This Week's Hot Reads
“Tell me where you eat, what you eat, and at what time you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” This is the inspiration behind Balzac’s Omelette, Anka Muhlstein’s irresistible “tour of French food and culture” as depicted in the works of Honoré de Balzac. Balzac’s voracious appetite applied to matters both intellectual and gustatorial; just as he devoured books on every subject, he gorged on any dish introduced to French cuisine after the Revolution, when the art of gastronomie became inherent in French culture. A realist whose novels and short stories were famous for their astute observations of society, Balzac used food as a motif that distinguished social classes while underscoring man’s cravings and moral ambiguities. Mulhstein explores how Balzac’s eating habits influenced his work; he often fasted during prolific periods to “avoid wearying the brain with excess digestion,” as he put it. Once he’d completed his oeuvre, Balzac treated himself to extraordinary binges: “a hundred oysters” washed down “with four bottles of white wine” followed by “twelve salt meadow lamb cutlets with no sauce, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridge, a Normandy sole.” But he didn’t see himself as a glutton who “eats himself aimlessly, stupidly, soullessly.” He was simply an artist whose insatiable ambition manifested in “a frighteningly capacious stomach.”
Jon Reiner couldn’t fathom a life without food, until one measly dried apricot caused him to collapse on his kitchen floor, buckled over in pain from a ruptured intestine. Despite a history of Crohn’s disease, Reiner—a self-described “glutton in a greyhound’s body”—didn’t deprive himself until, at 46, he was hooked up to an intravenous drip with an infected abdomen and no choice but to follow his doctor’s orders: don’t eat. Most of what follows chronicles Reiner’s graphic physical suffering and the toll it took on his wife and kids. “At mealtime, for instance, I unpack bladders of laboratory-made nutrients that substitute for food and fill syringes,” he writes, while his wife cooks hamburgers and fries and his son asks anxiously, “When will you eat?” Months pass; Reiner loses his taste buds; the hunger lingers, inspiring an adroitly rendered meditation on desire (“I crave food more than sex,” “I must lick this french fry”), deprivation, and our complicated relationship with food. Driven by the will to survive and support from his family, Reiner emerges from his life-and-death crisis with a new outlook on food and renewed appreciation for things that matter most.
In her first fiction collection since her PEN/Faulkner-winning The Caprices, Sabina Murray serves up 10 inventive tales that reimagine the exploits of history’s boldest explorers. She takes us back to the pivotal moments that earned a place in history for such trailblazers as Magellan and Balboa. As we follow them to the ends of the earth, Murray charts the various controversies that surrounded their empirical pursuits, reminding us that one man’s gain was always another’s loss. Each compelling story delves into the deeply human qualities of these iconic explorers, drawing attention to ruthless ambition in some cases, compassion in others. In “Transition,” Magellan forms a strong friendship with a wealthy scholar who unsuccessfully tries to save him from his own greed as he embarks on his final voyage. The scholar’s good intentions are lost under the captain’s influence, and we find the friends laughing as they are about to be killed by a “heathen,” seeing “no reason to be morbid in this morbid situation. Soon it will all be over and there will still be love.” At once dark and humorous, Murray’s atmospheric tales enchant the reader with their potent mix of history and legend.
Print media may be facing massive changes, but Deadline Artists is proof that the American newspaper column is far from dead. Edited by Newsweek and Daily Beast columnist John Avlon, Jesse Errol, and Errol Louis, Deadline Artists is a retrospective of American journalism, from Benjamin Franklin’s1757 advice sermon of words to literally live by (“Wish not so much to live long as to live well”) to Maureen Dowd’s take on Clinton and Lewinsky in “Pulp Nonfiction” (“These are not grounds for impeachment. These are grounds for divorce.”) Categorized and catalogued by topic, the columns cover war, politics, crime, humor, sports, and more— including Dave Barry’s tips for dealing with the IRS and Mike Royko’s “How to Cure a Hangover.” This comprehensive anthology celebrates the art of the newspaper column and the power of a story delivered on daily deadline to resonate for years to come.
In Esther Freud’s Lucky Break, the former actress turned novelist draws on her own theater experience to set the stage for a novel starring a group of ambitious young thespians all vying for the spotlight. We meet Nell, a plump, insecure student at Drama Arts who laments losing lead roles to the beauties dominating her profession. She knows she can’t compete with the impossibly glamorous Charlie, who is invariably cast as the seductive siren or the charming heroine. “I’ll do anything,” a desperate Nell says to herself as she watches the other actors. “I’ll dress up in sacking, play an old woman, sweep the stage, if it means that one day I can be like them.” Regardless if we have nothing in common with these actors, Freud immerses us so fully in their exclusive world that we, too, feel emotionally undone after a bombed audition. Lucky Break pierces the superficial surface of acting to reveal the enthralling, authentic drama at the heart of the business.