Friday, September 15, 2023

Book Review: The Upstairs Delicatessen by Dwight Garner


"It’s a slim volume about what I’ve taken away from a lifetime of reading and eating, lessons both creaturely and philosophical."

The Upstairs Delicatessen is a book written by American journalist and editor Dwight Garner in which he tries to blend two of his passions—books and food—which for him are a pair like Simon and Schuster. I have already read many of his articles in The New York Times, a fact that I came to know only when I googled his name after finishing the book. I received an advance copy of this book, which is to be published by the end of October this year, from the publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux through Netgalley in exchange for my feedback.

The book, as its tagline clarifies, is on eating, reading, reading about eating, and eating while reading. Some of my fondest memories of eating food in my childhood were in the company of delightful children's magazines and books borrowed from the library. My mother used to scold me for reading library books while eating, reminding me of all the dirty places in different homes I might have had access to in the past. My father used to joke that if a plate of cockroaches were fried and served, I wouldn't notice it as I used to be fully submerged inside my book.

Dwight Garner borrows the title The Upstairs Delicatessen from the critic Seymour Krim, who liked to refer to his memory as "that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine." Garner borrows liberally from the writings on different kinds of food by different kinds of writers. You'll find quotes, anecdotes, and pearls of wisdom from novels, memoirs, cookbooks, poems, stories, and food reviews.

The writer arranges all of them in five parts: Breakfast, Lunch, Shopping, Drinking and Dinner, allowing himself an interlude that features Swimming and Nap. The backbone of the book that binds all these together is Garner's own daily experiences, thoughts, and preferences. There is also an introduction in which the writer obliges the formality of an autobiographical description, also garnished with a generous helping of quotations.

The book throws a barrage of literary quotes and references continuously at the reader—one or two at least in every paragraph. If you are a sucker for quotations or are looking for new books and authors to read, The Upstairs Delicatessen is a treasure trove. You get to know a lot of tidbits about a lot of writers and about how they process their food, both literally and figuratively. When you think of it, knowing how Alexander Dumas cooked his food seems like unnecessary trivia, but once you read about it, it becomes one of the most precious specks of information ever to be processed by your brain.

The observations made by the author are also very quotable. He describes the writing of the journalist Tommy Tomlinson: "His writing makes you want to lick the page." He writes that seeing a person with a book or magazine these days is like glimpsing a wolf in the forest. My only issue with the book is that it provides an information overload, and you won't remember most of it by the time you finish it. But you could always read it all over again. So no complaints.

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