Tag Archives: coming-of-age

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 girls: a novel by Emma Cline

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Wow. What a quirky, quick read. The girls: a novel by Emma Cline captured my attention With its cover and piqued my interest with its praise but I finally picked it up once I read the synopsis. As an enjoyer of true crime shows and dramas, and a love of Capote’s In cold blood, this book was a perfect fun read for me. Since it is also about a young girl growing up fast and becoming more adult sooner than she should have to, it reminiscent of Lullabies for little criminals, although this novel is no where near as bleak or dismal of a life.

Cline’s writing style reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s short, sparse, tactile sentences. On the page, they look so simple and plain, yet they convey a lot of story within them. For example, this paragraph covers much more in the periphery around the text beyond just what is written:

I imagined Suzanne and the others would be happy with me for bringing this new person. Expanding our ranks, all the old tricks. A pie-faced admirer to raise his voice with ours and contribute to the food pool. But it was something else, too, that I wanted to extend: the taut and pleasant silence in the car, the stale heat raising vapors of leather. The warped image of myself in the side mirrors, so I caught only the quantity of hair, the freckled skin of my shoulder. I took on the shape of a girl. The car crossed the bridge, passing through the shit-stench veil of the landfill. I could see the span of another distant highway, sided by water, and the marshy flats before the sudden drop into the valley, the ranch hidden in its hills.

The type of novel that best describes The girls is a coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old girl in the late 1960s in California. But that alone doesn’t do the novel justice because the plot of the story is her experience and involvement with a cult that commits a horrific, brutal, multi-casuality murder in the name of their leader Russell. It’s clear that the inspiration for the story is Charles Manson and the Manson murders yet Cline makes this story her own with its unique qualities and characters. Evie, the main character, narrowly avoids committing the murders, unbeknownst to her. This of course affects the rest of her life, always hinging on the worry of “what if” and “would I have” constantly replaying over and over in her mind. There is also an unending fear of harm from others, as she realizes that anyone at anytime can be violent, which leads her to like with another constant fear of being a potential victim. Her morality is clear and yet at the ranch with Russell, her chosen role-model Suzanne, and the others, she stifled it on purpose and put on self-created blinders as she wanted to badly to be a part of their rag-tag, misfit family.

The inner turmoil becomes apparent as the novel progresses. This paired with the no-nonsense writing style gives the novel a sense of honesty as Evie sorts through her past experiences as an adult, trying to understand what happened better. The story itself is written in first person, bringing the reader closer to Evie, and it switches between present day and her past which shows how these memories are triggered and continue to affect her current being and responses to the world. She clearly is not over the fact that her “friends” committed this terrible crime, her guilt of knowing, and her inner struggle of whether she would have joined in or maybe even stopped them from committing the murders.

From the beginning, the murders are key but through the novel they never take center stage. Small details creep in here and there. Sure, there is a few sentence about the gore of the crime and the acts perpetrated but it is never the focus. The sense that the reader gets is that the public know all of the details and so the reader does too, and any facts that Evie recounts are just her memories surfacing as she deals with them.

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Recommended?: Yes. I’m sure that most people would really enjoy it. There are some illegal activities of the underage minors and brief descriptions about few forced sexual acts and murder details but for the most part it is just a story about teenage struggles growing up during a time in which kids had more freedom to roam and less parental monitoring (especially since technology isn’t what it is today). It’s also a pretty quick read and the main character is sympathetic so it is easy to care about her and desire to understand her past along with her.

P.S. I sure am getting use out of my public library! The next few reviews will be from there as well–I had a compulsion of book borrowing recently and need to get through them all before they are due!

Read: The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie’s The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian portrays more than just one boy’s freshman year in high school. It embodies life on a reservation (a.k.a. rez) and what it is like growing up as a dirt poor Native American attending an all-white school.

While I love Stephen Chboksy’s The perks of being a wallflower, Alexie’s wins out because the story speaks for a minority people whose voice is rarely heard, or conveyed more eloquently. Both novels are amazing and pair well together, since they each follow a boy through his first year of high school and the awful struggles that life throws in the way. Charlie and Arnold, respectively, lose their best friends and wade through life trying to make do and be as normal as possible despite the huddles they must over come. By the end, the novels reach hope filled outlooks but getting to that point is heartbreaking and difficult. Written especially with a male audience in mind, the stories are great for anyone and everyone–if you don’t mind the occasional bathroom humor joke or boner reference. There aren’t enough books in the world that a young man, or an older one, can pick up and relate to; these both make the cut and should be encouraged more to be read.

This book, along with State of wonder by Ann Patchett and 100 years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, jumped out at me the last time I was in Barnes & Noble. I haven’t read Sherman Alexie before but he’s always been one of those writers on my list, since I had this perception of him as an amazing author who I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. Now, I am not sure why I waited so long. He is certainly a new favorite of mine.

The format of this novel is a combination between a diary and a graphic novel. Ellen Forney drew the illustrations throughout the work. They are part of the story, as if Arnold had doodled and taped in drawings to his journal as he was writing. A majority is text, keeping it firmly in the realm of the a novel but the illustrations make it feel more authentic for a high school boy and add a depth and value to the story itself, along with humor.

Growing up in Minnesota, learning history about the Sioux in the St. Peter area and visiting the trading post with school groups, Native Americans interested me greatly from an early age. During college I took anthropology and history courses about different tribes and people, however, it was a documentary about Pine Ridge, South Dakota that truly opened my eyes to the hardships and poverty of modern reservation life, and while fighting against it is hard, it is possible. This novel also conveys that.

Recommended? Absolutely. It’s a fairly quick read, though the powerful emotions here and there slowed me down a bit. I savor and dwell in the passages in which authors have moved me so that I personally feel what their character does. Not all writers can achieve this, even if they attempt it. Alexie is one of those amazing writers who can and does. Beyond the coming-of-age, Indian hardships, and young adult aspects, The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian is about family and friendship at its core. No matter who you are, there is something in this novel for you.

I can’t wait to read more by him! For now, though, I have enough to get through still on my bookshelf.

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