Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Book Review: 29 January

The Lady reviews of the latest books available to buy or download now


books-alive-alive-ohAlive, Alive, Oh ! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (Granta Books, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
When 98-year-old Diana Athill can’t sleep, she thinks about her past lovers and the happiest times of her colourful life.

Her new memoir, structured like a collection of short stories, reflects on such episodes. In the chapter on her idyllic childhood in 1920s Norfolk amongst ‘civilised country people’, she writes about the delicious frisson of stealing peaches and gooseberries from her grandmother’s kitchen garden, and the leisurely pace of rural life. Aged 18, she was presented to a bored-looking Edward VIII , before he ‘bolted’ to marry Mrs Simpson.

Another chapter deals with her difficult decision to move into a retirement home in Highgate, in order to avoid burdening her friends. If you or your family are wondering about day-to-day life in a care home, this book provides an incisive look at the small pleasures and possibilities, as well as the negatives: a small room; having to give up most of your possessions.

She doesn’t seem to miss them. Instead, she relishes her freedom from housework, her interesting new friends and being pushed around art exhibitions in a wheelchair.

Although fragmentary, this is a gem of a memoir that will appeal to fans of Athill and new readers alike. It was chosen as a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.
Rebecca Wallersteiner

books-collected-poemsCollected Poems by Vikram Seth (W&N, £30; offer price, £27)
Better known and celebrated as a prose writer, especially after the epic A Suitable Boy (1993), Seth is nonetheless an accomplished poet – all his work shares an interest in using dazzling, lyrical language to bring past and present alive, to tell stories that foster the human imagination and to record the extraordinary, visceral pleasures of being alive.

As a poet he is unusually accessible while simultaneously diverse, and if you keep this book by your bedside over a few months, you will find it feels like a kind of rewarding, stimulating conversation with an old friend. Seth’s gift is to find human solidarity and beauty in the most unlikely of places. For example, in All You Who Sleep Tonight, he deftly turns loneliness as personal experience into that which fosters and grows a surprised sense of common humanity: ‘The whole world shares your tears,/Some for two nights or one,/And some for all their years’.

There is much to enjoy in Seth’s mapping of the frailty and joy of our human existence.
Steve Barfield


books-book-of-the-weekLANDSKIPPING : Painters, Ploughmen And Places by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury, £20; offer price, £18)
Landscape nowadays – or so we might think – is often appreciated through a mobile phone, photographed and forgotten as soon as the next see-before-you-die vantage point is fixed in the viewfinder.

Yet, as Anna Pavord explains, there is nothing new about this trophy-hunting approach to topography: as early as 1778, visitors to the Lake District could apprise themselves of the Rough Guides of their day, and crosses were even cut into the turf to ensure tourists knew where to gaze.

The Lakes is where Pavord begins her account, a survey not just of the writers and artists who have been inspired by our landscape, but also the reformers and farmers whose actions have shaped it – after all, many of the scenes we love best would look very different if nature had been left to herself.

Wry and companionable, Pavord’s narrative is threaded through with reflections on the places that she herself has loved, as well as horror at the increasing homogenisation of the land, full as it is becoming of identikit supermarkets. But perhaps above all, she reminds us that the feeling of being connected to a place, of having a sense of one’s own home turf, is, in this free-floating age, a privilege and a blessing. Stephanie Cross


Robert Kime by Alastair Langlands (Frances Lincoln, £40; offer price, £35)
Star-rating-3-stars-590 2

This lovely book featuring 12 houses by smart interior designer Robert Kime has a foreword by the Prince of Wales. The Kime look is mature quality, furiously un-bling and anti-fashion. Clarence House, though substantially redone, has been designed to evoke its last tenant – the Queen Mother.


Kime’s favourite things are old – and often Middle Eastern; old Moroccan lanterns, old Syrian fabrics. There’s practically nothing post-war of any kind in these pleasing interiors, and not much between-wars. The result is a series of cleverly assembled film sets for people who want to keep the modern world at bay. So although there’s a lot to like, the overall effect is too considered and anxious and worryingly out of time for me.
Peter York



SAVORING GOT HAM: A Food Lover’s Companion To New York City edited by Andrew F Smith (OUP, £25; offer price, £22.50)
New York is one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse food cities, a melting pot of cultures, traditions and new inventions – from Italian ice-cream parlours to all-night bagel joints, high-end restaurants, automats and diners. This is the first comprehensive A-Z reference work taking a broad historical and cultural view of the city’s culinary heritage, from its Native American past, through European settlers and subsequent waves of immigrants up to the present day.

Accessible and informative entries by leading food writers cover ethnic influences, the peculiarities of each borough, food and drink brands founded in the city – and some surprises, like urban farming and foraging. Lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched, this is essential reading for foodies on their way to the Big Apple.
Juanita Coulson

Vanessa Bell : Portrait Of The Bloomsbury Artist by Frances Spalding (Tauris Parke Paperbacks, £11.99; offer price, £10.49)
Following on from Life In Squares, last year’s television drama about the Bloomsbury Group, Spalding’s excellent 1983 biography of Vanessa Bell has been republished with a new preface. Usually overshadowed by her brilliant elder sister Virginia Woolf, Vanessa assumed responsibility for her troubled sibling after their parents’ death. But Spalding points out that, as a talented painter, Vanessa played an important role in developing ‘colourist’ art during the 1930s.

While Virginia enjoyed the security of a respectable marriage, Vanessa lived most of her life in an unconventional relationship with the man by whom she had an illegitimate daughter, keeping her husband, ex-lover and lover within her orbit. A riveting read.


Food as fuel or food as feast? This week we bring you two very different approaches to healthy cooking. By Juanita Coulson


FUEL FOR LIFE by Bear Grylls (Bantam Press, £14.99; offer price, £12.99)
The nation’s favourite survivalist and adventurer would seem an unlikely candidate for writing a healthy eating cookbook of the fashionably restrictive variety – no wheat, dairy or refined sugar. (We are more used to seeing him eating unspeakable animal body parts on national TV.) But while his initial motivation was utilitarian (to improve his fitness and performance), his next challenge was ‘to make the healthy stuff taste delicious’. This he has certainly achieved. Mouthwatering, travel-inspired recipes (lime and chilli ceviche; a great Thai curry) are accompanied by shopping tips and nutritional nuggets: ‘beetroot helps to oxygenate the muscles’. The action hero as domestic god – swoon!

GIZZI’S HEALTHY APPETITE: Food To Nourish The Body And Feed The Soul by Gizzi Erskine (Mitchell Beazley, £25; offer price, £22)
You would never guess from her glossy, 1950s-housewife look that Erskine used to work as a body piercer. Her reinvention as Leithtrained chef and food writer – fuelled by genuine passion – has been such a success. Her approach to ‘healthy’ is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Grylls’s: goodquality ingredients, but no food-group exclusions. It’s all about the pleasures of taste, texture and variety: food for food’s sake. There are innovative ideas, as well as classics with a twist (roasted baby cauliflower with cheese sauce and crispy shallots is an elegant take on the comfort-food staple). Refreshingly unfaddy and yummy food.

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