Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Young Writer Award: The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman and KIngs of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth




Looks like I am going to manage to achieve my aim and finish reading the shortlisted books before the announcement of the winner on Thursday. Not much else has got done, apart from the editing of my short story, 'Kiss', which was longlisted in the Short Fiction Journal Prize in the Spring and has now been chosen by Toby Litt for publication on the Mechanics' Institute Review Online (which, unusually for a literary magazine, provides professional copyediting.)

Sitting reading all day long for a whole week and doing nothing much else besides is something I haven't done since I was a child, so there was a certain comforting nostalgia about it all, and it was an experience strangely echoed in Laura Freeman's shortlisted The Reading Cure: How Books Restored my Appetite. This is a bravely frank book in which Laura describes how she stopped eating at the age of thirteen, was diagnosed anorexic and prescribed bed rest, and having always been 'a bookish person', spent two years working her way through book after book - a book a day: it's quite clear she is a faster reader than I! - and she does say at one point that books were her gluttony. With the help of her mother, she managed to control the illness enough to go to university and hold down a job as a journalist on a national newspaper, but still had difficulties with food. However, reading Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Hunting Man, and its descriptions of hunting trips 'fortified' by breakfasts of boiled eggs and cocoa, marked the beginning of a change for Laura in her attitude to food which developed throughout her subsequent reading. She reads the whole of Dickens (in just over a year!) with its vivid depictions of characters' relationships to food (through from starvation to relish to gluttony), the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee, the diaries of Virginia Woolf (who had her own difficult relationship with food) and a food-obsessed eighteenth century parson, the cookery writers M F K Fisher and Elizabeth David, and a good deal more (there are 169 books referenced in the bibliography).

My feeling of nostalgia was reinforced by the fact that much of this reading is Victorian or early-twentieth-century, and there's a fair amount of jolly upper-class 'munching' and so on which Laura wittily mimics and which took me back to the world that the books of my childhood introduced me to. (I began to wonder if contemporary writers don't write much about food, and the only two I can recall doing so with relish and sensuality are Michelle Roberts and Helen Simpson.) In addition, Laura also returned to her childhood reading, most of which was indeed my own: The Wind in the Willows, T H White, Little Women, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Pooh Bear, the Katy books and so on, though Harry Potter was way after my time. Laura rekindled for me the feeling of sitting on my bed with my tastebuds titillated as I read about the picnic feast in The Wind in the Willows, but I have to say that some of the lists of rich, buttery, creamy or syrup-drenched foods that she creates as she extracts them from her reading did make me feel queasy at times. In spite of the book's title, Laura is quite open about the fact that she is not absolutely cured, and makes clear that this is no self-help book, but simply a description of what she feels has worked for her. It's a brave book in its self-revelation, and is a testament to the restorative power of literature and reading.

And now from the sedentary pursuit of reading to sweeping down a river and over rapids, canoeing in the opposite direction to spawning salmon: Adam Weymouth's Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey. I was gripped from the start by the explanation of the life cycle of the king salmon, and now I am involved in the lives of those whose people have lived for generations alongside the river and whose livelihoods are being destroyed by the drop in fish numbers and, ultimately I guess, climate change. An important book, I can see already.

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