There’s no need to provide a long preamble for the wonderful mixture of shorter and longer reviews in this first Volume of Steep Stairs for 2012. Yes, it took longer than we had expected to bring the present offering to the web, but we hope that many of you might find that the reading offered here was worth the wait. And what a mixture it is! Reviews of cook books, memoirs by Joan Didion and Jeanette Winterson, a Vietnamese refugee story, Wilkie Collins, some Marxist history, and the poems of Liu Xiaobo.

As we know you are hungry for finely wrought words, first up, in Xenophilia in the Kitchen Katherine Firth deliciously reviews two cook books: The Great British Book of Baking, and Tartine, observing that it seems a “significant aspect of our current gastrononomic zeitgeist that the excitement about foreign food is actually about a love of foreignness, rather than as a way to improve our own cooking”. A touching journey into foreignness and a leaving behind of the familiar, is recounted in the lovely verse novel Inside Out & Back Again by Thannha Lai, reviewed by Rebecca Garcia Lucas, in “I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”

Much of the work of Wilkie Collins has regrettably been allowed to drift out of print, but Peter Ackroyd has turned his astute attention to this wonderful writer in his most recent publication Wilkie Collins, 2012, reviewed here by Glen JenningsLaudanum, London and Love: Wilkie Collins. Not yet out of print, but recently out of sorts is British writer Jeanette Winterson, whose 2012 memoir Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal is reviewed here by Jennifer Mitchell, in Tracking the Lines of Literature across the Maps of Our Lives. Another memoir of a similarly harrowing nature by another very successful novelist, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, is reviewed here by Vincent Ramos in Doubt and Privilege.

To end this issue two reviews of recent work by an important political historian, and an important political activist. In Understanding and Action Michael Todd reviews Eric Hobsbawm’s recent book How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies mark a moment in China’s history which the poet can never forget, and which readers of these poems will also be unable to forget. Glen Jennings explores Liu Xiaobo and the Crystal Spirit.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy Volume Seven.

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Linda Collister and Mark Read, The Great British Book of Baking, London: Penguin, 2010.  (To accompany The Great British Bake Off, Broadcast ABC mid-2011).

Chad Robertson, Tartine, San Francisco: Chronicle, 2010.

Reviewed by Katherine Firth

At least in the cafés and classrooms on campus where I tend to hang out and hold forth, I spend a lot of time talking about our cultural tendencies to racism or xenophobia (literally, fear of the stranger), to fear, loathing and oppression of those who are ‘other’. Yet this misses another, probably stronger, presence in our culture: the yearning of so many young people to travel, to go to that magical land ‘overseas’, or simply to wander down Lygon Street or Sydney Road to satisfy a craving for pho or falafel or fregola gelato.

That nations, or regions, or religious or cultural groups have food cultures that are distinct seems to be a fact that is as old as the written record, and perhaps more surprisingly, something that the written record thinks it worth recording. We know what the ancient Greeks ate, what the ancient Jews ate, what the ancient Persians ate. And there has long been a sense that some peoples ate better than others: the primacy of French haute cuisine can be traced back to at least the High Middle Ages.  And for at least that long, other cultures have borrowed foreign recipes when they were the best recipes.

These two impetuses have been visible in cookery writing since Vinidarius the Goth made a copy of Apicius’ Roman cook book.  But it seems to be a significant aspect of our current gastrononomic zeitgeist that the excitement about foreign food is actually about a love of foreignness, rather than as a way to improve our own cooking.  It’s not Julia Child writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1983, suggesting that ‘the book could well be titled ‘French Cooking from the Supermarket’”; seeing the techniques of French cuisine suitable for being translated back into the American vernacular food culture, while enlarging and improving it.

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Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again,  Harper: New York, 2011

Reviewed by Rebecca Garcia Lucas

It is the first day of Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, in 1975, the year of the Cat, less than three months before the fall of Saigon. The clear voice of ten year old Há begins a year long chronicle until the the first day of Tết, 1976, the year of the Dragon. Há’s story describes her family’s life in war-torn South Vietnam, of fleeing on a navy ship, and then as recently arrived refugees in Alabama, America.

Although some readers might assume a verse novel to be onerous, this narrative is lucid and rich. A child’s transparent telling of her own struggles small and large, from hunger in Saigon and at sea, to being called “Ching Chong” in her new class room where she is “the only/ straight black hair/ on olive skin”, carries with it the enormity of war, cruelty, and culture shock, as well as many funny moments.

“Again they’re yelling./ Boo-Da, Boo-Da,/ but I know to run toward Brother Khôi/ two corners away/ …/ Enough time/ for me to turn and yell,/ Gee-sus, Gee-sus./ I love how they stop,/ mouths open.”

The length of each ‘verse’ is a page or two, with concise and carefully chosen titles: ‘Unknown Father’, ‘Saigon is Gone’, ‘Feel Dumb’.  Thannha Lai’s novel of a young girl’s thoughts and observations has a distinct literary and poetic eloquence, which even so comes across as an authentic child’s voice, unsurprising given that this story is also an autobiography and a remembering. Imagery emerges smoothly and vividly: Amongst thousands of other desperate people cramming onto a South Vietnamese navy ship that is abandoning a losing battle to carry refugees:

“our family sticks together/ like wet pages./ I see nothing but backs/ sour and sweaty.” When Há’s beloved papaya tree is chopped down before the family leave Saigon, because “it’s better than/ letting the Communists have it”, they eat the not quite ripe fruit: “Brother Vũ chops;/ the head falls;/ a silver blade slices./ Black seeds spill/ like clusters of eyes,/ wet and crying.” There is also much matter-of-fact description that marks the pain of individuals who cannot dwell on all they suffer if they are going to survive it: “South Vietnam no longer exists./ One woman tries to throw/ herself overboard,/ screaming that without a country/ she cannot live./ As they wrestle her down,/ a man stabs his heart/ with a toothbrush.”

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Peter Ackroyd, Wilkie Collins, London: Chatto & Windus, 2012

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Peter Ackroyd has written long and important books on London and London writers, such as Charles Dickens. His new biography of Wilkie Collins is a short and important book on another great London writer of the nineteenth century.

Wilkie Collins lived from 1824 to 1889 and contributed significantly to the entertainment of the rapidly expanding reading public of his time through melodramas of false identity, madness, deceit and poisonous revenge. His novels feature the struggle for inheritance, justice, and love in the face of slander, conventional morality and social prejudice. Wilkie Collins was particularly adept at deflating cant, exposing hypocrisy, and forensically examining the injustices of his society and British Law. He took particular interest in the way Law and moral convention applied to women and illegitimate children. His novels frequently present women stifled by tradition or forced to extremes. They exercise their wit and courage to escape blandness, conformity, or tyranny, to unravel mysteries and cast light on dark secrets, and to expose cowards and criminals. Collins wrote against a system that deprived women of freedom and security and which cut illegitimate children off from financial legacies.

Through complex and intriguing plots that kept readers like Thackeray awake all night to discover what happened next, Wilkie Collins perfected suspense and sensation, taking the reader beneath the surface of the Victorian family into what he described in the 1852 novel Basil as the “secret theatre of home.” Sometimes this secret theatre involved bigamy, seduction, forced incarceration in mental asylums, opium addiction, suicide or murder. But it was not just thrills, pills, and chills with Wilkie Collins. As a hard-working and meticulous writer, his experiments in narrative style, particularly his combination of diaries, letters and multiple first-person perspectives, contributed to the development of the English novel. The “Rashomon effect” of his contrasting narratives, where the reader is encouraged to question the presentation and interpretation of “facts” from various participants or eye witnesses, was path-breaking. He also promoted the emergence of modern detective fiction.

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Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. Grove Press, 2012.

Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

As it happens, I read this new memoir by Jeanette Winterson at an incredibly opportune moment in my life. The moment at which I picked it up in the Brunswick Street Bookstore was the best moment at which I could ever have picked it up, brought it home, and read it in only a few days of a few hours reading at a time. It was the best time for me to gain the maximum benefit from reading it, understanding it, and learning from it. It was the best time, because I was going through a personal trauma of rather formidable dimensions.

This is a book – more than anything else that I was able to discern (and there’s a lot to gain here) – about the gifts of reading literature. Shortly after reading and deeply enjoying it, I saw a discussion of the book on the ABC program on books and reading hosted by Jennifer Byrne, First Tuesday Book Club.
Most of the panelists didn’t get the book at all, and one, Germaine Greer, positively derided the way Winterson depicted her adoptive mother – likening it to the sucking dry of someone’s marrow. I think in one sense this is ironically what Winterson is doing – but not ‘to’ someone. She is wresting as much meaning and substance from her own pain and suffering as she can. For me, this is as humane as a writer can be.

