Monday, 20 February 2012

The Book Club Cookbook (Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp)

--The blurb--
"Whether it's Roman punch with The Age of Innocence, Sabzi Challow (spinach and rice) and lamb with The Kite Runner, or ambrosia with To Kill a Mockingbird, nothing spices up a book club meeting like great eats. Featuring recipes and discussion ideas for one hundred popular club selections, this cookbook guides readers in selecting and preparing culinary masterpieces that blend perfectly with the literary masterpieces their club is reading. This fully revised and updated edition includes a full-colour, sixteen-page photo insert, and new contributions from a host of today's bestselling authors, offering recipes and commentary from: Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants (Oyster Brie Soup), Kathryn Stockett's The Help (Demetrie's Chocolate Pie and Caramel Cake), Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper (Brian Fitzgerald's Firehouse Marinara Sauce), Annie Barrows' The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Potato Peel Pie and Non-Occupied Potato Peel Pie) and Chris Cleave's Little Bee (Post-Colonial Pie)."

--The review--
Books and food are possibly more intrinsically linked than most people realise, and it goes further than just enjoying a few snacks while discussing a good book with friends. Even when my sister and I were children, one of our favourite games was to pile up all of the living room pouffes on the sofa so that they almost touched the ceiling, sit on them, and munch on snozzcumber (=cucumber) and sup on frobscottle (read: lemonade) while watching Roald Dahl's The BFG on the small screen. Call us strange children if you will - but naturally this meant that when I was contacted by Penguin asking if I wanted to review this book (which unites two of my major loves of food and books), I couldn't say yes fast enough.

In truth, the list of new books and recipes that appears on this second edition's cover didn't actually appeal to me much. I hadn't heard of half of the books, and of the half I did know of, I hadn't read them. So for a moment I did wonder how far I would be able to relate to the selection of recipes and books chosen. However, I need not have worried: upon opening the pages, I stumbled upon a veritable treasure trove of books and recipes I recognised, as well as books and recipes that I'd never seen before but really wanted to try and to read. 

I started off with an old English classic: Toad-in-the-Hole, from the novel Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. I came away thinking that their Yorkshire pudding mix needed more milk to make it go further, but at the same time I still finished the recipe with a full tummy and a desire to read the book. Other recipes I sampled included a sour cherry pie from The Dive From Clausen's Pier (which I suspect did not benefit from my cheat shortcut modifications; just follow the damn recipe, people), a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza from The Devil Wears Prada (a genius pizza topping that I couldn't believe I'd never tried before, and from a hilarious-sounding book, too), eggplant caponata from Bel Canto (not my favourite book or foodstuff, but my husband loved the dish), and spicy pork, orange, and hoisin wanton cups from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (which I enjoyed, but would perhaps prefer to make with beef. Now there's an experiment for the future...or not, as the case may be, if my advice on the cherry pie is anything to go by. Listening to my own advice has never been one of my strong points!).

While all of the books mentioned above are modern, the cookbook still contains plenty of recipes from classic novels for the traditional reader, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Age of Innocence, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Jane Eyre - all of which I look forward to exploring. The selection, then, and the way it's set up, definitely doesn't disappoint. While the stunning colour photographs could be more spread out throughout the book, rather than just being stuck all together in the middle, this is really my only quibble. I love the input from authors and book groups alike, as well as from the compilers of this book themselves, who are clearly keen readers, and think the idea of an online community that lovers of the cookbook can also enjoy is an inspired idea too.

I truly believe that this collection offers something unique in the world of cookbooks - unless I've been living under a rock for some time, I don't recall seeing any other cookbook like this. As well as being inspired to get the authors' book club cookbook for kids (I'm hoping for some REAL Roald Dahl recipes!), I've also been inspired to do what I suspect was the authors' aim all along: to cook, and to read, and to do both at the same time. Cheers, ladies.

Other works by Judy Gelman & Vicki Levy Krupp
The Kids' Book Club Book (2007)
Table Of Contents (2011)

--cross-posted to Ferret Food and Wines--

Sunday, 19 February 2012

From The Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Alex Gilvarry)

--The blurb--
"Boyet Hernandez is a small man with a big American dream when he arrives in New York in 2002, fresh out of design school in Manila. With dubious financing and visions of Fashion Week runways, he sets up shop in a Brooklyn toothpick factory, pursuing his goals with monkish devotion (distractions of a voluptuous undergrad not withstanding). But mere weeks after a high-end retail order promises to catapult his (B)oy label to the big time, there's a knock on the door in the middle of the night: the flamboyant ex-Catholic Boyet is brought to Gitmo, handed a Koran, and locked away indefinitely on suspicion of being linked to a terrorist plot. Now, from his 6' x 8' cell, Boy prepares for the trial of his life with this intimate confession, even as his belief in American justice begins to erode."

--The review--
With the recent passing of 9/11's 10th anniversary, it's only natural that there should be an even greater resurgence of literature on this theme than ever before as the memories of that day are freshened for all. Alex Gilvarry's attempt is a slightly off-the-wall, behind-the-scenes view of the paranoia of post-9/11, this time through the eyes of a so-called terrorist, who Gilvarry wants us to believe is an innocent man, bringing into question our belief and trust in the governments that preside over us.

