Nigel Slater‘s Ripe is a gorgeous object: a heavyweight, clothbound, coffee-table tome that isn’t so much food porn as gastronomic erotica. There are gorgeous photographs throughout, of apricots poaching in fragrant tea and berries swooning on pillows of cream, of lacy stalks of blossom and rough hunks of pie. Ripe makes a pair with Slater’s previous book, Tender, both focused on the garden and the plate. Tender takes you through the cook’s vegetable patch and here, we’re guided through his orchard – a term he admits is generous for his tiny London backyard.
I picked up this recent-ish novel partly as research for my book (it’s set in New York in 1938), and although I’m a cranky and overly judgmental reader of contemporary fiction, I enjoyed it beyond its atmospheric charms. The author is a first-time novelist who’s also the head of an investment firm in Manhattan, and for some reason that information is both galling and informative. The book is obsessed with money, as practical fact and glittering illusion, and with the fine-lined social picture of Manhattan society, from its plutocrats to its impoverished artists. It also makes for some uncomfortable turns of plot, in which the renunciation of wealth for hard physical labor is redemptive (for men, at least), and weak men become strong by joining the army. The narrator is (unsurprisingly) a bookish, observant, working-class girl of Russian immigrant stock, improbably named Katey Kontent, who is by turns, often unpredictably, timid and bold, frumpish and vampish. She’s strongest when she’s describing other people – her glamorous, mercurial roommate Eve, and the wealthy lover they share, who is of course not what he seems. Reviews of the book tend to reference Fitzgerald, because the author himself likes to do so, and the novel is laden with often heavy-handed English-major allusions. At one point the narrator, who has vaulted herself into an assistant’s position at a new Condé Nast glossy magazine, is told to take a contributor’s article and make it less Henry James, more Hemingway. It sounds like something the author’s been told, or has told himself, and for the most part he finds a comfortable enough line between the two – perhaps too comfortable. Too much time spent in the company of Towles’s prose, as in the stylized, stifling apartments of his wealthy characters, makes you yearn for a little mess and a little more adventure.
I realized that up until just now I had no category for “read” on this blog, but I want a space to talk about the books I’m not reviewing elsewhere and I’m not reading for work. That has tended to be a rather small category over the last few years, but I’m working to change that. So this is a space to talk about reading for pleasure, at random, for myself. I’m not on Goodreads or any other online book-exploring site, mostly because I’m not sure how it works and whether it’s worth investing the time. Anyone with strong feelings either way, let me know!
Anyway, Barbara Ehrenreich isn’t really a pleasurable read, but she’s bracing, like a stiff wind off the ocean in November. Bright-Sided came out in 2009, and I’ve had the galley for a while (which I love, because it’s emblazoned with the contact info of the publicity person at Holt, who goes by the extraordinary name of Chastity Lovely. I don’t want to Google her, but I do hope she’s out there somewhere doing great things.)
Bright-Sided, subtitled cheerily “How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America” is a disturbing journey, making connections between phenomena that are often decried but not often (at least in my experience) shown to be interdependent: megachurches, corporate downsizing, CEO insanity-pay, “life-coaching” hucksterism, and desperate academic grant-grubbing. These manifestations of recklessness and hypocrisy are also linked with other, more apparently innocuous versions of positive thinking, like cancer support-groups, motivation exercises, and self-help books that try to boost readers’ flagging levels of personal happiness. Continue reading