Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler

“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge sometime in 2006…”

Meet Tess: a twenty-two year old with a mundane, provincial past, who has come to New York to look for a life she can’t define. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardour.

Let me just start this review by saying that I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I heard wonderful things about it from customers and one of my colleagues described it to me as Kitchen Confidential meets Girls. What’s not to love? Being the sucker for foodie fiction that I am, I picked this one up and was very excited to read it, but I have to say that I was a little underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I totally disliked this book! In fact, I thought it had some great moments (especially in the first 100 pages), but I think it was just hyped up a bit too much.

THE GOOD:

  • If you have every worked in hospitality, this book will definitely hit home and you will be able to relate to a lot of Tess’ feelings and experiences.
  • Danler’s descriptions of food are absolutely mouthwatering, to say the least. Word of advice: do not read this book while hungry.
  • Sweetbitter is one of the few books I have read that focuses solely on the present. We learn very little about Tess’ past – we don’t even learn her name until around page 200 – and she rarely discusses or even thinks about her plans for the future. In a world where everyone seems to be overly preoccupied with the question ‘what next?’, it was quite refreshing to read a book that is 100% focused on the present.
  • The relationship between Tess and her mentor, Simone, was quite intriguing

THE BAD:

  • I did not care at all for the romance in this book. Jake, Tess’ love interest, has the personality of her favourite food item (which is toast, in case you were wondering). Side note: how does one manage to land a job at a top restaurant if one’s favourite meal is toast with peanut butter?
  • The writing is quite pretentious and overly flowery at times. I didn’t mind this so much when Danler was describing food, but at other times, it bothered me immensely.
  • None of the characters are well-developed.
  • I thought that this book tried way too hard to be edgy and contemporary. Like, what was was with the random poems that made no sense whatsoever and were totally out of context?
  • The dialogue was totally unrealistic.
  • As a side effect of being a book solely focused on the present, this book had almost no plot. Tess describes her life as a backwaiter, makes a ton of bad decisions, does a lot of cocaine, learns about food and wine, and well, that’s about it. If you’re looking for something that will keep you up all night wondering what will happen next, look elsewhere.

All in all, I thought this book was overrated, although I did enjoy some parts of it. If you’re after a good foodie book that will make your belly ache from both laughter and hunger, I’d take Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential over this one any day.

Have you read Sweetbitter? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for good foodie books? 

~Anna

In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mothertongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realise that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” 

– Jhumpa Lahiri/Ann Goldstein, In Other Words

As someone with three passports but no true homeland, three languages yet no true mothertongue, and a very fragmented cultural identity, these words from Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful and intimate non-fiction debut resonate strongly with me and I often find myself thinking about them.

Born in London to Bengali immigrants and raised in the USA, Lahiri spent most of her childhood trying to reconcile her parents’ Bengali heritage and language with the pervasive influence of American culture and the English language. At the age of twenty-five, while working on a PhD in Renaissance Studies, Lahiri decided to learn a language that had captivated her for many years – Italian. For close to twenty years, she attended private lessons in New York, did her grammar exercises dutifully, and caught brief snippets of conversation on the subway and on her few trips to Italy, yet true mastery of the language eluded her. Finally, seeking full immersion, she moved to Rome with her family for a “trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world.

In Rome, Lahiri began to read, and then to write solely in Italian. This book is a polished and edited version of what Lahiri wrote in her journals – a raw and intimate account of learning to express oneself in another language and the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, it is a book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with honesty, clarity and most importantly, a powerful awareness of its own imperfection. Interestingly and quite controversially in fact, Lahiri did not attempt to translate her own writing from Italian into English, stating that she needed to sever all ties to the English language in order to fully immerse herself in the Italian language. Rather, she hired the magnificent Ann Goldstein (who I cannot praise highly enough for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) to do this for her. Unfortunately, as I cannot read Italian, this meant that I was, in a sense, exiled linguistically from Lahiri’s words. Ironically fitting, I think (although I really wish that I could read Italian).

As someone who has spent a great deal of time learning languages, I could identify with the frustration and excitement of learning to express oneself in another language that Lahiri describes. Her writing is clumsy and repetitive at times, but Lahiri is so painfully aware of this that you can forgive her for it. I for one believe that writing in a second or third language makes one feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed, and I applaud Lahiri for her courage in publishing this book. I greatly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in language, particularly the relationship between identity and language.

Have you read this book? Or any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other books? What did you think? I would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna

Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

Summary from Goodreads:

Online sensation, fearless feminist heroine and scourge of trolls and misogynists everywhere, Clementine Ford is a beacon of hope and inspiration to thousands of Australian women and girls. Her incendiary debut Fight Like A Girl is an essential manifesto for feminists new, old and soon-to-be, and exposes just how unequal the world continues to be for women. Crucially, it is a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.

