I generally want to punch people in the face when they say “I don’t read fiction.” Oh thanks–people like you are why I have no hope of ever making a successful life for myself doing what I love. I’m glad you’re fine admitting that.
And yet…I probably deserve my own slap on the wrist because I rarely read nonfiction. When there is so much fiction out there, it’s hard for me to consciously make the call to pick up nonfiction instead. But, recently, I found Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender at the Bone, on my bookshelf and thought that it might make a great summer read. The thing about nonfiction is that, since I don’t write it, I can enjoy it in a more unadulterated way. I’m not so much looking to learn from it, which is funny because that’s sort of the opposite of why other people might read it.
When I accidentally left Tender at the Bone at work, Lindsay lent me Sloane Crosley’s book of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, for the subway ride home from her place. I never would have bought this book because my petty, catty side wants to hate Sloane Crosley–my age, cute, tons of media attention, two bestsellers, etc.–but of course I was curious.
In the end, I enjoyed both books. I flew through them, polishing off Ms. Crosley’s over a couple of subway rides and early morning cups of coffee, and Ms. Reichl’s on the beach. I’ll give you two guesses which one I liked more, though.
Tender at the Bone! Were you right? Ruth Reichl wrote a remarkably focused book here. We get to hear about the women who shaped her childhood–her as-yet-undiagnosed bipolar mother and a host of strange stand-in mother or grandmother figures–through the food they serve: her mother’s penchant for past-expiration bulk products that send guests to the hospital, her mysterious upper class maid’s mercurial meals, her father’s first wife’s mother’s maid’s recreations of her beloved employer’s wedding menu. Framed such, it is easy to understand how Ms. Reichl became so passionate about food. It was a passion that carried her through her teenagerhood, helping her relate to the boys she had crushes on, making her able to cope with her loneliness and isolation at the Quebec boarding school her mother sent her to on a whim, keeping her out of trouble at the French island camp she was shipped to, against her will, to be a counselor. For me, the book really picked up when Ms. Reichl headed off to school. Her relationship with her roommate, made uneasy by the roommate’s racial awakening, could be occasionally eased by their shared love of food. The vacation they took together to Northern Africa is so well-rendered that I will probably always think of couscous with a bit of Ms. Reichl’s longing for the handsome stranger who appoints himself the travelers’ guide. As an adult, Ms. Reichl first bonds with her husband by cooking for him, then carves a life for herself as a chef at a hippie cooperative restaurant in Berkeley. She takes us through her formative years using the exclusive framework of food, yet it rarely felt forced. The inclusion of recipes in the text seemed gimmicky, but other than that, I found this to be a poignant, satisfying read.
Speaking of food–one of my favorite aspects of Sloane Crosley’s book is that the title of the book was not a title of one of the essays, yet it could have been; the essays were similarly unabashed. I liked some more than others. Strangely, the one that I absolutely hated was the first, entitled “The Pony Problem.” It was about a collection of plastic ponies the author has been gifted by various love interests, all thinking themselves clever for picking up on her nervous tick of asking for ponies. The whole essay seemed an extension of said embarrassing tick, but also rang false even if it wasn’t. It also includes this convoluted, terrible sentence, on page 4: “If I subtract the overarching strangeness of being a grown woman with a toy collection, I like to think of the ponies as tributes to my type–I date people for whom it would occur to them to do this.” Eek. Why open with this when the essays that follow are all, to varying degrees, better? The only other time I hit this degree of annoyance was when, in an essay about the uniqueness of her name, Ms. Crosley asserts HER annoyance that other people claim to have met Sloanes before. You know what? I knew a Sloane, too. Those people aren’t lying. It’s really not that weird of a name.
Overall, though, I did like reading this book. Ms. Crosley is in my peer group and reading about the silly New York things that happened to her–her terrible first boss, her hilarious/horrible moving story, her crazy downstairs neighbor–was like reading a string of over-long emails from a friend. Or maybe a friend of a friend. I would have cared a lot more about all these minor fiascoes if Sloane was a girl I actually went to college with, rather than a girl I could have gone to college with. That said, I’ll probably one day end up at a cocktail party with Sloane Crosley and, now that I’ve actually read her book, I can say that that would be okay. I do hope she doesn’t read this post, though.