Restaurants, Retail, and Other Underutilized Settings in Literary Fiction

Sweetbitter CoverI recently jumped Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (Goodreads) to the top of my TBR queue because I was in desperate need of something not unnerving (e.g. The Hole, Future Home of the Living God) and not terribly sad (e.g. They Both Die at the End, All the Ever Afters).

Sweetbitter is still kind of sad, as the name suggests. But I’m loving it so far regardless, and it’s reminding me that restaurants are criminally underused as a setting for fiction.

Sweetbitter follows a woman who moves alone from a small town to New York City, where she lands a job at a landmark restaurant as a backwaiter. She falls into a dizzying love triangle with Simone and Jake, two otherworldly-beautiful folks with secrets to keep, and tries to survive New York’s punishing restaurant scene.

Charmingly, the main character isn’t a writer or actress or any other cliché of the coming-to-New-York story: she’s just someone who wants to live in New York, and decides that working as a waitress is the best way to make that happen.

Danler writes beautifully about food, friends, sex, and relationships, and best of all, she perfectly captures the off-kilter, loss-of-innocence feeling that can happen when you work in a restaurant. I can’t wait to review this one next week, and it’s stirring up all kinds of feelings in me about what’s missing from today’s literary fiction.

Part of my intense connection to Sweetbitter comes from my own brief experience working in a restaurant-slash-ice-cream shop when I was 17. It was horrible. I barely lasted two months. The customers were punishing, I was always tired and sore, and the behind-the-scenes drama between kitchen staff, waitstaff, and ice cream scoopers was unbearable. (I remember one night around midnight, after close, when everyone decided to compare their favorite vibrator brands in graphic, uncomfortable detail, sexual harassment rules be damned.)

My experience felt extraordinary at the time, but in the scheme of things, it was actually a shockingly boring one for food service. My sister still works as a waitress, hostess, and bartender, and the stories she tells could curl anyone’s toes: ditto the stories of my other food-service-working friends and family. It’s amazing to me that this goldmine isn’t tapped by writers more often–or maybe it is being written, and just not published, which is another problem altogether.

I think literary fiction is having something of an identity crisis at the moment. On one hand, it’s still partially the white women’s book club genre that A Brief History of Seven Killings author Marlon James decried (rightly, I think) back in 2015: focused to a fault on “middle style prose and private ennui.”

On the other hand, literary fiction is also being cracked wide open by authors like Tayari Jones, Celeste Ng, Yaa Gyasi, Catherine Lacey, Rachel Kushner, and Rachel Khong, all of whom wrote books that explored massive topics like slavery and mass incarceration, aging parents and economic downturns, adoption and parenthood, online dating and changing technology in weird, bright, true, and beautiful ways.

That second type of literary fiction is the one that I hope persists–a fiction that reflects a wide swath of ordinary lives back at us with extraordinary empathy and extraordinary prose.

Don’t get me wrong: I know that Sweetbitter is only barely outside the literary norm. Danler’s protagonist is still young, thin, white, and beautiful, and getting a job at a world-class restaurant the second you arrive in New York City is about as realistic as the 1950 Disney Cinderella movie. But it’s given me a delicious taste of what can happen when literary fiction gives itself over to sensuality rather than ennui, to the tactile and real rather than the cerebral and detached. And I want more.


What settings would you like to see literary fiction explore more? Do you have any recommendations for novels set in restaurants, now that my appetite has been thoroughly whetted? Do you have any juicy food service or retail stories? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Hot, Humid, Sleepy, Sexy: The Best Books About Summer

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

At least in the Northern Hemisphere, this week feels like summer’s apogee, complete with record heat and bad weather. To me, the 4th of July is to summer what Christmas is to winter: once it’s over, the season and its weather feel overwrought and pointless, except the 4th of July is nowhere near as fun as Christmas, so what’s the point at all?

Can you tell I’m not a summer person? Maybe it comes from growing up lackadaisically homeschooled: the season doesn’t have the same lazy magic when you’re off school all year round. Instead it’s just too hot, too sticky, and too full of bugs. Swimming’s good, though.

