Monthly Archives: June, 2022

Budapest: Between East and West

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.

Things I knew about Budapest before reading this: it used to be two towns, and pictures of Soviet tanks in the streets in 1956. I think that’s about it, really.

An intriguing aspect of this book is that it’s written by a man born in Budapest, whose family fled Hungary when he was a child. Sebestyen makes no secret of this, and of his connection to the country and the city. So there’s a mix of ‘objective’ history, and also the occasional mention of how things relate to him personally. I like this kind of honesty a lot.

One annoying aspect – and this might just be a personal gripe – isn’t peculiar to Sebestyen, and is at least partly a reflection of the historical record (and my personal preferences). The book begins with a very brief look at what is known of the area around Budapest from pre-history, and then moves to what the Romans did. There’s barely a discussion of Attila and the Huns. By p30 we’re up to the year 1000. p109 and we’re already at 1800 and at p272 it’s the accommodation between Hungary and Hitler’s Germany. The book is 377 pages long. While I know that there’s a lot more evidence for the alter centuries, it always makes me despair that history is given such an unbalanced presentation. As if the modern world is the only bit worth discussing. Sigh.

Despite this preponderance of modern history, Sebestyen does give a good overview of the history of Budapest – as Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in the front cover quotation., it’s really a history of Central Europe. You can hardly have a history of the city without discussing the history of (what is now) the country; and in this particular case, at least some of what was happening in Austria for a few centuries. And so I learned more about the Turkish occupation, as well as how the Habsburgs managed to create Austria-Hungary as a dual monarchy; and of course the role of Hungary in both world wars and then as part of the Soviet bloc.

The story is largely told chronologically, with occasional chapter breaks about particular themes – one in particular that stood out was about the role of the Jewish population in the city. I had no idea that Hungary had been something of a haven for European Jews, although they were still not safe from the occasional pogrom (because anti-Semitism is apparently just too easy). The way that Jews stood outside of the feudal system, basically – and the incredibly bizarre way Hungarian feudalism was structured, with a massive number of nobles who refused to get into trade or anything similar – meaning that Jewish artisans and traders filled that niche.

This book fits into a tradition of using city histories as a way of looking at changes over time, to everything from culture and tradition to language and politics and everything else. The sub-title is pointed, here: part of Sebestyen’s argument is that Hungary doesn’t really fit into the way Europe sees itself, and doesn’t particularly fit elsewhere either. (The story of Hungarian as a language, and the efforts to revive and develop it, is a particularly fascinating part of the book.)

Thoroughly enjoyable.

An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November 2022.

An anthology of travel and place writing published in the context of the pandemic? And one that’s not just all sentimentality about things from the before-time? And that’s starting from, sometimes going to, Wales? These are excellent things.

A sad thing is that this anthology was prompted by the death of Jan Morris, which I hadn’t heard about. I haven’t read much of Morris’ work but her little book focusing on Wales and her home there is absolutely captivating.

All of the authors here have a connection to Wales – some born there, some moving there. But not all of the essays are about Wales. Instead, there’s Brazil and Somalia, Venice and Paris and Japan, and Sapelo Island as well. Sometimes it’s because of partners from elsewhere, sometimes family who have migrated. Sometimes they offer reflections on one particular moment in a life, and sometimes reflections from a generation of experience and change. There are, of course, also essays set in Wales: like one about find green space to be calm and solitary while in a wheelchair; another about following the pilgrim way in the north on foot.

I don’t know anthologies like this very well, so it’s depressing although not surprising to learn that the range of authors – that they are not all male and able-bodied and white and young-but-mature – is something worth noting. It is, of course, the more enjoyable for this diversity of voices.

This was a delightful set of essays, and an example of how broad ‘travel writing’ can be. I hadn’t come across the idea of ‘place writing’ before reading the introduction but it occurs to me that that is, in fact, often what I enjoy reading. There are some wonderful examples of that genre here, as well as travel. And while it did make me slightly nostalgic for travel in the before times, that reality is different now – pandemic and climate change both contributing, not to mention political climate. I probably should look out for more books like this.

The Year of Miracles (recipes about love + grief + growing things)

I was sent this book by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. It’s out now; $44.99.

The memoir / cookbook genre is not one I knew I needed, but it turns out I do. When it’s done well, anyway. Looking over other food-type books I realise I do own a couple. I think I hope it accrues even more examples, and that they will be as well written as this.

Firstly, this book is gorgeous. The front cover there gives a sense of the illustrations – watercolours, I think? – that appear throughout the whole book. It’s a memoir of a year, and each month is a chapter and the first page of each gets a lovely, representative image; so do most of the recipes, and the headings for each get a band of colour. It’s the sort of book that’s a delight to literally flick through as pops of colour jump out.

Also: it has a ribbon. All cookbooks, and indeed every hardback, should come with a ribbon. It’s a fact; I don’t make the rules.

I haven’t read the first of Risbridger’s memoir/cookbooks (but watch me watch out for it now) so I don’t know about her life as described there, beyond what you glean from this one. But the prologue explains that her partner died a couple of years before, and at the start of 2020 (oh, what a phrase that is just resonant now) she has moved into a new house with one of her best friends to try and start anew. And then, you know. 2020 happens. But as we also know, life continues, and continued. Friends still exist and people still need to eat and plants can be planted, and love still exists. And this is really what the book is: a meditation on all those things. Risbridger reflects on grief and love, and coming to terms with the messy realities of how people affect us for good and ill – and how even when we love people we can resent doing things for or with them but simultaneously not resent it thanks to that love. Risbridger seems very honest in these pages. Memoirs are not my natural reading fodder but this one, I enjoyed.