Watching this discussion on Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal – just to digress a moment longer but it will be relevant – I was able to appreciate anew just what it is that makes our responses to books and literature so personal. When we enjoy the books and stories we read, they speak to us in definite ways. Something in the story – the telling of it, the language, the nuance, the setting, the situations – resonate with us. When we get the chance to browse leisurely in a quality bookshop (remember this joy?) we read the back and front blurbs, look at the cover, feel the weight of the book, see the size of the font, feel the texture of the pages, read the beginning and see if we’re in the mood for that story, that writer, this style, that genre. It’s all about what we ‘need’ as readers, what speaks to us and our needs at that moment. I watched those people talking critically about this book that I was so in love with and felt that they had no souls. Nothing could have recently touched them intensely, torn them apart, laid them broken and bleeding and crying on the bathroom floor. They didn’t need this book the way I had needed it.

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Doubt and Privilege

July 1, 2012

Joan Didion, Blue Nights, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2011

Reviewed by Vincent Ramos

Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt,’ began Joan Didion’s 1979 review of three of Woody Allen’s ‘serious’ pictures for the New York Review of Books.

There is evidence of both in Didion’s new memoir, Blue Nights. This was Didion’s first book since her account of grieving for her husband John Gregory Dunne in The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005.

Here, her grief is for her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who died only two years after Dunne.

Read alongside The Year of Magical Thinking it is almost a study in the difference between the grief one has for a lover and that one has for a daughter. While the earlier memoir was often lyrical and laudatory, Blue Nights is rawer – less formed. It is perhaps as Euripides asked: ‘What greater grief can there be for mortals, than to see their children dead?’

And while, of course, this is a narrative of grief, much of it revolves around two other things: doubt and privilege.

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Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism,
London: Abacus, 2011

Reviewed by Michael Todd

Eric Hobsbawm is a well known British historian born in 1917 (the year of the Russian Revolution which so coloured his political life and academic interests). He was brought up in continental Europe, including Germany until the rise of Nazism, when he moved to England in 1933. He served in the British army during WWII. Hobsbawm has pursued an academic career since 1947.

Hobsbawm has written a number of well-received histories. The most influential being the quartet The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, The Age of Capital 1848-1875, The Age of Empire 1875-1914 and The Age of Extremes 1914-1991. Hobsbawm has also written on Bandits, Revolutionaries and Nationalism. One of his areas of particular interest is the use of national myths to create the nation state. Hobsbawm is also a regular contributor to The New Statesman on Jazz.

Hobsbawm was a member of the youth wing of the German Communist Party and joined the British Communist Party after his arrival in England. Controversially, although criticising the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, he remained a member of the British Communist Party, but he was associated with the reformist wing of the party.

The volume under review contains a number of texts covering more than fifty years of Hobsbawm’s writings on Marx, Engels and the development of Marxism after Marx’s and Engels’s deaths through to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989. A number of these essays were originally published in Italian and are now published in English for the first time. For students this has to be one of the best cheat sheets around when it comes to politics, economics and sociology; not just in relation to Marx and Engels but for giving a brief historical overview of the topics about which Marx and Engels wrote, and the historical developments of the twentieth century.

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Liu Xiaobo, (Bilingual Edition, Jeffrey Yang trans.) June Fourth Elegies, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Liu Xiaobo annoys people. He refuses to forget the bloodshed of June 1989 and he will never forgive. Liu Xiaobo holds people responsible for their actions and for their inaction. Killing peaceful students and bystanders in Beijing; harassing grieving parents; imprisoning supporters of the protest movement across China; censoring the media and social networks; and denying for decades the government’s crimes: these are all contemptible actions of the autocrats which Liu Xiaobo condemns. But sitting back in the years since the deaths, embracing hedonism and political amnesia, single-mindedly making money, these are forms of inaction that he cannot respect. And he cannot always respect himself.

Liu Xiaobo advised student activists during the 1989 protest movement in China. At the time he was a popular lecturer at Beijing Normal University, specialising in aesthetics and cultural criticism. As an engaged intellectual Liu Xiaobo took a leading role in a hunger strike defying the government, but he worked to prevent bloodshed on the streets of China’s capital city as tanks approached Tiananmen Square, encouraging students to withdraw peacefully from the symbolic centre of their resistance. He was imprisoned as a “black hand” behind the protests and for opposing the military crackdown. And he was, of course, dismissed from his teaching post. But Liu Xiaobo has never forgiven himself for taking refuge in the foreign diplomatic quarter once the killing began, while many “ordinary folk” remained on the streets of Beijing to defy the military. And he has never forgiven himself for making a public confession that precipitated his first release from prison in 1991, a confession used for propaganda purposes by the Chinese State authorities. His self-criticism is expressed through his June Fourth elegies:

Besides a lie

I own nothing

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