NON-FICTION REVIEWS 2012 A-F (BY TITLE)

DERANGED MARRIAGE
Author: Sushi Das
Bantam Australia RRP $34.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

“From the age of fourteen, I was aware my parents expected me to have an arranged marriage, a big Bollywood wedding. There was just one hitch: nobody asked me.” – Sushi Das

How many of you can relate to that statement? I remember speaking with a young Lebanese girl in the 1990s about her impending arranged marriage; in this one-off conversation she let slip her anxiety about what lay ahead and the fact that she wanted to marry the man she was seeing secretly. Reading Sushi Das’ memoir about growing up in the 1970s in an Indian household, knowing that an arranged marriage was expected, triggered memories of the young girl I met who was facing a similar situation two decades later. I never did find out what happened in the end.

Das  grew up in 1970s London – a culturally messed-up time. Feminists were telling women they could be whatever they wanted, skinheads were yelling at foreigners to go home and punk music was urging revolt. Amid the social upheaval, Das was trapped by Indian tradition – and a looming arranged marriage she would do almost anything to avoid. But how do you turn your back on centuries of tradition without trashing your family’s honour? How do you escape your parents’ stranglehold without casting off their embrace? And how do you explain to your strict dad why there’s a boy smoking in his living room and another one lurking in the garden?

“I wanted to grab the girl and shake her by the shoulders. I wanted to shout at her, ‘No, don’t do it. Don’t place yourself permanently in the custody of men. You belong to your father right now. But soon you belong to your husband and then, when you are old, you will belong to your sons. You will never belong to yourself.” – Sushi Das

Arranged marriage is not the only thing Das rebels against. She goes to pubs when she’s supposed to be at the theatre, attends university where she smokes pot, drinks and studies journalism, embraces feminism, and marries (then divorces) a non-Indian man. In turn, her parents struggle against what Das describes as a shifting landscape, with change sweeping through the family in an inevitable wave.

Deranged Marriage is a self-deprecating look at how Das tried to avoid the expected arranged marriage, ultimately by moving to Australia. Her insight to Eastern traditions is by turns funny and informative. Reading about annual husband-worship ceremonies, the differing expectations for Indian girls and boys, and the fact that marriage was often motivated by a wish for economic prosperity rather than love was eye-opening and had me laughing aloud on more than one occasion. Her depiction of her tradition-bound mother was particularly funny, but in an affectionate way – in fact, her affection for her family, despite her desire to break free, is never in doubt. It’s one of the things I liked most about this memoir.

Laugh out loud with a thoughtful, serious edge, Deranged Marriage promotes tolerance of different cultural and personal values as well as awareness of everything that shapes a person. Recommended reading for those who enjoy a good memoir.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House.


DELICIOUS.  HOME COOKING

Author: Valli Little
ABC Books RRP $49.99
Review:  Monique Mulligan

“You won’t find fancy restaurant-style dishes in here – it’s all about recipes that reflect the sort of food I love to cook at home, whether it’s a midweek meal for the family or something more impressive for the weekend when entertaining friends.” – Valli Little

The photos alone are enough to get my tastebuds working … or it could be that I’ve barely eaten today because I left my lunch at home. Either way, delicious. Home Cooking is a gorgeous looking cook book that will tempt home cooks away from ordinariness into deliciousness.

Author Valli Little is one of Australia’s leading food writers and the food editor of delicious. magazine. In this collection of 120 recipes she shares her decades of experience in the culinary industry, with tips and tricks that will help turn family classics into cover-worthy meals with little fuss.

Divided into sections representing the best of seasonal produce, the recipes range from easy to impressive – the Fire and Ice Cake is one example with buckets of ‘wow’ factor. While that one might seem a little fussy, there are plenty that are
achievable, such as Peppered Tuna with Green Tea Noodles, Meatballs with Heavenly Mash and Croissant and Marmalade Pudding.