The other aspect is the food, of course, and reading the recipes was also a delight. I am not the person who reads recipes for fun, as a rule, but these ones I did because Risbridger brings a chatty style even to her instructions. That won’t be to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I enjoyed it a lot. On making pie pastry: “Try not to work it too hard, but honestly? You’re probably fine. You’re making your own pastry” (p10). [Note: I was not entirely fine, but that’s probably because I didn’t have enough Parmesan in the pastry. Also, I’ve never grated butter for pastry; it’s messy but also a whole lot easier than trying to cube it.] The recipes are a glorious range from three-ingredient brownies (hint: a LOT of Nutella) to chicken pie, with dumplings and several soups and various condiments along the way. I have made the pie – chicken and mushroom and miso (I have bought miso! I’ve never used miso!), and it’s fantastic; her sour cherry and chocolate chip biscuits, which are meant to have marzipan but a) I didn’t have any and b) the other person wouldn’t enjoy them (burnt butter! what an idea!); and “Theo’s chicken”, which also has miso, and ketchup and ginger and garlic and sesame oil. You cook it super hot at first and then a bit lower, and the marinade basically burns; I didn’t love that part quite so much but overall it tasted fantastic. There are definitely other recipes in here that I’ll be trying, too.

This is a delight of a book.

The Path of Thorns

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of June, 2022.

You know those authors where you know you love their work but somehow they’re not automatically at the top of your mind and then you see a new book by them and you think, oh yeah I should read that; and then you do read it (perhaps eventually) and you think WHY DO I FORGET HOW MUCH I LOVE THEM?

Maybe that’s just me.

Sorry, AG Slatter. I really do love your work.

This novel is set in the world of Slatter’s mosaic novels – Sourdough and Other Stories, and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. You don’t have to know those stories to love and appreciate this one; they’re not about the same characters, or even necessarily the same places in the world. This is a world where magic is real, at least some of the time, but not everyone approves. Magic is mostly done (at least in these stories) by women, which feeds into the disapproval of that ‘not everyone’. It’s used for good and for ill and sometimes doing it for one reason ends up having the opposite consequences. In her Author’s Note, Slatter points that the world is a mishmash of the Victorian, Renaissance and Medieval – and asks readers not to go looking for historical accuracy. So there are moments that maybe kind of feel familiar from history, but they’re set with moments that really don’t.

What I particularly love about this and the other Sourdough stories is that they feel like fairytales, even though they’re definitely not tales that I know. There’s something about the ideas and themes – as Slatter suggests, “weird family dynamics, manipulation and lies, false faces, lost families and found, terrible acts and the potential for redemption”. There’s also something about the way Slatter writes, and here I am completely lost for words. I can’t tell you what words or phrases she uses to evoke a slightly eerie world, the sense that this is a world just slightly off from ours; that makes me a bit amazed that this is NEW work, rather than something that was told ages ago and has that patina of tradition, of being a well-worn and beloved story – of familiarity. And that last is particularly odd, frankly, because I really didn’t know what on earth was going to happen from page to page. She uses phrases and stories-within-stories that read like they SHOULD be as old and familiar as the wine-dark sea and Achilles’ rage, but … they’re not.

So: Asher goes to Morwood Grange, to be governess to three young children. She has a frightening experience on arrival, and brings with her some things that she immediately puts under a floorboard. And see, right from that, you just know things aren’t going to be straightforward. And so the story proceeds – making friends and enemies and figuring out how to do what she’s come to do; you already guessed that Asher didn’t come to Morwood accidentally, right? In some ways a bit claustrophobic – Asher mostly interacts with the family and few servants at Morwood – it’s saved from being TOO gothic the-house-is-trying-to-eat-me by occasional visits to the village and out into the grounds of the estate, and also through Asher’s occasional reminiscences, It’s an intense story, intensely inwards-focussed – and look, I read it in a day.

I loved it. A lot. It’s not always easy to read; the family is a deeply broken one, Asher’s not exactly perfect, and there are definitely actions that people regret (or should, but don’t). And yet, I loved it.

The Atlas Six

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

This is one of those books where the originality lies primarily in the execution, rather than the initial premise. And this is in no way an insult! Reading a new take on old ideas is exciting.

The basics: six people with extraordinary gifts are chosen to learn about a secret institution. Things are, unsurprisingly, not what they seem – and there is a lot of interpersonal tension as well.

See? Not a radically new idea. But the execution and the details made this a deeply intriguing book.

The world is one where magic is real, and even the non-magic users know about. Hard to hide a magic university in the middle of New York, I suspect. Also, some people have used their talents to get (legally) spectacularly rich. Anyway: it seems most people don’t have astounding levels of magic. So the six people chosen to learn about the secrets are told they’re pretty much the strongest, most gifted magic-users of their generation. Great way to manage those egos right up. Anyway, they are invited to learn about the Library of Alexandria – now somewhat metaphorical, as it’s not in Alexandria, although it is still a library. And that’s one of the key drawcards: the right, and ability, to search the library for anything they want… if they get through the year.

So we have magic, and we have knowledge, and we have massive personal conflict – mostly because of the individual personalities. Intriguingly, the narrative moves between all six of the initiates, meaning that there’s not automatically one of them the reader is guided towards supporting. While some of them are absolutely unpleasant people, this multi-focus allows the reader to see their complexities and thus make the story that much more complex.

It’s a clever set up, and the twists are just as clever, and the characters are right on that borderline of horrible-but-not-so-horrible (unlike, say, Heathcliff). Clearest sign I enjoyed it? Can’t wait to read the sequel.