Californian Book Reviews by Chloe Blades
Spare by Prince Harry (Penguin, 2023)
The BBC said it was the “weirdest book ever written by a Royal” and Time magazine said it was “surprisingly well written” (by the ghostwriter behind Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog). Clearly the BBC has not seen King Charles’ book on watercolours from 1991. The two biggest arguments about Spare seem to be thus: Why is it fair that he’s paid $24 million to write a book? To which I say it’s not his problem, the world’s obsessed with his weird life and are prepared to pay $65 to read about it. It merely makes me regret giving out tales of my family feuds for free. The other point is “he’s thrown his family under a bus,” and that’s when I know these arm-chair generals haven’t read it and are regurgitating click-bait headlines from the media.
His memoir at the core is about a boy who’s struggled with the death of his mum for two decades while living in a fish bowl littered with scrutiny. It’s an insight into a life with King Charles as a father, his deployment to Afghanistan, royal protocols, girlfriends, getting tipsy with the Queen’s mum, and his famous frost nipped royal appendage. It’s the fastest selling work of non-fiction on the planet for good reason, it’s surprisingly good.
The Passenger: California by Europa Editions (Europa Editions, 2022)
The Passenger is to the intellectual explorer what Lonely Planet is to the inquisitive tourist. Travelling over the centuries has evolved, and where it was once about finding the highest rated places to eat, stay and play, we now want to escape and immerse ourselves in cultures that we can plunge wholeheartedly into the soul of.
The Passenger is a series that spans across 13 destinations from Turkey and India to Paris and even outer space, delivering the best new writing, photography, art and reportage. These guides are fully illustrated with robust French flaps that introduce you to facts like, in California, the number of national parks there are, what the official state animal is (grizzly bear), the number of businesses owned by men (1.85 million), the number of businesses owned by women (1.32 million - highest proportion in any US state), etc. There’s 192 artistically curated pages of essays covering DeCalifornication and what’s happened to the California Dream, rematriation and the movement calling for a return of the land to its legitimate custodians, the issues that the Yosemite National Park confronts, and there’s even book recommendations and a playlist to round it off.
These guides are pushing the boundaries in travel, making us more conscientious travellers, aware of political debate and people’s sensibilities, and removing the barrier of otherness that often makes all things other a spectacle. It’s not least a beautiful, colourful collection of knowledge to have on your shelf.
A House Party in Tuscany by Amber Guinness (Thames & Hudson, 2022)
Continuing with the theme of books I’ve read with tenuous links to America, I bring you A House Party in Tuscany. In 2019 I ate at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, Fior d’Italia, and this cookbook’s based in Italy and Murray’s holidaying in San Francisco… the alternative was a crime novel set in California and it was dull.
This stunner on the other hand has a unique beauty to it, oozing joy on every page. Author Amber Guinness is the chef, but Arniano, the setting for this Tuscan house party, is more than a location for her photoshoot. It is her family home, bought by her parents in the 80s after it had been abandoned when many rural Italians flocked to the cities for warmth and work after the war. Her familial stories of renovation, dinners, parties and friends are interrupted with hazy photos of crowded cupboards packed with colourful glassware, gardens flooded with lavender, and enviable interior shots of her historical mansion. Since her father died the family found it too sad to return to, so she transformed Arniano into a painting retreat alongside artist William Roper-Curzon and brought it back to life with food in abundance once more.
Oil paintings divide this book into seasons, and it's illustrated with photographs that capture the natural light, seasonal flowers, refreshing cocktails and recipes that will make you salivate at the sound of them. The recipes are not complicated, I think anyone could make the linguine with lemon, ricotta and basil, or even the flourless chocolate, almond and chilli cake. I recommend buying this book for your person, because sitting down sipping wine and sifting through these pages has been one of the great joys of 2023 so far.
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka Press, 2023)
You might have heard - Eleanor Catton, Aotearoa’s very own international megastar, author of the 2013 Booker Prize winning novel The Luminaries, has resurfaced with Birnam Wood. The Guardian ran a piece about her third novel six years ago and we’ve been excited since, describing it then as “a psychological thriller set in rural New Zealand where super-rich foreigners face off with ragtag locals on the eve of a global catastrophe”. And now, brace yourselves, because Birnam Wood has arrived, and it is everything you’d hope it would be.
A landslide has closed the Korowai Pass in Aotearoa’s South Island, cutting off the town of Thorndike and leaving a sizable farm abandoned and exposed to Birnam Wood; a guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops where no one notices. It seems like a good opportunity for the collective until American billionaire Robert Lemoine turns up, a reference to the real-life billionaire, Trump advisor, and PayPal founder, Peter Thiel, who controversially purchased prime land overlooking Lake Wanaka. In this novel, the mega-wealthy have stored caches of weapons in fortress-like homes in preparation for a disaster, resulting in a battle between locals that assesses how far each of us will go to ensure our own survival. Nothing in my eyes beats a fictionalised work of real-life political controversy set in the immediate future. You’ll devour this as fast as your free time allows.