At the end of each section is a selection of mini-menus for different occasions (A Touch of Spice, Shortcut Dinner Party and Lazy Day Brunch are a few examples) for those who need a bit of inspiration for entertaining. The end of the book
has valuable extras – such as how to make coconut or chocolate pastry, pesto or egg custard.

The styling and photography is typical delicious. fare – the team has worked hard to deliver a strong rustic, home-cooked flavour about the whole book. If only our food looked this good on the table. If only we had people to buy the ingredients (some of which are expensive or specialty), prep them and plate them … and then clean up. But most of us don’t. For that reason, I think a lot of the recipes may be seen as too fussy by people who just want to cook a wholesome meal quickly. Those who know me know I love cooking, but I did flick past many of the recipes when it came to choosing ones I’d cook for the Fab Four. When it’s just Blue Eyes and I, then the field expands.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of ABC Books.


AMALFI COAST RECIPES

Author: Amanda Tabberer
Lantern RRP $49.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

I want to see the Amalfi Coast. It’s one of many destinations on my Italy must-see list. All I know about it is what I see in pictures, mainly highlighting the craggy coastline and seaside towns bursting from cliff faces such as Positano (featured inThe Talented Mr Ripley, it’s the place I plan to ride a scooter one day … if Blue Eyes will let me). What I didn’t know (never having been to the Amalfi Coast) is that it has a strong and proud culinary heritage – as author Amanda Tabberer writes, “they’re all passionate about maintaining the traditions passed down to them”.

Amanda lived in Italy for about 20 years with her partner, a chef: “Most of my partners friends were great cooks, so an evening with friends at home was often a MasterChef-style cook-off”. There was always an expectation for great food, and instant gratification was unheard of – time dedicated to meal preparation was a given. In Amalfi Coast Recipes, her second book, she shares authentic recipes from the Amalfi Coast – recipes she obtained from regional cooks and chefs, many of whom became her friends.

From Artichoke and Ricotta Balls, Fried Mozzarella on Toast and Sardine Rissoles, to Classic Potato Pillows, Gnocchi with Aged Pecorino and Eggplant and Lemon Eclairs, the recipes are as much varied in their ingredients as they are in difficulty. Fresh produce from the sea features strongly on the menu, complemented by seasonal local ingredients such as cherry tomatoes, artichokes, garlic, seasonal herbs and the famous Amalfi lemon. This, in addition to the stunning photography (both food and scenic) gives a mouthwatering insight into the region – and many of the recipe names are as intriguing as the location: Flying squid and potato stew, Fish in crazy water, Spaghetti of the convent … tempted?

Each recipe is preceded by a personal note from the author – a cooking tip, a piece of regional trivia, a cherished memory.
Scattered throughout the book are mini biographies of the chefs who share their recipes – it’s a lovely touch that shows Amanda’s appreciation and respect for their contribution (to her book and her belly).

As mentioned earlier, the photography is a stand-out. However, while the modern layout complements the eclectic range of recipes, I do find it somewhat busy – the recipes get a bit lost in the words. It may put off some less-experienced cooks.
Seafood is not a big drawcard in our house (I’m the only seafood lover in a house of six), so many of these recipes will go untested. Luckily there are many more to choose from! That said, just the photography and the stories are enough to satisfy my appetite for all things Italian. The joy experienced in sharing food that is experienced in Italian communities is evident in Amalfi Coast Recipes and this book only makes me more determined to experience it for real one day.

Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin Books.


 EASY

Bill Granger
Harper Collins RRP $49.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

What’s better than good food and good company? EASY good food (with good company). That’s Bill Granger’s approach and I think it fits the bill perfectly (sadly, pun was intended). In the intro to this eye-catching cookbook, he says: “I always imagined life was going to slow down and get easier – once the children were out of nappies … but it seems to speed up every day, doesn’t it?” His observation is certainly true of my life – life is definitely faster-paced with four children in the house (three of them teenagers, two with jobs).

