Brain/Food: never mind the question, the answer is probably dark chocolate

Ying Lee, known in your local YA lit-friendly bookstore as Y.S. Lee, is known to me as one of the people I know sensible enough to do a PhD (inherently unsensible) in Victorian Literature. We knew each other during the Dark Times (grad school) and while I felt and looked like a gibbering mess all the time, she always looked cool and in control and carried summer around with her.

Also, she got all the nerdy Victorian jokes in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics (and laughed delightedly at them in the office we briefly shared during the Dark Times), while I sat (not in that office) bored and irritated through the terrible movie adaptation. I think that sort of sums us both up actually.

Ying Lee


What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well?

Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Those who didn’t like it should try again. And again. And again. Until they GET IT.

Do you have any reading superstitions?

BlackSwanGreenI am reluctant to open the last unread book of a favourite author because I need to know that there is more of that greatness still to come. For example, I couldn’t read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green until The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet was published.* This is a godawful dilemma when the author is dead.

What book would a prospective lover/marriage partner/friend have to say they loved for you to end your relationship with them immediately?

Apart from the obvious (Mein Kampf, The Fountainhead, etc)? I’d be more concerned if they unreservedly loved a certain kind of writing that I can’t respect: self-consciously exquisite poetic prose, for example.

Has a book ever made you physically ill? If yes, which book was it and why did it affect you this way?

I recently read Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” a very short (6 pages), unsentimental memoir of her miscarriage. I started bawling halfway through and by the time I was finished, I was sobbing so hard it hurt. I actually howled with grief. I think it’s a combination of aging and becoming a parent, but in the last 5 years I’ve become terrifyingly conscious of how vulnerable all people are. It was far too easy to imagine Levy’s experience, and also to imagine it as my own.

Reading and eating simultaneously, yes or no? Dangers and benefits?

It depends. Lunch with a magazine? Sure. I like shorter non-fiction for that kind of company while eating. Sustained reading, though—especially fiction—requires a different kind of focus, and I wouldn’t be able to savour whatever it was I ate while reading.

Have you ever read a cookbook front to back like a novel? What was it, and what story did it tell you?

Momofuku coverJust recently, I read the Momofuku cookbook like that. I’m fascinated by Dave Chang because I see his public persona as kind of an alternate-reality version of my brother. His cookbook told me two stories: the first about his apparent impostor syndrome as a celebrity chef, and the second about his ambivalent relationship with Korean-American food traditions. Dave Chang has a lot of demons for a man who worships pork.

Is it okay to write in cookbooks? What about novels or books of poetry? What’s the difference?

I’m all for annotating cookbooks because I fiddle with recipes a lot. I’ve also found it useful to put dates to my recipe notes, so that I can see the history of a recipe’s evolution. (That sounds pompous. I didn’t mean that recipes always evolve for the better, in my hands.) I used to be vehemently opposed to marginalia in other books, probably because in every second-hand course textbook I bought as an undergrad, somebody had underlined a significant passage and labelled it “irony.” But I’ve relaxed. As long as they’re writing in pencil, I appreciate the presence of other readers. I recently read a Peter Robinson novel (library book) in which some pedant had noted a couple of grammatical errors and glossed some 1970s British pop-culture references. He or she was entertaining company.

Is baking *really* a science? If so, what would a doctoral dissertation in baking comprise? Experiments, hypotheses, results?

No. Claiming that “baking is a science” is a polite way of saying, “I, the author of this recipe, am not responsible for your misguided creativity and sloppy measuring.”

Describe what for you would be the bookish equivalent of an ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day? How about a steaming hot chocolate on a freezing January night during a snowpocalypse?

Lemonade: anything by Muriel Spark. Hot chocolate: On Beauty by Zadie Smith.

If you could replace those little Gideon Bibles in hotel room nightstands with any book at all, what would it be? What would you have left on guests’ pillows to replace the ubiquitous mint?

The problem with the Gideons is that they think the answer lies in just one (half) book. Is it cheating to replace them with a range of books, classic and popular and literary and genre-tastic? I would replace the mint with a square of 70% cacao chocolate because, unlike the Bible, dark chocolate really is the answer for everyone.** Dark chocolate and Middlemarch.***

*David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, will be published in 6 months and 29 days! Or thereabouts.


***Even more correct.

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