Larry McMurtry has always been a protean writer. Recently, he's offered up books as diverse as stirring Old West adventures (the Berrybender Narratives) and...

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“Loop Group”

Larry McMurtry has always been a protean writer. Recently, he’s offered up books as diverse as stirring Old West adventures (the Berrybender Narratives) and far-ranging nonfiction (“Roads,” “Paradise,” “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen”). With the saucy new novel “Loop Group,” McMurtry returns to two of his abiding interests: making movies and having sex.

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As a prolific screenwriter (and an author whose work is shot through with Hollywood references), McMurtry has clearly had plenty of experience with the former; presumably, he’s well-versed in the latter as well. “Loop Group,” convinces on that score — there’s a lot of big-hearted, good-natured coupling going on here.

Maggie Clary runs a loop group, a team that creates background vocal effects for movies. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s steady — there are always flicks that need, say, gangs of cowboys and Indians whooping it up during the fight scenes.

“Loop Group”

by Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster,
242 pp., $25

Maggie, a comforting mother figure nearing 60, has always dealt handily with her ragtag bunch’s problems, but now she has worries of her own. A recent operation has left her blue. She’s recently broken up with a much younger boyfriend. And she’s beginning a not very promising affair with her tiny, courtly Sicilian shrink.

She needs a change, clearly, and her feisty daughters convince Maggie that a road trip is just the ticket. (Most of the women in McMurtry’s books are feisty, and usually a lot smarter than the men besides.) So she scoops up her best friend, Connie, and they head out in a dilapidated van to visit Maggie’s ancient Aunt Cooney in Electric City, Texas. (This is a big deal for Maggie, a born and bred Los Angeleno who rarely even leaves Hollywood.)

Their adventures — which include encounters with a Navajo car thief and the highly eccentric folks on Aunt Cooney’s enormous chicken ranch — are like “Thelma and Louise” without the bitter ending. The road trip is a hoot, and when Maggie returns to Hollywood she’s in for some unusual twists of fate. “Loop Group” is a playful, naughty, surprising book, painted on a small scale but still big (and only sometimes melancholy) fun.

Reviewed by Adam Woog

“Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger”

Before readers yawn at the mention of another coming-of-age memoir from the 1960s and ’70s, they’d be well-advised to note some differences: “Toast” is narrated by Nigel Slater, a noted food authority in England, and he evokes his early days mostly through memories of food.

Slater writes in short episodes, each of which describes a culinary ingredient or the preparation of a dish, with appropriate titles: “Ham,” “Tinned Raspberries,” “Pickled Walnuts” and so on. Occasionally, he alludes to the long-buried emotions associated with a certain dish. “You can’t smell a hug,” he observes in the “Bread-and-Butter Pudding” anecdote. “You can’t hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding.”

“Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger”

by Nigel Slater

Gotham Books, 238 pp., $26

Slater’s family led a comfortable existence. The boy’s mother, a mediocre cook who habitually burned his toast, nevertheless offered him unstinting love and affection, whereas his cold and distant father merely aroused fear in him. Following his mother’s untimely death, his father remarried. The new stepmother, though a superior cook, made the boy miserable with her incessant demand for perfection. Eventually this drove Slater to accept a part-time job in a restaurant, where he soon discovered that he had a talent for cooking and which offered him a ticket to freedom.

While this book has its moments, it doesn’t produce the kind of excitement generated by many eminent American food memoirists. Slater is, after all, barely known on this side of the Atlantic.

Also, American readers are unlikely to fancy some of the dishes mentioned, which diminishes the effectiveness of Slater’s approach.

In the “Peach Flan” episode, “the sponge base came from a packet, the peaches from a tin.” An earlier scene of a young boy “prising the lid off a dying woman’s lemon drops” is similarly unappealing.

In the end, the choice of dishes and excessive food descriptions obscure the book’s message of self-reliance.

Reviewed by Bharti Kirchner