Part first-person memoir, part third-person biography, it's therefore not dissimilar in this respect to the other hybrid text I read recently, the definitely non-fictional Along The Cherry Lane. While characters in From The Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant are strong, there is another respect in which it differs from Along The Cherry Lane: even though we are presumably supposed to sympathise with and warm to Boyet Hernandez (or Boy, as he is frequently referred to), it is difficult to do this given his sheer naïveté in associating with such clearly dodgy characters. The characters therefore do not appeal to us in the way that they are perhaps intended to, and some (like the Russian models Boy uses for his shows) are apparently supposed to be funny (or at least, I didn't find the novel as amusing as several other readers and reviewers apparently did - but I suppose it's all a matter of taste), but are far too caricatured for us to truly be able to engage with them. If the writer was trying to be satirical, in this respect I don't believe him to have been successful.

However, there is certainly one very intriguing aspect of the style: even though not fully appropriate for a 'confession' (as it's often referred to), factual 'mistakes' made by the clearly very human Boy are corrected by the author/narrator through footnotes, and his trial is also chronicled through the footnotes in the repeated references to articles in various high-profile newspapers on the subject, complete with dates. Even though we know it is not a true story (a quick Google search reveals this; in addition, I was amused to find that there are real people named Boyet Hernandez), this meticulous set-up and attention to detail almost makes us think it could be - and that if this story were true, what other details in the novel could also be true (particularly in relation to the treatment of prisoners and the bureaucracy of the American justice system).

This unusual novel lingers in a strange way, despite its flaws. Is it clever? Yes. Is it witty? To my mind, not really. But if there is one thing that Alex Gilvarry is not, it's an imitator. Having never read any book like this before in its subject matter and style makes me feel like this is an entry onto the scene of a truly intriguing new literary talent.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Along The Cherry Lane (Richard Sparks)

--The blurb--
"At the height of Milton Okun's career, a critic wrote, "Of all producers, Milton Okun's range is the widest, from Placido Domingo to the Muppets". Conductor for Harry Belafonte, arranger and producer of Peter, Paul and Mary, and the man who brought John Denver to stardom and produced his most loved hits, Okun also founded Cherry Lane Music, publisher of Elvis and Dreamworks, among many other household names. He achieved great success in many different fields - often, as he tells it, almost by accident. And yet he expected to spend his entire working life as a music teacher in New York City public schools. From the Weaves to and the Black Eyed Peas, Milton Okun has been a central figure in the continuing story of our musical heritage, his career ranging from the folk revival to the new technological landscapes of the twenty-first century. Along The Cherry Lane is a portrait of a unique career, told in stories by Okun himself and those who have been a part of his remarkable life in music."

--The review--
As a lover of all kinds of music (my iTunes library goes from Aaron Copland and Abba to Yann Tiersen and Yes, stopping via Mozart and Morcheeba), I was keen and curious to read a memoir of someone who'd had the honour of working with Placido Domingo AND the Muppets. In addition, I'm also a huge fan of "behind-the-scenes" type topics (only the other day I was scouring blog entries by those who'd participated in reality TV show Come Dine With Me), so to have the curtain lifted, allowing us to see the tough everyday details of the music industry, was equally appealing. As an aspiring writer, Milt Okun also epitomises what I consider to be the ideal kind of fame: people know who you are and respect you and your work, but don't mob you every time you go to the supermarket. In short, his autobiography, told with the help of his son-in-law Richard Sparks, ticked a lot of boxes.

Furthermore, I was not disappointed by this highly readable oeuvre. While the 'interview' style in which it is written, with its frequent interjections from co-workers and family members, takes some getting used to, it also marks Along The Cherry Lane as a unique form of memoir - rather than being ghostwritten by a desperate hack, Richard Sparks not only knows Okun as a family member but is also sensitive to the industry in which the great man works, having worked himself in TV, theatre, and the writing of lyrics, which combines to create a tautly-told tale of Okun's life.

As well as containing touching anecdotes from his personal life (such as his encounters with former students who remember him fondly, or the moment at the end of the book, when Milt realises that his wife is the one for him through their shared feeling of being underwhelmed by Maria Callas' musical abilities), the interviews are full of stories about the personalities of well-loved stars such as Harry Belafonte, without being gossippy or bitchy. It also brings to light surprises about the industry itself that, on reflection, are not really that surprising (that, for instance, some of his successful acts in fact could not sing that well, or that some singers worm their way into being credited with writing songs, alongside the real songwriters, just to receive more royalties) but help to give us a more honest view nonetheless, in a way that I suspect to be rare in autobiographies by other music moguls (can you see Simon Cowell being this honest about the likes of his Autotuned protégés?).

Even if you had not heard of all of Milton Okun's acts, or are not impressed or intrigued by them once you do know of them (I can't say I'll be checking out the apparently limited Peter, Paul and Mary anytime soon), there will be something in there for you, whether you're an Elvis fan or a Dreamworks aficionado (yes, he has really worked with these big names). But what really gives the book its heart is Milt Okun's modesty - despite his clear success, he feels it is just down to knowing the right people, and being in the right place at the right time, almost more than his manifest talent. The warmth exuded by his family members, artists on his books, and former students is also testament to the impact he has made on others through his patient personality. 

It also can't have been the easiest book to write; to write about someone while they are still alive, and to make an assessment of their career, life and personality, and to do it well, is no mean feat. This is not to mention the hybrid format of something that is not quite biography and not quite autobiography, as well as an interview. But Richard Sparks fulfils his brief more than successfully, and Along The Cherry Lane, by its end, fills its readers with a greater knowledge of and (in some cases) passion for the music industry and its artists than they had at the start - and encourages them to check out even more of Sparks' and Okun's work and achievements.

Other work by Richard Sparks
Diary of a Mad Poker Player (2005)