March book reviews

Car racing narratives, historical accounts, and foodie inspiration make rainy days less boring

EDITOR'S CHOICE

The Gourmands’ Way, Justin Spring, FSG Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 ISBN: 978-0-374-10315-6

Most Britons have long had some knowledge of gastronomy and French culinary excellence – even if it means going ‘Oh la la’ as a friend orders a croissant.

But not so for many Americans and it is the work of six writers, none of them chefs, which largely developed the taste for French cuisine in the years since the Second World War. They wrote the cookbooks and the newspaper articles that opened the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Americans and made their mouths water.

Above all else, it is a book about sensual pleasure. But it is also a new look at the six writers and reveals some facts previously lost in the mists of time.

Take MFK Fisher, author of The Cooking of Provincial France, whose book for Time-Life was described by its editors as ‘not fit to go to press’ and whose friends put together a list of 27 pages of errors of fact. Another of the six, Richard Olney, describes her as being ‘empty-headed’ with ‘no palate’.

However, the book – once you get past the simply awful cover and hellish title – is a refreshing look back to a different time. Justin Spring is deeply interested in his subjects, seemingly just as shocked to see their flaws as the reader – but, surely, that is why he took the task on.

 

Monte Carlo, Peter Terrin, MacLehose, £12.99 ISBN: 978-0-85705-437-1

With that title this can only be about motor racing, the need for speed and the desire to win – all that and more, but also about a spark. A spark of ignition and a spark of desire.

Team Sutton mechanic Jack Weston is checking the car in the 1968 GP: it is a task he has trained himself for since he was first a teenager. Self-taught mechanic, he had a rusty old Massey Ferguson tractor as mistress.

His new mistress is a three-litre V8 Ford Cosworth engine racer; no longer resplendent in racing green with yellow stripe, but now bearing cigarette branding.

Under the bright Monaco sun the car is too hot to touch and the crowd is waiting for the ‘other main event’ as superstar actress DeeDee walks the grid as the guest of the Prince.

Suddenly that heat gets to the fuel and it explodes. Jack is enveloped in a shroud of igniting vapour just as DeeDee walks past. He is thrown towards her and grabs her, shields her. He saved her but her bodyguard is hailed the hero.

Jack knows that DeeDee is aware he saved her. Their eyes met. But no one says thank you. Not even DeeDee. A fire is ignited, a burning obsession.

This is outstanding writing that brings a smile to the face in David Doherty’s translation from the Dutch.

 

French License, Joe Start, Start Going Places, $14.99 ISBN: 978-0-9993542-0-9

You may not know that California is not much smaller than France but has many similarities with topography, climate, wine, food, transport innovation, similar roads – even driving on the same side of the road.

But one thing they do not have in common, at least from the French side, is tolerance of foreigners’ driving licences (or in US-speak, driving licenses).

Joe Start discovers he has, by law, just 12 months to get a French driver’s licence. He also discovers that it cannot be done. And, in passing, discovers that dozens of other countries and US states had managed to get reciprocal licence arrangements despite having appalling road safety records. But not his native California.

It is a nightmare, but a hilarious nightmare. His sense of humour is what keeps him going.

Thus starts a quest that takes whatever story you have of an interaction with the prefecture and doubles it, sometimes even tripling it. The man has a nightmare.

And then meets the nightmare test examiner. This will be where you discover that the French term for parallel parking is créneau and  diagonal parking is épi. Simples. Or not. He fails.

 

False Rumours, Danae Penn, £8.99 ISBN: 979-10-97586-01-0

There is a touch of the 21st century to this 15th century historical fiction set in Condom in Gers. The lifestyle is a curious mix of harsh Middle Ages, ‘up with the peasants’ politics and Sunday walks.

Belina Lansac sells medallions to the pilgrims heading to Compostela and husband Guillaume is a not-so-secret agent cum detective with links to both the Bordeaux wine industry and the English court of Richard III. He is called on an urgent mission to Bordeaux and asks Belina to investigate the death of a pilgrim. It would be particularly difficult to put the book down at this point; this promises to be fun.

 

No Place to Lay One’s Head, Françoise Frenkel, Pushkin, £16.99 ISBN: 978-1-78227-399-8

The 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is in two years and it will also mark 75 years since Françoise Frenkel published this book after fleeing to Switzerland from France.

It tells of her life as a young Polish woman, fascinated with France, who opened the first French-language bookshop in Berlin and then, after the Nazi Kristallnacht, escaped to France where she had to flee again, from Paris to Nice.

A first-hand account of the brutality of the Nazi regime in Germany – she avoids being locked up only after telling her interrogator of using the Nazi Autobahn – she recounts the rising alarm in Paris as the Germans approach. And the growing terror as she fled south.

In Nice she makes the first of many relationships that, in reality, save her life.

Written in the days after she arrived on the shores of Lake Lucerne, it has a shocking urgency – but at the same time a horrifying air of chance. A giant ‘What if?’ where she comes alarmingly close to being picked up and deported.

What if she had not spotted her friend in Nice frantically waving at her not to go home? What if that busybody signing her papers turned her in?

Apart from her book, little is known of Françoise. She died in Nice in 1975.

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