A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell

A History of Food in 100 Recipes cover image

A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell, HarperCollins, ISBN 9780007411993, RRP $49.99, Available 14 June 2013.

It seems this “a history of xx in 100 xx” is now a thing. I assume it all stems from A History of the World in 100 Objects, which is no bad thing since that is a great book (and object and podcast).

This kind of “they’re doing it so why don’t we” copying can produce variable results. Fortunately, however, not in this case.

A History of Food in 100 Recipes is entertaining, mouth-watering and interesting, full of titbits of history, food and eating.

Just as the seizing of the English throne by William of Normandy marked a significant period in English history, so the proliferation of the hair sieve marked a significant moment in its own way, one that you could call WFL, or White Fluffy Loaf. Hence there is the period BWFL (Before White Fluffy Loaf) and AWFL (After White Fluffy Loaf).

Sitwell (a foodie mag editor) goes right back to the ancient Egyptians first making unleavened bread and takes us on a ride through the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Europe, England, France, the Americas, more England, more France, France, France, France, India, Rice Krispie treats, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, France… you get the idea.

And, like any good book, Hitler.

We might not have yet reached her vegetarian paradise, but those apparent “visionaries” have included some pretty distinguished individuals (as well as, er, Hitler).

Let’s face it, food has shaped who we are, and will continue to do so, for better and for worse. Investigating history through food is a damn good idea and even if you’re the most adamant opponent of the “foodie” fad, you’ll still enjoy this.

But if you want another measure of the spirit of these discussions it comes when referencing one Arixtoxenus: “The theatres have become completely barbarised and… music has become entirely ruined and vulgar.” No doubt he also felt that young people had no respect.

Book Review: The Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton

The Search for Anne Perry cover imageThe Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton, Harper Collins, ISBN 9781869508883, RRP$44.99, Available now.

It’s really not surprising that the Honorah Rieper/Parker murder story continues to fascinate so many people (myself included). For the few people who surely don’t know the story, Honorah was murdered in Christchurch in 1954 by two teenage girls – one, her own daughter Pauline Rieper/Parker, and the other Pauline’s best friend, Juliet Hulme. She had been beaten to death with half a brick wrapped in a stocking. At the trial it became clear that Juliet and Pauline had an obsessive relationship and an incredibly complex fantasy life. Lesbian goings-on were hinted at. Parker and Hulme seemed oddly detached from their actions.  The story totally captivated New Zealand and the time and has since been told and retold through books and movies (Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson).

And what does this all have to do with Anne Perry, reasonably celebrated and certainly successful writer of mostly historical murder mysteries? Anne Perry, it turned out, was Juliet Hulme.

The Search for Anne Perry is, at heart, a fascinating story that ultimately fails to deliver. The blurb promises that Drayton “is able to peel back the layers of Anne’s carefully constructed life to show us the woman beneath” but reading the book turns into a disappointing experience, as the reader can’t help feeling that Anne’s life as told in The Search for Anne Perry remains “carefully constructed”.

I hate to say that because Drayton has clearly worked hard and gained the trust of her subject as few others have. The cost of that trust, though, is unfortunately this is more of a “Perry-approved” version of the story. At times the tone veers towards gratingly gushy. Drayton is clearly a fan of Perry’s and so the big questions feel unanswered. How? Why?

Throughout I felt like I was trying to read between the lines, to find out something authentic and genuine. Perhaps this is the only authenticity left. If you kill someone, you become a “murderer”; to stop being that every day you must wake up and recreate every part of yourself that isn’t the “murderer”. Maybe then, that’s all you have left.

This really is the at the heart of our fascination with the Parker-Hulme story. They are the ordinary people capable of killing, as all we ordinary people must then surely be. I think about the questions I would like to ask, chief being “When you write about a murder and a murder victim’s body, do you think about that murder? Do you see that body?”

It just may be that those questions are too personal. Too many layers deep.

My final word is I think The Search for Anne Perry is a necessary addition to the Parker-Hulme story, even if it ultimately doesn’t reveal as much as it wants to. It’s certainly readable and will definitely have an audience.

Book Review: A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

A History of the World in 100 Objects coverA History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, Allen Lane (Penguin NZ), ISBN 9781846145117, RRP $45, Available now.

A History of the World in 100 Objects from the BBC was one the best podcasts I listened to throughout 2010 (they’ve also been broadcast on Radio NZ) and this accompanying book is the perfect version of those shows in book form.

A bit of background: A History of the World in 100 Objects is a different approach to history. Rather than focus on places and times Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has chosen 100 objects that live in the museum to explore themes of human history – from pre-historic to the present. This approach turned out to be the perfect way to show how everyday lives of people in cultures around the world and throughout time have interconnected and how everything we do, know and think today has been shaped by the people before us.

The objects he’s chosen aren’t the most famous or necessarily the most groundbreaking either (some, such as the Kilwa pot sherds, were actual rubbish during their own time) but they all have something to tell us.

What can I say? It’s simply gorgeous. Every object is photographed in full colour, often with close ups and each chapter is reasonably short – great for dipping into. It works as well as a stand-alone book, as in conjunction with the BBC show (I couldn’t read it without hearing MacGregor’s particular intonation in my head) and it is as beautiful an object in itself as many of the objects within. Follow?

$45 is reasonably pricey but frankly it’s actually damn good value here. You will learn. You will marvel. You will enjoy!

 

Three Short Book Reviews – History, Loudmouths and More History

Three books that have passed over my desk recently and I have passed my eyes over recently… with varying results.

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People, People, People : A Brief History of New Zealand by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Bateman Publishing, RRP $24.99, ISBN 9781869538132, Available now.

