Read: Sweetbitter: a novel by Stephanie Danler

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Enticed by the cover at the public library and my peaked interest solidified by the bountiful praise on the back, I settled into Sweetbitter: a novel by Stephanie Danler with bated excitement. However, it didn’t last long.

Set in New York, Tess moves to the city to escape her past–which we never learn about–and start a new life working in a fine dining restaurant. The seedy underbelly of the lifestyle of the restaurant staff is quickly revealed and wallowed in throughout the entire novel. Yet, during the day and evening, the staff pull of (mainly) flawless service and the guests are none-the-wiser about the mischief the staff gets into after hours. Heavy drinking and drug-use seems to be a requirement, along with varying co-workers hooking up. There isn’t much of a plot other that a year with Tess as she navigates the restaurant and life on her own.

The book itself reads like a soap opera. Now, whether that sounds appealing to you will likely determine if you would enjoy this novel. For me, it was a great airplane read for that reason since it is simple and a bit of a page-turner, even if it is awful to read about drug abuse and rough sex amid the dirty, gross corners of a fine dining restaurant. At the time, it sufficed. While Danler writes many beautiful sentences and descriptions, there are also trite and flat ones as well that make those passages drag on.

Tess as a character isn’t very likable which can make for a difficult read. She’s the typical early 20s, good-looking girl who gets hired immediately, whines frequently, and is stubborn to the point of annoyance. Yet, she takes on the restaurant position, reads and studies a lot to become knowledge about wine, and really tries to make it on her own in a new, big city. However, there’s just not enough there to like her, especially when she finally gets her way and dates the guy who treats everyone like crap, even putting up with his abuse “love” just to fulfill her infatuation that she can’t get over. While every book doesn’t have to have likable characters, there’s no real substance and growth to Tess in order for the story to pay off, at least for me.

Pitched as a foodie novel about restaurant life, it falls a bit short in that claim. The focus really is on people and relationships, which offers a strong core, but they all just happen to work at in fine dining and on occasion describe what an oyster or an heirloom tomato taste like. Even the wine descriptions are fairly sparse, although I think that the book is better off for trying to concentrate on the characters. There is a wide variety and Danler conveys them all fairly well, giving them more depth it seems than the main character.

All that being said, this novel is certainly a counterpoint to Margaret Atwood’s The handmaid’s tale. It was very odd to be reading both of these at the same time.

 

Recommended?: Not unless you love soap operas and/or The real housewives of [insert major city]. On GoodReads, there’s lots of love vs. hate (or more fairly apathy) for this book so most readers probably should skip it. If you just want a read that is pretty good, with an all-out party-hard, sleep-it-off-before-work drama then as they say in the restaurant biz: “Pick up!”

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Read: The handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood

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The handmaid’s tale has received renewed attention during the past few months, not only in relation to U.S politics but also since Hulu made an adaptation of the novel. Having not read Margaret Atwood yet, despite her being on my to-read list for years, now seeing the perfect time to do so. While excellent, The handmaid’s tale is also terrifying in its premise.

While set in the not-too-far-off-future, although the US is now the Republic of Gilead and much has changed in society. Women are no longer their own agents–they have limited rights and are entirely controlled by men. All are sorted into a handful of roles based on the imposed class structure: wives, handmaids, Aunts (teachers/trainers of handmaids), Marthas (servants), econowives (of low-ranking men), unwomen (infertile laborers), and Jezebels (pleasure women). If a wife cannot bear her own children, which is difficult after the government released a detrimental toxin, a fertile handmaid is assigned to the wife and each month they conduct a joint ceremony for the handmaid to conceive on the wife’s behalf with her husband. Any resulting child becomes the wife’s and the handmaid is sent to another house to try her luck again a producing another heir for another family in need. Somewhat like a surrogate but to a whole new creepy level, especially since the handmaid sits alone in her room all day with nothing to do until she is needed once a month except for her daily walks to the market to gather specific items for the household and even on those she is accompanied by another handmaid. Life is boring yet terrifying at the same time because if a handmaid steps out of line or offends, she can be sent to another house, sentenced to death, or shipped off to the manual labor camps.

Margaret Atwood weaves a compelling tale from the very beginning, slowly drawing the reader in as the main character Offred (“Of Fred” as in property) is reluctant to share her painful story. Offred is part of the first generation of handmaids in the new, surreal Gilead and is told that it will get easier for future generations who know nothing else. The main propagated reason for the new structure is that women are now “free from” men’s abuse and violence which keeps everyone safe instead of being “free to” do whatever they want which allowed men to take advantage of women and brutalize them. Though not a satisfying answer, it was impossible to struggle against the new regime when women’s rights were stripped and they couldn’t even use the money that they earned from their own jobs; only husbands and other male family or friends could. Without money, it is hard to survive on your own when everyone is being rounded up and assessed for sorting into the new class structure of society.

