SEASON TO TASTE by Molly Birnbaum
In my much younger days I was in a flat with a nurse. She was a terrific person, great flatmate, lots of fun. I remember asking her one day why she always cooked the same thing when it was her turn to cook. She told me that it was the one of the few dishes she knew how the finished result would taste/smell as she had lost her sense of smell in an accident getting off a bus on her way to work one day some 18 months or so prior. Wow. This was something I had never come across before. But I never really thought more of it because she was so matter of fact about it and functional in every other respect; she certainly didn't appear to have a 'disability'. I remember visiting her after she had a baby a few years later and asking her how did she know baby's nappy need changing and she said she would have a look. Hmm, that's easy, makes sense I thought. She always the same perfume too; she said that she knew it smelt nice on her, so it was the only one she could wear. I only hope all these years later they still make it!
But I never really gave her loss much thought. We all have slightly dulled taste/smell when we have a cold or are not well, but of course it always comes back. Just imagine though if you could not smell freshly mown grass and what it reminds you of, or the smell of the ground/air after it has been raining, or the smell of your boyfriend's aftershave, or the smell of leaking gas, or the smell of your baby, or the smell of burning food, or clean washing dried in the sun, or the smell of a Christmas lily? Loss of sense of smell invariably involves loss of the sense of taste - imagine that disaster! All food apparently reverts to the basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, or salty without the subtleties that make the taste of one food different from another. White wine apparently tastes like a sugary drink, coffee is just plain bitter. I can't imagine what parmesan cheese would taste like; at least you wouldn't be able to smell it! Smell, you see, is completely tied up with how we see ourselves and our place in the world we live in.
This is what Molly Birnbaum explores and comes to terms with in her memoir of her own experience with loss of smell. In 2005, Molly, recently graduated from college is filling in the months before taking up a coveted place at the Culinary Institute of America by working in a restaurant. One day, out for a run, she is knocked over by a car. Although not life threatening, her injuries are bad enough - broken pelvis, bad knee injury and a head trauma. It is only when she is recuperating at her father's place some weeks later and she is offered a piece of home-made-fresh-out-of-the-oven apple pie that it hits her she can't smell, or taste. So ends chapter 1.
As cliched as it is, the word 'journey' is probably the most appropriate word to describe the next few years for Molly as she sets out to deal to her loss. A very spirited young lady our Molly. She doesn't want to deal with it, she wants to deal to it and get her smell back. And I am not giving anything away by saying that much of her smell does come back, but not to the same level of sophistication that the general population would have. And would we even know if we didn't have it. She is chopping rosemary one day, four months or so after the accident and suddenly she smells it. So begins her slow and frustrating road to understanding how the sense of smell works - physiologically, mentally and emotionally.
We learn how intimately the sense of smell is associated with memory and self-perception, why depression is so common in those who can't smell, how those who can't smell/compensate by concentrating on texture and use the other senses to relearn food enjoyment, how the brain actually processes smell and why dirty socks and parmesan cheese do smell like each other and yet so slightly different, the power of smell in healing sufferers of post-traumatic stress syndrome, what is involved in becoming a perfumier, how we learn what is a nice smell and what isn't, pheromones and why we never generally fancy our blood relatives. All sorts of interesting and relevant information and research.
Beautifully weaved into all the fact is what is going on in Molly's own life. Her slow and nerve wracking foray back into cooking, her difficulties in learning to 'taste' food again, her relationships, and how smells gradually come back to her. She is so adept at getting under her own skin and imparting this to us. Her biggest problem it would seem is that although she finds herself able to smell more and more, she can't actually put a name to the smell. This whole thing about smell is just so intriguing that I have found myself much more aware of smell since. I have found myself smelling the pages of the book, and putting my nose in containers of coffee, spices, different pots of honey, mandarins and lemons and that is just in my kitchen.
This is a great story of self discovery that is also very informative and relevant to us all. I loved Molly's style of writing: the culinary world may have lost a great cook/chef, but the world of writers and readers is very lucky that she has found a second career in writing. Take a moment to read her blog before she had her accident in the link and her talent for writing and love of food shines out.
THE STREET SWEEPER by Eliot Perlman
My rating - 5.0*
A story, a real story, that moves effortlessly from the present to the recent past, from New York to Chicago and back again, then to Poland, to Auschwitz, to Melbourne, from the American civil rights movement to Nazi camps to academia. The scope of the story, where it takes the reader, the vision of the author in successfully combining all these disparate elements is really quite awesome. The diversity and richness of characters, in fact they are more than characters, to the reader they become real people, is just as awesome. I can't commend this book enough. The story is gripping, the characters life-like and the message it leaves at the end will stay a long time, and should stay forever: tell everyone what happened here.
Now such a book with so much in it is not going to be short - 544 pages plus another 10 of notes, references, acknowledgements etc! But well worth every page.
The street sweeper is a young black man, Lamont Williams, who has recently been released from prison. He is on a 6 month probation term at a cancer hospital in New York, lives with his grandmother in the Bronx and is trying to locate his young daughter somewhere in the city. By chance he meets one of the patients, Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly Jewish man who tells Lamont of his life prior to and during the war, ensuring Lamont commits everything he is told to memory. In another part of New York, at Columbia University, Adam Zignelik, an untenured history professor is finding himself without a job and living alone. His Jewish American father was closely involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and as a result Adam too has close friends who are also black. Through one of his father's old friends, William, Adam finds himself on a research project that will change his life and unite all these people and places that we are slowly introduced to in the story.
The whole crux of the book rests on Adam's discovery of a set of recordings made by a psychology professor in 1946. Henry Border went to Europe after the war to make recordings of the war experiences of displaced persons - DPs - mainly as it happens, Jewish survivors of the camps, principally the death camp Auschwitz. So now you know a lot of the story does not make pretty reading. But it needs to be told. Adam realises this too, and over the course of the following weeks he peels away the mystery of Henry Border, his family and the stories of some of the people in the tapes. And then like an intricate spider web the events and people of the past are brought together with Lamont, Henryk, William, Charles, Michelle and Sonia on a street corner in New York city.
Marvellous writing, marvellous story.
ED KING by David Guterson
Oedipus Rex meets Silicone Valley
Genre - modern fiction
Sometimes a little knowledge can be a bad thing. So it was probably just as well I had only read one review of this book before starting it and that was some months prior so I had forgotten what it was all about. It becomes apparent fairly early on that this novel is loosely based on the Greek myth Oedipus Rex, a story I have only a basic knowledge of. Actually that is all you need to get the comparisons with the plot of this novel. If I was a student of Greek myths or ancient Greek dramas, I would be very disappointed in this novel as a modern retelling of the Oedipus story. But as I don't have such a background I was able to enjoy the book simply for its story telling. I had been led to believe it was a weird book. It has element of weirdness in it, and at times is pretty far fetched, but nevertheless very readable, satisfying, and quite a good story.
Reading the reviews of this book by such bodies as the Guardian newspaper, New York Times, and the Telegraph are almost as entertaining, diverse and interesting as reading the book itself, which hilariously won the Guardian's 2011 Bad Sex Writing Award. And it really is.
But this book is not hilarious or really humorous at all. The characters are not really very nice people. Their lives are focused entirely on self-gratification and material gain and this results in their unpleasant and tragic lives. We could blame the society they live in - our contemporary Western one - that is set up to allow such people to exist and procreate. And yet nothing really has changed since the days of Oedipus Rex - greed, lust, narcissism are as much a part of the human condition now as they were then; the means of attaining it are just slightly different. The story is told too in a manner very much like a parable or moral story - we don't feel we are part of the characters, it is almost as if we are observers of the action as it unfolds.
And so the story opens in 1962 on the US west coast with a very young Diane fresh from England spending the summer working as an au pair for a family in which the mother is in hospital. Lust doesn't take long to show itself and before long Diane is pregnant to her employer, Walter. Blackmail and subsequent abandonment of the baby soon follow. To make ends meet the very beautiful Diane becomes a high class hooker. Her empty life, and her determination to remain young and beautiful take her places that most of us would prefer not to go to. Meanwhile the baby is adopted by a Jewish couple and becomes Ed King. He grows up with a younger brother, Simon, in a perfect childhood full of love, support, encouragement, extended family - everything a child could want. And he is never told he is adopted. Both boys are brilliant mathematics students and end up getting into the new and exciting world of information technology - computers and Silicone Valley. Ed has a few issues in his latter teenage years, but like many teenagers comes through, showing himself to be a genius at what he does and very quickly begins raking in the money, the fame, the plaudits that go with it all. And naturally his path crosses with that of Walter and that of Diane during the course of his life.
While reading this book, it is difficult not to think about the nature vs nurture argument. Here we have two boys of different biological parents brought up in the same environment, both highly intelligent, ambitious and hard working. There is strong rivalry between the two but probably no more nor less than in many families. The paths of their lives do go in different directions, but again no more nor less than in any other family. While the characters of Walter and Diane are not very nice people, and Ed does inherit some of his mother's ruthlessness, he does have a heart and feels genuine love, compassion and sorrow for happenings in his life. I can't say I liked Ed, but I did feel that he was a much more rounded, balanced character than perhaps some of the others who were either good (Ed's adoptive family) or not so good (his birth parents).
A good read, with plenty to think about.
AN UNEXPECTED GUEST by Anne Korkeakivi
“Review book provided by HarperCollins via Booksellers NZ”
For a blessedly short time I worked for this country's Foreign Affairs department, which included a two year stint in a foreign outpost. I thoroughly enjoyed my time aiding my country's foreign representation on foreign shores but realised fairly early on that I was not cut out for a life of protocol, being perfectly well behaved all the time, being impeccably dressed, thinking before I spoke, saying and doing as I was told. It was sort of like being a cardboard cut out for the country you came from. The further up the diplomatic ladder one climbed, the more, it seemed to me, Stepford-like people became. In particular the wives. Often not allowed to work in the countries they moved to, the wives had the children and saw them off to boarding school at a certain age, dealt with nannies, household staff, hosted cocktail parties and dinners for home country politicians or local dignitaries, attended such cocktail parties and dinners, played tennis when they could and to my young eyes, generally didn't seem the happiest of people. Sure they had a comfortable and privileged existence but I wonder how much of their real selves they left behind in the process.
So given the opportunity to read and review this book about such a woman I was very keen to see if my youthful prejudices still held sway in the nearly 30 years that have elapsed since my days in Foreign.
Slightly further up the food chain than I ever was, American-born Clare Moorhouse is married to Edward, a high-ranking British diplomat. He is in fact one lower than the British Ambassador in Paris. Now we all know that behind every successful man there is one very capable wife, and Clare has proven herself over the twenty or so years they have been married to be the perfect diplomat's wife. Intelligent, well educated, extremely attractive and beautifully presented, mother to two teenage boys (both at school in England), well organised, able to establish and disestablish a home every three years for a new city, discreet and charming, she is a career diplomat's wife and very good at it.
Over the course of 24 hours however, the facade that Clare has set up over the years develops a few cracks. It never crumbles but a slightly different woman goes to bed at the end of that 24 hours, a happier, more contented woman I might add.
The trouble begins one evening, shortly after the London bombings in 2005. The embassy and its staff are still on a high security alert, and everyone is just a bit edgy. Clare is given just on 24 hours notice, that due to the sudden illness of the Ambassador, she and Edward are required to host a very important dinner. If successful it would result in Edward being appointed to Ambassador in Dublin, a post he has always wanted. Clare herself is of Irish parentage, and has always felt herself to be as much Irish as American. However this possible move to Ireland opens some very firmly shut doors in her past.
While her mind is dealing with this, plus the short notice to put on a top-end formal dinner party, her younger son Jamie has been getting up to his own hi jinx at boarding school in England, and run away back to Paris. Not wanting to worry Edward she attempts to deal with this by herself, even to the point of hiding Jamie in the house so Edward does not get angry and thus distracted from the business at hand.
Going about her preparations the next morning for the dinner, Clare is troubled by her long-ago memories of Ireland and her involvement with an IRA terrorist, Niall. In the streets of Paris and the markets, beautifully depicted by the way, she keeps seeing images of this man, until later in the day he manifests himself. Believing all these years that he was dead, it is a huge relief that she isn't going mad, but he forces her to confront the reality of what really happened all those years ago in Ireland. At the same time as she is navigating around Paris she literally runs into a Turk. Their meeting and a subsequent assassination throws up a huge moral dilemma for her, that combined with her encounter with Niall and the troubles her son is having, enable her, just for a short time, to stop being Clare Moorehouse, perfect wife of high ranking career diplomat Edward, and becomes Clare Siobahn Fennelly again, her true self.
As a journey of self-discovery and personal redemption this is good writing. Clare is desperately trying to maintain a hold on her reality, the tightly controlled and managed life she has built up, and yet at the same time wrestling with doing the right thing. The author has lived the life of an expatriate, and in France too. Her love of Paris in springtime is very apparent; the city sounds gorgeous as do the markets, and the shops and the streets she is driven down. Having been a bit of an expat myself, she writes intelligently and realistically of such a life, particularly for women on whom the largest burden of such a life falls. Often they cannot work, they are there because of the husband's work, and it is up to them to set up the new household, sometimes every few years, sort out schooling, child care, shopping, build up social networks, deal with unknown and new health issues, culture shock and so on.
However I did find the minutiae of Clare's life incredibly dull, her superior abilities at managing her staff were patronising, no wonder her cook was so grumpy; her thought processes alarming - how anyone can spend so much time and mental energy analysing and re-analysing the events of years gone past with no conclusion I do not know. In terms of her moral dilemmas, the encounter with the Turk is I think the only truly significant thing that occurred and I did struggle with how an episode in the past where nothing bad actually happened to her could suddenly take on monumentally enormous implications. The teenage son business was just annoying - an overindulged spoilt mummy's boy who needed a dose of consequences for actions. Plus there was just a shade too much French dialogue, not always paraphrased into English; you would need a basic reading level of French to follow Clare's conversations with those around her. It does lend a certain 'Francais' to the story but if you can't read French simply a nuisance.
It troubles me a little that it would appear not much has changed for the wives of diplomats over the last thirty years, and that is was probably for the best for myself as well as my country that I did find employment in other areas!