Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Staff Picks: Relish by Ruth Cowen / Killer Colt by Harold Schechter

Although I've been on this non-fiction kick for a few months now, I've still not read a single biography. That is to say I've avoided biographies and histories like the plague! Too much reality for my taste.

What drew me to these titles wasn't a recommendation or a flashy cover, but advertising through our library's new catalogue, if you can believe it. There they were, two curious titles splashed under the heading 'Latest Adult Books'. The marquee is constantly updated with the new and the interesting; I encourage checking it out weekly at least...

The first biography that caught my eye was Killer Colt: murder, disgrace and the making of an American legend. Penned by true-crime author Harold Schechter, I found his writing style complementary to the research and setting. He evoked the Regency period through diary excerpts, letters and collected anecdotes, and a cast of characters one could find only in developing frontier America. Dramatic elements and intelligent phrasing draws the reader through this dark family drama. I had thought this was merely the story of Samuel Colt, inventor of the revolver, and subsequent American hero. In fact his story is told in parallel to his lesser known brother, John, who is best known for, as the title says, 'murder and disgrace'.

The second find was Relish: the extraordinary life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian celebrity chef by Ruth Cowan. Caught between worsening family poverty and the dreams of opportunity, Soyer jumped at every chance for self-improvement...at least among culinary circles, French aristocrats, and the Victorian English. A charmer, food-artist savant, inventor and teetotaler, he immersed himself in the courtly world by becoming a prolific cook, and thus a member of the elite. Fascinating achievements include cooking feasts for royals during the French Revolution, the invention of soup kitchens during the Irish Potato Famine, redefined military cuisine during the Crimean War, and no less then the invention of the 'magic' table-top stove.

Though well researched and heavily rooted in fact, Ruth Cowen's writing feels farcical and fantastic, as though Soyer is some flamboyant caricature trapped in a satire...complete with a rise to stardom and fall from fame. The title's pun alone drew me to this book (a relished life indeed!), and it certainly cut the mustard for a compelling read. I encourage you to 'catch-up' with these books!

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