Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie,

Who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?

(‘The Art of Cookery’, William King, quoted from ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ by Alan Bradley’)



I must admit my relationship with reading has been not so good recently as it ought to have been. Considering that I am a bookseller and writer (of once-published renown), books should be my food, my delight, my sweetness at the bottom of the pie. I’m not saying I don’t still enjoy them, just that I have more difficulty in tearing myself away from adult life to visit the proverbial Faraway Tree.

I remember when I was young that feeling of absolutely losing myself in a world that was not mine but which I quickly adopted. I recall the feeling I had for days (sometimes weeks) after finishing the book that I was still living in the story. I’m sure I misheard or didn’t hear at all many a conversation with friends when I was in this state. I realised it was escapism at the time, but it was something I craved like a drug.

I still crave that feeling but I get it more from writing these days, and the high is never so long lasting (unless I have a raging fever, that’s when it gets really fun in my head but awful on the page). I feel guilt about reading which I can only explain with the fact that I have middle class guilt about just about everything. Why should I be reading this book when I could be out doing something useful like saving the world or something (my brain tricks me, while I’m feeling reading guilt into thinking that there’s something amazing and fast that I can do to solve hunger or alcoholism or literacy). It’s kind of like reading under the desk in class. I can never properly relax into the book because there’s some stockinged teacher looking over my shoulder asking – what is it teaching me that is useful to my development (which will help me save the universe), or which will aid my understanding of the cultures and psychologies around me (which may one day help me save the universe)? What is the world gaining from my ability to read ungainly quantities of books?

Ahah. But I’ve discovered the loophole.  Loophole thy name is “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This is a book I can feel and touch and taste. It navigates through Ayaan’s childhood in Muslim, clan oriented Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, and her  escape to Holland and a freer way of thinking. Its conversational style openly discusses so many questions surrounding extreme faith, equality, responsibility and so many more topics which are so relevant to anyone who breathes.  The writing is so accessible and sets forth so much about humanity, politics and ethics clearly, but without losing sight of all of their complications. This is a book I can, strange to say, disappear into. Ayaan is such a generous narrator, giving so much detail of several different ways of life in different countries which I will probably never experience, but now feel that I have.

Another book that has soaked itself into the crevices of my brain recently is “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” by Alan Bradley. It’s absolutely fictional, set in rural 1950’s England, and the narrator is a chemistry obsessed 11 year old girl, Flavia. As she slowly unravels a murder of a man who she discovered dying in the cucumber patch at her grand old English home, Flavia also treats us to wonderful information about compounds and poisons (she has a chemistry lab in the bottom of the house and hangs a picture of Mr Bunsen of Bunsen burner fame in her closet). The language is colourful in the way that kindergarten children’s wax pictures are. And the facts and figures that add to this wonderfully quirky girl are wonderfully informative and humorous, “Odd, isn’t it, that a charge of lipstick is precisely the size of a .45 calibre slug”(pp10).

Though I haven’t yet finished ‘Sweetness’ I am thoroughly enjoying it without any of my usual pangs of guilt. Now I feel guilty about spending time away from ‘Sweetness’ writing this!  I come anon Alan Bradley!

(PS. Please let me know if you get reading guilt too? Maybe it’s a case of the 20’s, wanting to do something that matters and all that. Lots of people I know have been catching it. Maybe we can organise a reading guilt convention)