Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review and Simul-blog: James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca

Take a snarky British gourmand; mix with a bohemian composer of Eastern European extraction; add a self-important British pop star and an aging Italian movie director, each with delusions of grandeur; ply with a seemingly unending supply of an obscure liqueur; place on the top of an Italian mountain and watch what happens next! This recipe for disaster is the essence of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca.

Cooking with Fernet Branca is the funniest thing I have read in a long time. So funny that I wound up with tears running down my face. So funny I gasped while trying to read passages aloud to explain said tears. Not to be maudlin or anything, but ever since Douglas Adams left this world far too young, I have honestly believed no novel could ever make me laugh that hard again. It was a delight to find out how very wrong I was.

Of course, the problem with humor is that it is so darn personal – why did Gerald Samper and his former-soviet nemesis Marta crack me up so? In my case, it all comes down to a subtle, sarcastic and deadpan writing style that only a few writers can deliver on. And almost all of them are British. At one point, Marta describes the take over of her home (and her neighbor’s yard) by an Italian film crew:

And all the time there came suggestive sounds from outside and glimpses through the window of poor Gerry’s fence being forcefully dealt with. There were some loud splintering noises which did not at all imply intactness. There were also some blasphemies new to me – the men were all-too-clearly native Tuscans – the gist being that the Madonna was unpopular for having yielded her virginity to a series of farmyard animals and the absent Gerry for having used a nail gun instead of an ordinary hammer. p. 182

James Hamilton-Paterson wrote Cooking with Fernet Branca with alternating narration between “Gerry” and Marta. Amazingly, both “voices” are hilarious, barreling along the path to what they believe can only be glory, Marta through her dissonant musicality and Gerald through his bizarre gustatory endeavors.

Hamilton-Paterson is obviously a great observer of contemporary culture, and he skewers a number of trends in this book – particularly fusion cooking. What else to make of recipes like Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream, Mussels in Chocolate and Otter with Lobster Sauce? But it’s Gerald Samper’s self-seriousness that takes it from ludicrous to comic genius. And that’s what makes James Hamilton-Paterson such a fabulous writer.

This was my first book for the Europa Challenge, but it is already making me rethink my list. I don’t know if I can wait to read Hamilton-Paterson’s follow-up titles, Amazing Disgrace and Rancid Pansies. This book is absolutely recommended for lovers of British humor – if The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is your idea of a great time, read this book!

I am simul-blogging today! Both Jess at Desperado Penguin and Colleen at Books in the City read this book with me, as part of the Europa Challenge. I can’t wait to see their take on Gerald and Marta.