So, when Bill’s new cookbook Easy came up for review, I didn’t waste time expressing interest. I love cooking, but like Bill, I sometimes need simple ideas to put delicious, healthy meals on the dinner table. And I want to feel relaxed when I eat, so I can actually taste the food (not like the kids who have a disturbing tendency to shovel anything edible down in less than 30 seconds). Easy offers 100 solutions, using pantry, fridge and fresh foods for stress-free cooking that fits readily around a busy day – and it lives up to its name. From making a meal around one fabulous piece of cheese, to working wonders with a tin of beans; from livening up a pork chop, to creating dessert from apples in the fruit bowl, the dishes are achievable and tempting.

I like to test out recipes when I review cookbooks and Easy made life so simple. The hardest part was choosing which recipes I would taste test. The Spanish Fish Stew was first up and it was simply delicious – complex, fragrant and satisfying – and as easy to cook as Bill said it would be. Next was the Spanish tortilla. Ditto the adjectives. Finally we tried the Beef, Mushroom and Snowpea Stir-Fry. An encore was requested. I have a wait list of all the recipes I want to try now. The chocolate recipes are front runners.

Easy on the eyes, even easier to cook from. Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers.


 A STORY OF SEVEN SUMMERS

Author: Hilary Burden
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Would you move from sophisticated London to rural Tasmania? Does the idea of a sea change or tree change hold appeal for you? What holds you back? Blue Eyes and I would love to leave the Perth suburbs and find our niche as tree changers, but we’re held back by the complications of a blended family. As with my dream to live in Italy (which I sense will forever remain a dream), for now a tree change is but a distant dream.

Freelance magazine journalist Hilary Burden had no ties binding her to London, where she had carved out a successful and glamorous career, thinking nothing of flying to New York for a weekend, interviewing movie stars in luxury hotels or jetting off to Italy on assignment to hunt truffles with Curtis Stone. But sensing that something was missing, she took the road less travelled and bought a run-down house in Tasmania. Dubbed the Nun’s House because of its history, the property included a sprawling, neglected garden … and unlimited potential.

‘Looking back over seven summers, I know that who I am is where I am. It might not be the secret to life, but it is the secret to this life … I’ll tell you how that came to be and that will be the story of the Nuns’ House.’

With time and space now plentiful, 40-something Hilary decided to begin life again – to look beyond the skin-deep and experience the real. Sitting on the Thames one day, she asked, “If I only had thirty summers left – less if I was unlucky – then what was keeping me?” Over seven summers she restored her home, created a beautiful, productive garden, bought two alpacas and two chickens, and became part of the thriving food community in Tasmania. Relationships have been built, strengthened, renewed and created; the lonliness she experienced in the midst of the city, is long gone, all because she had the courage to step into the unknown.

Blue Eyes and I may not be able to move to Umbria (my choice), Jarrahdale (his choice) or Tasmania (a good compromise) any time soon, but in our way we are finding out that who we are is where we are. Some of Hilary’s reflections on her garden resonated with both of us strongly: “I came to realise that the progress in the garden was a mirror of the progress in myself” and “The season is waking up and so am I…” Likewise, her comment that her house is slowly revealing its character reflects how Blue Eyes and I feel about our suburban home. Gone is the pool, the paving and the extra shed … enter the vegetable garden, the chicken run and fruit trees that will one day bless us with abundance.

The combination of an engaging writing style, intimate reflection, and an obvious zest for her life, has made this a warm, inviting and inspiring read. Selected recipes scattered through the book to complement observations and memories of people and experiences, added to the depth of the book – I’m looking forward to making Karen’s Blueberry Muffins and Barn’s Chicken Curry in particular. Overall, a great read and one I’ll return to.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


 ANNABEL LANGBEIN THE FREE RANGE COOK: SIMPLE PLEASURES

Author: Annabel Langbein
ABC Books RRP $49.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

With a glass of wine in hand, I put my feet up and flicked through a cookbook I suspected was going to tempt my tastebuds in a major way. I was right; by the next afternoon I had already prepared two recipes from Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures, much to the delight of my family.
 
