On this early Sunday morning, I’m just waiting for my tea to steep fully before I pour and enjoy a delicious steaming cup (although it’s going to be quite warm today, at this early hour it’s still cool enough to make a hot cup of tea pleasurable).
Speaking of enjoying a cup of tea, this week I read a non-fiction work, Blue Plate Special: an autobiography of my appetites by Kate Christensen. Christensen is the author of several works of fiction, including The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man, neither of which I have read, although I’ve heard of them and I believe she has won awards for at least one of these titles. This autobiography is, as suggested, a story of her life so far, and details growing up in various parts of the U.S. and her pursuit of a writer’s life. The chapters are connected by food, food she’s enjoyed, food she has had to give up, food she wishes she was eating, food others have prepared for her, and food she has prepared for others. It is about food and hunger, writing and passion, and while food did not always play as prominent a role as I was led to believe, it was nearly always a part of the story. Christensen had an unorthodox childhood, where scenes of violence occurred regularly and she spent much of her early years experiencing conflicting emotions regarding her father. Once her mother left this abusive relationship with the three girls in tow, her childhood became a string of moves to various places and new schools as her mother sought a psychology degree and then employment, and became involved in various relationships with ill-suited men, some of whom she married. During all of this, Christensen found solace in the food her mother prepared for her and her sisters, or the food she read about in novels. As she grew into adolescence and then young adulthood, she had many experiences where food played a significant role, and her near-obsession with it caused her to overeat and gain weight on more than one occasion in her life. Basically, this was a book about appetites, appetites for food, passion, sex, and writing, and her struggles to learn to control and appreciate them. It started off fairly strongly, with the author relating scenes and experiences from her childhood candidly and without self-pity (she never portrayed herself as a victim, a sentiment she expressed when referring to her own mother - “Despite her treatment at the hands of my father, my mother never seemed like a victim to me, no doubt because she refused to see herself as one” p. 12). The middle section lagged - the chapters did not flow together and the events the author wrote about seemed superficial and unconnected, as if she was writing about someone else in a totally disinterested manner. By the last quarter of the book, however, the writing once again becomes strong and the story personal and heartfelt as she relates her most recent experiences as an adult and a successful writer and eater, and the story comes full circle. I don’t usually read non-fiction, and as I was reading this in preparation for writing a review for the local paper, I was not really enjoying it, and it made me consider why this was so. I came to the conclusion that non-fiction works often lack “plot”, but perhaps this was due to the disjointed nature of this memoir, which seemed to be especially prevalent in the middle section of the book. It also didn’t delve into the character, and so for much of the book, although it is an autobiography, I felt that there was no real character development and that the story was superficial. And it was not really about food as gastronomic adventure in the way that, say, Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was, or even the novel I read recently, Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother. I guess in the end, it was a disappointment for me, but I’m glad I finished reading it, as the last section was the best part of the whole book. And each section ended with a few of her own recipes accompanied by personal stories, one of which I’ve already made and enjoyed. So it was not a total waste of time. I don’t think that my dislike of autobiographies is unique to this book - I’ve tried to read a few others and have generally felt the same way. I wonder if, when writing about one’s own life, no matter how talented a writer, it is particularly difficult to gain proper perspective. I mean, in a novel, the characters are contained within a finite period of time and place, and it usually revolves around a particular incident or event, either leading up to this event or dealing with the outcome of it; whereas real life is ongoing, and unless you are focused on a particular event about which you are writing or towards which you are moving, your personal stories would tend to just ramble, much as this book did for most of the chapters. Anyway, I’m a very particular non-fiction reader, and this book just reinforced this belief.
Mmm… now I’ve got my tea, and can move on to other titles.
I also read a couple of very short Canadian titles. A Bird’s Eye by Cary Fagan, tells the story of a young boy growing up in Toronto in the 1930s. Benjamin Kleeman is the son of immigrant parents whose unhappy marriage gives him plenty of time to roam the streets and find his own ways to pass the time. He meets Corinne, a young black girl a year older than him, and falls in love with her. He then discovers the art of magic, and together, he and Corinne launch his “career” as a magician while he learns about the complications of life and love. I have never read anything by this author, I guess because I normally think of his works as those written for children, but this novel was a delightful, though very brief, coming-of-age story. I think it is due for publication by the end of the month, although I read an advanced reading copy (one of the perks of my job!), and I would recommend it to just about any reader. It is so short, you could read it in an afternoon.
And another short “novel” I read last night is David Gilmour’s newest title, Extraordinary. In it, he tells the story of a brother and sister reminiscing on a Saturday night while they prepare for her assisted suicide. Sally is fifteen years older than her half-brother, the narrator (whose name is never revealed, although he is once referred to as “Uncle M” by a niece), and has been in a wheelchair for many years following an accident at a party in Mexico where she tripped over a rug and broke her neck. Being a single mother, she continued to raise her daughter as best she could, although she admits some regrets about her actions towards her son, whom she left to be brought up by her ex-husband. Now she is sharing stories and reminiscing about her life while she prepares to end it, and her brother has agreed to help. This is a snippet of life taken from two characters who are sharing the ultimate commitment, the commitment to end a life once the individual has reached her limit. It is an intimate look at these characters’ lives, and the ways that people stay connected even when they are out of touch with one another for years. I thought this book was worthwhile, but I really have a problem with it being marketed as a “novel” - I read it in less than 2 hours, including distractions. It is so brief that it is barely a novella, let alone a full-fledged novel, and I feel it could have been much improved with a bit more depth and story. I’ve been a long-time fan of Gilmour’s works, from his early titles (which he once referred to as his “dirty books”, when I had him sign a copy of How Boys See Girls after a reading a number of years ago) to A Perfect Night To Go To China, which we read for my book group and which was also quite short (but not as short as this one!). I actually prefer shorter novels that say a lot to lengthy, descriptive tomes that go on and on, where I have to read for many pages before anything of any significance happens. Perhaps that’s why I don’t enjoy historical fiction - they are usually quite descriptive, when what I really want is good character development and succinct, outstanding use of language. I don’t need to be transported to another place and time, I don’t want to “escape”, and I don’t always need the whole backstory of a character to be described in detail for me - I want a writer who tells me only what is necessary to get the story across without additional information. I may be a bit harsh that way, and I do read a wide variety of novels by different writers, but for me to say, “This book is amazing”, it has to meet my specific standards. I understand that not everyone looks for these sorts of things in books, but these are my personal criteria. Having said that, I’m not sure I would agree that Extraordinary is actually extraordinary, and I think it is too short to warrant the expense of a full-priced hardcover, but if you borrow a copy from the library (as I did) and read it in an evening, it may just be worth the investment.
What will I read next? I have a library book (new Canadian title by Dennis Bock), my next book club title (too soon to read it?), and a couple of books from my “required reading” box to tackle. Decisions, decision! I’ll refill my cup of tea and decide later.
That’s all for today. Happy Sunday!
Bye for now…