A grey and drizzly Sunday is perfect for visiting a museum or gallery, so my friend and I went to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin today. The current special exhibition of Vermeer was sold out, but we were actually more curious about the new wing of the Gallery, which has been done very nicely and now houses part of their permanent exhibition of Irish artists (and entrance is free, so go have a look!).
I am fond of modern art (say, from the last 150 years), and I particularly liked this painting above: Frying Pan, Eggs and Napkin (1950) by Irish-Scottish artist William Scott (1913-1989). The colours and lines remind me of retro fabrics (the painting is from 1950, so that is not far off), but I also like the everyday subject matter, of food, no less. Scott, as I have learned, painted almost exclusively everyday items, mostly food and kitchen tools, with different levels of abstractions. Some of his works consist of colourful shapes only, reminiscent of the outlines of cups and pans; in others, the fish, eggs, fruits and forks are more clearly visible.
William Scott apparently said that for French Cubist painter Georges Braque, “the guitar was his Madonna” and that “the frying pan could be [Scott’s] guitar” – his muse or artistic theme that never stopped urging him to paint. I find this rather similar to the creative urge behind literary non-fiction with its focus on the patterns and dynamics of everyday life.
Truman Capote (1924-1984) knew a few things about literature, and about gossip. He did not study literature after secondary school, but he was writing every day since he was eleven years old, eventually publishing short stories, novels, plays and screenplays. He broke ground for a new genre, too – the real-life crime story. His book In Cold Blood (1965), about the murder of a family of four in Kansas, is usually called a nonfiction novel, which Capote researched for six years, travelling to the small farming community where the murders had taken place and later to the prison where the murderers were held before their execution.
In Cold Blood was not the first or last time that Capote used real life as material. He mined his own life for experiences and included himself and people he knew as sometimes little disguised characters in his writings. This led eventually to his falling out with the New York social scene that Capote had been eager to belong to in the 1960s.
Author and professor Colum McCann advises aspiring writers: “Plot takes a backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.” This is why we enjoy reading or watching stories based on real-life, even well-known historical events. We know the ship will sink, but we watch Titanic nevertheless. We know of people’s triumphs and failures, but we are keen to understand how they came to that point, the decisions they made and challenges they overcame to get there. The literary treatment, like Capote’s writings, adds another element that we may not find in straight documentaries or news journalism: the rhythm and imagery of storytelling, the depth of character and scenic backdrops. Capote himself acknowledged this, too: “To me, the greatest pleasure about writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” But still, he just could not resist the temptation of the gossip.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) was one of the first great food writers of the 20th century. She wrote essays, memoir and travel pieces of her life in the USA and France, where she spent several years. Interestingly, though, she did not think of herself as a “food writer”. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me (1943), she explained: “When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.”
When I read this line in one of my Food Studies Master’s classes, a door opened for me. Food in itself is wonderful, but what drew me to working in bars and restaurants as a teenager and all through my twenties was the human theatre that played out there every night, celebration, romance, heartbreak, redemption, business. There had been books and scholarly articles examining and affirming my impression, but here for the first time was someone who celebrated it through words, which are after all my other great passion. And I realised I had found my corner in the food world, my tribe.
Tucked away on a hill in a residential neighbourhood with winding narrow streets, I only found it because I was lost, but it’s worth the hike. A few bookshelves, a table, a counter and a big, inviting couch – it doesn’t take a lot of fancy trimmings to open a bookstore. The books themselves lend a merry atmosphere with their colourful spines on the white shelves. A few potted plants and someone friendly to help the customers with their queries about books for school, for beach-reading or to satisfy their book cravings, and you’re away.
No.3 – Chapters on Parnell Street. A goldmine for hardcover books, and Ireland’s largest independent bookstore.
I used to think of Chapters as a sort of bargain bookstore. The prices are shown on the front of the books with large, red-and-white stickers, and often they are “special prices” and actual bargains. This makes a big difference on hardcover books. I have no great ambition to own my fiction in hardcover, in fact, I prefer paperbacks, as they are lightweight and fit better into my handbags. But food and cookery books often come only in hardcover, and Chapters was instrumental in helping me build up my collection of recipe and reference books on food and wine. For the same reason, anybody interested in coffee table books on Art and Architecture should not miss visiting this store. Continue reading →
No.2 – Hodges Figgis. The name sounds like a Dickens character, the shopfront looks exactly how you would picture Dublin’s oldest bookstore. Huge windows full of books curve towards the door like a bell jar. Their frames and the door are dark green, like the leather inserts on a library table.
But the shop is not resting on its long and illustrious pedigree (which includes being mentioned in Ulysses, no less). From humanities, business and sciences on the top floor to the sweeping selection of classic and modern literature, Hodges Figgis is eminently knowledgeable without being snobbish. Continue reading →
No. 3 – Saint George’s New and Secondhand English Bookshop in Prenzlauer Berg. Well-stocked with interesting titles. They know what they are doing.
You enter through the fiction section. Plenty of good things here. The nonfiction section – starting by the cash register – is ample and organised into many themes. Genre literature and children’s books are in the very back. There are a few comfy chairs around – leather chesterfield ones, the type I would like to have in my own library, should I ever have the room for one. #classyreadingnook Continue reading →