Book reviews

We cast a critical eye over the week's latest releases

Time In
Risotto With Nettles

Anna Del Conte
Anna Del Conte’s first book, Portrait Of Pasta, came out in 1976 – 20 years after Elizabeth David published Italian Food. David got olive oil out of the pharmacy and into the food shops; she made garlic (which Del Conte says Italians treat with great ‘rispetto’ – respect) a viable culinary ingredient. Del Conte, meanwhile, was getting married and raising a family in west London, having come over as an au pair from her native Milan and fallen in love with an Englishman.

David had 20 years on her but Del Conte was, after all, Italian: she learned to cook from her mother and Maria, their communist cook, consolidating her skills in Emilia-Romagna during World War II. And anyway, to figure it as some kind of competition is to do Del Conte an injustice; she wrote her books because she loved food and was fascinated by her homeland’s culinary history and wanted to share those passions, not because some Englishwoman had started the colossal job of introducing the ignorant English to Italian cuisine and found it too big for one person to handle.

Del Conte is 84 now. Her 57-year marriage ended with her husband Oliver’s death in 2007, and while she is not undaunted, she remains strong largely because of her grandchildren. Still, her memoir places her firmly in a bygone world, and not just because of the talk of servants, wars and Lyons Tea Houses. No modern celeb, however modest, could create a book like this.

Anna is a food writer – so, even when ostensibly telling her own story, she writes about food (and each chapter ends with recipes). Read this, and you will know what she cooked as a young wife; what she was eating when she heard she had a deal to write her first book; and just about every culinary mistake she has ever made. However, she never lets the reader through the kitchen and into her head. There are casual references to affairs, but her children grow up in what seems like a couple of pages and neither they nor Oliver ever come alive. Not that it matters – Del Conte may have adopted English self effacement with the energy of the converted but she knows how to tell a story, even one about a subject she clearly finds unappetising: herself.
Nina Caplan
Chatto & Windus Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s

The Supremes: A Saga Of Motown Dreams, Success And Betrayal

Mark Ribowsky
According to the publishers, The Supremes is an attempt to set the record straight regarding the triumphs and tantrums that characterised the reign of this wildly successful ’60s girl band. But which record? After all, much of what happened at Motown, particularly regarding the label’s great love/hate affair between founder Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, has passed into the mists of pop folklore absorbed osmotically by all pop fans. Ribowsky states that his main target for correction is Dreamgirls, the somewhat fictionalised but wholly successful movie which earned Jennifer Hudson an Oscar. And in a way, The Supremes functions well as a companion piece to the movie. Although it’s perhaps not quite as life affirming.

The book’s USP is that it tells the story from the points of view of the supporting characters, with Ross and Gordy et al appearing only as ghost-quotes from previous interviews. Although that might usually be considered a drawback, the knowledge that this was produced without La Ross and her lawyers looming behind the author’s chair actually makes it more believable.

Although there are plenty of newly revealed facts and perspectives for Motown nerds to geek out over, The Supremes is perhaps most interesting for its grasp of period minutiae – the pre-fame years of The Supremes’ and Gordy’s lives are told with a vivid attention to detail. It also capably lays bare the gulf between Florence Ballard’s desire to be an artist and Ross’s outright need to be a star, and how the two evolved to become mutually incompatible. Ballard’s cousin Ray Gibson in particular provides some heartbreaking testimony as to the emotional fallout of Gordy’s homebrewed star-making techniques. Presumably the book ended up with its clunky appellation after Ribowsky discovered Diana Ross: Diva-zilla was already taken.
Eddy Lawrence
Da Capo Dhs68 Available to order Magrudy’s

The Angel’s Game Carlos

Ruiz Zafón
News of a follow-up to a much-loved debut always provokes as much fear as delight: so many expectations, so much room for disappointment. This book is billed as a prequel to Zafón’s Shadow Of The Wind and does contain some familiar places (it’s also set in Barcelona, but 28 years earlier) and characters, but as a novel, it comfortably stands alone.

David Martin, contractually obliged to churn out endless pulp fiction novels, and dying from an inoperable brain tumour to boot, is ideally placed to succumb to a devil’s blandishments – especially when this Satan also takes the form of a publisher, Corelli. Martin will write the bible of a new religion. Corelli may then achieve world domination. As for Martin’s stingy publishers – they’ll get what’s coming to them.

Zafón has great fun with his blatantly self-referential subject matter, poking fun at the relationship between author, publisher and critic. But the playfulness evaporates under the pressure of an unnecessarily tidy ending.
Rachel Platt
Weidenfeld&Nicolson Dhs78 Available at Magrudy’s

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