Sunday, May 28, 2023

Review: A Truffle Load of Good Writing (And Dogs)


Unfortunately doesn't have scratch-and-sniff, but is otherwise perfection.

By Claire Booth

I’ve never had a truffle. I’ve never even wanted to try one. But I was on board instantly with Rowan Jacobsen’s Truffle Hound, an effervescent, sensorily spectacular unearthing of the world’s truffle industry.

My bedtime reading is always nonfiction, and I go through dozens of books a year. I read them as ebooks, a switch I made for only my nonfiction after dropping Ron Chernow’s three-pound Grant on my face multiple times as I needed off. My ereader thankfully doesn’t cause as much injury, and it comes with a very nice benefit. I can download the first pages of a book before buying it. And I always do, because—and I’m going to be brutally honest here—I need to see the writing. The book could be about a topic I love, but if the writing isn’t good, I can’t do it. That said, it’s actually rare that a sample completely fails with me. Most fall in the middle, are worth committing to, and turn out to be good-to-great reads. But it’s only once in a great while that something grabs me from the first page and has me pledging to follow the writer anywhere.

“It was hardly a food scent at all. It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you. You think, What the hell was that? And then you think, I have to know.” 

Yes, I do.

So I followed the James Beard Award-winning Jacobsen to Italy, France, Bosnia, Hungary, Spain, and both coasts of the U.S. And enjoyed every minute. But aside from some late nigh back-room dealing in expensive fungus, what does truffle hunting have to do with crime fiction? A lot, if you write like Jacobsen. His book is a master class in the art of the character sketch. He introduces you to people all over the world in delicately perceptive, big-hearted strokes. The resulting portrayals are so vivid you feel like you know them—which is what every fiction writer aims for, isn’t it?

“Voldemort picks me up in Budapest, buys me an espresso, and we drive south in the early light,” he writes of a Hungarian truffle hunter whom others have warned him about. “Istvan Bagi has a sharp nose and a black goatee and would actually make a decent bad guy on TV. He’s soft-spoken and focused in a way that can imply either spiritual advancement or supervillainy.”

Or this one:

“Ivana’s boyfriend, a strapping young Croatian with a black beard and ample tattoos, loads four dogs into the back of a Citroen minivan. When I ask him his name, he says, ‘Call me Ban, it’s my last name, but you can’t pronounce my first.’ (It’s Hrvoje, if you want to give it a shot.)”

Plus, he’s so clearly obsessed with his topic that me-the-novelist thinks he would make a great mystery character.

Truffle Hound: On the Trail with the World’s Most Seductive Scent with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs



And for more of his journalism:


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