“Take time out of your busy schedules to savour life′s simple pleasures — the sweetness of a fresh-picked berry, the crunch of a carrot straight from the earth, and the joy to be found in cooking with love for family and friends…”

I’m not a big TV watcher, so I hadn’t heard of Annabel Langbein’s TV Series before. However, when reading the blurb for this book, I was drawn to her philosophy that quality natural ingredients need little in the way of fussy preparation, and that seasonal ingredients fresh from the kitchen garden are the best. It mirrors what I think. Now, if only my kitchen garden looked like hers…

The book is filled with gorgeous photos of Annabel′s home-cooked food interspersed with inspiring images of her verdant vegetable garden and orchard, and the amazing natural landscapes of New Zealand′s scenic South Island. My husband and I drooled (not literally) at both the recipes (of which there are more than 150) and the scenery. Sprinkled through the book are Annabel′s musings on living well in today′s fast-paced world – good food for thought, pardon the pun.

Aside from the attractive styling and simple but tasty recipes, the book also has suggested menus such as “Cooking for a Crowd”, “Pulling Out the Stops”, “Tex-Mex Autumn Menu” and “A Seaside Cook-Up”. It’s a helpful addition for those who struggle to work out a complementary menu for special occasions. The book is also interactive with Annabel’swebsite, which includes tips and videos.

“It’s the cook who sets the tone, so as long as you’re relaxed and having a good time, everyone else will be too.”

So, what did I cook? Turkish bread and Nutty Cumin Dukkah. Delish! The bread was terrific and it’s replaced the other recipe I was using. My husband has requested Arancini, Moroccan Eggs, Cowboy Hash (looks like real dude food) and Mexican Pulled Pork. I’m eyeing off the Cinnamon Apple Fritters and Apple Sorbet.

Available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Harper Collins.


ANTONIA AND HER DAUGHTERS

Marlena de Blasi
Allen & Unwin RRP $32.99
Memoir
Review: Monique Mulligan

Antonia and Her DaughtersThe beautiful cover first attracted me to this book – the golden-green hues reminiscent of a good olive oil and Tuscan sun had me hooked well before I realised this book was by Marlena de Blasi. Then, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I’ve read a couple of de Blasi’s works – Amandine and That Summer in Sicily – and enjoyed them thoroughly; I still have a few on my to-read list.

Interestingly, Antonia and her Daughters is not the book de Blasi sets out to write when she escapes to the mountains of Tuscany for some much-needed writing time. But when she meets the extraordinary Antonia, imperious matriarch of four generations of strong-willed Tuscan women, it soon becomes clear that this is a story she is meant to share.

Living in a simple stone cottage in the remote, mountainous region of western Tuscany, distant from the distractions of her everyday life with Fernando in Orvieto, de Blasi hopes for simplicity, peace and quiet. Antonia soon challenges these expectations: the two spars and clash before they reach an understanding. Over feasts and family dinners, walking in the dark before sunrise to harvest wild lettuces, preparing meals and exchanging recipes, the two women joust, joke, exchange confidences and grow closer and closer until finally Antonia reveals the terrible secrets of her past.

As a writer, I was particularly drawn to American-expatriate de Blasi’s comments to her Italian husband about her need for solitude, or time out, to write: “Someone once said, A writer is an expatriate no matter where she lives. Maybe it was me. And maybe it’s not so easy for you to live with an expatriate twice over. With the writer, who by very dint of being one, must often stay emotionally apart. With the foreigner, who by very dint of her otherness, must always be just a little bit separate.”  I loved the way she put this. Ironically, as she justifies her need to write for a time to her husband, she has no idea that she will be called upon to defend her “otherness” and her innate – “I can’t not write” – need to write.

