Friday, September 21, 2012

3 4 Friday: Eat, Drink and be Merivel

At this time of year so many heavyweight authors are flying out of the publishing houses that it can be difficult to keep track. A look around our main table is a who's who of the biggest names in fiction: Rushdie, Faulks, McEwan, Tremain, Auster, Rowling (next week), Follett, Herbert and Pratchett. Add in children's authors such as Michael Morpurgo, David Walliams and Charlie Higson and this is a battle royale to see who tops the fiction charts between now and the end of the year.

And don't even get us started on non-fiction...

So for the next few Fridays, we're going to look at different areas of the shop - and recommend three new titles for your #FridayReads.


First stop is the front fiction table - and 'John Saturnall's Feast' by Lawrence Norfolk.

There are some cracking books in which the joy of food and themes of culinary pleasure come to the fore - many of them set in France: the Vianne Rocher novels of Joanne Harris for example, and a little known classic from Emile Zola is The Belly of Paris, where politics and food combine in a way that could only happen in Paris. One of our favourites is John Lanchester’s ‘Debt to Pleasure’ a darkly humorous book whose impressive scholarship on food slowly gives way to the actions of a deranged psychopath...

'John Saturnall’s Feast' however is a worthy, and English-set, addition to this company, a lavish novel from a remarkable author, one who's last book was published twelve years ago. As in his previous books (Lemprière's Dictionary, The Pope's Rhinoceros) the book is firmly rooted in history, with a complex story, rich characters (and language)  but it's the theme of food (and its complex connections to memory) which makes this book so enjoyable.

We follow the fortunes of John Saturnall, born to a women accused of witchcraft but who carries within her the memory of a forgotten pagan culture, including the knowledge of a great feast. She passes these memories to her son, and when his mastery of taste and smell comes to the attention of the head chef at Buckland Manor, he has the opportunity to rise through the ranks in the kitchen to become one of the finest cooks of the age.

But this is England in the years before the civil war, and at the point where John serves a remarkable dish to Charles I at the Manor, war breaks out. The consequences of the tasting of the dish - and of the rapid chaos of war that ensues - are played out in the second half of the book, as the household struggles to cope with the grim realities of war, religious turmoil, the breakdown of society: most seriously the lack of food and the reality of hunger. It has a rather neat (and happy) ending, but this is a book to luxuriate in - and it's not just for foodies...there's a rather excellent review here by Gaskella if your appetite has been...no, that's too cheesy a pun!

We move from Charles I to II in Rose Tremain's sort-of sequel to 'Restoration'. In 'Merivel' Tremain's wonderful creation Sir Robert Merivel returns fifteen years after the end of the first book. Now facing middle-age, and increasingly looking out of place as the gaiety of the Restoration period fades, Merivel ends up - via fun and games at Versailles - back at his Manor in Norfolk, pondering on whether his attempts to keep up his roguish activities and adventures is really appropriate, or what he wants. In turns delightful and melancholy, this is a worthy sequel to Tremain's breakthrough novel - but we recommend reading Restoration first!


Finally, a very wry take on books, publishing, writers and book reviews is wrapped up in Howard Jacobson's trademark comic humour and male angst in 'Zoo Time'.

It opens in the aftermath of an excruciating encounter by author Guy Ableman at a bookgroup, and Guy is an author who finds himself increasingly out of sync with the modern world of publishing - and his own marriage. When it appears his wife is writing her own novel, things start to unravel. Jacobson does divide opinion, not least the barely-concealed and 'robust' views on all aspects of modern life. But it's extremely funny, and it's also fun spotting where Ableman stops and Jacobson starts...

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