July Bookshelf: Sour Stories of Heartburn

“Did you know, Putnam, more people are murdered at ninety two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once — lower temperatures people are easy-going, over ninety two it’s too hot to move but just ninety two, people get irritable!

Sheriff Warren, It Came from Outer Space

Let us just agree that June didn’t happen. It was a sweaty, stagnant month and I spent too much of it depressed and not reading. Well, that’s not strictly true: I discovered a love of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, which is the perfect accompaniment to a cycle in the woods when it’s too hot to do anything but pedal gently in the shade. Recent favourites include Ottessa Moshfegh reading Sheila Heti, a combination I found so affecting I bought both of their recent books, A.M. Holmes reading Margaret Atwood, and Colm Tóibín reading Mary Lavin. Eventually June gave way to a humid, sultry July in the late-teens, and I picked up a paperback again.

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The first book was a birthday gift – my friends always know that books and sour gummies are a safe bet. A little known fact about your correspondent is that when I’m not poring over eighteenth century publishing records or exploring Northern Ireland’s north coast, I can usually be found watching the wacky world of professional wrestling. AJ Mendez, or as she was known professionally, AJ Lee, was until her retirement a performer for the behemoth of the industry, WWE. In her memoir, she chronicles her rise to the forefront of the company in an era when it was unusual for female performers to be treated with respect (either by fans or by the company), and about her turbulent, scrappy childhood in poverty, struggling with an as-yet undiagnosed bipolar disorder. As with all celebrity biographies, it is selective, and as with too many, it is inelegant (we all know an unemployed copyeditor, and books like us demand that we ask how that is the case), but I enjoyed getting a witty insider take on an industry where the insiders are usually not bold enough to have their name and grinning face attached to the gossip.

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I found John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick a struggle. When a co-worker saw it on my desk, he asked me if it was as misogynistic as he had heard and, well… it is a little. I had heard about the infamous section where women can’t pee as straightfowardly as men, and in the context of a novel wherein women can’t unlock their true potential without a man, it’s no less absurd. I’ve recently been enjoying Updike’s short fiction at work, so this was a real letdown. It is not a recommended read.

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Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, on the other hand, is. I am a huge Nora fan. I watch When Harry Met Sally at least twice a year, and dip in and out of her books of essays like they’re old love notes. I must have picked this up in the buy-one-get-one-half-price deal with a book that got immediately sidelined and overlooked; when I heard it was about a chef and food lover (regular readers will remember that I am a sucker for food in fiction) how could I resist? What strikes me most about Nora’s characters (I call her Nora because I feel we are old friends, I suppose), apart from how they are simultaneously completely realistic and the wittiest people I’ve ever met, is how honest and vulnerable they are. Every day I meet insecure women, who struggle to forgive themselves and worry about the future, and Rachel is that woman. I loved her instantly. I could see myself rereading Heartburn again before the year is out.

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Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart is very much the book to be seen with just now. It’s a millennial tour de force; a subversive insight into the female immigrant experience, specifically that of women and girls living under the shadow of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right word for this. I am no shrinking violet, but I found the descriptions of violence – particularly the gleeful reception of violence by some characters – in this book to be shocking and unsettling. This is, perhaps, the point: if these characters cannot escape the legacy of violence, then it is privileged in the extreme to want to look away from the comfort of my commute. But that is exactly what I wanted to do. It’s not necessarily fair to make comparisons when Zhang’s is so obviously a unique and necessary voice, but I found the similar themes and historical contexts discussed in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing to be more palatable. Whether or not this is a good thing, I could not say.

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The final book of the summer was an impulsive airport decision, for what could be more dangerous than the iBooks app during a prolonged delay? I read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend last year, and evidently took a whole year to recover from it. I have been very fortunate recently to come across books at the exact right time in my life, and as I enter my twenty-eighth rotation of the sun, it was so gratifying to find a book about how friendships change as we age around them. For better or worse, like the Neapolitan novel’s Lenu, I am at a time in my life where I find that some friends’ support is unwavering and some are a let-down waiting to happen, and trying to establish which kind of friend I am. What makes us envious? What makes us competitive? What can we forgive? It is a rare treat to find a book that makes us feel we can understand ourselves more fully and become a better person in the process. Believe the hype.

 

So, having indulged in a payday splurge in Waterstones, my next couple of books are sorted, but recommendations are, as usual, welcomed. Happy reading!

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