Imagine a plate, white – waiting to be filled with seared scallops, or stuffed zucchini flowers, or Salad Caprese. Imagine a page, just as white, waiting to be filled with rich descriptions of these foods…The image is delicious, no?

Julie&JuliaThere has been a proliferation of books recently that divide their attentions between memoir, travel and food writing. Of course the most prominent at the moment is Julie&Julia, the book that is now a film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. If you love a bit of humour, soul searching and are interested in Julie Powell’s relentless personal challenge to cook her way through a Julia Child cookbook, this is a great book to check out before/after you’ve seen the movie. Julie documented her journey at her blog, which you can check out here: http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/

Under the Tuscan Sun BookI’m currently reading an old, dog-earred copy of Under the Tuscan Sun, which I ‘borrowed’ from a gorgeous farm-stay in New Zealand, and even more than the heady descriptions of drowsy bees in olive groves, and Catholic churches, I love the simple descriptions of food. I’ve always preferred to cook ‘around’ a recipe, changing an ingredient here, and there, until I end up with something very different and not always delicious, but mine. This is why I am enjoying this style of writing so much at the moment. Instead of lists of ingredients, I am presented with a description of the deliciousness of a tomato paired with a local mozzarella, and I can visualize exactly where in Frances Mayes Tuscan Garden the vast basil bushes grow. I seem to learn so much more from these slow nibbles on food literature than I do from prescriptive cookbooks.

Risotto

Food is so evocative of place and time – certainly this is true of Anna Del Conte’s ‘Memoir with Food’ Risotto with Nettles. Born in pre-war Italy, she enjoyed the table delights of her mother and her family cook’s invention. When war came to Italy, her life turned upside down, until finally, she was able to escape to England. Her memories of the tiem are vividly, hilariously preserved – from the joys of unrationed horse-meat to tomato soup at Lyons Corner House. Her Italian cook books were hugely influential in bringing Mediterranean food to Britain.  I love the way Anna’s passion for food comes through in her writing, “Myriam’s favourite pasta dish, pici alla senese, a Tuscan tagliatelle with a palate-shooting chilli sauce”. What a delicious phrase, ‘palate-shooting’!

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Another brilliant food-writing book that’s come out this month is Cravat-a-Licious by food journalist and judge of MasterChef Australia, Matt Preston. He takes in the history of food, pokes fun at his contemporaries (and himself) in his chapter on ‘Foodie Tribes’, revels in descriptions of unusual delicacies (toffee covered crabs and cow’s foot jelly), and unravels anecdotes like they’re spaghetti and he’s a fork. Though I find it irritating that he features both on the front and back cover of the book, it really is worth checking out – Preston knows what he’s doing, both in the kitchen and on the page, and he does it with wit and panache.

Armed with such wonderful food-writers, what other prospect is there for us all to spend a good wadge of summer consuming their books, and experimenting in the kitchen?

GET YOUR READ ON

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Butterfly- Sonya Hartnett

Butterfly centers around the maturation of 14 year old Plum, who is so desperate for strength, courage and acceptance that she does something that seems strange and disturbing to her friends. Her schoolfriends hover between accepting and hating her throughout the book, and Plum is taken under the wing of her neighbour, Maureen. It is through Maureen’s four year old son, David, however that Plum finds her real voice. The contact with someone more innocent and in need of protection than her wrenches Plum briefly from the despairing self-centredness of her generation.

Thought the tone is immature in the sections which are from Plum’s perspective, there are also chapters which are very adult. Harnett manages the jump well, making this a good book for teens beginning to cross over into adult reading (from 14-18 depending on the sophistication of the reader). As usual, there is a poisonous undercurrent to the world Hartnett has created, and Plum is trapped in a series of bitter and angry relationships with friends, family and mentor. There’s not a lot of hope in this book, but a lot of it might help teenaged girls to understand both themselves at that stage of life and the adults that are dealing with them.

The writing is biting and fast, and even though there is not much happening action-wise, there is so much transformation occurring in Plum’s head, where it really matters.

The side story, which quickly blows up into the main complication is that of Plum’s much older brother, who is entangled in a relationship with married Maureen which is becoming more and more difficult to keep secret. There is something flawed about Maureen which insinuates itself at the beginning of the novel (when she tells Plum that to lose weight she should just throw her school lunches in the bin), but which only becomes truly apparent at the conclusion. There is a danger to her which threatens Plum more than her friends do, and which drives the tension of the story.

I really enjoyed Butterfly if only for an insight into an age group which I’ve almost entirely forgotten. It’s enjoyable for the same reasons that Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, or any other boarding school type novel is: you know the cattiness is coming, but not from which direction, or whether the protagonist will crumble or rise because of it.

