Alan Lightman’s new memoir, Screening Room: Family Pictures is a beautiful portrait of the author’s childhood in Memphis, Tennessee. It is simultaneously a book about the author’s grandfather, whose ghost remains a presence in the family long after his death, and also a book for anyone interested in the literature of the South. The city of Memphis is a central character in the book, with its rhythm and blues, its barbecue and pecan pie, its segregated society. It is the story of the wunderkind Lightman (author of Einstein’s Dreams and The Accidental Universe), who left Tennessee to become a professor of Theoretical Physics at MIT, only to find that he cannot leave his past behind.
The Italians is a wonderful adventure through the many puzzles and paradoxes of Italian culture, written by The Economist’s Italian correspondent. The chapters read like little interconnected essays, and they run the gamut from the political force and the shenanigans of Silvio Berlusconi; to the unsolved, mysterious death of Mussolini; to the changing landscape of the Italian family. Hooper’s book is dedicated to the symbols, gestures, and untranslatable phrases that go unnoticed to those visitors, who, perhaps like myself, have only visited Italy for a few weeks at a time. Mr. Hooper, by contrast, digs back into history, long before Italy was recognized as a unified state, to discover how the history of the society bears down upon the present life of its citizens. The Italians received a glowing review in Kirkus Reviews, who said of this work: “What's not to love? A thoroughly researched, well-written, ageless narrative of a fascinating people.”
In the summer months in 1970, the great American chefs and food critics (among them M.F.K. Fisher, Julia and Paul Child, and James Beard) gathered in the south of France to reconnect with Provençal cuisine, and to learn to bring it to a hungry American audience. Luke Barr recreates a moment of changing culinary tastes in the American palate: one that would focus on fresh, local, quality ingredients. Yet it is much more than a story about cuisine: it is not just about what we eat, but how we eat it, creating a philosophy of the pleasure and the ephemerality of a good meal. Part nostalgic and part probing, Barr’s is a quiet, lovely book that grapples with the legacies of both Child and M.F.K. Fisher.