There are many historical, even current, parallels throughout the novel. Atwood’s realistic details make the story all the more terrifying. The most obvious is the rounding up and control of women, however, there are others that are more subtle and noted only in passing. In order to explain the upheaval,  Islamic fanatics are falsely blamed for the over-through of the government and the regime change. There is just enough truth in these related events or sentiments that it the novel feels eerily prescient and just plausible enough to make it a terrifying read.

As unappealing of a story as this might seem, it is a timely read. Atwood crafts beautiful, descriptive sentences that counteract the difficult topics that she writes about. This helps to balance out the darkness that the pages contain and make it easier to get though the novel. It is not an easy read but it is enjoyable above all things and most importantly, the handmaid’s tale is a warning of frightening possibilities so what better way to ensure that they never happen by reading, thinking, and talking about them especially with others.

While the story itself ends somewhat abruptly without a concrete ending, Atwood provides a Historical Notes section at the end which is crucial to the novel. It is a transcript of a lecture by a professor many years (150 I believe) discussing the authenticity of The handmaid’s tale and speculating who the narrator truly was and trying to determine which Commander housed her. The chance between the story and the highly academic writing is jarring but it does more neatly wrap up the novel, albeit still leaving some to the imagination.

If you want to learn more about the story, its genesis, and what Atwood currently thinks about The handmaid’s tale now that it’s 30 years old, check out her recent article in the New York Times.
Recommended?: Yes! Preferably before watching the Hulu adaptation, too, since while I have heard good things about it, there are also significant changes even to the pacing and reveal of the story. There’s a suspense in the novel that it seems the show doesn’t provide, from what I have heard. Plus, I always believe that books and short stories are better than their adaptations.

The handmaid's tale book cover

Read: Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut has been on my list for a while, especially since he is my uncle’s favorite author. After seeing him this winter, he recommended starting with Welcome to the Monkey House. What a great suggestion!

Welcome to the Monkey House is a collection of short stories. Other than labelling it fiction, there is no consensus on what type of stories make up the collection. They are a combination of varying sorts, some military in theme (but not about war or battles) while others are science fiction. Even then, the range for both includes stories that are more realistic to fantastical and magical realism. The variety is remarkable, with each story being distinct from all others.

The sheer imagination in every story gives each such a weight that they feel more like mini novels than short stories. Vonnegut crafts detailed worlds, norms, cultures, and characters that enrich the handful of pages that encapsulate them. Even within the limited space, Vonnegut takes the reader far beyond by expanding the bounds through his in-depth, comprehensive stories. Due to the heft of each, reading the collection took me extra time as I never knew what was coming next and needed a break before jumping into the unknown of a new story. While the variety was certainly enjoyable, it also made for a choppier reading experience as there was no overall commonality other than examining humans and the human condition. The sci-fi stories that were dystopic and bleak were of human creation (or folly)–either overpopulation and highly advanced medicine, or strict social norms, or a division between a new way of life and the old. No monsters or aliens enslaved everyone or caused in-fighting; we did that to our selves.

While most of the stories start in medias res, Vonnegut’s detailed and vivid writing quickly gets the reader up to speed, which is crucial as these are short stories. Vonnegut focuses on action and uses minimal dialogue to tell the tales, without offering too many explanations. Vonnegut is a master storyteller, that is clear.

Recommended?: Yes! This collection is great especially for anyone new to Vonnegut. I can see why my uncle suggested it as my first encounter, as it gives the reader a taste of all the different types of stories. In just 330 pages, there are 25 stories and many are 6-7 pages. It is just incredible what he accomplishes in so little space. I look forward to picking up a novel of his to see how it compares–first up, Slaughterhouse 5.

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Read: The Wangs vs. the world: a novel by Jade Chang

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I must confess, I had seen this book around recently and finally curiosity got the best of me and I just had to read it. I’m not sure what it was exactly, I don’t believe I had read any book reviews but there was just something about the title and the cover that intrigued me. What a great novel!

The Wangs vs. the world is about a Chinese American family who has lost almost everything due to their father’s bad investments and the 2008 financial crisis: their home, their money, their cars. With only the little money on hand and an old car that they had sold for cheap to their family friend/nanny, dejected Charles Wang, his second wife and his high school daughter set off on the necessary road trip across America to pick up his forced-to-be-a-college-dropout son and head to his oldest daughter’s farm house in upstate New York. Each family member deals with the loss and coming to terms with their new reality in their own way and Chang captures each character’s worries and struggles well.

