After a hiatus of over three decades, last year, James Salter – one of the greats, and until recently most unsung, of American writers – returned to the novel. It was, for many, the publishing event of the year: a time to dust off the 'Best American Writer You've Never Read' headlines, a time to reassess the masterly prose of an admired stylist.
All That Is was worth the wait; an effortless performance jewelled with sparkling sentences and brilliant set pieces; though this new book – originally published in the US in 2006 – is more of a curio than a triumph. Far from the high literary standing of his novels, Life is Meals is a commercially appealing book about food, co-written with his wife, Kay.
The format is simple: an entry for every day of the year, focusing on some aspect of food, eating or dining. The breadth and scope of the entries, from personal anecdote to Classical history, from modern American manners to French peasant cookery, is admirable, as are the beautiful illustrations and whip-smart design. The entries are pithy and rarely outstay their welcome, though it can often feel that too much filler has been included to adhere to the entry-a-day format.
Salter has always written about eating and dining with obvious enthusiasm and deep thought. The dinner party that opens Light Years, for example, is a wonderful snapshot into the lives of Viri and Nedra. Both Kay and Jim – as they appear in the more personal entries – supply deft, often witty and affecting ruminations on dinner parties hosted, breakfasts eaten, and restaurants visited. However, these gems are often served between potted biographies of foodstuffs – salt, olives, coffee etc – for which both Salters seem to have no affinity. They are, almost all, dry and surprisingly prosaic.
Ignore these, and Life is Meals is a delicious grab-bag of stories, recollections and histories that makes for the perfect gift for literary foodies.
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