As it turns out, the reading’s good, too. Summer seems to inspire more great novels than any other season. The claustrophobic heat, the long vacations full of people you’ll never meet again, the bone-deep languor, no school, sleepaway camp, the smell of the chlorine at the community pool, the beach…it’s all a recipe for stories as thick with tension and unrequited feelings as pea soup.

In honor of what I’m officially dubbing Peak Summer Week, I’ve compiled some of my very favorite books about summer and its aftermath below.


A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

9781936787579This novel is set in Australia, so summer is turned on its head, at least as far as the calendar year goes. If you’re an American reader like me (especially one from the frigid North), you’ll probably be charmed by the idea of a blazingly hot December in the bush. If you celebrate Christmas, it’s especially weird to read about how different seasonal tradition becomes when it’s 90+° Fahrenheit outside instead of -28°, like it was this year where I live.

But A Loving, Faithful Animal‘s appeal goes way beyond that novelty. It explores what happens to a family when a father, tormented by his memories of service in the Australian military during Vietnam, runs away one last time. It’s about a once-privileged mother, viciously abused by her husband, who’s desperately trying to hold it together. It’s about two sisters trying to escape the gravity of poverty and desperation. It’s one of the best novels about the working class that I’ve ever read (though even that’s an oversimplification) and it’s a gorgeous summertime coming-of-age novel, too. Just read it.

September Girls by Bennett Madison

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

September Girls CoverTo say this book is polarizing would be an understatement. If you look at its Goodreads page, it’s a pretty even mix of 1-star reviews and 5-star reviews. The biggest critique of it seems to be that it’s piggishly sexist, but one of the biggest praises of is that it deftly deconstructs sexism. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear where you fall in the comments below, but I, for one, unabashedly love this book.

It’s a YA novel (with lots of crossover appeal for adults, too) about teenaged Sam, who gets whisked off to a beach vacation with his brother by their absent-minded father. The town is full of Girls: beautiful blondes who occupy every possible summer job in town. When Sam begins to fall for Dee Dee, one of the Girls, he uncovers a bizarre secret: they’re all mermaids. The secret is mermaids! And if you’re thinking that a coming-of-age story about a boy who falls in love with mermaids would be corny and weird instead of achingly sad and fascinating, well, I don’t blame you…but you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s the latter.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Bell Jar CoverIf you’ve read it, how could you possibly forget the way Plath opens this novel by talking about the summer the Rosenbergs were electrocuted? The Bell Jar is classic anytime, but it’s especially a classic summer novel to me. Plath captures the hot, stinky claustrophobia of a New York summer perfectly, as well as the way summers can feel much quieter but just as dangerous everywhere else. It follows Esther, a gifted writer and intern at a fashion magazine who spins out into a frightening episode of mental illness.

As you may know if you’ve stuck around this blog awhile, I have bipolar disorder, so this book has a particularly special place in my heart: summer’s long days and short nights can be very hard on people with mood disorders. (I literally have to schedule extra mental health appointments in the summer to compensate.) In Plath’s hands, summer isn’t a time for vacation, but rather a sinister and unescapable force, which is how it’s felt in my own life since my bipolar onset in my teens. Even if you don’t have that experience, The Bell Jar is unforgettable and lovely–you won’t regret making the time to read it, if you haven’t already.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | My Review

9780735224292Where to begin? This book is flawless. It follows two families, one stubbornly suburban and set in their ways and the other free-floating and untraditional, as they become irreversibly intertwined. There’s an unforgettable contested adoption and court case that had my loyalties switching every other page. There are several coming-of-age stories happening at once, each distinct and achingly beautiful. And it all happens during a heady, sordid summer during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal–a setting Ng makes deft use of to make her characters’ loss of innocence all the more bittersweet and palpable.

Ng does things with words I had previously thought were impossible. She manages to make a quiet literary novel about suburbia feel like a thriller. Little Fires Everywhere feels subtle while you’re reading it, but at the end you realize that your heart has taken quite a beating while your eyes were glued to the page. This book is un-missable. Seriously.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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I’ve packed this post full of heavy-hitting reads, so I wanted to include something lighter and uplifting for those who need it. And even if you don’t think you need it, this one is worth checking out this summer anyway.

