Monthly Archives: April 2017

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