I agree with her – she can’t not write; to do so would be to waste a precious gift. De Blasi’s writing is evocative, warm and inviting.  Her re-telling of Antonia’s story is compelling and revealing; like the scent of a well-used kitchen, the story lingers long after it has been heard. De Blasi is an extraordinary writer; at times her words are like honey, flowing onto the page like liquid poetry. I enjoy her insight into the Italian culture, where many live to eat, rather than eat to live, where storytelling around the table is part of life. I love food and I love books about food; I love the way food weaves its way into de Blasi’s narrative, not as an accessory or prop, but because it just belongs. A delicious Tuscan-inspired potato, leek and white bean soup was enjoyed in this house after I finished this book.

There are a number of Tuscan recipes at the end of the book – I plan to try some of these out, taking on board de Blasi’s warning that “Tuscan authenticity demands perfect elements and this is one of the reasons why it remains a challenge to reproduce beyond its own territories”. I will do my best!

This beautiful book is available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin.  This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


FRENCH TIES: LOVE, LIFE & RECIPES

Author: Jane Webster
Viking RRP $59.95
Review:  Monique Mulligan

“I never imagined that my life would have changed so much in a few short years” – Jane Webster.

Ever dreamt of uprooting everything and living in another country? I have – my country of choice would be Italy. Practicalities such as a blended family mean this will not be my reality in the foreseeable future (and then there’s the fact that my Blue Eyes doesn’t quite share the vision), but for Jane Webster and her family the dream did become a reality.

Several years after taking the plunge, buying a run-down chateau in Bosgouet, Normandy and moving the family to the French countryside, Webster has settled into a lifestyle that works for her. The family divides their time between Australia and France, a feat that involves planning and manipulating the months of the year “keeping in mind birthdays, anniversaries, the starts of term, the ends of term, school productions, choir performances, friendships, special occasions not to be missed (in both countries!) and the needs of Pete’s and my parents”.

French Ties invites us into her life as she juggles family life, her business called French Table, indulging her passion for “antiquing” at flea markets and antique fairs, and the simple pleasure of cooking for family and friends. A combination of well-chosen words, a visually appealing layout and gorgeous photographs make this an enticing book. In the chapter introducing the beautifully-restored chateau, Webster writes: “So, this is Bosgouet, her rooms and her soul. Every part of her oozes such a wonderfully comforting feeling that visitors feel at home straight away”. Jane Webster, will you be my friend? Can I come and visit?

I really enjoyed leafing through this book, stopping to read here and there, reflecting on photos (I admit, the odd ‘not fair’ thought childishly crept in), internally noting decorating ideas I wanted to copy (share sounds so much nicer), and mulling over the recipes. I even made myself a mint tisane to sip as I read.  It’s a book I will go back to again and again – for the recipes, the photos and the chance to immerse myself in French culture, feeding my dreams and my soul.

Available from good bookstores or Penguin. This copy was courtesy of Penguin Books Australia.


4 WEEK ENERGY DIET

Author: Julie Maree Wood
ABC Books $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

These days it’s probably more of a novelty to find someone who isn’t tired; nearly everyone I know is suffering the effects of tiredness to some degree. Author Julie Maree Wood says stress, a poor diet, juggling the demands of a busy lifestyle and never-ending to-do lists all sap our energy and can leave us looking ragged and feeling sluggish. I couldn’t have said it better myself – that’s exactly how my lifestyle leaves me feeling more often than not.

When I heard of her book, 4 Week Energy Diet, I put it at the top of my must-read list. The jam-packed book offers a comprehensive diet and lifestyle program including a practical itinerary for every day of the four weeks, more than 120 recipes, a diagnostic energy quiz to help people pinpoint what’s wrong, practical advice on barriers to energy building and a follow-up weekend to help people maintain their new healthy lifestyle. And there’s more: it’s also supported online with the Energy Buzz program and through the book’s Facebook page.

