In between books from the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction during the November lockdown. The Cubans by Anthony DePalma is a narrative non-fiction account of the everyday lives of Cuban citizens in recent decades. It follows a handful of families based in the Havana suburb of Guanabacoa including an artist called Arturo, an engineer and company vice-president called Cart, and Jorge, who lost several close relatives when the 13 de marzo tugboat sank off the coast as dozens of Cubans attempted to leave for the United States. DePalma explains he has “set out not to bash the Cuban regime but to give voice to individuals whose lives have been overshadowed by those towering historical figures”. It is certainly true that Fidel Castro is instantly recognisable outside Cuba, whereas the dire economic consequences of the Special Period in the early 1990s and the reality of the restrictions placed on Cuban citizens are not as widely known or understood. This is reflected in the range of English-language books about Cuba which almost always focus on the country’s leadership rather than modern Cuba more generally, and this excellent account is a step in the right direction towards redressing that balance.
A Half Baked Idea by Olivia Potts is a memoir neatly summarised by its subtitle ‘How grief, love and cake took me from the courtroom to the Cordon Bleu’. When Potts was 25, her mother died unexpectedly and she struggled to cope with the final year of her pupillage to become a criminal barrister. Whereas grief is handled as a very vague concept by many writers, Potts is articulate and specific about the way in which she processed it, from immersing herself in death admin to playing what she calls Grief Top Trumps, comparing her experience to others with her situation always coming out worse. After quitting the Bar, Potts joined the patisserie course at the culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, whose central London premises are based in Bloomsbury. The Cordon Bleu experience is both fascinating and terrifying with its exquisitely high standards – only the most dedicated foodies would be prepared for the stamina and skill required for that level of training. However, Potts truly has found her calling and is now a professional pastry chef with her own catering business for weddings and parties. The book is divided roughly equally between descriptions of starting out as a barrister, the impact of bereavement and the intensive course at Le Cordon Bleu, so readers who have an interest in all three aspects will particularly enjoy this memoir.
Negative Capability by Michèle Roberts is a journal of the months which followed the rejection of the author’s most recent novel by her publisher. Subtitled ‘A Diary of Surviving’, Roberts reflects on her life and surroundings as she reconstructs her sense of self amid other difficult circumstances including the sudden deaths of two friends. She spends a lot of time in France (she is half-French) and attempts to edit the novel so that it will appeal to the publisher without sacrificing her artistic vision. The title is drawn from John Keats’ notion of negative capability as “dwelling peacefully within contradictions without striving for rapidly arriving rational solutions” which Roberts uses as a coping strategy in stressful and uncertain times. When writers talk about rejection, it is almost always in the context of their first attempts to get published, and very, very rarely when they have already published over a dozen novels, poetry collections and other non-fiction. ‘Negative Capability’ is a refreshing account of sustaining a long-term career in the publishing industry and how to carry on in the face of disappointment.