The Art of Friday Night Dinner by Eleanor Staefel
When I cracked the book open to a recipe for Lillet Rosé & Tonic with Pink Peppercorns, I immediately warmed to this collection of “recipes for the best night of the week”. Staefel likes old-fashioned meals, many of which she learned to cook with her parents, and her descriptions remind me of many of my own family favourites. Sausage Pasta. Fried almost anything with a glass of fizz. Lots of gubbins – such a childhood obsession – those rich, dark, concentrated scrapings from the sides of a pan of roast potatoes. Sardines On Toast. Chocolate Mousse – which Staefel makes by adding sugar to the whisked yolks rather than whites (I must try it). Packed with artfully casual photos, the vibe is very much ‘rustle it up at the last minute, don’t stress if you get it wrong and definitely don’t feel bad about buying Tesco’s garlic baguette’. And who knew that frozen After Eights were such a thing of deliciousness?
The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier
I’ve never read a novel quite like this before. It’s the combination of the narrative – the action takes place over a day, eked out across 500 pages – and the remarkable writing style. Sentences are extremely long, sometimes stretching to an entire page. Oh, and it’s French, of course, though expertly translated by Daniel Levin Becker. Indeed, it has already been dubbed ‘Proust noir’. Set in a “banal and ordinary, flat and rainy” rural hamlet in Northern France, the story revolves around a farmer, his wife and daughter, and their neighbour, a reclusive artist who has moved from Paris. It is the farmer’s wife’s 40th birthday and the artist is baking cakes when a car rolls down the lane and a charming stranger gets out, claiming to have an appointment with an estate agent. What happens next is sudden, propulsive and violent, as if the first few hundred pages were slow-burning their way to this. It takes time to get into the rhythm of Mauvignier’s writing, but once you’re in, you’re in.
The Pleasure of Seeing by Joel Meyerowitz and Lorenzo Braca
I have a photograph by Joel Meyerowitz from his ’70s ‘Cape Light’ project in my bedroom. The image is of a series of open doors, leading down a light-filled corridor towards the outside. It is serene and luminous, and I can look at it for hours, always finding different points of interest. It features in a chapter in this new book that tells the story of Meyerowitz’s 60-year-long career through in-depth conversations with Braca, recorded between 2019 and 2021. What did Meyerowitz experience, travelling across America in the footsteps of Robert Frank? Why did he choose to shoot that particular scene in small-town Spain when Franco was still in power? And how did he become the only photographer to document the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers? He has some amazing tales to tell, but the pictures themselves tell their stories equally powerfully. He will be giving a talk at the V&A on Friday 26 May.
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
From the author of the 2013 Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries comes this enjoyable, cleverly paced literary thriller. Set in New Zealand, the plot follows Mira Bunting, founder of Birnam Wood, a left-wing activist collective of gardening guerrillas, aiming for “nothing less than radical, widespread and lasting social change”. They do this by illegally planting food crops on land that isn’t theirs. When trespassing on a farm which seems promising as a new site, Mira meets a stranger with designs on the land for rather different reasons. He is drone-manufacturing billionaire Robert Lemoine, a charmer who suggests he and Mira might work the land together. Catton has grasped the comic potential for how the ideologies of an eco-activist and an amoral capitalist tycoon might collide, clash and play out together. But she’s also able to build her characters superbly, giving them complex inner lives and, it turns out, morals and motives that come in fifty shades of grey rather than simply black and white.