Book Review: USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS by May-Lee Chai

I am having another week of feeling Extremely Not Well–it turns out chronic illnesses are, well, chronic! –which means I’m not able to give May-Lee Chai’s newest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, the full review it deserves. I thought I’d do the next-best thing for this lovely book and write a shorter review instead.

Read it below!


Useful Phrases for Immigrants Cover.jpg

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-Lee Chai

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  • publisher: Blair (an independent publisher)
  • publication date: October 23, 2018
  • length: 166 pages
  • cover price: $16.95

Like that, he felt a stab of ice shoot through his body. He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, page 60, “The Body”

Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a slim and unassuming short story collection with oomph in its aftertaste; quiet but powerful in the way only truly experienced and confident writers can achieve. (Author May-Lee Chai is certainly experienced: Useful Phrases is her tenth book. I’ve previously read and loved her YA novel, Dragon Chica, about a girl struggling to adjust to life as a refugee in the U.S. after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime with her family.)

Chai’s style is both understated and vivid, especially in my favorite stories in the collection, the titular “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” “First Carvel in Beijing,” and “Shouting Means I Love You.” I particularly enjoyed how diverse Chai’s subjects are: nearly all are Chinese and/or Chinese American, and among them are gay and bi people, Taoists and Buddhists and Catholics, Californians and New Yorkers, the poor and middle class, country kids and urban ones, small children and wizened adults. (Most of the characters are women, something I also appreciate.) Rather than hammer home one single point about one single thing, Chai layers her conflicts like ambitious, gorgeous piano chords.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants exemplifies what good literary fiction can do: it broadens your understanding of what it means to feel human, or happy, or sad, or angry, or bitter, or delighted, or victorious, or often, a little of all of those things at once. It does this without feeling cloying or heavy. It’s a cliché of writing advice, but showing really does go farther than telling, and Chai is a master of showing. She doesn’t tell you what to pay attention to in each tableau; she just creates eight beautiful tableaus that you’ll find yourself thinking about for a long time afterwards.

I absolutely loved Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll like it, at only 166 pages, it’s easy to take a risk on. ★★★★★


My copy of Useful Phrases for Immigrants came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Starless is a wildly ambitious fantasy adventure about a world where stars were banished from the sky after conspiring against their sun-and-moons parents, sent to the earth as gods who play games with the lives of the mortals who worship them. A prophecy foretells a devastating apocalypse, but in the Sun-Blessed desert land of Zarkhoum, such doom seems far away: warrior wunderkind Khai is too busy learning to fight to defend the Sun to his Shadow, Princess Zariya, whom he’s never met. Of course the two ultimately end up on a high-stakes quest–this is a Jacqueline Carey novel, after all.

I adored this book for a million reasons, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the year. You can read my full review below.

This review contains spoilers. They are marked so you can skip over them if you want to go in completely cold.


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Starless by Jacqueline Carey

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  • publisher: Tor Books
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 592 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man, and although in the end I was glad my attempt failed, I had been looking forward to the opportunity for quite some months.

Starless, page 1

Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before: a fated warrior hooks up with a motley crew to fulfill a prophecy and annihilate an ultimate evil. Just like that’s the plot of a thousand fantasy books before it, it’s basically the plot of Starless. But upon this sturdy scaffolding, Jacqueline Carey builds a fantasy that’s stunningly affecting and unique.

Starless follows Khai, a young and gifted warrior raised in the desert as a fated companion to Princess Zariya. Both born during a lunar eclipse, they are Shadow and Sun, respectively, with an emotional and physical bond no one can break. Starless is a long novel with so many different settings and twists that you’ll feel a different person at the end of it than you were at the beginning.

That’s a good thing, and it’s exactly why I (and I suspect many others) love epic fantasy novels when we might not tolerate such long books in other genres. There’s something so cathartic and pure about that journey from humble to hero, and with characters as lovely, heroic, and complex as Khai and Zariya, it’s an even more satisfying journey than usual.

If you’re already familiar with Carey, it’s probably because of her Kushiel novels. Kushiel’s Dart, the first installment, introduced the world to the unforgettable courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delauney. I’m a die-hard fan of that series, and I picked up Starless looking for another fix of Carey’s sensual, intricate, unpredictable approach to plotting and world-building.

Kushiel’s Dart is known for being incredibly opulent and erotic, but I think its enduring draw lies in its goodness, almost a purity: despite its kinky, dark elements, it’s full of characters who love and seek to do good with their whole hearts. It’s a series I’ve been turning to a lot in a world that feels increasingly devoid of heroes.

To my surprise (at first worried, then pleasant), Carey takes Starless in a very different direction to Kushiel. Where those books dripped with sex and wealth and desire, Starless’s world is quieter, more stark, and more alien. The gods of Kushiel mostly watch over their own; the gods of Starless are capricious and even cowardly. The map of Kushiel is recognizable; Starless takes place in a holy (and literally starless) archipelago unlike any you’d find in our world.