The Wedding Date isn’t as heavily summer-themed as others on this list, but 1) it’s set in California, where it’s always kind of like summer (at least in this Minnesotan’s imagination),  2) wedding season and all its fake date potential is totally a summer thing, and 3) it’s the absolute perfect, platonic ideal of a beach read. When Drew invites Alexa to be his fake date for an ex’s wedding, things get more deliciously complicated (and sexy) than either of them could have dreamed. Even if you’re not into romance, I can practically guarantee you’ll love this book. It’s got everything you could want in a book: sweet, sour, salty, umami, and even a touch of bitter. (That analogy made sense in my head, I swear.) It’s an entire reading palate unto itself. Don’t miss it.


What summer classics did I miss? Drop your favorites in the comments below–I’d love to hear them.

Friday Bookbag, 1.19.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week was an absolute fiction palooza for me, and in putting together this list, I noticed that my tastes have run toward the darker and weirder of late. Hmm.

Let’s dive in!


9780143127550Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I adored Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (my review)so when this book was on deep sale at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist. Everything I Never Told You is Ng’s critically acclaimed debut about a Chinese American family whose daughter, Lydia, is found dead in a lake.

Bonus: this book is on its way to becoming a movie, which is perhaps part of why Barnes & Noble had it out on the sale tables!

9781501112331In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: This book is yet another book purchase I can attribute to my abiding love of thrillers, especially ones with a literary edge, and most especially ones whose tension hinges on femininity and sexism. I don’t know much about the plot, but based on its marketing, it’s going to be right up my alley.

Another bonus: Like Everything I Never Told You, this book is also being adapted into a movie!

9780307341556Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: It feels a little bit like cheating to put a book I’ve already read in my bookbag, but Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite authors of all time and I very stupidly purged my copies of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl between freshman and sophomore year. Sharp Objects is a creepy crime thriller about murders of young girls in a small town full of some incredibly toxic secrets. After snagging this on sale, I’m just happy to have one of my precious babies back on my bookshelf again. (Regretfully, I still haven’t replaced Gone Girl yet, and I have yet to read Flynn’s other novel, Dark Places.)

Yet another bonus (and I promise this is the last one): I absolutely cannot wait to see the HBO adaptation of this book, which premieres this summer!

9781936787579A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

why I’m excited: I’m trying to do better about reading works by authors outside the U.S. and U.K., and A Loving, Faithful Animal is by an Australian author, Josephine Rowe. It’s a novel about an Australian soldier who returns from conscripted service in the Vietnam War and the trauma and healing his family endures, which sounds really interesting to me. It’s been also well-reviewed, its cover design is lovely, and it’s quite a small, short book–always pluses. I’m hoping it will be a bracing palate-cleanser that I can squeeze in between some of the longer books on my to-read list.

9780374100261The Answers by Catherine Lacey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Why I’m excited: I don’t quite understand the premise of this novel–a woman who is flat-broke from medical bills ends up being paid to participate in an experiment to uncover the perfect recipe for a romantic relationship, I think? –but I don’t need to be clear on everything to know that it will be delightfully bizarre. Part of the premise is that the protagonist suffers from chronic pain–something I’ve dealt with for years–so I’m excited for that aspect, as well.

9781510720671The Last to See Me by M Dressler

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Why I’m excited: This novel is a ghost story set in a California mansion, and while ghost stories are not usually my thing, the marketing compares Dressler’s style to Kazuo Ishiguro’s, which will sell me on a book every time. (Maybe that makes me a sucker?) I did really love Larissa Pham’s recent ghost story, too, so maybe I’m less averse to ghosts than I think. This feels like the riskiest book I acquired this week, but at least it’s a library loan, so I’m not out any money if it turns out to not be my thing.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Monday Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Penguin Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: September 12, 2017

9780735224292Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.

My copy of Little Fires Everywhere came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.