I picked this book up a few months ago, read the first chapter, and then put it down again. I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood for it and it did feel a bit like reading ‘Feminism 101’. NOTE: THAT SHOULD NOT DISCOURAGE YOU FROM READING IT. A few months later, I saw it in the ‘hot picks’ section at my local library and picked it up again and I AM SO GLAD I DID.

Ford’s writing is punchy, sarcastic and incredibly accessible without dumbing down the big theoretical issues too much. In many ways this book is perfect for teenagers (I was going to write teenage girls but it’s essential that boys read this kind of stuff too) and I wish that it had been around when I was younger. If you are well-versed in feminist theory, you are unlikely to learn anything new here, but Ford’s arguments are well-summarised and she adds a personal touch to many of them by sharing her personal experiences. Importantly, Ford acknowledges that she is an able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman and that unpacking privilege is an incredibly difficult but important task. Reading this book reminded me that Ford’s particular brand of feminism is not one that all women identify with and many of the ideas I take for granted are in fact quite controversial.

My key criticism of this book is that it was a bit repetitive at times. In fact, it was written like a very long Facebook rant and I would have appreciated a little more structure. This humour-driven, rant-like style works well for short, snappy pieces online or in the newspaper, but in a longer form, it can be exhausting to read. Criticisms aside, I think it is incredibly important that people read and discuss this book and I am so happy to see that it is selling so well here in Australia. Also, on a side note, Clementine is a lovely woman who often comes into the bookstore where I work and you should support her by reading and discussing her book!

Have you read Fight Like A Girl? What did you think? Would love to hear your thoughts (even and especially those that differ from mine). 

~Anna

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Summary from Goodreads:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Before I start this review, I just want to say that this book had been on my TBR list since 2013. And I finally got around to reading it! And I didn’t buy it! I borrowed it from the library (that I have lived around the corner from for over a year but didn’t join until last month because I was too busy buying books that I don’t need). How’s that for fighting tsundokism? *pats self on shoulder* Seriously though, libraries are magical havens that should be frequented much more frequently by all, especially me. Note to self: when faced with the urge to buy a book, go to the library instead.

Anyway, back to Life After Life. The book blurb suggests that the question the novel explores is: “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” While this question is posed by one of the characters, it didn’t really strike me that this is what the novel is about. Rather, it’s more about all of the paths that a person’s life can take depending on a range of factors, including their own decisions, the actions of others, and random events over which no one has control. In their impact on Ursula, these factors create a complex web of alternative realities, so that she lives different lives in parallel worlds.

Ursula’s lives can be seen as an infinite series of forks in the road of time, with each fork representing a moment of crisis and subsequent change. However, Atkinson layers Ursula’s different lives on top of each other, so that she can sense them, through déja-vu experiences, through presentiments of doom, or simply through feeling that something is not quite the way it should be. Ursula states at one point that time is like a palimpsest and this is exactly the impression that Atkinson creates. The ways in which Ursula’s lives differ one from the other are given additional force by the things that stay the same: Ursula’s essential character, the personalities of her parents and siblings, the nature of her relationships with them, the family home. With each layer of a different life, Ursula, her parents and siblings age and develop; yet they remain recognisably themselves, for good or bad.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book! It was fun, original, well-written, and thought-provoking. Parts of it were quite over the top (I mean really, Ursula shoots Hitler in the opening chapter), but I didn’t really mind at all. After reading Robert Seethaler’s lovely, quiet novel A Whole Life (you can find my review here), it was a lot of fun to read something so audacious.

That said, there were moments where I was a little disoriented, as the story jumps around in time quite a lot. Also, I thought there were some sections that dragged a little and I couldn’t help but wish for Ursula to hurry up and die already so I could read about another one of her lives. Does that make me a horrible person? Don’t get me wrong, she is not an unlikeable character – in fact, I really liked her and emphathised with her a lot – but there were moments that felt a little repetitive.

Aside from these small criticisms, I loved this book. Would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a fun-and-entertaining-but-not-trashy read.

Have you read Life After Life? What did you think about it? 

~Anna

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

In German, we have a word (Waldeinsamkeit) that roughly translates to “the feeling of woodland solitude, of being alone in the woods and contemplating one’s existence”. Replace “woodland” with “mountains” (Bergeinsamkeit, I guess) and that is what Robert Seethaler’s exquisite novel A Whole Life captures.