A short and well-produced history of New Zealand, the best part of People, People, People is by far the excellent selection of illustrations, paintings, and photos. The text is aimed at younger students or international students but I’m not sure how well the book will fare in that sector, considering the fairly obvious political bias at work (not surprising with Eldred-Grigg – you get what you get).

Does what it says on the cover and does it well.

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The Two of Me by John Dybvig, Hurricane Press, RRP $29.99, ISBN 9780986468445, Available now.

Both publisher and author clearly know the public’s opinion of the subject of The Two of Me, billing it very much as a “don’t make your mind up before you read” book. Which is fair enough, The Two of Me has a lot going for it – it’s pacy, it’s lively, it’s easy to read – but the story doesn’t really bear out the premise – that John Dybvig has changed as much as he says he has. Centred around a health scare the “inspiring story” really is not actually that inspiring at all. Man has health scare, determines to take better care of his health and he does. Man decides he is alone in the world, determines to meet someone and coincidentally does shortly thereafter. Man determines not to act like so much of an a*sehole. Man fails. This isn’t overcoming great obstacles, people.

At one point Dybvig tells an editor “I don’t need to know anything to have an opinion.” Yes, indeed. General sports autobiography type readers will probably enjoy.

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The Spanish Helmet by Greg Scowen, Whare Rama Books, Available on Kindle and Kindle Apps for US$0.99, Paperback RRP US$16.99, ISBN 9781463558482, Available now.

A conspiracy thriller with a New Zealand twist, The Spanish Helmet centres on Matthew Cameron, archaeologist and historian, who travels to NZ to investigate findings that point to an alternative history of New Zealand, in particular that the Spanish were in NZ before the Dutch and that Celts had travelled to NZ before the Maori arrived.

Sigh.

The story itself is reasonably well-written and for people who don’t want to think too hard (so most of your conspiracy thriller types then) it’ll be a fun and quick read.

But for me there was way too many moments of clunk to enjoy reading. My favourite happens right at the beginning when Dr Cameron is convincing his fellow academic to cover for him while he travels to NZ to “investigate”.

“Anyway, Warren believes that New Zealand was settled by someone other than the Maori,” Matt said, “his particular studies follow the theory that the Celts discovered New Zealand some thousands of years ago. He’s struggled to find evidence to support his theory and believes the government is out to stop him, but now he thinks he has something and wants me to go and look.”

“Sounds great.”

That’s academic inquiry, that is!

The idea that academics have a vested interest in stopping New Zealanders from knowing the “true story” of New Zealand habitation is more than a little laughable. Not quite as laughable as the shady secret-police style organisations in The Spanish Helmet who are busily tailing said academics, but still.

The Spanish Helmet isn’t going to re-write New Zealand history any more than The Da Vinci Code rewrote Christian history. Let’s just hope that Tom Hanks doesn’t get hold of it.

Quick Reviews for Busy People: Grow Up and When God Spoke English

Grow Up by Ben Brooks

Grow Up by Ben Brooks, Text Publishing, RRP $30, ISBN 9781921758737, Available now.

Would it be wrong to just write a review that says “No no no no no no no”? Yes. :(

Grow Up is billed as hilarious but it isn’t. It’s way too self-conscious to be funny. It squanders some potentially funny storylines and it has a really dodgy attitude towards rape. I think we are supposed to see Jasper (the protagonist) as the ironic, self-aware narrator of the drug and sex-soaked teenage goings-on but, unfortunately, he’s just an irritating participant, and reminds me of that person at every teen party who spent most of the night telling everyone how DRUNK they were.

Get off my lawn, Ben Brooks.

 

When God Spoke English

When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson, Harper Collins, RRP $26.99, ISBN 9780007431007, Available now.

In a totally different direction is When God Spoke English, a fascinating history of the King James Bible and, specifically, its translation. Starting with King James I’s ascension to the English throne, it reveals how the idea for the translation came about as well as providing a detailed and revealing historical context – covering the Catholic/Protestant split, the zeal of the Separatist puritans and the mood of the Jacobean times.

Nicolson also does a great job of revealing the literary achievement that is the King James Bible, highlighting the lyricism of the language and how ingrained it has become in so much of our culture. A (surprisingly) enjoyable read.

Book Review: Tupaia by Joan Druett

Tupaia

Tupaia: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator by Joan Druett, Random House, RRP $55, ISBN9781869793869, Available Now.

Random House has done a fantastic job recently of gorgeously produced, hardcover history books/objects of art (see The Great Wrong War) and they’ve continued that tradition with Tupaia. Presented in a printed hardcover, with liberal use of illustrations, and a simply beautiful design, Tupaia has instant appeal.

Fortunately, again as with The Great Wrong War, we’re also treated to an amazing historical record and a wonderful read.  Tupaia is a beautifully produced, enthralling history of a previously sidelined figure in the story of European exploration in the Pacific.

Tupaia (the man) was a Tahitian priest/politician, a skilled navigator and he joined the crew of the Endeavour at Tahiti, sailing on their circumnavigation of New Zealand and the subsequent trip up the coast of New South Wales.

Druett has clearly put a huge amount of research into not only Tupaia’s travels with the Europeans but his life previous to the European arrival, along the way providing an informative picture of local Tahitian life, politics, religion and culture.

Druett presents everything with an eye to narrative so the story never becomes dry or  boring, and she enriches the book with a thoughtful approach that builds on the research, presenting cultural theories that challenge the standard historical story that has been told again and again around Captain Cook.

It all adds up to an entertaining and illuminating read, with the bonus of a beautiful object for your shelf.