in to get a glimpse of the unquestionably rejuvenating water run over his Birkenstocks. As someone who owns a pair of Birkenstocks, jokes on you Mr Oliver, because it’s common knowledge you shouldn’t wet the old Birkys. Although, Jamie Oliver can probably afford to hire his own “Birkenstocks stunt double” for the more risky water intense scenes. But as my Mum did say when watching this healthy walnut-endorsing man climb a mountainous terrain, “he has changed.”
As a regular reader I know he has changed, because in this book, old mate Jamie gives the eager reader the recipe for a fish finger sandwich (ingredients: fish fingers, bread, tomato sauce). Don’t be fooled by this simple inclusion though – Jamie folds it like lightly roasted cherry tomatoes through a hand-made linguine of curry recipes, self-proclaimed sexy salads, and chicken breast cooked in a parcel. Why do I keep going back to this robust volume? It’s not just a cookbook. It’s a dense slice of Jamie’s life with a side of ice cream and no pretence. It’s a leisurely read to give me hope for the cooking future. Read with sheen of sweat on your brow and palms so sweaty and feverish with cooking dreams you can barely hold the novel.
Pair it with: a store bought bottle of ginger beer reminiscent of (but a heck of a lot easier than) the “Easy Peasy Ginger Beer” recipe in the book
4/5 fish finger sandwiches
Bryce Newton needs to stop reading this book