Good reads and good feeds

The last week or so has involved a hefty amount of my two favourite things – good food and good books. Drummer Boy and I made our regular pilgrimage to Bristol to celebrate another year of tolerating each other – which we do by eating and drinking a lot, and allowing ourselves one moment of public affection on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, where it all began.

Obligatory “look at my dinner!” photo.

On a friend’s recommendation (thanks Jen, we owe you!) we went to Bravas, probably the best tapas restaurant outside of Spain. The chorizo was smoky and sweet, the Rioja was smooth as velvet, and having utterly fallen for their aubergine fries, served with molasses, I never want to eat a normal potato chip again. DB tried them before I did, and stopped me mid-sentence with a look on his face that suggested he was about to impart the secrets of the universe – “you have to try these. Now.” I don’t know what they did to those aubergines, but bloody hell. They tasted amazing. So if you’re in Bristol and want a stupidly reasonable, utterly delicious dinner, and you don’t mind getting cosy with your dining partner(s) – it’s pretty intimate, good place for a date – go directly to Bravas.

Sticking with the small plate theme, but swapping Spain for Venice, last night we went to Polpo. We’d agreed to escort my teenaged sister and her friend to Wembley Arena, so they could see 5 Seconds of Summer (no, me neither). Seeing hordes of young girls in eyeliner and tartan – some accompanied by parents wearing baffled but amused expressions, some giggly in groups, some with mums who were determined to make a night of it – brought on an attack of nostalgia. I remember the second stadium-sized gig I ever went to (the first was the Spice Girls; I regret nothing) – Green Day at Milton Keynes, Sunday 19th June 2005. It was a scorchingly hot day, made hotter by sheer excitement. I remember looking around the crowd of thousands, thinking it was strange, and brilliant, that live music is one of the few remaining good reasons for so many people gathering in one place at the same time.

Anyway, back to Polpo. Venetian tapas, essentially. I’d heard good things about it and since we had to be in London for the evening, I thought we might as well have a nice dinner. And it was nice – the service was impressively attentive for London, and the waiter explained the menu, which was helpful. The highlights were unarguably the polenta, which was filling and full of flavour, and the rabbit terrine (sorry, bunny-lovers). We shared a little tiramisu pot for pudding, which was perfectly pleasant but ever so slightly too sweet, and wondered if perhaps we needed to return at a later date, to explore the menu a bit more – DB had his eye on the calamari, I think. I’m not overly struck on eating things that have tentacles, so for once, he’ll get that plate to himself.

On the Bambi bookshelf: Bristol edition

I put Owen Jones’ The Establishment on hold, as I wanted something that felt a little less like a politics lecture – so I took Late Fragments: Everything I Wanted To Tell You (About This Magnificent Life). Not exactly bright and breezy reading for a romantic couple of days away, but still a beautifully-written book, chock-full of memories and well-chosen literary references, and, above all, love.

Next up was Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that it’s the only thing I’ve been capable of talking about since I bought it on Monday. I’d been waiting to read this for a good couple of months, as it had been reviewed as this summer’s must-read, and compared to Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary. As I’ve not read the former, and only made it halfway through the latter, I can’t say if it lives up to that particular hype, but what I will say is: you have to read this book. It lives in your head when you’re not reading it, and when you are, you forget to do things like eat lunch or go to bed at a reasonable hour.

I might be biased here because this book caters specifically to my own literary kinks, which are as follows:

– unlikeable yet somehow sympathetic protagonists

– unlikeable yet somehow sympathetic protagonists who are female*

– stories that explore female infidelity. We are so familiar with the “middle-aged man having an affair with his secretary” story, or the “man who feels trapped by marriage and family life so he goes off to be seduced by some broad” – these plots are thundering great cliches now. But women shagging around – that’s still something that’s rare. When a woman in a TV drama, or a film, or a novel, has casual sex, it will always be a talking point for reviewers: “here is a woman who isn’t emotional about sex – guys, look! Gather round!”

*You still don’t see enough women not giving a shit, or having affairs and not torturing themselves with guilt, or doing exactly what they need to do to get by. God, I love a female character who’s difficult and selfish – go figure.

What haunted me most about Hausfrau though was the way it crept inside my head – for all her passivity, Anna’s voice and mood somehow get into the reader’s bloodstream. Only two other books have done this to me – when I read John Niven’s Kill Your Friends, my inner monologue became even more scathing and expletive-ridden than it usually is, and when I recently re-read the gorgeous, whimsical I Capture The Castle, I couldn’t fathom why I spent three days in a strangely wistful, not-really-on-this-planet mood. And then I realised – I’d caught it off Cassandra, the story’s narrator. Turns out, I’m not alone in this; a friend – who is one of the nicest, cleverest people I know – told me he became a complete arse while reading Martin Amis’ Money.

Once I’d finished Hausfrau, I was in the mood for some Jilly Cooper or similar – pacy but fun, nothing too dark – so I tried Horsham library, thinking they were bound to have something suitable. Annoyingly, they didn’t, but I did find The Good Girl, which came out recently and has been on my to-read list for a couple of weeks. I’m expecting good things, given its topical subject matter. I’ll let you know.

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