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The tale of Serena Frome, how she got along at university and afterward, the great enterprise in which she was surprised to find herself undertaking, the ending in which all that was important is validated, this is the surface of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth.

But what the novel is also about is the love of books, of writing, of connecting. In a meta layer that honors literature lover and larger-than-life McEwan friend Christopher Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated, Sweet Tooth is a homage to a perhaps more innocent belief that literature matters. It may not literally save a life, as it did in McEwan's Saturday, but literature sure does make life worth savoring.

Specifically, the plot concerns young Serena's coming of age. She has spent her life doing what others have expected -- majoring in maths at Cambridge when she would rather have studied literature at a less distinguished university up north, then falling under the influence of an older professor, getting a job for a government agency when she least expected it and then being assigned to take a major role in an espionage project -- when all she really wanted to do was inhale books.

My needs were simple. I didn't bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn't mind so much of they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say "Marry me" by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. ... Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between -- I gave them all the same rough treatment.
Some reviewers have used this quote as an indictment of the novel, as being a comment of McEwan thinking women are stupid and silly. It didn't strike me that way and I still don't see it. Perhaps it's because I'm a book omnivore and not a genre snob. I don't insist on a happy ending, as the young Serena does, but I remember those days when I was thrilled about the way Jane Eyre ended and surprised at the turns Vanity Fair and Middlemarch took. Just because life doesn't often have a happy ending doesn't mean a reader can't want her book to end well on occasion. Sometimes, a happy ending fits.

In the same way she reads books in a breezy, suck 'em up and move on manner, and goes along with what's presented to her for an academic route and on the job, her attitude about relationships with men is to indulge herself with whoever is in front of her. In both her reading life and in her love life, however, there is the unexpected one who changes her outlook and, at length, her destiny.

Just as she seriously falls for the work of a serious writer (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and she falls after reading his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) who turns her from being a breezy columnist on books with a growing following into a harsh, tormented diarist people are not interested in reading, Serena falls for the young writer who she chooses for the espionage program she is assigned to. Sweet Tooth is the name of the operation, but it's also the way she consumes books and each new love affair. She is in love with love and, as Louisa May Alcott say, is too fond of books.

Sweet Tooth was generally not well-received by the critics. Perhaps, because Serena wrotes from the viewpoint of looking back at her early years, and because of the ending, this novel is being compared to Atonement and found wanting. I also get the sense that critics haven't approved of McEwan at least since Saturday, which I liked despite not rooting with a whole heart for the protagonist, who was more accepting of Bush's warmongering than I, and a climax that defied my ability to suspend disbelief. McEwan's heart was still in the right place.

The same can be said for Sweet Tooth. For all of Serena's apparent blase outlook and lack of thinking before she leaps, Serena's story, and her ultimate decision, show that love and literature are worthwhile choices for living a full life.

That living a full life is a wonderful celebration of the best of Christopher Hitchens. It makes sense that McEwan would dedicate this novel to his close friend. In this Guardian piece about Hitchens during his illness, there is the quintessential Hitch anecdote. McEwan gives Hitchens a book and they discuss the author, in this case, Peter Ackroyd. "We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything," McEwan wrote. "He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn't hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he'd finished it."

All of us in the Books and Readers Community are at various stages of our lifelong journey in reading. At times we may crave certain types of books or stories or information. We may be consistent in reading attitudes or go through binges. Some of you are like me in going after each new book the same way that dog in "Up" is distracted by the word "squirrel!" But I hope we can take a step back from our own reading preferences and where we are in our own journeys to acknowledge that where ever someone else is in their reading journey, the fact they have undertaken it is a worthwhile endeavor.

The way all literature, not just literary fiction, but mysteries, romance, biographies, histories, fantasy and more, have enriched my life and given me more to think about and more grounding in what I believe, the way it has expanded my world, is something I wish more people could or would include in their lives. It's why I feel privileged to have become a teacher and a teacher-librarian, and it's something I am glad to celebrate with you in all our community's diaries.

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Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A book with a happy ending (11+ / 0-)

    The Color Purple

    Where everyone ends up on the porch and gets along and accepts one another.

  •  Well said, thank you!!!! (10+ / 0-)
    The way all literature, not just literary fiction, but mysteries, romance, biographies, histories, fantasy and more, have enriched my life and given me more to think about and more grounding in what I believe, the way it has expanded my world, is something I wish more people could or would include in their lives.
    This fits very well with Bookflurries, tomorrow...another diary about your favorite authors and why they are.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:46:20 PM PDT

  •  'Sweet Tooth' sounds like a treat for devouring. (8+ / 0-)

    I first discovered McEwan when I was a teenager, and came across his early work: IIRC, First Love, Last Rites; Between the Sheets; & The Cement Garden. Since he was determined to explode every taboo he could find, this was all rather shocking to my young mind. So the first thing I found was, he could really pack a punch.

    I've read a couple since then. Atonement impressed me in every direction. I can't remember what the other was. I've been told to read Saturday, but I ought to read a few of his. Including Sweet Tooth.

    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich also impressed my teenage self. But we were more impressionable then, several hundred books ago. Tolkein and Rowling affect whole generations, showing them vast other-worlds when their imaginations are green.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:50:38 PM PDT

    •  That's one of the joys of Sweet Tooth: (6+ / 0-)

      Remembering finding THE book that affected the way we look at all following books.

      My problem is I'm not sure what book it was that did this.

      Please do read Saturday when you can. I don't think it's appreciated enough. Not that it is Marilynne Robinson quality, but that it did not deserve to be disdained.

      •  Surely it was several books, in large ways & small (6+ / 0-)

        When I first encountered 'Books That Changed My Life' I thought, has any book really changed my life? I also was pondering awhile on a possible diary, Books of my Boyhood - which set me trying to remember, and digging up ones I'd forgotten. And considering how they fed my imagination and consciousness.

        My theory: Most of us have many books that changed our lives, or at least our methods of reading, in all sorts of ways. They don't occur to us as such, because that's not how we encoded them in memory. These categories and questions we apply now, this whole structure of literary awareness - most of it was missing when I did most of my reading.

        Remembering finding THE book that affected the way we look at all following books.
        It's a worthy quest. The more we root through dead leaves with our snouts, the more truffles we find. I could name a few books that deeply changed how I read. The books that enchanted my mind the most were feasts for my imagination (Greek myths, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Tolkein) or built new structures to think with (Mathematics, Computer Science, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Literature).

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:23:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I most heartily concur with your suggestion: (7+ / 0-)
    … I hope we can take a step back from our own reading preferences and where we are in our own journeys to acknowledge that wherever someone else is on their journey, the fact they have undertaken it is a worthwhile endeavor.
    I've never seen what being snobby about reading ever got people except faces made behind their backs. Condescension doesn't get you far in any situation, IMHO, but to potentially turn someone away from books is unconscionable.

    I'm like you also when it comes to books: What book? A new book? Where? But then I'm one of those who'll read anything. Once, as a kid, I was stuck in the car waiting for my mom ("I'll only be a minute…") and I read the car manual in the glove compartment front to back.  After that, I put a couple favorite books (which changed every so often) in the backseat for just such an occasion. The funny thing about that? Now, my parents' car carries a couple books and magazines for when one of them get stuck waiting for the other one.

    Thanks to my kindle, I now never go anywhere without a plethora of books from which to choose.  What could possibly be better than that? (Okay, unlimited time to read them all.  If I could just get by on 2 hours sleep a night....)

    "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

    by citylights on Wed May 01, 2013 at 12:49:43 AM PDT

    •  Many readers become book snobs accidentally, IMHO. (4+ / 0-)

      Now, bear with me here. First, that condescending judginess easily goes both ways. When you feel the chill air of someone looking down their nose at you, they may be sneering just as hard at their own failings, when they look in the mirror.

      Some people do play petty games of one-upmanship. Others, the games play them.

      This doesn't make snobs likable. But I can understand it, especially when it comes to books. There are so many books. We who devour them, we all want some kind of menu, some sense of which are delicious, which are nutritious, which are just fat+sugar+salt. So we ask our friends, we read experts, we figure out systems of deciding what to taste next.

      I don't see how we can avoid this. There are such gems out there. I want some way of spotting them.

      But two forms of flawed information contribute to the snobbery. The first is, how easily we read the experts, parrot their opinions, and believe we can reliably judge for ourselves. Now, you may be immune to that. Many people mistrust "experts". But with so many books to choose from, it's very tempting to rely mostly on second-hand opinions of what's good.

      The second flaw in our information is, the experts are all doing this to each other, too. So there are fashionable books, that everyone decides to read at once; and there are unfashionable books.

      The unfashionable often includes several whole genres, and anything with a whiff of lowbrow about it. I was surprised, reading an interview of Chomsky (who almost always thinks for himself), when he said he knew not to read Stephen King. How could he know that, without reading first?

      But we live in a far more open-minded critical world, as far as books go, than prevailed half a century ago. And each of is free to choose, and read, and think for ourselves.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed May 01, 2013 at 01:22:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Outside a short story in The New (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, Limelite, RiveroftheWest

        Yorker and his Entertainment Weekly columns, I haven't read Stephen King either. It's not because of genre snobbery.

        At first I was afraid to after reading a Peter Straub story that seriously bothered me (about a psycho killer who found his calling as a decorated soldier). I realized how powerful a genre horror could be if used by a master. Later, after that initial reaction, I just got backlogged with other books.

        But one of the books I'm trying to finish now is NOS4A2, written by King's son, Joe Hill. It's very, very well-written and is character-rich.

        •  It's reasonable to not read King on reputation (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, bookgirl

          alone, if you are squeamish about horror. Chomsky's implication was that King was beneath him.

          We do rely, to some extent, on the recommendations of friends and experts who we trust (based on experience). But we should keep our minds open, and be willing to try anything for ourselves. I try to make this an aim of my reading: to keep trying new authors, new styles, new genres, new countries.

          You wrote a good diary, for making us think about how and why we read. Limelite wrote an interesting diary on that a couple of years ago: How Should One Read a Book?

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Wed May 01, 2013 at 08:07:58 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  I need to start working on that two (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, Limelite, RiveroftheWest

      hours of sleep; there are at least five books I need to finish by Sunday.

      And while I have stashed magazines and books in the car (too funny about your folks), I also believe a purse is no good unless it can carry at least two magazines and a book. Standing in line at the pharmacy or in a drive-through is not a problem because there's always something to read.

      I discovered this month that it is possible to fill a Kindle.

  •  Inhaler here (6+ / 0-)

    I think that is why I understood and liked Serena from the beginning.  Many of the reviews I read after reading Sweet Tooth had difficulty with Serena's characterization, but I decided most of those reviewers  probably fall within the "snob" category.  

    I had only read On Chisel Beach and Saturday before Sweet Tooth, so was expecting a more muted plot line.  I was happily surprised to find oh-so-many thematic layers
    in what, for me, was great commentary on how we can look at "literature" from several points of view.

    To some I am sure Sweet Tooth smacked of literary devices run amok, but it worked for me.

    Another great review, bookgirl.

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Wed May 01, 2013 at 05:05:57 AM PDT

  •  Late, as usual (5+ / 0-)

    I'm an omnivore myself.  Now reading a memoir of a girl growing up during the Cultural Revolution, read a novel about Cambodia before that, Pride and Prejudice before that, a book of absurdist short stories by an Israeli writer before that...

    It is difficult for me to get past bad writing, but if the story is entertaining enough, I can manage.  I read a bunch of Alex Cross novels by Patterson, because I liked the character (and I believe in cleansing the "palate" from time to time with what I call "bubblegum".)