Jade Chang’s writing is vivid and engaging, channeling lots of passion especially with Charles. The descriptions and dialogue are well-crafted, often packing a punch or digging deep into emotions that make the novel feel more true to life. To me, this type of writing makes reading very enjoyable and the pages nearly turn themselves.

One decision that some readers may dislike is the inclusion of the Chinese language used in dialogue in the novel. While there isn’t a translation provided, typically the content around it help to understand what was said without one. However, Chang uses the Romanized Chinese instead of the traditional Chinese characters so it is easy enough to look up the translation if desired. This didn’t bother me at all and in fact it added more authenticity to the story. Overall, it is a very very small portion of dialogue. If anything, there probably should have been more of it. Also, the chapters are numbered in Chinese, which is a simple touch as a constant reminder that they are Chinese Americans that stand out in the county.

While the novel rotates between the several characters with common themes of love and lust, worrying about the past and future, the main theme is family. With all of its complications, it is clear that each of the Wangs comes to realize that it is the most important part of life and sometimes it takes adversity to point it out.

Recommended?: Yes! Many readers will enjoy this novel, whether you are Chinese American or not. Family is family, no matter who you are so everyone can find something to connect with in the novel. The same can be said about the other main themes. Since this is her debut novel, I can hardly wait to see what else she writes!

The Wangs versus the world book cover

Read: The boat rocker: a novel by Ha Jin

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Having enjoyed Ha Jin’s Waiting, when I saw this book on my local public library’s shelves, I immediately checked it out. Jin is a Chinese author who writes realistic novels about everyday people and their difficulties and daily struggles in life. The boat rocker focuses on Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin who is a journalist in New York city, trying to eek out a living by exposing truth in a world in which people love flashy headlines and are less interested in details.

Jin’s writing is engrossing and fluid, making for a fairly quick read. In addition, the novel contains many poignant quotes about society, government, politics, and the media. Although it’s written about China, it could apply to any country including the US right now.

In such circumstances, a decent citizen should stand up to the government. History has taught us that no country is qualified for the moral high ground. An intellectual’s role is not to serve the state but to keep a close watch on it so that it may not turn abusive, oppressive, justice, freedom, and equality as universal values.

The story is mysterious and draws the reader in. Danlin’s ex-wife is promoting her first novel which will be translated into 30 languages right away and touting the fact that she already has a movie deal worth millions for it. He knows it’s a lie and that while there may be a book, there’s no way it’s good enough to warrant the praise she’s claiming, so he sets out to disprove her lies by exposing them in cutthroat articles interrogating the false claims. However, it’s unclear just what’s going on and who is controlling it, and just how high up the scheme goes.

The tone itself feels like a mystery novel in some ways but it is not a whodunit in the classic sense and there are no bodies or clues to examine. This ambiance adds to the charm of the novel and gives it more depth. It’s not just a story of a man jealous of his ex-wife’s success and trying to ruin her good fortune; she is conniving and exaggerating reality and those around her that are enabling also have much to gain in the US as well as China and they hope all over the world if her success is believed by everyone.

In the end, Danlin is let with not much as money and power prevail over the truth-seeking journalist who won’t quit. But he continues to fight, no matter what, for what is right. While not the happiest ending, it seems like the most fitting for not only this novel but in the present given all of the current events.

Recommended?: Yes, to everyone especially those concerned with recent current events and the media in the United States. While not directly related, certainly the topics and issues brought up in the novel do have some parallels and are interesting to consider.
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Read: The dinner: a novel by Herman Koch

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Dutch novelist Herman Koch’s The dinner: a novel is an eerie read that becomes more horrific over the course of the meal. While it’s true that the characters have dinner at a fancy restaurant, The dinner has as much to do with food as Die hard has to do with Christmas. It’s the backdrop but has little to do with the plot.

Since the novel was translated into English, I will give the benefit of the doubt that the occasional clunkiness of the writing is due to the translation. So, I will set aside discussing the writing itself. 

