Sweetbitter // Stephanie Danler

I had every intention of saving Sweetbitter to read on my trip to New York in a few weeks, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.  This book, Stephanie Danler’s debut, was an instant hit two summers ago, and its recent development into a Starz series re-inspired my interest.  I devoured Sweetbitter just like one would devour a meal at the Union Square Café: slowly, savoring every minute, while still impatiently craving the rest.


“You will develop a palate.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter


From the jacket:

Shot from a mundane, provincial past, Tess comes to New York in the stifling summer of 2006.  Alone, knowing no one, living in a rented room in Williamsburg, she manages to land a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant.  This begins the year we spend with Tess as she starts to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing, and privileged life she has chosen, as well as the remorseless and luminous city around her.  What follows is her education: in oysters, Champagne, the appellations of Burgundy, friendship, cocaine, lust, love, and dive bars.  As her appetites awaken- for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, belonging- we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle.  With an orphan’s ardor she latches onto Simone, a senior server at the restaurant who has lived in ways Tess only dreams of, and against the warnings of her coworkers she falls under the spell of Jake, the elusive, tatted up, achingly beautiful bartender.  These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s most exhilarating and painful lesson of all.


If I struggled with any aspect of this book, it was Tess, our whiny narrator.  Sweetbitter is categorized as a “coming-of-age” novel, but by the end, I had a hard time believing Tess had truly matured into an adult.  The so-called “romance” between Tess and Jake frustrated me immensely.  At one point, Jake told Tess to wipe off her lipstick because she looked like a clown, and I just sat back and wondered why she would put up with a guy like that.  If you know me, you know I don’t really give a crap about being in a relationship, so Tess’s desperation to be with Jake that badly irked me.  I think Tess was supposed to come of age by realizing how silly it is for her to tolerate the constant shit that Simone and Jake give her, but even in the last few pages, Tess still felt immature and whiny.  I’m not sure she learned anything from her post-grad identity crisis.  I wanted to see her grow more, but she was too busy worrying about what other people thought of her, and drinking too much to try to forget about it.


“She belonged to herself only.  She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes.  And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter


I think Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is the kind of book where it really matters when in your life you read it.  In all honesty, if I wasn’t a nineteen-year-old dreaming of life in New York, I don’t think I would’ve liked it as much as I did.  I also enjoyed all of the commentary on the quirks of the service industry, and the exploration of the special bond restaurant co-workers share with one another.  I worked in a fast-casual restaurant for my first year of college, nothing fancy like Tess’s job but closer to a Panera Bread, but still the kitchen environment was entirely similar, and I loved reading Danler’s take on a world I had experienced myself.  Parts of Sweetbitter had me cracking up and reminiscing about my own days cleaning fridges and dropping food in front of everyone, so I really felt for Tess, her struggles, and her insecurities in a way I’m not sure someone who hadn’t once worked in a restaurant would understand.

Danler’s fiction is somewhat experimental in that MFA-writing way, but it’s dripping with talent and I’m curious to see what she does next.  Though Sweetbitter, like any piece of writing, wasn’t perfect, I wholeheartedly enjoyed my time reading it.

Find this book on Goodreads.

A Terrible Country // Keith Gessen

Thank you to Penguin Viking and Netgalley for an early review copy of A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen, which will publish July 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

When Andrei Kaplan’s older brother Dima insists that Andrei return to Moscow to care for their ailing grandmother, Andrei must take stock of his life in New York.  His girlfriend has stopped returning his text messages.  His dissertation adviser is dubious about his job prospects.  It’s the summer of 2008, and his bank account is running dangerously low.  Perhaps a few months in Moscow are just what he needs.  So Andrei sublets his room in Brooklyn, packs up his hockey stuff, and moves into the apartment that Stalin himself had given his grandmother, a woman who has outlived her husband and most of her friends.  She survived the dark days of communism and witnessed Russia’s violent capitalist transformation, during which she lost her beloved dacha.  She welcomes Andrei into her home, even if she can’t always remember who he is.