    It helps that I buy most of my books used.  I feel less of a compunction to worry about buying the perfect book, if I'm paying two bucks or less for it.  That has led me to read books I would never have read otherwise.  A couple of disparate examples:

    Platero and I:  written by a Nobel award winning Spanish author before WWI, it offers vignettes of life in a small village in Andalusia.  Picked it up and put it down a couple of times, but eventually said "what the hell" and plunked down fifty cents.  Wonderful read.

    {For the life of me, I can't remember the name}.  PIcked up a book, several years ago, which had been written by a leader of the political Christian right.  Talked about how and why the right had moved tactically to the local level, and built from below.  Explained to me how they had succeeded, and pushed me to move in that direction myself.  I was not the target audience for this book, which was likely only sold in Christian bookstores.

    I will be buying a car soon; Zipcar is becoming less cost-effective for me.  I will miss the two hours every day spent commuting on the train.  A car will knock an hour off my commute.  I hope I use that hour to read.

    Ancora Impara--Michelangelo

    by aravir on Wed May 01, 2013 at 05:25:36 AM PDT

  •  Perhaps Serena is Too Real for Critics (4+ / 0-)

    to warm up to and not quite fictional enough.  She's neither iconic nor a type; she's just dangerously and realistically a woman reading enthusiast.

    She sounds like the kind of reader serious (ahem) writers don't care to write for but who they hope buys their books anyway.  That's very threatening: to be a snob who depends on the kindness of hoi polloi.

    Your diary is excellent and has made me want to read Sweet Tooth.  I doubt my palate is too overrefined for it.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Wed May 01, 2013 at 08:19:26 AM PDT

  •  Great Thread - Stories are Important! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Brecht, bookgirl

    It's been my opinion for several years that stories are the way otherwise  isolated human minds communicate with each other and create society.

    Stories connect everything in much the same way the mind does. Images, humans and their roles, language, facts. Most importantly, stories take all those elements and create meaning for them. Then stories are how we take what is in our minds, translate all of that into language, and pass it on to someone else.

    The first stories are the ones we tell our children from the very beginning. The groups we join all have core stories and we fit into various roles that are prescribed in those stories.

    Our self-image is a story that we create ourselves in response to communication with others as we learn to talk. We then observe that self-image and act in ways that are consistent with it. The "Self", then, is a narrative social creation.  

    Facts matter, but the meanings we assign to facts are all communicated in stories. And it's all in narrative format. In my opinion that is where the  human sense of time (Before, Present, Future) comes from. That is  narrative requirement and we communicate it with stories.

    The isolated kings in Ireland would allow bards to come in, join their meals, and tell jokes about the king anyone else would have been killed for telling. Why? that was how the kind found out what the king over the hill was doing and planning. It was the Intelligence system of successful kings, and it soon became tradition.

    The Bible is a collection of traditional stories centered on the Jewish tribe. The myths around the stories grew up because the shamans telling the stories depended on the kings to support them instead of working for a living, so they shaded the stories they told to provide legitimacy for the king they depended on. But the power of priests centers on the ability to store the history of the tribe and pass it on to the next generation.

    The best description of the nature of narrative is the 40 page introduction to a book called "A Palpable God" by Reynolds Price.

    Stories are not just intellectual bubble gum. They are the essence of humanity as a social animal.

    The US Supreme Court has by its actions and rhetoric has ceased to be legitimate. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - over

    by Rick B on Wed May 01, 2013 at 12:17:03 PM PDT

  •  I admire writers who can do happy endings (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Brecht

    In my own writing, I don't quite "trust" happy endings - we've all seen too many gawdawful TV-movies where the happy ending feels totally forced.  And ending has to be earned, good or bad.  Mine usually wind up sort of bittersweet.  I'm working on a piece now where everybody winds up with the right person at the end, and it's a whole new experience for me.

    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Wed May 01, 2013 at 04:59:26 PM PDT

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