I am rather partial to memoirs centred around food and I read two excellent ones last month, one of which was Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. Tucci’s grandparents emigrated to the United States from Calabria, so his childhood growing up in Westchester, New York featured a lot of traditional Italian cooking. Food has also been a big influence in his acting career, including his 1996 debut directorial feature ‘Big Night’ about two brothers running an Italian restaurant. As expected, there’s a fair bit of celebrity name-dropping, but Tucci also gives great insight into how catering works on film sets and he now has the luxury of being able to choose projects based on where in the world they are shot and whether the food will be any good. He also describes his diagnosis, treatment and recovery from a tumour at the base of his tongue which was discovered a few years ago, leaving him unable to eat properly. Less of a conventional chronological memoir and more about the importance of food in his life, ‘Taste’ is nevertheless a delectable read.
Depending on your taste, the British cuisine of the 1960s and 1970s which features in Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater might not be as mouthwatering as Tucci’s Italian diet, but it is described just as vividly. In brief bite-size snapshots, Slater reminisces about the food of his childhood in suburban Wolverhampton from tinned ham, Fray Bentos pies and Surprise peas to sherry trifle, treacle tart and Arctic rolls. Unlike Tucci’s memoir which avoids delving too deeply into his private life, Slater lays bare the dysfunctional family dynamics of his adolescence. His mother – who was, by all accounts, a terrible cook – died of an asthma attack when he was nine years old. His father later remarried and Slater had a difficult relationship with his stepmother. He grudgingly admits that her lemon meringue pie was exquisite and they ended up competing for affection from his father through cooking. This is a frank and at times unflattering coming-of-age memoir which is evocatively written.
Translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler, The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun is an eco-thriller – a genre that will surely become ubiquitous in the years to come – in which Yona Kim is a programme manager for a tourist agency, Jungle, which organises package holidays to areas where disasters have taken place. She has experienced sexual harassment from her boss and is persuaded to visit the fictional island of Mui near Vietnam in order to ascertain whether or not it should be kept on the company’s books – for example, if a big disaster is likely to happen and how much revenue it might bring if one were to be engineered. Events there become increasingly bizarre and darkly satirical, in a way that contrasts heavily with the sunny cover design. Overall, ‘The Disaster Tourist’ was probably a bit surreal for my taste and also tries to cram in one too many topical themes from #MeToo to climate activism, but it certainly provides a lot of food for thought.
State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts by Nick Hornby is the companion novella to the 2019 BBC TV series of the same name, starring Rosamund Pike as Louise and Chris O’Dowd as Tom, who seek marriage counselling after Louise has an affair. Each of the ten chapters begin when they meet in a nearby pub in Kentish Town before their weekly counselling session. With minimal description and zippy dialogue, it is more like reading a script with some stage directions removed than literary prose and it definitely helps to see the TV series alongside it for the nuances provided by Pike and O’Dowd’s performances. It is sharply written, although a perennial problem for fiction from the late-2010s featuring middle-class characters musing on Brexit is that it is now very hard not to conclude: “well, you think you’ve got problems now, wait until you see what the 2020s bring.”