As far as the story goes, it starts off slow and the reader is trying to figure out what exactly is going on along with the main character Paul. Paul and his wife are meeting his brother and his wife for dinner but with his brother’s political aspirations, dinner is as much about image as the purpose of that dinner if not more. The reader realizes as the night progresses, along with Paul, that the agenda is to discuss the poor decisions and bad behavior of their teenage kids and how to deal with it. But they have anything but a frank discussion and from Paul’s memories it is clear that he and his brother have a rocky relationship.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

The manner in which the truth of what the sons did unfolds is presented in a meandering way. Small, unclear pieces begin to fill in and then as more pieces are add, the shock value only continues to increase until it surpasses any additional meaning and the reader becomes numb to the facts as the parents try to resume their typical lives as if nothing happened. The sons, it’s revealed, murdered a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM machine that they wanted to use; the verbally and physically abused her before killing her and it was filmed by a grainy security camera, as well as a cell phone by the brother’s adopted son who was now blackmailing the boys for money. While their actions themselves are horrific, it’s almost more shocking the extent that Paul, his wife, and his brother’s wife go to scheme and protect the boys working against the brother who wants to come clean so he can be elected Prime Minister. This family certainly has issues and they are well conveyed.

The entire novel consists of one evening of the four parents having dinner at the fancy restaurant. All additional scenes are Paul’s memories as he contemplates how they got to this point and his strained relationship with his brother. It makes sense in a way for the setting to be such a public venue where they are on display but it is odd as it’s revealed what the true topic of discussion, although it’s clear that no one wants to actually talk about what their sons did.

At times, it felt too much but I felt compelled to read on, but it continues to get more and more awful. Paul is violent, even towards his brother, and his son is following in his footsteps. This makes him a difficult first-person narriator to read. However, in the end, he pulls back and shows maturity in knowing that he must have restraint despite what others expect from him.

Recommended: For anyone who can’t get enough of shocking dramas and escalating situations. There’s lots of violence and physical abuse as the novel progresses, with quite descriptive passages, which aren’t for everyone. Most readers probably won’t enjoy this novel but it’s a creative idea so I will look into Koch’s other books at some point.

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Read: The Night Stranger: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian

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The Night Strangers: a Novel by Chris Bohjalian is a mix of a pilot’s post-traumatic stress after a failed water landing and loss of most of passengers and crew and a New England small town scary story. Chip and Emily Linton move with their two twin 10-year-old girls from Philadelphia to a Bethel, NH for a new start and to keep Chip from the media’s critical eye. Haunted by ghosts of passengers in a creepy old house with its own torrid history and besieged by nefarious yet friendly rural townspeople, this family was doomed from the start.

Since the premise is so detailed, let’s start there. At first, choosing to include a failed water landing in Lake Champlain seems like a throw-away, attention-grabbing background for the main character Chip, Bohjalian truly makes it his own and uses all factors of such an event in his novel. The best use is his desciptions of the wet ghosts and how Chip can feel the water and see it soak into carpet and leave puddles on floors. That alone shows that he integrates that stark, bold fact (that could so easily be otherwise over-the-top and meaningless) so well into his story that it becomes a core part. Similarly, the herbalists (a.k.a. witches) could also have become a stock, stereotypical cult but once again Bohajalian makes them unique to his world and distinct in their own way. The use of greenhouses and the all-natural lifestyle help develop a new take on the classic witch and coven.

The overall story and mood of the novel are reminiscent of the original Stepford Housewives movie, especially with the herbalists unrelenting desire to make the Lintons part of their group. However, the rest of the town knows better than to become friends with them so they are left to their own insular group. Emily was warned briefly when she first arrived to the town but everyone feared interfering once the herbalists began courting the new family with twins.

The book itself alternates between chapters written in third persons and second. The third mainly follows Emily Linton but sometimes focuses on the twin girls. The second person is solely for Chip Linton and meant to bring the reader in closer to him and his experiences with the tormenting ghosts. For me, though, second person forces me out of a story as it is so imperative and commanding (“You see…”, “You feel…”, etc.). I think too much instead of just following what the character is doing; it reminds me that I am sitting in my chair reading and so distracts me from the story, just enough to pull me out of the moment caught up in the book. Maybe for other readers it is different, but it’s not a literary device that I enjoy although I understand why Bohjalian uses it.

Overall, The Night Strangers is a strange, enchanting read. I started the book witha physical copy and then switched over to an audiobook which had a female part reading the third person and a male voice for the second person. This made the story more compelling since it alternates fairly often and kept my interest even more. The writing itself is also quite lovely, for the most part. These are part of what kept me reading despite this type of book not being something that I would normally pick up.

Recommended?: It depends. If you like an eerie read, one filled with ghosts, witches and warlocks–I mean herbalists, a haunted house, possession, murder, and some horror then this book is for you. Bohjalian also doesn’t shy away from describing injuries in detail so there is a bit of gore as well. Since he has so many other novels, there is a variety of his works to choose from if this particular one isn’t enticing. He’s more well known for some of his other works and his latest The Sleepwalker is due out in January 2017. I will certainly keep him in mind when I want a quicker read in the future, although he will be farther down the list than others since there are just too many books that I want to get through.

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