Andreas Egger lives almost his whole life in the Austrian Alps, where he arrives as a young boy taken in by a farming family. He is a man of very few words and so, when he falls in love with Marie, he doesn’t ask for her hand in marriage, but instead has some of his friends light her name at dusk across the mountain. When Marie dies in an avalanche, pregnant with their first child, Andreas’ heart is broken. He leaves his valley just once more, to fight in WWII – where he is taken prisoner in the Caucasus – and returns to find that modernity has reached his remote haven…

After his return, the days pass slowly, but they are not filled with sadness as one might expect. Rather, Andreas is filled with an appreciation for the world around him – the beauty of the mountains, the gift of waking up each morning and falling into a deep sleep at the end of the day, the sense of having a purpose, even if it is not quite clear. He believes sharing his love of nature might be his purpose, and so he begins to act as a guide for tourists, and for a time, he is content.

It feels as though each word in this book (it’s more of a novella, really) was chosen with great care, but there is nothing pretentious about the writing. There is joy and sadness, but it is expressed quietly, softly – as an appreciation for the smallest kindness or a muted sense of loneliness. Like John Williams’ Stoner or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, A Whole Life is a tender book about finding dignity and beauty in solitude. Simply gorgeous. Please read it.

Have you read A Whole Life? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Thanks for stopping by. 

~Anna

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is certainly his most famous work, I think that The Secret Agent is infinitely better. Why? It’s beautifully-written, full of action, suspense, well-drawn characters, and although it was published in 1907, Conrad’s astute observations about society are relevant even today. Especially today.

The plot: Adolf Verloc has two jobs. One is to run a seedy shop in London with his wife and her simple-minded brother, and the other is to operate as a secret agent. However, Verloc is certainly no James Bond; he prefers to do the absolute minimum required to receive his paycheck. That is, until he is confronted by the shady Mr Vladimir, a foreign ambassador of some kind, with an ultimatum: lose his job or blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The idea behind this plot is that by targeting a building of such symbolic significance, England will be stirred into decisive, even extreme action against criminal/revolutionary/terrorist organisations. This is pretty dark stuff and it is easy to see how this bleak take on the political world would be eaten up by conspiracy theorists.

One of the first things I noticed about this book is that although the novel is set in London, it is surprisingly un-English. None of the characters have very English-sounding names, and even the descriptions of the city do not bring to mind images of red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace. Rather, Conrad’s London appears to be permanently engulfed in darkness, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell that the novel is actually set in London and not in some bleak, cold corner of Poland (Conrad’s home country).

Another thing I loved about this book is that although it is so obviously, relentlessly political, the characters are not one-dimensional. Throughout the novel, Verloc grapples with his conscience as he is forced to adjust from being an observer to an active participant in a terrorist plot. Then there’s the relationship between the simple-minded Stevie and the Verlocs. It is difficult to discuss this relationship without divulging any spoilers, but it is safe to say that he is, in a sense, both a symbol of innocence and the human mirror of Mr Verloc’s emotional state.

I think you can probably gather that I really loved this book, but I must admit that I did have a couple of issues with it. It did take me about 100 pages to get into the story and I did contemplate giving up once or twice towards the beginning because the writing is so dense (I’m so glad I didn’t). I also thought that some words were used a little too frequently (Mr Verloc ‘mumbles’ so much that I couldn’t help but think of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) and Conrad uses a ridiculous number of adverbs. But, you can’t be too critical of his over-use of adverbs because did I mention that English was Conrad’s THIRD FREAKING LANGUAGE?!? Yep, that’s right. His first language was Polish, then came French, and then at the age of twenty-one, Conrad finally learned English. And he writes better than the vast majority of native speakers. Unfair.

Anyway, I highly highly highly recommend this book, especially if you’re a fan of political satires. Or even if you’re not. Just read it.

Have you read The Secret Agent? Or any of Joseph Conrad’s other works? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil – Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta’s Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is a fast-paced thriller that jumps between both sides of the English Channel. The story begins in London, where suspended desk cop Bashir “Bish” Ortley is grappling with the death of his son and the disintegration of his marriage. Across the channel, a bus carrying a group of British teenagers is subject to a deadly bomb attack and Bish discovers that his daughter is one of those on board. The main suspect is 17-year-old Violette LeBrac, whose grandfather blew up a supermarket thirteen years ago, and whose mother is serving a life sentence in prison for allegedly planning the attack. As Bish is dragged into the search for missing Violette, he finds himself reluctantly working with her mother and begins to wonder if justice was actually served all those years ago.

I picked up this book after one of my coworkers mentioned that it was her favourite crime read of 2016, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I think Melina Marchetta is a fantastic writer and I am a huge fan of her YA novels, but I think this one missed the mark by a bit.

My first criticism of this book is that the plot is highly convoluted. I had a lot of trouble keeping track of all of the characters and their respective backstories, and there are a lot of plotholes. For example, I really don’t think that a suspended London desk cop would ever be allowed to collaborate with MI5 on a serious bombing case, especially if his own daughter were involved in the attack. But whatever… good story > procedural accuracy, right?

