Sam van Zweden




A Month of Reading: June

June was good for books. I read three books during the month, and I acquired a great many more. 


Relish, by Lucy Knisley.

Lucy’s coming to town for the Melbourne Writers Festival in August, and a copy of this was floating about the office. With a combined love of memoir and food, this book really spoke to me. The daughter of two foodies, Knisley combines recipes, travel stories, and coming-of-age memories in this gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir. Get on it – very fun.


Madness: A Memoir, by Kate Richards

This first caught my eye for the cover design. It looks beautiful, but it also feels beautiful. Those scribbles are actually embossed so that it feels like someone’s picked up each and every book fresh off the printing press and done that design by hand.

Like with Relish, I picked up Madness: A Memoir because it hit close to home. Between my mum’s and my experiences of mental illness, it’s always a topic I’m keen to read about. I guess the intangibility of mental illness means that it’s anything but universal, and every memoir or account that comes out of it will offer something different. 

Unfortunately, it’s also dangerous territory. Many mental illness memoirs only touch on the physical experience, and look no deeper. Madness really hit the mark for me. Kate Richards is medically trained, so she has a different understanding of her illness, and seems to understand that she can play a bridging role (between medical establishments and patients) that many psychiatric patients cannot. Madness managed to explain some things I’ve never understood about Mum’s experience, and prompted me to consider the role of writing as an advocacy tool. 



High Sobriety by Jill Stark

High-selling nonfiction books make a bigger dent on my radar than high-selling fiction books. So all the talk around High Sobriety earned it a place on the reading pile, and I was lucky enough to co-chair the #kydbookclub this month with Jessica Alice, discussing High Sobriety. Unfortunately, Australian politics exploded within ten minutes of the book club starting, but the discussion that did happen over the top of #auspol on Twitter was good fun, and interesting.

High Sobriety follows Jill Stark, a newspaper health reporter, as she takes a year off booze. Like diet, drinking habits are deeply personal, and it’s almost impossible to read this book without weighing in on it somehow. As a not-particularly-heavy-drinker, I still had a lot of eyebrow-raising moments. Stark made me think about the cultural role of alcohol, and the things we take for granted that are actually a bit messed up.


Research and Relish

I have just finished reading Lucy Knisley‘s Relish. It’s a gorgeously drawn graphic memoir.

Last year at MWF, Estelle Tang waved Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother around before a panel, and when I chased that up, I discovered that graphic memoirs are amazing things. I loved Bechdel’s work, so when I heard about Knisley’s graphic memoir, I couldn’t say no. I love Knisley’s book. I’m not an avid comic reader, so I’m not judging with any kind of criteria other than, “it spoke to me”. 

ImageRelish is a collection of Knisley’s memories that are tied to food. The daughter of two foodies, she’s grown up around a lot of tasty things, but food functions here as something way more than sustenence or source of wonder. Food, for Knisley, provides a trigger for memories, and a framework through which she can understand her life. Experiences can be categorized by their food allegiances – Mexican sweets and coming of age. Choc-chip cookies and comforting rituals. French jammy croissants and losing her mind in pursuit of recreation. Many of Lucy’s food triggers are tied to family members, like her pearl-wearing grandmother, “the pickle whisperer”. 

Also scattered throughout the book are recipes and cooking tips. Last week I made carbonara according to Knisley’s graphic recipe and it was delicious. Books that pair recipes with memories are delightful (I was also a big fan of Charlotte Woods’ Love and Hunger), and Knisley’s consistently beautiful, funny drawings make this book a warm and welcoming reading experience. 

I’m currently (sporadically) working on a memoir project which looks at the connections between food and words. My father and brother are both chefs, and food has played a big part in our relationships. As a writer, I constantly look for the places where food and words meet – these are the things that potentially be exciting to all three of us; a meeting-point of sorts.

In researching for this project, I’ve had no trouble finding memoirs written by chefs, or by people who’ve stumbled across cooking and food as some kind of saviour. There are far fewer books that are closer to what I’m trying to do. Knisley’s Relish has been a thunderbolt moment for me – I’ve found someone who’s done what I’m trying to do, talking about family relationships with foodies, from the perspective of someone who’s not a great gastronome, but a perfectly adequate cook. 

I had this point with my memoir work about my mum, too. Reading Sandy Jeffs’ Flying With Paper Wings showed me that there is space for intellectual ideas in mental illness memoirs, and that a balance can be struck between the personal and the broader world of ideas. Similarly, Knisley has shown me that a memoir concerned with food can be about much more than direct experiences involving food, and that there is a way to combine my own non-foodie interests with the foodie stuff that has shaped me.

By combining her growing-up and food stories with a love for art and drawing, Knisley has produced an honest, non-food-porn-y memoir. I love her. I love this book. Thanks, Lucy Knisley, for your amazing work and for helping my research along at just the right time!

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