The Books I Read in May 2016

I don't think the three books I read this month could be more different from each other. There's one about how we learn to like or dislike food, there's one about the singer I (sort of) named my firstborn child after, and there's a novel about what was happening among the staff in the house that Pride and Prejudice was set in. I do hope at least one of these books piques your interest.

Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul by Mark Ribowsky

I saw this book in the window of my favourite music shop in Amsterdam and I stopped cycling, parked up and went in to buy it immediately. (I don't think I left my baby in his seat on the front...) I then took great pleasure in reading it as it's been ages since I've read from a hardcover book. I was also reading about the man I named Baby Bird after so there was a definite poignancy and heightened curiosity.

While I know a lot of Otis Redding's music, I didn't know all that much about his life other than he died at a very young age (27), that he had a very distinctive soul style and that he was prolific during his short career. I also once checked that he wasn't a serial killer in his spare time as it's quite a thing to give your kid a name that instantly makes other people think of only one famous person. The book did well to educate and enlighten me and I feel much more connected to the story of the man whose voice and songs I love so much. (Spoiler alert: He wasn't a serial killer.)
While the book claims to be about more than just Otis Redding's life - and it is - the title doesn't exactly suit the book as it does read much more like a "standard" biography of a popular musician, as opposed to an indepth study of a musical movement. It is, however, incredibly well researched and put together. Although the writing style seemed a little long-winded at times, the author is clearly informed and passionate about the subject material, and I breezed through the book learning more than I really expected - like how Otis Redding's biggest financial hit while he was alive was actually a song performed by another artist, Aretha Franklin's Respect.

Very predictably my favourite Otis Redding song is Sitting on the Dock of the Bay and the story behind its creation, and tragic release - just weeks after the artist's death - only deepened my love and affection for the song that now seems very obviously to have been the beginning of a change in Otis Redding's recording career. It's just another of life's tragedies that we never got to enjoy what could have, would have, should have happened next...
First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson
I bought this book after speaking with a fellow first-time mum about the challenges of introducing solid food to my baby boy... Alright, she told me to read it after I bitched at her for far too long about how fed up I was that my son only eats sweet foods. Anyway, the book isn't exactly a "how to" guide for weaning or indeed any kind of child nutrition, it's much more of a overview of the various research projects that have studied why we eat what we eat, how we eat it, and much more. Instantly fascinating the book opened my eyes to how much of an input corporations have had on our changing tastes and I will certainly not be forgetting many of the observations about how eating disorders develop and are certainly not limited to anorexia or bulimia (one story was that of a 40-something year old woman who still ate pureed style food).

While the book didn't exactly reassure me about my son's sweet tooth (indeed he's older than the magic window for baby's to try foods) but it did help me to learn other important lessons, like being pushy with food is going to have a very negative effect, and one of the best ways to encourage a child to eat is to eat with them, ideally the exact same thing they are eating.

I would love to say that I've totally changed how I feed my son, and as a result he's a pro at eating anything and everything, but life isn't like that. But I have made small changes and I will continue to do so, and I hope to stay relaxed and encouraging with him, rather than exasperated and uncertain which is sadly what I was most mealtimes before I read this book. The main takeaway from this book is very nicely summarised in this quote from the opening chapter:

"Our tastes follow us around like a comforting shadow. They seem to tell us who we are. Maybe this is why we act as if our core attitudes to eating are set in stone. We make frequent attempts - more or less half-hearted - to change what we eat, but almost no effort to change how we feel about food: how well we deal with hunger, how strongly attached we are to sugar, our emotions on being served a small portion. We try to eat more vegetables, but we do not try to make ourselves enjoy vegetables more, maybe because there's a near-universal conviction that it is not possible to learn new tastes and shed old ones. Yet nothing could be further from the truth."

Longbourn by Jo Baker
I made the mistake of reading some Goodreads reviews of this book when I was maybe about a quarter of the way through it. They were less than flattering and could have easily put me off continuing. But honestly, I was already enjoying it and was genuinely intrigued by what was happening among the staff of Longbourn, home of the Bennet family.

Running in parallel with the events of Pride and Prejudice (which I have admittedly long forgotten or blurred a little, but this didn't seem to stop my understanding or enjoyment of the book) Longbourn focuses mainly on Sarah, an orphaned housemaid who works from before dawn until long after dusk, but the other people who serve the Bennet family are gently drawn into the story too.  There are too, of course, the strong characters in the Bennet family, not least the almost fantastical Mrs Bennet who I can honestly only ever picture as the brilliant Alison Steadman from the BBC adaptation. And then, not at all a surprise, but still a welcome development, there is a love story and we have much, much more reason to root for our heroine...

I have no doubt that the detail - all the meals, traditions and household chores - of this period in history were all heavily researched and I greatly appreciated that these findings were subtly woven into the prose as opposed to crammed in, just to make all that research worthwhile. This is the one trait that has turned me off historical fiction so often, so this was refreshing and heartening to come across. Applause should also be given to the author for sticking so close to Austen's own plot in Pride and Prejudice, or maybe this was actually helpful, like a pre-ordained structure that she had to work within. I can see it both helping and hindering the novel's own story.

In short, Longbourn was easy and warm reading. I should have saved it for the winter months, perhaps - but I have no regret reading it now and see it as an essential novel for anyone who loved Pride and Prejudice. I would love to know what it would be like to read this immediately after, in fact.

"Of men, she had scant experience. She steered around Mr Hill: he was old and worn-out, and offered nothing by way of interest or engagement. She had very little to do with Mr B., who was, after all, only really present in the physical sense. She kept her distance from the farm lads; it was kinder to ignore them than to pay them any attention at all - say good morning an dthey'd be blushing and mumbling and wiping  their hands down their britches and staring off out across the fields, as if there was something of great interest on the horizon."

Find more book reviews and recommendations from this year: January, February, March and April.

What have you been reading recently? Anything I should check out? I always love to hear your recommendations...

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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