“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
I am not, currently, dining well. Last week I suffered the unique displeasure of having two wisdom teeth removed, and have therefore been on mashed bananas and yoghurt for a few days. Today I attempt solid food and am positively salivating.
I am a hungry reader. I love to read about food. I vividly recall reading Johanna Spyri’s Heidi as a child and being mesmerised by the roasted cheese and fresh goats’ milk. As a teenager, Sylvia Plath’s avocados nourished me through The Bell Jar, long before I ever knew what a real one tasted of. This month, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter whisked me up with creamy oysters, sweaty figs, and plummy Rieslings that I haven’t been able to forget the taste of since.
Sweetbitter is in many ways a very conventional bildungsroman. In fact there are aspects of it which are positively tedious. The protagonist, Tess, snorts so much cocaine with such frustrating laissez-faire that I found myself wishing she would just have a Horlicks and take a nap for a few pages. That said, as I enter my early-late twenties, the timing for a reflective discourse on what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood, with all the responsibilities it entails yet none of the life experience, was timely for me. I loved Sweetbitter in spite of its flaws, and could see myself reading it again even before the year is out.
I had a slightly trickier time with Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. This is a really compelling story – about the nuances of an interracial adoption where everybody means well but nobody can agree what ‘meaning well’ entails – mapped onto characters that couldn’t support the story’s weight. Due to the flimsiness of the characters, I sometimes felt I was reading a rather interesting NYT longread rather than a novel. I liked it, but not a lot.
My library pick-of-the-month was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I didn’t get on well with the Amazon Prime TV show of the same name, which I found a little dull and confusing, but I enjoyed the novel so much more. Incidentally, I don’t get a lot of joy from comparing book to screen in most cases, but it’s unavoidable isn’t it? Particularly when one’s responses are so different. I found Dick’s novel more controlled and restrained, and his characters more believably grounded in the world he created, than their equivalents in the TV show. Philip K Dick was a favourite author of mine at school and I enjoyed revisiting him.
Speaking of revisiting, I also delved back into this old favourite this month. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is one of those cult classics that anyone with a passing interest in true crime has to have read. In fact I am not such a true crime enthusiast per se, but I do love my crime procedurals, of which this is the mac daddy. It is so methodical in its invocation of the crimes, the evidence, and the trials that only a prosecuting attorney could have written it. Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast series on the Manson Family murders is the ultimate contemporary companion piece, and I also enjoyed reading Emma Cline’s The Girls last year – so I guess I’m more compelled by the Manson myth than I’d previously thought. Nevertheless, this is a disturbing and detailed read that offers new grim details every time I pick it up.
My final book this month was Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I have been a fan of Eddo-Lodge’s work for some time now, and I can actually remember the original blog post of the same name being published and going viral and inspiring a seemingly endless flow of ‘takes’. For what it’s worth, I broadly agree with her: I think it is far more pragmatic and potent for white people such as myself to be proactive in their racial education and in their defence of race issues to other white people than to wait around for a person of colour to explain it to them. That said, I’m so glad that she wrote this book. I’m so glad to have a resource that so elegantly balances comprehensive survey and accessible prose. I know that there are a lot of people who find the title provocative, to whom I say: read the book. I truly think that nobody could fail to read this book and learn something about themselves and about race in Britain today.
I’m really enjoying writing these blog posts. I read a lot for work – it takes up most of my time, in fact, and can be a slightly frantic process, so it’s nice to be more reflective on the things I read for pleasure and what I get from them. I think when you’ve been so accustomed to reading prose in an academic setting it becomes easy to be very analytic about it. I can tell you why it’s good. I occasionally struggle to tell you why I liked it. I’ve been supervising a few dissertation students this semester and I notice it in them too. They all have fantastic takes on their chosen novels – The Handmaid’s Tale; Lolita; 1984. But when I ask them what they enjoy about these novels, they seem to be compelled to overcomplicate their answers somewhat. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: a good number of people have forged successful academic careers through nothing more than unnecessary complication.
I have spoken to a lot of people who have said the same thing. “I used to read a lot but then I got so used to doing it for university that I just kind of stopped reading for pleasure.” isn’t that a shame? I hope I never lose the joy of the written word.