Book Shelf: Three rather fabulous reads

With the cricket for background noise and rain pelting down outside, these are three personality-packed books that proved to be a panacea for my glossy-weary eyes during a short holiday stay with my in-laws. You might enjoy them, too.

1. Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert ($32.99; Bloomsbury, out January 4)

Elizabeth Gilbert was understandably anxious about writing the follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love – the memoir that landed her on Oprah’s couch, spent 88 weeks atop The New York Times’ best-seller list, and garnered her a Columbia Pictures deal and a place in the hearts and minds of women the world over.

“In the end, I found a certain comfort in recognizing that I could not – cannot – write a book that would satisfy millions of readers,” she writes in ‘A Note To The Reader’, the preamble to Committed. “Ultimately I discovered that the only way I could write again at all was to vastly limit – at least in my own imagination – the number of people I was writing for.”

So, after ditching a 500-word first draft, she started again, writing for an audience 27 women whom make up her “small but critically important circle of female friends, relatives and neighbours.” The result, “another memoir (with extra socio-historical bonus sections!)”, is something you will want to share with your own small circle of special ladies.

Part memoir, part thesis, Committed is bound to provoke book club discussions about why we do this marriage thing. In the context of her own impending nuptials, after one messy divorce (her ex gets a few punch-in-the-face lines), Gilbert explores themes of love, infatuation, expectation, insecurity, independence, intimacy, ideology, fear, failure, compatibility, infidelity, legalities and tradition.

Ever the intrepid journalist, Gilbert takes us to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Bali, where she talks to women about their thoughts on marriage (for the most part a far departure from what western women deem acceptable), all the while negotiating the red-tape-addled path for her and her beloved Brazilian boyfriend Felipe to be together.

This is an important book bearing all the hallmarks of what endeared women to Eat, Pray, Love – honesty, authenticity, heart and hope. And though there is nary a reflection on cliched fairytale endings (spoiler alert!), you’ll be happy to know Gilbert does conclude her quest for matrimonial insight on a positive note.

2. Handling Edna: The Unauthorised Biography by Barry Humphries ($49.99; Hachette Australia, out now)

From the institution of marriage to the institution of Dame Edna Everage, you’d be hard pressed to name a more successful Australian entertainment export, though many would, and have, loved to loathe her.

In this highly entertaining biography, imbued with a lamington slice of Australian cultural history, Barry Humphries is candid about the disheartening disapproval he has endured (privately and publicly) since bringing his violet-wigged, polyester-frocked housewife alter-ego to life.

“Not everyone likes you,” resonate the words of Humphries’ mother, who was at once supportive and embarrassed by her son’s chosen profession. “To have left America, smarting from critical rejection…greeted by my own mother as if I had committed some act of treason, was a dispiriting homecoming,” he laments.

Humphries writes this biography from the point of view of the actor/writer/comedian charged with bringing Dame Edna to life through some warped twist of fate, all the while battling his personal demons (alcoholism), rejection by a culturally cringing Australian press and the reality that Edna had usurped his own fame and success ("it's Edna they want").

On Dame Edna’s success at home, in the UK and eventually America (an un-PC debut was rectified thanks to the support of Joan Rivers, “one of the few women in the world Edna envied”), he reflects: “Her trick, her donne, was that she embodied the taste and manners of her age, and expressed them loudly, clearly and with the precise attention to detail of a primitive artist… I suppose she was a woman people wanted to believe in.”

This is a colourful reading experience to cherish, as much for Humphries’ endearing tale of personal failure and creative triumph as for the possum-tail brushes with celebrity (the book is flush with pictorial evidence) and Australianisms (The Australian Women’s Weekly was the “housewives’ bible” before Woman’s Day came along “like the New Testament”).

3. Cravat-A-Licious: The Selected Works of the MasterChef Critic by Matt Preston ($34.95; Ebury Press)

Is it a coincidence or merely convenience that MasterChef judge and award-winning food journalist Matt Preston has a bit of the Barry Humphries/Dame Edna’s about him? Exuberance, theatricality, a rotund appearance and penchant for purple and pink… what is it about these men – whose camp personas challenge the rugged Aussie male stereotype with their cravats and cats’-eye diamante glasses – that appeals… particularly to women?

I venture to suggest it’s that they are unashamedly in touch with their feminine sides without venturing into creepy-uncle territory, and are quite simply entertaining. Preston embraces life and food (every woman’s favourite talking point) with the sort of gastronomical gusto to make women swoon (“my fatal weakness,” he says, “has always been dairy”). And his writing is, loathe to cliche it, delectable.

This collection of essays, published variously in The Age, delicious magazine and Vogue Entertaining + Travel and split into five chapters (Eat, Cook, Revere, Travel, MasterChef), takes in Preston’s thoughts on ‘Nonna Food’, ‘Guilty Pleasures’, ‘Foodie Tribes’, ‘Culinary Crimes’, the ‘Perfect Ice-Cream’ and ‘The Ultimate Cheese Sandwich’, drawing from a career that has seen him “skipping across Australia’s restaurant and cafĂ© landscape”.

Dedicated foodie, sociologist, traveller and journalist, Preston’s work makes me excited about writing and eating in the same way that Pip Lincolne makes me want to pick up a knitting needle. His creative turns of phrase (“the pantry of the soul”, “culinary scars on my psyche”), culinary insight (“the golden syrup dumpling is the Australian answer to India’s gulab jamen”), adaptable advice (see ‘Making the Cheapest Home Meal Seem Fancy') and rich descriptions (“the texture of an oozy camembert”), along with occasional confessions of weighty issues (an occupational hazard), make Preston, like Humphries, a truly likable master of his craft.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


yvette said...

To be completely honest, I thought Eat, Pray, Love sucked. I didn't even finish it. It's very hard to put my finger on why, exactly, but I just didn't feel that she's a skilled writer. A skilled writer would get me so involved in her story that I should forget I'm reading a book. That never happened with her - it didn't seem natural. Or something.