The first section contrasts an energetic vs an exhausted person, delving into ways energy is depleted, but ending on a high note – how can energy be restored. It made sense and by the end of that section I was thinking, “I want what she’s having” though not in a Meg Ryan When Harry Met Sally sense. I wanted to feel light, energetic and alive most of the time, rather than the opposite. I was set to take this energy diet on.

The second chapter is more of a preparatory chapter. Fortunately, Wood sagely suggests that people take time to prepare before embarking on a radically new diet. What a mind-reader! How did she know I was mentally cleaning out the pantry of all energy-sapping foods (except for chocolate)? Her advice makes perfect sense, because most people who dive into something new without preparing don’t stay in it for the long run. Blue Eyes and I discussed this – we’re still in the discussion stage, for the most part (preparing to prepare?) – and have since made some positive changes such as drinking herbal tonics, hot water and lemon first thing in the morning and daily stretching.

Then comes the hard part – the one where certain foods are taken off the menu for a while (we’re still discussing that – I take one thing out and Blue Eyes puts it back). Included in this four-phase approach are plenty of recipes, some of which we have already tried. And it’s not all salad and tofu. From Mediterranean Stuffed Capsicums and Five-Spice Minute Steak to soups, Baked Bananas and herbal tisanes, there is a healthy variety. We’ve particularly been enjoying the Soothing Lemon and Mint Tea in the evenings.

Overall, 4 Week Energy Diet is a well-presented and timely book that has hit the spot in our house. It’s rarely on the shelf, because I’m always looking through it for inspiration. Recommended for anyone who is feeling sapped and sluggish.

Available from good bookstores or Booktopia.


BOAT PEOPLE

Editor: Carina Hoang
Carina Hoang Communications RRP $45
Review: Monique Mulligan

I GREW up in Sydney and my grandparents lived in Cabramatta. Those who know Sydney know the suburb as “Vietnamatta”, a disparaging nickname the area was given due to a big influx of Vietnamese from the late ‘70s; from 1975 to 1996, more than a million people left war-torn Vietnam by boat in search of safety in other countries. Many never made it to land.

I don’t remember much about the time, except for the gradual emergence of hot bread shops and the fading away of European-style delicatessens favoured by my German-born ancestors. But what I understand now is that initial sympathy for the refugees’ plight soon turned to racism, fears of an “Asian invasion” and exclusion. I do remember comments to that effect from my childhood, without really understanding them. Thankfully that seems to have eased and there is more acceptance and superficial understanding for the Vietnamese community, if not the plight of more recent boat people.

It’s difficult to really get what life was like for these displaced people without hearing or reading their stories; and the danger is that their stories, without preservation, will be lost. Boat People, edited by former boat person Carina Hoang, ensures that her peoples’ stories will not be forgotten. Hoang has collated the experiences of boat people who survived the perilous sea journey and made new lives for themselves, resulting in an important and immensely insightful book.

The accounts tell of pain, pirates, nightmares, rape, storms, and births in the high seas, cannibalism, beatings, desperation and starvation. Reading some of the accounts had me near tears, both with sadness and anger. The indignity, the torture, the hell these people endured is beyond belief – the fact that these people have been brave enough to revisit their past and share their stories is more than admirable. As a person who has never experienced war or displacement, I am grateful to them for their testimonies.

“We were on our own again, bobbing along with no maps and no navigational skills. I was close to death: I had not eaten in days, and had very little water. Cannibalism was beginning to cross our minds. Not that any of us could boast any meat on our bones.” -Loc Mai

The layout, with its photos, facsimile documents, courageous stories and diary excerpts adds to the power of what is a moving and compelling book. I recommend this book highly; it stands alone from the current debate on boat people and should not be dismissed lightly.

To order a copy, email Carina Hoang or go to www.carinahoang.com This copy was courtesy of Carina Hoang.

This review also appeared in the Weekend/Kwinana Courier.