Book Review : Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

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So what’s on the menu?

Simon Wroe serves up an array of characters : there’s Monocle, the English Lit graduate and now commis  chef; Bob the sadistic Head Chef, who makes Gordon Ramsay look like a soufflé ; Racist Dave , a homesick northerner dispensing nuggets of twisted wisdom and Ramilov ,the under chef with a dark secret.All are working in The Black Swan ,a gastro pub in North London with a menacing regular known as The Fat Man.

Vegetarians Beware ! The book opens with a very realistic description of how to boil a pig’s head .

Unemployment drives Monocle to seek work as a commis in The Black Swan . So what is a commis ?

‘ In the kitchen the commis is everywhere. Like a fly, he sees things that no one else sees, things he is not supposed to see. It is his job to buzz this way and that, from fridge to section to dry store to wine cellar, fetching and prepping and chopping things the other chefs do not have time to fetch and prep and chop.’

Monocle, the nickname given to him in the kitchen because of his degree, has dreams of becoming a novelist and is tormented by the prodigious success of young man of letters Tod Brightman :

‘ I fumed over the ascension of this young writer whom I hated, this tawdry scribbler who spent his life at lunch with his publisher or explaining Maupassant to beautiful women, who had no scars on his hands or bags under his eyes, who woke late and counted his lie in as contemplation, had no vegetables thrust against his rectum unless requested………….I prayed he might destroy himself with a novel of staggeringly poor judgement or a tell-all memoir’

Wroe captures the atmosphere of a busy kitchen….think Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares with bells on. Chop Chop is a surreal black comedy and the kitchen of The Black Swan is the battleground in which all the characters must confront their own demons as well as the morality of cooking and serving  dead animals.

Monocle is our narrator but both Racist Dave and Ramilov jostle for position and urge him to tell the story in their own particular way. We also have a side-order of Monocle’s own tragic family story which  still haunts him, his mum and  his dad, the winner who worked his way down.

The story is perhaps a little ‘thin’ overall but the prose is crisp and fresh. The final lines even have a hint of Fitzgerald  about them:

‘So we slave the best years of our lives: a family of strangers ,a business of flies. Our works consumed and soon forgotten.’

A great debut. With thanks to Penguin Books for the review copy.

 

 

 

Book Review : Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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Mrs Hemingway tells the story of Ernest through the eyes of his 4 wives : Hadley (Hash); Pauline (Fife); Martha and lastly Mary.

The action spans from 1925 to 1961 and the aftermath of Ernest’s suicide. We visit pre and post war Paris, Key West ,Cuba and Ketchum, Idaho.The book is split into 4 parts each telling the story through the eyes of the particular wife at the time.

This may sound a little disjointed but each section dovetails neatly into the next due to Naomi Wood’s flowing style of writing and, to an extent, Hemingway himself.Ernest didn’t discard a wife until he had another one lined up…….Pauline was Hadley’s best friend in those early Paris years, Martha stayed with Pauline and Hemingway in Key West,Pauline came to live with Mary and Hemingway for a while …. and so the stories each overlap as the old wife has to give way to the new. Pauline reflects at the end of her marriage:

What a pull he has ! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars.Women turn their eyes  from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

Wood also uses the clever device of  character Harry Cuzzemano , a second -hand book dealer and muck raker, who weaves in and out of each section binding them together. He first surfaces to Hadley on the search for a missing suitcase containing Hemingway’s lost first novel. This references a real episode in Hemingway’s life when Hadley, on her way to Switzerland to meet her then unknown and struggling writer husband, left a suitcase containing the only draft of his first novel on the platform of the Gare de Lyon.

As Hemingway’s fame and reputation grow, the sleazy Cuzzemano seeks first the whereabouts of the suitcase, then any evidence of infidelity with Martha Gelhorn from Pauline, a lost poem from Martha and ending ostensibly seeking return of his own blackmailing letters from Mary ,whilst making off with any scraps of memorabilia he can find.

Of course the story of the break up of Hadley and Ernest has been well documented . Hemingway himself wrote about it in The Sun Also Rises and then, years later and with the benefit of hindsight ,in A Moveable Feast published posthumously. More recently, Pauline McLain imagined the breakdown of the marriage in The Paris Wife.

I thought the most interesting wife in  the story was Pauline.We see her first as the predatory ‘best friend ‘ with designs on the husband. By 1938 in Florida, she is the soon to be discarded wife, still desperately in love with her husband but unable to do anything to divert him from the spell cast by the young and beautiful aspiring journalist Martha Gelhorn. Pauline was the mother of his two younger sons and remained a presence in his life right to the end. She died in 1951 of a hear attack shortly after a bitter telephone argument with Ernest over their troubled son, Gregory.

Through the eyes of Martha and then Mary we see Hemingway’s descent into alcoholism and depression.

Hemingway’s passionate affair with Martha led to a brief marriage. She was the only one of his wives to leave him ….and never speak to him again.Her admiration for Hemingway soon turned to contempt. Searching for him in war-torn  Paris (to tell him she wants a divorce) she is told that her husband has  liberated The Ritz with a troop of soldiers :

Martha hates the way he throws himself around a city with all the swagger of a warlord.She hates, too, that other people can’t see past his phony heroism. So he has liberated The Ritz! Of course he would.

The Pig knew it was the one place that wouldn’t have run dry.

It was with Mary that Hemingway had his longest and most stable marriage. Despite the many happy years in Cuba  spent on the deck of his boat Pilar  and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1954, Mary is powerless to prevent the creep of alcoholism and his illness. He feels his powers as a writer are waning not helped by his bouts of heavy drinking and periods of hospitalisation for electric shock treatment. As Hemingway had written many years before to F Scott Fitzgerald :

That terrible mood of depression of whether it is any good or not is what is known as The Artist’s Curse.

This a wonderfully evocative novel.Wood clearly has a love of the subject matter and has researched it meticulously. She doesn’t allow the research however to get in the way of her vivid imagination.The story and its unhappy ending are well known but Naomi Wood’s prose gave it a freshness that kept me gripped all the way through.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney

Night time skyline NYC

Night time skyline NYC

Another recommendation for my recent trip to New York, BLBC is unusual in that it is entirely written in the third person. First published in 1984 ,it is set in the coke-fulled days of Reaganomics .We never discover the name of the hero,who as the book opens, is reeling from a failed marriage and trying desperately to hang on to his job working in the Orwellian sounding Department of Factual Verification for a prestigious but un-named magazine.

The front pages quotes from The Sun Also Rises : ‘How did you go bankrupt ?’ Bill asked. ‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and the suddenly.’ And this indeed mirrors your journey through the city streets aided and abetted by your friend Tad Allagash.

The writing at times is highly comic and very reminiscent of Henry Miller particularly when ‘You’ are recounting your struggle to be a writer rather than a lowly fact checker : “You wanted to be Dylan Thomas without the paunch, F. Scott Fitzgerald without the crack up.” or when describing ‘Your’ relationship with Tad…….here is Tad detailing, in a note, the latest blind date he has set up : Described you as cross between young F. Scott-Heminway and the later Wittgenstein, so dress accordingly.  Yrs in Christ, Tad

The book however is more than a very atmospheric and now nostalgic romp through the 1980s with nods to the pop music of the time and the greats of modern American Literature. ‘ You’ are on a similar journey to Holden Caulfield and the final section of the book is raw with the emotion of your real loss . I sobbed as the crisis was reached and the reason for your current breakdown became clear.The book is short , only 174pp, but it packs a massive punch.