“The sharper your knife, the less you cry.”
Chefs dominate the cooking industry; the big ones have TV shows, cookbooks, their own magazines. Because of them, there are cooking shows for every taste and better produce in your local market. Here is a selection of notable memoirs; two of the authors uplifted home cooking in America.
First, a confession: Thomas Pynchon fans are worse than Jane Austen fans, always proselytizing in the hope of capturing new readers. I hoped the recent success of a film version of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would bring requests for his work. They did not materialize, which is a shame, as the book is more accessible than some of his other works to the general reader and deserves a broader readership.
His reputation for weirdness, paranoia, and postmodern tricks scares some people: too much work in the reading. All because of one novel.
My booktalking buddy and I were walking past one of the big screens at the England Run branch, and it was playing a crystal-clear print of an old, old movie, made way back when moviemaking was young. It had excellent effects, too, for such an early film. "We have a picture book by the man who made this movie," said my colleague, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick."
What a big book, made of half pictures, half words! The reader is drawn into the world of Hugo Cabret, a boy who lives in the walls of a train station in Paris. He is not always alone, but he is trying to keep himself a secret. His uncle used to wind and fix the many clocks in the train station, but he disappeared. Now Hugo winds them, and works on a project of his own. He has a mechanical man, a legacy of his father, and a notebook of drawings of the works of the mechanical man. Hugo needs parts for his project, so he steals them from the grumpy old man's toy booth at the station. Hugo does not realize the grumpy old man has secrets too....
But not ON the beach: pages oily from suntan lotion; wind and sand. Nah, bad for paper. Watching pelicans cruise over the waves is preferred. Knowing we would hit the Beach Book Mart, a bookshop in Atlantic Shores with an interesting historical selection, I packed two books. One of those plus two of the three store-bought titles had a thread: Italy.
First down the chute is Norman Douglas’ Siren Land, a memoir of Capri and the Sorrentine Peninsula. Two previously read authors, Paul Fussell and Elizabeth Davis, quoted and discussed Douglas, and the library owns the title. I found his prose dense, witty fairly often, even had a couple funny bits. It is more than a travelogue: it is learned and chatty. Emperor Tiberius was the first famous Roman to retire to Capri; his stay is touched on. Douglas includes stories of saints, a single thread of the story of these siren lands. History and biology of the sirens is knocked off in the first couple of chapters, followed by a wandering over the land, a boat ride or two, and an island full of fleas...with gossip, lore, architecture, history, and memorable characters.
Anthony Bourdain's first book, Kitchen Confidential, was a surprise when it hit national best seller lists; even the author was taken aback. He thought it would appeal to food-service workers in the New York city area, as it was a "look behind the curtain" of local restaurants. The secret to Bourdain's success in this and later books is his passion for food and his ability to write well why he finds food exciting. We get two Tonys in his books: bad Tony and good Tony. Good Tony is articulate and writes well about food or preparation of food. Bad Tony is foul-mouthed and angry. We get both Tonys in Medium Raw.
Three authors wrote notable books on eating in lean times: MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Patience Gray. Fisher and David wrote during and just after the war, respectively. Gray wrote about places where food was scarce at certain times of the year. They all offer sage advice and write well.
Odd, the things one finds when browsing the shelves. I found this jewel the other day, when I was looking for something, anything to read. What a great way to start summer reading: a visit to Samarkand, hi-jinks at graduate school seminars,encounters with strange yet endearing characters , dark hints about Tolstoy's death, and the link between King Kong and Isaac Babel.
It's true: hunger impels an author to write. The hunger can take the form of putting food on the table, yes; or, the hunger comes from an author wanting to read a book about a topic and that book doesn't exist. Then there is the hunger for words: their similarities, their differences, and their power. These are the reasons why Donna Jo Napoli started writing.