Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Barbara Ehrenreich, John Burnside and Joyce Carol Oates

The straight story

For Jenni Murray in the Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World "chimes with your own thinking, yet flies so spectacularly in the face of fashionable philosophy, that it comes as a profoundly reassuring relief". Christopher Hart, in the Sunday Times, describes it as "a portrait of America's desperate insistence on facile optimism", although he notes that "some historical comparisons would have added depth". However, the book benefits from her "sharper personal experience when diagnosed with breast cancer" and is "a highly entertaining, alarming read, and a ringing clarion call to America to brace up and remember sod's law". Janet Maslin in the Scotsman was not so keen, however, finding the book "padded with cheap shots, easy examples, [and] research recycled from her earlier books". Her conclusion: "This encounter offers more caustic humour than enlightenment."

Ghost town

Waking Up in Toytown, the second part of the poet John Burnside's autobiography, "is about as far from the conventional idea of a misery memoir as it's possible to get", writes Doug Johnstone in the Independent on Sunday. "[Burnside] brings his poet's eye for detail and his novelist's sense of the dramatic to the pages . . . always probing for meaning, for reason, for resonance in the rather tumultuous events of his life." The subject matter "is treated with admirable candour, which doesn't necessarily paint the author in a great light, but there is something underlying it all, a quest for some kind of honesty, that makes the reader retain some sympathy". Bee Wilson, writing in the Sunday Times, finds that this second instalment of Burnside's memoirs is "just as hauntingly written and, if anything, even more disturbing [than the first]".

Maiden voyage

Michael Arditti, in the Daily Telegraph, finds that Joyce Carol Oates's A Fair Maiden ("a spare, controlled work set on the affluent New Jersey coast") explores "such familiar Oates themes as illicit sexuality, male violence and damaging social divisions . . . it might well stand as a heterosexual counterpart to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, albeit with its focus less on the artist than on his object of desire". Elizabeth Day, in the Observer, also finds parallels with another classic, Nabokov's Lolita, but fails to understand why anyone would imitate "arguably one of the greatest prose stylists of the last century . . . Unsurprisingly, Oates suffers by comparison. Although there is the occasional lyrical phrase . . . much of the writing is wilfully slow and ponderous . . . All this is a shame, because Oates is a far better writer than this book allows her to be."

You can read the New Statesman review of A Fair Maiden here. And keep your eyes peeled for an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, coming this way soon.

Show Hide image

Fasting and Feasting: the eccentric life of food writer Patience Gray

Journalist Adam Federman clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. 

It is hard, these days, to open a food magazine or a news­paper’s colour supplement without finding an article extolling the charm of foraging. So fashionable has the Instagram-friendly pursuit become that the botanist James Wong recently  wrote of his alarm at finding pictures of food – often published on blogs proclaiming the evils of sugar, gluten and dairy – prettily decorated with flowers of extreme toxicity: narcissus, catharanthus, lantana and rhododendron.

The food writer Patience Gray loved narcissi, whose springtime appearance on Naxos she described in her 1989 account of a year spent on the Greek island, Ring Doves and Snakes; but she would have known better than to use them as a garnish. Her passionate interest in foraged and seasonal food, which began during her wartime years spent in a primitive cottage in Sussex, where she pursued a scholarly interest in edible fungi, developed over the many decades during which she lived with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, in some of the remotest parts of the Mediterranean.

On Naxos, in Carrara in Tuscany and for the last three decades of their life together at Spigolizzi, a masseria (farmhouse) in Apulia, Gray and Mommens found a way of life still governed by the elemental rhythms of sowing and growing, feasting and fasting – rhythms they adopted and incorporated into the practice of their work. “Métier” was a talismanic term for Gray.

“It sometimes seems as if I have been rescuing a few strands from a former and more diligent way of life, now being fatally eroded by an entirely new set of values,” she wrote in Honey from a Weed (1986), her evocative fusion of memoir and cookbook. “As with students of music who record old songs which are no longer sung, soon some of the things I record will also have vanished.”

Patience was one of a formidable cohort of female writer-cooks whose celebrations of food in muscular, elegant prose sprang from the privations of the Second World War. A contemporary of Elizabeth David, M F K Fisher and Julia Child, she wrote just three cookery books, only two of which were published in her lifetime: the bestselling Plats du Jour (1957), co-written with Primrose Boyd and warily subtitled “Foreign Food”, and the eclectic Honey from a Weed. The Centaur’s Kitchen, a book of Mediterranean recipes written in 1964 for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel shipping line, was posthumously published in 2005. She also wrote two wayward volumes of memoir: Ring Doves and Snakes and Work Adventures Childhood Dreams (1999).

Despite this comparative reticence (she wrote bitterly in Work Adventures Childhood Dreams of her mother, whom she accused of valuing only published work: “But Patience, is there anything you have written that is actually in print?”), the publication of Honey from a Weed turned her into a celebrity, and the austere household at Spigolizzi, devoid of electricity, telephone or sanitation, became a place of pilgrimage for such keen food fanciers as Paul Levy (the co-author of The Official Foodie Handbook) and the late Derek Cooper of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. As her biographer, Adam Federman, remarks, “A full account of her remarkable life is long overdue.”

Gray divided her adult life into two parts: before 1962, when she began living with Norman Mommens, and after. On either side of that meeting her life was eventful. Of her upper-middle-class upbringing she wrote, “I have listened to other people’s accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief.”

Educated at Queen’s College in London (where Unity Mitford was a contemporary) and the London School of Economics, she worked for the designer F H K Henrion on the agricultural and country pavilions at the Festival of Britain, and had three children by Thomas Gray, an elusive  married “artist-designer” whose name she took.

Having left him, she won a competition to become the women’s editor of the Observer. Sacked after three years (by the paper’s new features editor George Seddon, under whom things “became dull, more serious”), she “began a different and more creative life”, sharing and recording the ancient traditions of seasonal food production and preparation of the communities among which she occupied an ambiguous position as both participant and observer until her death in 2005, aged 87.

Federman – a journalist, academic and “former line cook, bread baker and pastry chef” – clearly venerates his subject, and his research is overwhelmingly diligent. While Gray possessed the sharp observing eye, selective memory and comic timing of an instinctive writer, Federman is dogged and respectful.

His book is dutifully strewn with the names of Gray’s wide acquaintance, but he lacks the gift of characterisation and conveys little impression of their personalities. Even Gray, so vivid a presence in her own books, seems oddly muted in Federman’s portrait (though he gives a lively account of her exhilaratingly awful behaviour at her daughter’s wedding).

For admirers of Patience Gray’s remarkable prescience in anticipating what has become known as the “Slow Food” movement, Federman’s exhaustively detailed biography will be a valuable resource. But for those who long for a flavour of her personality – as pungent and earthy as the dishes she recorded – it is best read with a copy of Honey from a Weed to hand. 

Fasting and Feasting: the Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray
Adam Federman
Chelsea Green, 384pp, £20

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder