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Pickle Me This

April 26, 2007

Cake or Death by Heather Mallick

My favourite thing is when irate readers respond to Heather Mallick’s column with accusations of hypocrisy or contradiction as though the world were so straightforward that consistency for the sake of itself was a virtue instead of a limit. Heather Mallick’s new book Cake or Death: The Excruciating Choices of Everyday Life is absolutely riddled with contradictions and Mallick is well aware of this. In her introduction she answers her titular proposal with cake and death– a somewhat morbid extension of having your cake and eating it too, but morbid is just the way Mallick is feeling these days. Justifiably so really, and why should it mean she remains cake-free? If you’ve got a cake, you might as well eat it. I mean, what kind of a moron wouldn’t?

Cake or Death is a wonderful book of essays. Not because I usually admire Mallick’s writing, and not because the book references Margaret Drabble at least twice, but because the reading was just a pleasure. Even with the death, because Mallick’s got the necessary humour (which the irate readers don’t seem to understand). I liked this book so much that I read it all the way home yesterday, and I was walking. I liked this book so much that I read four of the essays last night to my husband. He liked those four essays so much, he wants to read the rest of the book now. Heather Mallick is witty, and she is intelligent, bookish, critical, preposterous, unflinching and brave. If you take her too seriously she can be offensive in that way men are much more likely to get away with. Heather Mallick is a voice in a sometimes awful wilderness, and this book is a terrific accomplishment.

Heather Mallick knows the Woolfian essay. In an unfair review, the essays were criticized for “not having a point”, but if an essay can be summed up in a point, then why write it? Indeed the journey is the point, as Mallick’s digressions, seasoned with cultural references and details from her own life, take her readers where they need to go. And yes, along the journey Heather Mallick often contradicts herself, but I would suggest that your thought processes must be awfully limited if yours don’t. As Woolf does in her essays, Mallick follows the mind, the eye, wherever it goes. And this is interesting. It’s not easy, quick, or classifiable, but neither is life.

What is life are these trips: “Fear Festival”, which illuminates everything in the world which is liable to kill you; “How to Ignore Things” which uses Jackie O’s example as an alternative to therapy; “Born Ugly” which she concludes with “You are not beautiful. Almost no one is. We start with the race already halfway run and then we age to boot, so get used to it. Try to be interesting, and work on the content of your character, not the pallor of your skin”; “The People I Detest” subset “bookhaters”; her essay on Doris Lessing made me decide to take the plunge. I liked every single one of these.

There are so many bad books and here is a good one. And this is about all that I know that is so simple.

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