A Year in Reading: Rachel Syme


Reading is seeking; it doesn’t just happen to us. We move our eyes from word to word, we move our hands to turn the pages. I’ve always treated reading like an all-encompassing quest that will never end, a riddle without an answer. But at its most basic level, books are about want. We desire to know — or at least to consume — what has been put down inside the pages. Reading is the act of satiating your own heart.

I used to read for escape. I grew up in a dusty Southwestern town where the most exciting activity on a Friday night was to cruise down the main drag in your parents’ station wagon, just to see other people your age doing the same thing. I dreamed of cities and steam tunnels and pop bulbs. They happened. So much happened. I am lucky to say that many of the things I used to read about and deeply want — girls running through the Plaza, reporters chain-smoking on a deadline, secret affairs with innominate troubadours, big sumptuous meals gobbled down with an adopted family of misfits — they all happened to me. And then this year rolled around.

This year, I read for stasis. I moved three times, changed jobs twice, had a tremendous stroke of luck that I mainly struggle to believe before I go to sleep, fell out and into love, found mice in too many cupboards. I read many books, but I kept searching for a new Bible, or at least a text that I would find soothing and steady in a period of such turbulence. In September, someone slipped me a copy of The Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, and I felt my world slow to a crawl. Adler’s book may not be the “best” book that I read this year, but it was the one that made me feel the most sane. In day-to-day terms, that can’t be underestimated.

Adler is equally a writer and a chef, a kind of kitchen poet from the school of M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David. The Everlasting Meal (subtitle: Cooking with Economy and Grace), is technically a cookbook, but there are few recipes. Instead, Adler leads the reader through a naturalistic look at one’s kitchen: starting with eggs and running through protein, produce, grains, dairy and dry goods, explaining how to wring the most life and flavor out of each ingredient. In the process, she explains how to tie your cooking life into a happy life; to understand that the most simple meals are often crafted by complex and active minds. It takes a lot of patience and stability to create a warm dish of comfort from just a few handfuls of rice, some spices, an old hunk of parmesan cheese, and the tops of radishes. But it’s all you need — in Adler’s world, less is still less. But we don’t need more.

If this is sounding kind of magical or dippy, it is only because I have trouble capturing this book without adding my own syrupy inflection. Adler’s writing is as sparse and economical as her kitchen, and the only time she veers into the mystical is when she speaks about what the vegetables may want out of a dish. (i.e. Beans “like to be soaked.”) She meditates for twelve chapters on how to live, how to eat, how to make something out of nothing. She advocates for saving every recipe no matter how bad it turns out, calling liquid cake “molten or pudding cake,” or scooping it all up into parfait glasses with whip cream. There are no mistakes. And when there truly are blunders, Adler writes, “there is the art of letting go…Being moved to surrender is an act of grace.”

This book is just what I wanted.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Year in Reading: Rachel Syme


“We were talking about The Bell Jar, because we were sixteen, and we wanted to be depressed in New York.” – Deborah Willis, Vanishing

I tend to like and lean towards creative things made by womenfolk—perhaps it has to do with being handed a Cibo Matto mixtape at a crucial point of adolescence or deciding to major in post-1945 yonic-ceramic-art-history in college (yes! I really did this!); yellow-wallpapered observations are always my default reads. But this year, I found myself reading almost exclusively female writers–and more specifically, their collections of short stories. As Lorrie Moore puts it (best, always best), I have entered “that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity,” and the best way I’ve found to navigate—or at least subsist within—it are these compact little morsels of ladywriting, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I blame the Internet and Saturn’s return.

My favorite discovery this year was Canadian bookseller Deborah Willis, whose debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories really floored me. Willis has this airy, almost giggly writing voice that sounds like a Valley Girl gifted with an Oxford education (example: “What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces.”) The title story in her collection is told by a woman whose neurotic author father mysteriously left his attic office one day and just never returned—the narrator is still stunned by it after so many years, this spectral longing, this losing a person due to the fact that they simply do not wish to be found. If you have time to read one more short story this year, consider making that one it.

Willis’ work reminded me a bit, but not too much, of Aimee Bender’s wonderful, casual magical realism, which I am (utterly, blushingly) ashamed to say was a 2010 revelation. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–about people who eat their feelings in every literal way–was one of my favorite long reads this year, but I found myself gravitating more often in quiet moments to her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which contains one of the best descriptions of losing love I’ve found. A woman’s lover experiences “reverse evolution,” becoming a monkey, then a salamander-like primitive creature that she must let out to sea. “Sometimes I think he’ll wash up on shore,” she writes. “A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back.” And isn’t that what we all want from past loves? Bewilderment and a sudden return to our stoop. Point: Bender.

Last cold front, I dove headfirst in the Mary Gaitskill oeuvre after seeing her read at the Center for Fiction early in the year, gobbling down Don’t Cry and Bad Behavior (again, deep shame of not getting there sooner). I also found and courted and decided to settle in with Amy Bloom, particularly Come to Me—which was the winner in the “story openings I wish I’d written” category: “I wasn’t surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein’s store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable.”

The last woman-penned story collection I read was Michele Latiolais’ forthcoming Widow, which is weird and sad and compulsive and continues to stick to my ribs. Latiolais writes about grief in such a raw way—she joins the general pantheon of No-More-Husband literature (high priestess: J-Did), but her style is so unique as to be another genre altogether.

And also! Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which nails so much in so little space.