Andrei learns to navigate Putin’s Moscow, still the city of his birth, but with more expensive coffee.  He looks after his elderly- but surprisingly sharp!- grandmother, finds a place to play hockey, a café to send emails, and eventually some friends, including a beautiful young activist named Yulia.  Over the course of the year, his grandmother’s health declines and his feelings of dislocation from both Russia and America deepen.  Andrei knows he must reckon with his future and make choices that will determine his life and fate.  When he becomes entangled with a group of leftists, Andrei’s politics and his allegiances are tested, and he is forced to come to terms with the Russian society he was born into and the American one he has enjoyed since he was a kid.


Russia and Russian literature have been popping up a lot in literature lately, at least in my reading, with books like Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country is no exception; it follows twenty-something Andrei as he leaves his life in New York behind and returns to Moscow, the city of his birth, to care for his ailing grandmother.

Told in first person, A Terrible Country felt so true to life and read autobiographical at times; I could really see Gessen’s perspective shining through the narrative.  After I finished the book, I came across an interview with Gessen conducted for The New Yorker, in which he said, “I love nonfiction, and I really love oral history.  I like fiction that is made up, but I really love fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography . . . I think if I’d had enough material for a memoir, I’d have written a memoir.  But I didn’t- my life in Russia was even less interesting than Andrei’s.  But I did want it to sound like a memoir.”  He definitely succeeded in that.

A Terrible Country is written with simple prose and plot.  The majority of the book follows Andrei’s day-to-day life in Moscow.  He plays hockey, spends time with his forgetful grandmother, struggles trying to advance his career in New York, argues with his brother Dima about money, gets involved with an “extremist” party, and develops feelings for young activist Yulia.  There’s a lot going on but it never felt like too much; it almost felt like not enough because nothing is explored deeply.  A Terrible Country is told in a diary-like format as Andrei tells the audience what happened after-the-fact, instead of narrating as things are happening.  The so-called love story felt especially weak as it was written about very briefly; as a reader, I knew nothing about Yulia, so I struggled caring about her relationship with Andrei.

In general, A Terrible Country was an enjoyable story to read, though its storytelling techniques were frustrating at times.  If you like Russian literature or history, you’ll adore this novel.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Mothers // Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s stunning debut, The Mothers, was an “it” book back in 2016, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it!  It’s exquisitely written with sentences so well-crafted, I read paragraphs over and over a few times, not because I needed to, but because it was just that good.


“A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern.  But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers


From the back cover:

It begins with a secret.  It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty.  Mourning her mother’s recent death, she takes up with the local pastor’s twenty-one-year-old son, Luke.  They are young: it’s not serious.  But the secret that results from this teen romance- and the subsequent cover-up- will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth.  As Nadia hides the truth from everyone, including Aubrey, her best friend, the years move quickly.  Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults, still shadowed by the choices they have made in their youth, and by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently?  The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.  An urgent and provocative debut from an important new voice, The Mothers is a book about community and ambition, love and friendship, and living up to expectation in contemporary black America.


As you would guess from the title, The Mothers is dominated by a theme of motherhood: what it means to be a mother, to take care of someone, biological child or not.  Underneath, the book is about the messy things in life: love, loss, secrets, and, most of all, the consequences of our decisions and how they can haunt us for the rest of our lives.  Bennett plays around with the idea of masculinity versus femininity, of who a person should be and what they should should act like based on not only their gender, but also their race and sexuality.


“Maybe all women were shapeshifters, changing instantly depending on who was around.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers


The Mothers is told uniquely through the collective “we” voice of the Mothers of the Upper Room church, a group of traditional, gossipy elderly women in the community who observe the happenings of the church community from afar.  I’ve heard a lot of readers say they struggled with this style, and though I haven’t read anything else told that way, I loved it.  It rounded out the story, aiding in the development of the characters, and offering multiple perspectives into a tricky situation.  I normally think short books like The Mothers could should be a bit longer in order to fully develop the story, but I think it’s a perfect length for what it attempts to accomplish.

Bennett uses a lot of cliche plot lines, like the teenage girl who turns reckless when her mother dies, and the football player who loses his scholarship after an injury and doesn’t know where to go in life, and even a weakened love triangle, and ties them together with hard-hitting themes and mesmerizing prose to create The Mothers, a portrait of life in our modern world.  It’s a timely, topical novel that sucked me in and left me breathless.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

On My Nightstand: July 2018

July is going to be a pretty busy month for me.  I still have five ARCs to read that come out within the next two months;  I’m also starting my summer internship, which will involve a heavy amount of reading, while still working whatever hours I can grab at my part-time bookselling job.  Long story short, this month’s Nightstand is looking pretty sparse, perhaps in amount but (hopefully) not in value.