My other main criticism is that this book lacks a lot of subtlety. One of the key themes explored is racial profiling, particularly the treatment of those of Arab/Middle Eastern descent by police authorities. This is an important issue, don’t get me wrong. But I thought that it was explored so heavy-handedly that the resolution of the story was clear to me from the very first chapter.

Despite these criticisms, I thought that the characters in this book were well-constructed and interesting, especially the teenage characters. Often, teenage characters in adult crime novels have absolutely no depth, but Marchetta has a real knack for writing complex and believable teenagers.

Overall, this book was a miss for me, but I know a lot of people who loved it. I think that Marchetta is great at exploring family relationships and creating interesting characters, but not so suited to the thriller/mystery genre.

Have you read this book? What did you think? How does it compare to her YA novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Eligible – Curtis Sittenfeld

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may have been written over 200 years ago, but it has been reimagined and resurrected countless times – as a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride and Prejudice), a gory zombie novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and best of all, as a BBC mini-series featuring Colin Firth and a wet shirt. Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves this classic story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs.

The basic story is very familiar – a silly woman plots to marry off her five unwed daughters to rich bachelors, couples fall in and out of love, and the grouchy and handsome Mr. Darcy reveals his heart of gold – however Curtis Sittenfeld manages to give it a hearty and original update. I won’t go into detail about the plot because I think it’s pretty fun to see how the story has been reimagined, but I will say that I think this modernisation is lighthearted, fresh, and funny. The writing is not spectacular and it is by no means Curtis Sittenfeld’s best work, but it made me chuckle to myself a few times and it made a 12-hour flight pass very quickly. The final verdict: Curtis Sittenfeld + Jane Austen modernisations + long haul flights = the ultimate guilty pleasure. 

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think? And what do you think of Jane Austen modernisations in general? Let me know what you think.

~Anna

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

After years of hearing people recommend it, I finally got around to reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan novels. Ferrante has a bizarre cult following here in Melbourne and I thought it was high time I jumped aboard the hype train. On a somewhat related note, when did Ferrante become a thing? Was it this year? 2013? Whenever it was, we should have been talking about her sooner.

At its heart, this book tells the story of the tumultuous relationship between two childhood friends, Lila and Elena, as they navigate through adolescence and struggle to break free of the grinding cycle of poverty and isolation generated by the problems of the post-war, post-Fascist Italian state. The two girls live in a rough, violent neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, where money is hard to come by and opportunities for escape are scarce. Growing up on these tough streets, the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.

The best thing about this book is definitely the characters. The relationship between Elena and Lila is so incredibly fascinating, and both of the protagonists have so much depth and complexity. Their friendship is not an easy one – rather, it is fraught with tension and the two girls are in constant competition, although neither can truly succeed without the other. A friend once said to me that Ferrante ‘cuts to the bone’ and I couldn’t agree more. Acts of terrifying cruelty are balanced by offhand displays of extraordinary kindness to paint a mesmerising portrait of a friendship that is at the same time totally unique and extremely familiar.

I also really like that Ferrante takes almost every conventional literary device and narrative structure, flips it over, and spits it out again. She introduces way too many characters at random, inserts about five different ideas into a single sentence, and the story is not quite chronological. I think that these things would annoy me if anyone else did them, but I found myself admiring Ferrante’s audacity and creativity. Also, I think that Ann Goldstein deserves a big shout-out for her spectacular translation! Often, I think translated novels can sound a bit stilted, but this one reads wonderfully.

Overall, I thought that this book was beautifully-written, compelling, difficult to read at times, and absolutely brilliant. Will I read her other books? Hell yes. Especially after the very classy cliffhanger at the end of this one. Would I recommend this book to other people? Hell yes.

Have you ever read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

My Pig Paulina – Hans Limmer & David Crossley

I don’t usually review children’s books, but I had to make an exception for this one because it’s just TOO DARN CUTE.

The blurb: Angelika lives with her parents and her sister Susi on a beautiful Mediterranean island. She loves roaming the island with her favourite doll, Hippi, and when she adopts a piglet named Paulina, they have lots of fun together! When a farmer wants to take Paulina away, Angelika knows she has to save her best friend. And so begins their adventure…

Originally published in Germany in the 1960s (although recently translated into English), this book wonderfully captures the magic of wandering barefoot through the countryside without a grownup in sight. It made me laugh out loud, feel nostalgic for my childhood, and want to go on a few adventures of my own. Would definitely recommend this book for all the special little ones in your life (especially those aged 3-6).

Have you read My Pig Paulina? What did you think? What are your favourite recent children’s books? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna