Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Craig Thompson, Darian Leader and William Nicholson.

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson is back with another graphic novel, Habibi, following his award-winning Blankets. Set in the Middle East, Habibi "follows the fortunes of Dodola, an Arab girl sold into child marriage by her illiterate parents," writes Michel Faber in the Guardian. "Dodola hones a love of numbers and narrative which helps her survive her subsequent adventures." These include "breakneck escapes from a slave market and an execution squad (some of the most thrilling action sequences I've seen in comics for years.) ... At heart, however, Habibi is a love story between Dodola and Zam, a black slave she adopts as an infant."

Faber notes that "Thompson clearly adores the beauty of Arabic calligraphy and is enthralled by the landscape and people of the Arab world." However, "despite its visual splendours and sincere message, Habibi is ultimately wearisome. Part of the problem is its sheer length." It is "an orgy of art for its own sake."

By contrast, Inbali Iserles writes in the Independent that "the book is destined to become an instant classic, confirming the author's position among not only the most masterful of graphic novelists but our finest contemporary writers, regardless of medium."

A interesting illustrated review by M.C.'s Canvas on the Washington Post's entertainment blog is prefaced with this remark: "mere words . . . seemed not enough to even try to convey just how intricate and ornate, lush and seductive, arabesque and sometimes knowingly grotesque this artistic epic is."

What is Madness? by Darian Leader

In the Independent's review, Hanif Kureishi writes that "Darian Leader brilliantly shows [that] ... deciding who the mad actually are ... is quite a job. After a hundred years no one has come up with a diagnosis which most psychiatrists can agree on." Alexander Linklater in the Observer finds that "because [Leader] sees reason in madness [he] ... can ... argue that there is no such thing as 'mental illness' - he views madness as a natural response to unbearable experience."

"Darian Leader belongs to the most endangered clinical world-view of them all: that of the psychoanalyst," suggests Linklater. However, "for every useful criticism, Leader cannot resist the temptation to flip over into shrill condemnation . . .. The suggestion that the medical mainstream is insane puts a huge burden on the author to prove the sanity of his own system - and this will not be entirely evident to the agnostic reader."

Kureishi writes that "Leader reminds us that adults have been vulnerable children for a long time and therefore are difficult to change. They love their symptoms, usually more than they love their lives." In the New Statesman, Lisa Appignanesi describes What Is Madness? as "a humane and timely book ... What Leader does so effectively is to give us a sense of what it might be like to live inside the mind of a psychotic ... [He] teases out ways for the analyst to stay attentive to this inner world and to stabilise it."

The Golden Hour by William Nicholson

In the Observer's review, Viv Groskop reports that in The Golden Hour, Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson "returns to his stamping ground - angsty, middle-class families in Lewes, East Sussex - but with even more ease and confidence than the previous two books that make up this sort-of trilogy [The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and All the Hopeful Lovers.]" Jane Shilling explains in the Telegraph that "the novel is loosely linked by character and location to its two predecessors. Laura and Henry Broad [who] reappear, grappling with the problems of middle age."

Groskop comments that "there's so much dialogue it sometimes reads like a screenplay and the quickfire exchanges can distract from the more philosophical asides ... It comes across a bit like Downton Abbey: ... you know that you're going to love it at some point, but you sometimes have to sit through too much well-meaning exposition." Shilling concludes that it is "not a voyage of discovery, exactly [but]an agreeable ramble," a "book with which to fill an idle afternoon".

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle