I’m normally pretty good at returning books.
I mean, I guess. I don’t borrow a lot of books. While cleaning up my room for my upcoming move off campus, I found some books that weren’t mine. They belong to one of my former professors. One of them is Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark. I’m on a quest to finish reading it and other books so I can return them to my professor, who was kind enough to let me borrow it over 2 years ago. This is my Sweetness #9 Review.
So this is how it started.
At my university, there’s this literary reading series. These great authors come and do literary readings and sometimes they host a masterclass for students. Students submit a 7 -10 page story and the department and the authors pick around 4 of them to teach a masterclass with. I got in one once.
It was cool.
The author’s feedback was amazing. I still have her copy of my manuscript. Her handwriting is absolutely amazing.
As I student, I submitted to all of the masterclass opportunities because I enjoyed the first one so much. I never got accepted into another one, though. After I didn’t get accepted into one of the last ones I submitted to, a professor emailed me back and offered to do a sit down with me about my story in her office. I found out a few things. The department tries not to let any one student do too many, especially back to back.
We talked about creative writing and my story for a bit. The professor gave me some feedback, which she had printed from the Microsoft Word comments feature. She also gave me a stack of books she thought would be helpful models for me and my story that I was working on.
She said I could take my time with them.
This was in the Fall of 2015.
The stack of books she gave me included a lot of literary journals, which I’m sure I skimmed, and a book of poetry. The stack also included 2 novels, Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.
I got busy. I had 19 credit hours that semester. That summer, I was too stressed out about money and work. My last semester was full of 500 level English classes and papers. I graduate in a few days. I haven’t read either of these books. Not only do I want to read the novels, but I especially want to return them. They are HER books, not mine. I’m not a thief. I don’t steal things.
To fix this, I have to read them, the novels. Then, assuming she’s still on campus, I have to go back to the university, go to her office, and return her books.
Sounds simple, enough right?
They’re pretty standard length novels. The first one that I’m going to read is Sweetness #9, because it’s the one I remember reading the first few pages of. It’s a story about David Leveraux, a flavorist who works for a flavor company. The book is published by Little Brown.
Here’s my Sweetness #9 Review.
Disclosure: The cover image and link below leads to the book on Amazon through an affiliate link. I get paid commission if you make a purchase after clicking the link.
Sweetness #9 is engaging, interesting, and clever fiction that merges history with our current questions about food, and how we make and consume it.
What’s immediately noticeable about the novel is the sense of smell. The narrator describes nearly every character with smells, or even tastes. These sense-of-smell details really sold the book for the first 30 pages or so. After that, the tension builds and the plot takes off after about page 50 (in my professor’s first edition.) It’s in the first person, with David functioning as the narrator. The story reads retrospectively, many years later.
As the story unfolds, David Leveraux finds himself involved in a possible cover-up of the dangers of an artificial sweetener, Sweetness #9. His struggles with his career and his family collide when he tries to hide the truth of his predicament from his wife. As the years of David’s life go on by, and as he and his wife build their careers and their family, the book forces you to ask questions not only about what you eat, but about how your choices ultimately came down to the artificial sweetener in your diet soda or the fake powdered sugar over your donut. It’s fiction, and it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a case-study, but it feels like it could have been, maybe.
Being a work of fiction gives the book more power.
You have the freedom to draw your own questions, scientific methods, and conclusions as you read about David. Sweetness #9 is almost a character in itself, having a presence in nearly every scene in some way. Sometimes its presence is physical, perhaps in a can of soda or lurking in a cabinet. Other times its presence is in conversation, on the radio, or in a newspaper.
The novel reads easy and it’s pretty fast paced. Things change in the novel quickly due to the careful crafting of David’s character; he thinks about things and makes decisions. It makes you think about things and want to make decisions, too.
The details and history of the sweetener run alongside historical commentary, such as the Nixon resignation, the late 90s Y2K scare, and even the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. This style puts you in David’s shoes but also pulls you back into yourself, making you wonder for some odd minutes if you really do want that low calorie sweetener in your cabinet, if the real sugar you could choose is even, in fact, real sugar, or if that tomato you’re about to buy from the market is really a tomato at all. This book was released in 2014 and was no doubt conceived of long after a lot of the newer discussions of climate change, GMOs, and artificial sweeteners. But, it was spookily before the Trump administration; it’s a little creepy how the Nixon resignation details fall into place reading this on May 10th, 2017.
While the novel probably won’t have me changing my dietary habits due to the amount of constant questions I find myself having while reading it, it will have me wondering a few things.
HOW did my choice of what goes into my mouth ultimately come down to this?
I know there’s a lot we don’t know about food. The industry is always changing, both because of that and despite it. Are my favorite flavors really my favorite flavors? Why? Is it the memory of the flavor? I remember LOVING chicken livers when I was little. Now I can barely tolerate them and I hardly ever eat them. Ramen Noodles. My grandmother always made the chicken flavor for me. I think the chicken flavor tastes like vomit and now I go beef all the way.
Even if I want to eliminate artificial flavors and sweeteners from my diet, I probably wouldn’t be able to. In some ways, I’m glad. I think food science is a wonderful thing. Food is getting cheaper and easier to make every year. I’m glad I don’t have to farm my own potatoes or grow my own tomatoes, forcing me to make lifestyle choices that maroon me to my land at certain times every year. I want an apple, I go get an apple from the store.
And thank you, farmers, for allowing science to help keep all our foods at the ready whenever we need them. But, this book did remind me of one thing, and that’s how important it is to always question things. That pumpkin pie latte isn’t real pumpkin and we all know it, so why do we drink it? Well, because it tastes good, I guess. But then again, what DOES a strawberry taste like?
And maybe it’s reading David’s career problems at the beginning of the book. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m graduating from college with an English degree in a few days. Maybe it’s how much I’m really invested in David’s well-being. Whatever the reason, I find myself wondering if I want to be a flavorist. Well, for about 5 minutes. Then I thought about what else I wanted to do after I finished the book.
What does Eric want to do with HIS life?
I’m not a flavorist. I’m not a cook. I worked as a cook for 6 months and could never do it again. I can barely cook a potato. Hell, I can’t even tell you the difference between a pumpkin pie and a sweet-potato pie if I’m blind-tasting them side-by-side. I’m also a terrible server. I’d accidentally grab a pumpkin pie thinking it was a sweet potato pie and that would be the end of that.
I mean, probably. I’ve never tasted pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie side-by-side.
As interesting as this book is, and as much as it peeks my interest in food and culture, something that hasn’t happened since I first watched the documentary Food Inc. a few years ago in an ethics class, I’m selfishly wondering about my own career and my own life now.
I definitely want to use my English-major powers for something.
And, by God, I think I’ve just read some 300 pages in a few days and constructed a book review. It’s nice to be able to read without the stress of an awful 10 page paper due afterwards. Writing this review was actually fun. I think I want to be a book reviewer. Book blogger?
I’m sure I’m just reaching a bit. Trying too hard. It’s that end-of-the-semester stress getting to me, making me question my life choices in ways that thinking about everything I eat daily has me questioning whether or not I really do, in fact, like the taste of caramel.
I need to slow down.
I’m probably getting way ahead of myself. I still need to read The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. Then I have to contact my former professor. I still need to get both of these books back to her in good condition. I should probably eventually give that short story that I’m to use these books as models for a look back over, too. If you enjoyed my Sweetness #9 review, please appease me by commenting down below. It’ll allow me to keep dreaming, just for a few more days, that I can maybe use my English major powers for this one day.
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