Monday 23 October 2017

Our Christmas books? There's eating and thinking in 'em

The annual rush to buy books for Christmas presents is now well under way and as usual cookbooks are proving to be a big seller. Top of the pile so far has been Rachel Allen's latest, Cake, which does exactly what it says on the baking tin, but selling very fast last week and likely to pass her out by Christmas is Jamie Oliver's 15-Minute Meals.

Given the phenomenal sales of his 30-Minute Meals in 2010, it's not surprising that Jamie is reheating the idea. But the new time constraint borders on the ridiculous – in spite of what the cheeky chappie claims it depends on lots of advance preparation, being brilliant at multi-tasking and having three hands.

Much more relaxing (one of the joys of cooking) is Eat Like an Italian by Catherine Fulvio, who starts with the advantage of being married to a man from Sicily and the fact that Italian food (being Mediterranean) is healthy as well as delicious.

This book is beautiful, with lovely photography of Catherine shopping and cooking in Turin which will transport readers' mood into La Dolce Vita.

Catherine's book is also more practical than Nigella Lawson's Nigellissima, the new one from the kitchen goddess in which she also goes all Italian.

Lawson supposes you can find all kinds of peculiar ingredients in your local corner shop; Fulvio shows how you can adapt Italian dishes to use readily available and very good Irish ingredients – her Italian sausage pasta can be made using Irish black pudding and our sheep cheese can be used instead of pecorino.

This is hardly an appropriate time of the year for smut like Fifty Shades and anyway most Mommies will be too exhausted getting ready for Christmas to be thinking about Mommie Porn.

But it's a sobering thought that, according to the Bookseller (the trade bible), an estimated 100 million people will have read the book, which came out in April, by the end of this year.

Given that it's so badly written, the statistics are extraordinary: Amazon's biggest-selling book ever; the fastest paperback to sell one million copies ever; the biggest global sale of a book in one week ever (665,000 copies).

Apart from it not being very festive, although holly clearly has possibilities, it's probably not a good choice for a present since so many people have read it already (without telling).

Much more appropriate is Isn't It Well For Ye? – The Book of Irish Mammies, Colm O'Regan's hilarious analysis of the woman in all our lives ("A book if you don't mind! And him with a degree and a job and all!"). It deserves an award just for the title.

It was a great year for Irish sports books, with Katie Taylor's My Olympic Dream likely to be one of the most popular for Christmas.

A really good one to give a football fan would be the recently published biography Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, the story of the most successful manager of all (including 'Sir Alex'). Guillem Balague's insightful book tells how Pep Guardiola played the beautiful game and won.

For those who love memoirs, this was an exceptional year. There was Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, his account of life under the fatwa, the decade he spent in hiding unable to do even the simple things like going to the park to kick around a ball with his son. A fascinating if overly long book, with the reader's sympathy continually undermined by Rushdie's sense of his own importance.

Equally interesting, although with a touch of the same failing, was Mary Robinson's Everybody Matters. By comparison another Mary's memoir, Just Mary by 'Mammy' O'Rourke, was a refreshing read, with political insight and occasional devilment.

Despite an initial order of 10,000 copies, Gill & Macmillan have had to order a second print-run for Christmas

Edna O'Brien's long-awaited memoir Country Girl also appeared, full of the drama of her own life, friends, lovers and literature and the big names she beguiled over the years.

Another memoir that will keep anyone entranced over Christmas is Selina Guinness's The Crocodile by the Door, the story of a crumbling Big House, a farm and a family.

Given that we're all now well used to the story of the boom and the bust, The Untouchables by Shane Ross and Nick Webb deserves praise for finding a new angle.

It focused on "the people who helped wreck Ireland and are still running the show", the lawyers and accountants and all the other experts who are still getting big salaries followed by huge pensions while the rest of us pay for the mistakes they made.

It may give you indigestion after the plum pudding but it's worth studying, not least because the names are named.

This year, for no discernible reason and after a gap of many years, three important books on the Famine came together (a bit like buses).

Tim Pat Coogan's The Famine Plot is a provocative read, saying much of what happened could have been avoided and that it amounted to "ethnic cleansing" by the British.

Enda Delaney said much the same thing in more polite language in his book The Curse of Reason, which uses contrasting perspectives to tell the story.

And from Cork University Press came Atlas of the Irish Famine, a large format book revealing the impact of the disaster through parish maps, statistics, local history and first-hand accounts.

Any of these books would make a great present for someone interested in history, since this is the most devastating event ever in our country, something that is still perplexing today given that it happened even though we were then politically integrated into the most advanced industrial economy in the world, right next door.

For rock fans there was nothing to cFompare with Keith Richards' autobiography last year and definitely not either of the biographies on Jagger or the coffee table book on the Stones, or even Pete Townshend's Who Am I which rambled in all directions like a bad guitar solo.

Pride of place has to go to a home product, Marcus Connaughton's affectionate book on Rory Gallagher – His Life and Times, full of facts and memorabilia and great pictures.

Three novels stand out. John Banville's Ancient Light was a beautiful meditation on young love and old age, a book that was both poetic and accessible.

JK Rowling's A Casual Vacancy was her first adult novel and so far has outsold even Jamie Oliver this year, although that is likely to change this week; it's as sharp as a broken bottle, a story of life at different levels in a contemporary town in the UK that could be anywhere.

And the second part of Hilary Mantel's trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies, made her a double Booker winner and is a terrific read.

Finally, there is Maeve Binchy's last book A Week in Winter, a chain of stories about people on an out of season break in a hotel in the west. For her many fans, Christmases won't be the same in the future.

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