The Unscratchables – Anthony O’Neill

Oh, the puns there are to be had in this book. The concept alone attracted me. The Unscratchables is a cop story, with all the twists, corruption, political conniving of your average Inspector Rex episode, but with a difference: The police are dogs. They live in San Bernardo, essentially the slums of the greater city of Kathattan. The cats of course, are the Fat Cats, the puppeteers, pulling the strings of every dog election, filling the bellies of the dogs with cheap, nasty canned food, and running psychological testing out of the back of a South American fish importer.

Several killings have occurred the like of which have never before been seen, and poor old Crusher the bullie is put on the case. He’s not the smartest detective in the force, but he does his job and does it with the kind of 1940s crime noir speak that was coined by Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep (although with ‘yap’ replacing ‘speak’, and dog slang peppered throughout). Until he’s put on the case of the dog killer with a slick Kathattan Siamese detective, Inspector Lap. Crusher has a history with the Siamese from the war in Siam, and it’s starting to affect his work. And who should he trust? His police Chief, who fought side by side with him in the war? His sidekick Bud? Or Lap, a cat well versed in dog psychology, who lets Crusher in on far too many cat secrets for a cat.

The Unscratchables is the most joyous thing I’ve read this year apart from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. It’s not afraid to make puns, and to lead up to them with gusto. It treats its reader with surprising respect, and it took me a few minutes to click with some of the gags, but when I did they were well worth it. It has a more serious side however, as it is, more than anything a mirror held up to Western society. It explores the dumbing down and ownership of the media, capitalization, control of hegemonies, treatment of minorities. Brilliant for lovers of Douglass Adams, Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde. Comedy, noir, and all the cat hair you could cough up, Unscratchables has it all.

A Small Free Kiss in the Dark – Glenda Millard

Last night I started A Small Free Kiss in the Dark and was blown away. This is the teen equivalent of a mash-up of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. And I don’t mean this to demean the book’s originality at all, because its evocation of homelessness in a bustling city which soon turns to mass homelessness in a war-torn city, is brilliantly done to evoke the reader’s own city. Skip is a slightly aspergian kid who’s moved from foster home to foster home after the death of his war veteran father. At the beginning of the book he is making his escape from school and a family that is not a family, to the city. He has nothing but his father’s old overcoat, his colorful view of the world through art, and his own talented artistry to help him out. Once there he meets Billy, a homeless, funny and kindhearted man, who helps Skip buy chalk to make murals on the cement around libraries and churches. For me, this evoked the Eternity Man, Arthur Stace who gave hope through his graffiti medium in post WWII Sydney. When war suddenly hits the city, Skip is sleeping in a dumpster, and can’t find his friend Billy. What ensues is an account of utter chaos, which, through the eyes of Skip can sometimes seem eerily beautiful.

“Behind me, a building erupted like a volcano, spewing red hot lava onto the streets. I turned to run and saw the church spire of St Mary’s, only it wasn’t where it used to be…The bells had buried themselves in concrete, and if you didn’t know anything about concrete, you’d think it was soft as butter.”

Skip’s sometimes halting, imagery-filled, sometimes quick-changing narration is very readable, and his character is beautifully drawn through the words he uses, and the often abstract ideas that he has. Although these ideas are not often realistic, they contain, almost without him realizing it, a lot of hope for the future.

I’m very much looking forward to finishing the book. I think Millard’s done a wonderful job and that this will make a very engaging and thought provoking book for young adults and late teens.

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Her Mother’s Face – Roddy Doyle and Freya Blackwood

(picture book)

This is the most gorgeously illustrated picture book. The cover looks like a framed picture, with the bright colours and geometric patterns of Amelie – even the streets in this book are colourful and architecturally beautiful. There is something so soft about the bright watercolours that Freya Blackwood uses that fits beautifully with the story line about the huge gap that the loss of a loved one creates, and how one goes about filling it (with a little help from a conker tree and a mirror). Siobhan can’t remember her mother Ellen’s face, although she can recall things that she said, and her father is withdrawn and sad, and refuses to talk about Ellen. The story is so poignant, and yet so hope-filled, and the character of the dead mother Ellen is so full of life and cheekiness, that the book is more happy than sad. This is a nourishing book in so many ways, it shows a way to live life after a loss, and the colours reflect this amazingly. In the beginning Siobhan’s father is painted all in greys and whites even while everything around him, including Siobhan, is brilliant red, and green and orange. As Siobhan has a child of her own, named Ellen also, he begins to be coloured with dull blues and tans, but his face is still grey. When Siobhan finally gets him to talk about his dead wife, his cheeks pink up, and he recalls the happy memories that bring Ellen to life for Siobhan.