There There by Tommy Orange

There There is probably the most buzzed-about books of the summer, and there’s nothing like a little buzz to get me to snatch a copy!  I was fortunate enough to receive a physical ARC through my bookselling job, and I need to get around to it soon.  There aren’t many Native American titles that come to mind other than Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but hopefully Orange’s There There will remedy that.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I’ve had my eye on Lincoln for a while, and when it won the Man Booker my interest in it was pretty much cemented.  Plus, Saunders is coming to my hometown next year, so let’s hope I can get to it before then.  I’m not sure how I’m going to like it, as it sounds pretty experimental, but I’ve heard a lot of glowing reviews and I find the topic of Abraham Lincoln fascinating, so I’m nothing if not curious.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Similarly to Saunders, Ward is also coming to my hometown next year to talk about her highly praised book, Sing, Unburied, Sing.  I’m a sucker for award winners and this novel has certainly been around the circuit, even earning Ward her second (!!) National Book Award for Fiction.  It doesn’t sound like my usual cup of tea, but I read the first chapter in a bookshop and was sucked in immediately!  I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

What books are you planning on reading in July?  Any thoughts on these titles?  Let me know in the comments!

xx,
Hannah

The Idiot // Elif Batuman

The Idiot was crazy to read as someone who is in almost the exact same part of her life as Selin, having just finished my first year of college (though definitely not at Harvard).  I’m a big believer in the importance of reading a book at the right time, and I think reading The Idiot now was the perfect time for me.  It’s a muted, thought-provoking coming-of-age story with hilarious dead-pan humor and gorgeously-written vignettes.  Though The Idiot seems to be a very hit-or-miss book, it struck a chord with me and I fell in love after the first few pages.


From the back cover:

The year is 1995, and email is new.  Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard where she signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student.  Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and mysterious meanings.  When the school year ends, Ivan goes to Budapest and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside.  Her summer does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of college students, but rather is the beginning of a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer. 


“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors.  Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies.  But they’re you, I thought to myself.  How did they not know?  They didn’t know.  It was astounding, an astounding truth.  Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”

-Elif Batuman, The Idiot


The Idiot is the definition of a book where absolutely nothing happens, and yet I read it surprisingly quickly.  It felt slightly autobiographical and read like a memoir at times; Batuman characterized Selin so distinctly that in the days after finishing it I wondered what she’d be up to.  The Idiot is one of those books that you have to read very closely, because every paragraph is important: skim something and you’ll miss a big part of the story.  Each sentence, every paragraph felt like a story in and of itself; they were all there for a reason, and they came together to create a bigger narrative.  It’s the kind of book that warrants a reread because you may have missed something the first time around, something that would change the entire reading process.

The Idiot is smart with wit, and yet it feels very academic.  The formality of the way Batuman writes reminded me of writing college papers; Selin often describes her classes and different linguistics topics, and speaks about literature in a highly intellectual way, so much so that it often went over my head.  She thinks a lot and is very aware that she is thinking a lot, and she wonders what she should be thinking about versus what other people are thinking about… you get the gist.  Selin is very conscious that she is in academia, and Batuman writes about it satirically, pointing out the ironies of language in a subtle, clever way.


“I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time- the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed.  But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.”

-Elif Batuman, The Idiot


The Idiot isn’t very readable and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I got along with it splendidly.  It’s a witty, character-driven book that will make you think way too much and laugh out loud at the same time.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Number One Chinese Restaurant // Lillian Li

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for an early review copy of Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades.  When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.  Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one.  Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart.  Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble.  And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

Generous in spirit, unaffected in its intelligence, multi-voiced, poignant, and darkly funny, Number One Chinese Restaurant looks beyond red tablecloths and silkscreen murals to share an unforgettable story about youth and aging, parents and children, and all the ways that our families destroy us while also keeping us grounded and alive.


Number One Chinese Restaurant has some of the most realistic characters I’ve read in a long time.  I have to say, the first chapter was a bit overwhelming as everyone was introduced at rapid fire, but once I grew to get to know everyone individually, I had no trouble at all working my way through the novel.  This book is less a saga than a quick glimpse into the lives of restaurant staff as something unspeakable happens to their second home.  Thus, the characters felt a bit under-developed, and not much time was spent explaining the motivations behind their actions, but I think this story is more about the restaurant collectively than the individual people inside of it, so Number One Chinese Restaurant was successful in sharing the story Li meant to tell.

Li really emphasizes the strong, intimate connections between restaurant staff workers and the unique, family-like bond that they share.  The restaurant itself felt like a character, and that’s one the the things I loved most about the book.  The ambiance that Li created surrounding the Beijing Duck House (and later the Beijing Glory) was truly phenomenal and unlike anything else I’ve read.  This ambiance paired with a complex ensemble of characters resulted in a heavily enjoyable reading experience.  The whole time, I couldn’t help but think about what an amazing film Number One Chinese Restaurant would make.  Li really sets the scene and makes you feel a part of the story.

Lillian Li’s debut is a quick, fun read that will have you ordering dim sum faster than you can say “Number One Chinese Restaurant!”

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Reading More Women Accidentally on Purpose

This year is almost halfway over, and yet I’ve only read one (!!!) book by a male writer: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  Of course, this doesn’t count the assigned reading for my British literature class this past semester, which represented the sexist literary canon of the nineteenth century.  I did buy some books by men, but I haven’t picked up any of them because a book by a female author always piqued my interest more!  Even all of the advanced copies I’ve requested have been written by women, with two exceptions: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen and Ohio by Stephen Markley.  But the best part is the fact that it’s purely accidental; I didn’t plan on focusing on reading women writers this year, it just happened!

It’s difficult to capture why my reading has changed this way.  In high school, I adored young adult writers like Sarah Dessen, Morgan Matson, Stephanie Perkins, Jennifer E. Smith, etc., but I enjoyed John Green just the same.  My tastes definitely catered to the women writers but never intentionally.  (I think the majority of authors in the young adult genre are women, but that’s a story for a different day.)  As I matured into reading fiction and literary fiction, I started with Celeste Ng, Donna Tartt, and Hanya Yanagihara (some of the heaviest hitters, I know).  I also read Anthony Doerr and Nathan Hill, but my excitement for new books was mostly for those written by women.  I picked up Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and others for the immense praise and recognition their novels received, but I’m not sure I would’ve been that excited for them had they not been so revered by my bookish friends.  And I certainly wasn’t excited before their releases, like the dozen or so early copies I’ve requested by women writers so far this year.

Of course, it’s important to mention I have absolutely nothing against male writers, or any kind of writer in that case.  I’m currently reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and I’m absolutely loving it.  To me, the writing and the story are the most important aspects of a book.  However, I also think it’s time to support every type of writer imaginable, no matter the gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.  Because wouldn’t it be boring if every book we read was by a straight white man?  If we don’t support diverse authors, then we’ve got multiple problems on our hands: (1) that literature is valued by how white a person is, (2) that not every reader will be able to identify with a book, and (3) that writers will see only white men succeeding in the book world, and they’ll stop writing if they don’t fit that description.

All of this brings to mind the #ReadMoreWomen campaign by Electric Lit, which aims to diversify our reading lists and start a conversation on our white-male ideals on literature.  It mentions the sexism behind The New York Times’ “By the Book” column, which, if you aren’t familiar, is basically a series of mini interviews with writers.  Most of the writers featured are men, but lately they’ve been trying to up their game and include more women (which is something you really shouldn’t have to work that hard to do…).  Recently, I read Lauren Groff’s By the Book, and I think her thoughts perfectly sum up the importance behind reading both male and female writers.  Groff says,

“When male writers list books they love or have been influenced by- as in this very column, week after week- why does it almost always seem as though they have only read one or two women in their lives?  It can’t be because men are inherently better writers than their female counterparts . . . And it isn’t because male writers are bad people.  We know they’re not bad people.  In fact, we love them.  We love them because we have read them.  Something invisible and pernicious seems to be preventing even good literary men from either reaching for books with women’s names on the spines, or from summoning women’s books to mind when asked to list their influences.  I wonder what such a thing could possibly be.”

I’ll leave it at that.

What books have you read by women lately?  Have you noticed any changes to your reading tastes?  Let’s chat!

xx,
Hannah