Hello, friends. Last week, I mentioned Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which I read in just two sittings last week. Apart from that, I’ve been reading in a patchier, less-focused fashion for the past little while. Part of it is because I’m nearing the end of Rivals in the City, so I don’t have as much mental space for other fictions. And part of it is the fact that it’s spring, and I’m restless, and sunshine-starved, and eager to start gardening. So today, I have one book to recommend to you and a few others that I’ve dipped into and plan to keep reading.
Pamela Branch, The Wooden Overcoat
I’d never heard of Pamela Branch, but I picked this up for its cover and made the decision to buy it based on the author bio: “Pamela Branch was born on a tea estate in Ceylon. She… studied art in Paris and then went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Returning to the East she lived for three years on a houseboat in Kashmir, trekking in the Himalayas in the summer and skiing in the winter. She travelled extensively in Europe, India, the Middle East and Africa. She died in 1967.”
The novel is vivid and memorable, in a rather unexpected way. It doesn’t start especially well, the solution to the puzzle has nothing to do with the plot itself, and the title has nothing to do with the mystery. There is zero emotional development for any of the characters, who are all two-dimensional types. Yet it’s deliciously, almost appallingly breezy (a houseful of aspiring artists tries repeatedly – and fails repeatedly – to dump a quickly increasing number of corpses, whom they call “the Loved Ones”) and extremely funny. Branch has a brilliant eye for detail (“Fan cleaned her teeth. She was experimenting with a new way of spitting toothpaste when she saw from under her eyelashes that the woman in the opposite window was still watching her.”). But it’s the setting I really adored: 1950s Chelsea, seedy, decrepit, still in the age of ration cards (following the Second World War). And I love that Branch wrote a really funny and gruesome murder mystery by breaking so many rules. I’m eager to read the rest of her small body of work.
Fuchsia Dunlop, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China
I’m only a few chapters into this memoir, but I think I object to Dunlop’s subtitle: I suppose some will enjoy the pun on “sweet-sour”, but it would be more accurate to jettison the stereotype and call it “bittersweet”, I think. Or better, simply “A Memoir of Eating in China”. Apart from that, I’m enjoying it tremendously. I have Dunlop’s first cookbook, Land of Plenty (published in the UK as Sichuan Cookery), and cooked from it quite a bit before I began producing 35 meals and snacks each week for small children. (Do the Sichuanese feed their toddlers numbing Sichuan peppercorns? I’d love to know.) But I didn’t realize that Dunlop was such a skilled writer. I am entranced by her descriptions, moved by her account of her first months as a foreign student in Chengdu, and desperate to know how things develop.
Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction
Confession: I’ve never read anything by Joan Didion. I planned to read The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir of losing her husband to a sudden heart attack, but was distracted by other books – and, definitely, a shyness about the subject matter. (After all, I intend to read Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened of, too, but I never think to myself, “You know what would be perfect to read next? That one about fearing death.”) But I recently ran across a reference to Didion’s 1968 classic series of essays about the hippie movement, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The idealism of the hippie movement has been a big topic in our house for the past few months – we’re in a comparable moment of cultural crisis, I think – and so I’m in. I’ve only flicked through, but I think I’m going to become a Didion convert. Her most prominent trait for me so far is, in Graham Greene’s words, “the splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”. I can’t wait to be frozen.
What are you reading? Have you read any of my picks this week?