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BROOKLYN DREAMING – Monica Trápaga’s NY Food Adventure

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A Bite of the Big Apple by Monica Trápaga   Published by: Penguin Lantern  $39.99

When she was little, my daughter was a devotee of the iconic children’s ABC TV series Playschool and particularly loved the “pretty lady with the hushy voice”. The lady was Playschool presenter Monica Trápaga and the “hushy voice” was my daughter’s attempt to say ‘husky’.

Well, times have moved on. My girl’s now at Uni and Trápaga divides her time between Sydney, where she runs a vintage emporium called Reclaim, and her Brooklyn home. In the Big Apple, she indulges her passion for jazz singing, entertaining, looking after her extended family and cooking up a storm.

It seems in many ways a divine existence, which Trápaga recounts in her cookbook, A Bite of the Big Apple, co-written with her daughter Lil Tulloch. It’s a big-hearted, rambling compendium, in which they take us on a culinary journey through NY, its multi-cultural influences, markets and produce. At the same time, friends are recalled, life-affirming experiences are recounted and many recipes are shared (I can vouch for the Lavender Lemon Pound Cake).

Part of the book’s charm lies in the gorgeous, colourful collages that accompany each recipe designed by Trápaga herself and the food photography has also been taken by family and friends. Unlike the fast-paced nature of New York itself, this is a meandering book to savour slowly. Dip in and out, try a recipe here and there, reread a diary entry. The only jarring note is the final section, which recounts Trápaga’s home decorating philosophy – this sits uneasily with her search for the ultimate dessert and her obsession with spring lamb.

I’ll be interviewing Monica Trápaga in the next edition of 3mbs’ book programme, Page Turners, where she’ll be talking more about her Big Apple culinary adventures.

Read it: If you enjoy wholesome cooking, and a glimpse into the inner heart of New York.

 


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Two Australian Fiction Debuts

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THE ROSIE PROJECT, BY GRAEME SIMSION

Published by: Text; $29.99

Everyone’s talking about Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. Since its publication in February 2013, the book has had the international acclaim most first-time authors only dream about. Sold for nearly $2 million around the world, the film rights have just been purchased, and Simsion will write the screenplay. With so much hype, the question has to be asked: is it any good? Well, yes, it is. Really good.

Don is a professor of Genetics who cannot find a partner. This is not surprising, because for all his brilliance, he cannot empathise with people. Although it’s never stated, Don is either a high-functioning autistic or suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He takes things at face value, finds it impossible to understand irony or relate to the subtleties of everyday social interaction and  communication. Not surprisingly, he has failed miserably in love, but as he wishes to find a mate and reproduce (his words), he decides to create a 16 page questionnaire to find the right woman. Into his orbit comes Rosie, who needs his help to locate her biological father. Beautiful, self-opiniated and independent, Rosie ticks few of the boxes in Don’s questionnaire. But will they still get together?

Few books make me laugh out loud, but I was chuckling audibly when reading this and getting some strange looks from commuters on the train (watch out for a hilarious scene with a laboratory skeleton). Films such as Rain Man and novels like Toni Jordan’s Addition and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  have  also focussed on heroes and heroines with disabilities. The reader immediately sympathises with them, despite their foibles and Don, for all his misguided views on life and love, is an endearing character.  The novel succeeds both as a delightful rom-com but also as an intelligent and perceptive narrative on the importance of compromise in personal relationships. Don and Rosie are both ultimately on a quest to find out who they are, and personal identity also means accepting the good and bad in those you love and the people you fall in love with.

Read it if you: enjoy well-written, fast-paced, feel-good comedy.

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BURIAL RITES, BY HANNAH KENT

Published by: Picador, $32.99

Hannah Kent has been mentored by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, which is reason enough to mark her as a writer to watch. Burial Rites won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, and Kent is both a lecturer in creative writing at Flinders University and co-founded the literary journal Kill Your Darlings.

This is a remarkable debut and heralds a strong and individual literary voice. Kent turns to Iceland in 1829 for the novel’s plot, which is based on the true story of a domestic servant, Agnes Magnusdottir, who was beheaded after she was found guilty of murdering two men. Kent divides the novel into two voices: that of Agnes remembering her past, and Toti Jonsson’s, a young pastor who is sent to help Agnes repent of her sins before her execution. The storyline therefore moves both backwards and forwards in time, creating a satisfying and unifying narrative arc.

Burial Rites is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace: in this novel too, the story of a servant who committed murder two hundred years ago, slowly unravels under the watchful eye of a man who wishes her well. Like Alias Grace, Kent’s novel is a tense psychological drama that builds page by page to create a mesmerising portrait of Agnes. Kent doesn’t falter, and artfully combines the thrill of a who-dunit with the keen eye for detail demanded by historical fiction. She’s excellent at capturing the language and mood of  isolated communities, their archaic superstitions and malicious gossip.

Kent calls Burial Rites her “dark love letter to Iceland” and indeed Iceland’s bleak, desolate landscape with its wild weather is a character in its own right. Kent is marvellous at describing the dogged self-sufficiency and determination of the peasants for whom every day is a battle for survival. And even though we know Agnes’ fate from the start, it says a great deal for Kent’s authority as a writer, that we’re still shocked at Agnes’ execution as the book draws to a close. I’m still thinking about this book two weeks after finishing it. Kent’s words linger.

Read it if you: enjoy literary and historical fiction, laced with a murder mystery and psychological drama.

What do you think? Drop me a line and listen to my book programme podcast, Page Turners on www.3mbs.org for more interviews and news on the world of books.