Carey is clearly fascinated by the relationships between mortals and immortals, and that fascination comes across as just plain weird in Starless where it was more conventional in Kushiel. I think it’s a good kind of weird. Carey is a beloved author at the top of her game who can take big risks. They pay off.

Starless’s world is so intricate that it’s genuinely shocking to me that Carey just…came up with it, as opposed to unearthing it on a sacred tablet somewhere. Her clear inspirations range from the Middle East (complete with “veiled” women, though they veil to honor a fiery goddess and not because of Islam), to northern Europe, to the jungles of Australia and South America. But most of the cultures and histories of Starless have no clear inspiration at all. These details make unforgettable cameos and then disappear, almost as if Carey is showing off the depths of her imagination. I loved it.

Starless is also full of characters who in our world wouldn’t be considered white–there are lots of descriptions of different skin tones and hair textures, and the protagonists are described as “dark-skinned” with dark eyes–which is refreshing.

The descriptor I keep coming back to for Starless is rich: this book is a delicious, perfectly spiced, and filling meal. You don’t know how the chef made it but you can’t stop eating.

Most of all, I loved the attention Carey pays to sex and gender, which is unsurprising after Kushiel’s Dart (a true innovator in fantasy in this area) but still a novelty. What I’d like to talk about is something of a twist, so I’ve placed it behind a spoilers tag:

Highlight to read spoilers:

We find out about 1/5th of the way through the book that Khai was female at birth, but because of his status as a fated Shadow, was raised as a man while training in the desert. This is hidden from him until puberty, when his body starts to change. He ultimately develops a nonbinary identity that’s really nuanced and interesting and that felt completely true to the character.

I’m nonbinary myself and I want to buy this book for every other nonbinary or trans person I know. It’s something that’s integral to the plot and world without feeling like an after-school special “issue,” and the representation meant the world to me.

End spoilers.

There was one thing I didn’t like about Starless: Carey feeds into an unfortunate fantasy trope that grates on me, the one where fatness is equated with greed and weakness. Literally the only characters described as “fat” are portrayed as pathetic tricksters, monsters, and even child rapists. (She throws out weak allusions to other characters with “curves” who aren’t portrayed negatively, but the word “fat” definitely equals “bad” in this novel.) Fatness is not a sign of immorality! As a fat person, I was really disturbed that Carey leans on this when she’s so good at evading stereotype everywhere else. It’s infrequent enough that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment, but I wanted to mention it, since it’s a terrible flaw in an otherwise wonderful book.

Carey’s imagination is full of riches, and her skills as a writer have only strengthened in the many years since Kushiel’s Dart. This novel is an electric testament to what happens when you let fantasy be fantasy: the farther it gets from our own world (and the world of Tolkien-lite), the truer and more riveting it gets. It tugs on heartstrings and cuts right to the bone.

Starless is damn near flawless. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata

In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura doesn’t fit in–and doesn’t want to fit in–anywhere other than her beloved convenience store, where she works part-time. Keiko is in her 30s, past when she should have been married or found a “real” job according to family and friends, and their attempts to “cure” her gradually alienate Keiko. Convenience Store Woman is a thoughtful, tender, and funny novel that raises the serious point that society is more satisfied with people who are “normal” and unhappy than with people who are “abnormal” and happy. It’s a great read for anyone, but I especially recommend it for people interested in everyday Japanese culture, books in translation, and books with autistic characters. (Keiko’s autism is never explicitly stated, but clearly implied, and sensitively portrayed.)

You can read my full review below.


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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: June 12, 2018 (originally published in Japan in 2016)
  • length: 176 pages
  • cover price: $20.00

A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums.

Convenience Store Woman, page 1

I felt seen by this book, seen on a level so profound that I’m pretty sure that author Sayaka Murata peered into my soul as she was writing. On the surface, my experience has little in common with protagonist Keiko Furukura in Convenience Store Woman. I’m in my early 20s, she in her late 30s. I work a “respectable” job as a writer, she’s a part-time convenience store clerk. I’m American, she’s Japanese.

But this is the magic of Convenience Store Woman: it is so loving and empathetic, so skillful and funny and emotional and haunting, that I think it’s impossible not to resonate with it.

Keiko is clearly written as autistic, something that’s never stated but easily perceptible through the first-person narration. It’s that first-person narrative that makes all the difference, since autistic and allistic people alike can relate to the pressure Keiko is under to fit in. She’s in her 30s and single–not only single, but working a dead-end job, which seems to be even more of a taboo in Japanese culture than it is here in the U.S. To her friends and family, it doesn’t matter that Keiko is happy: she’s somehow broken, and they make it their mission to fix her.

Whether you’re autistic or not, everyone has been in that position at some point, and that’s what Convenience Store Woman‘s charm hinges on. It asks us why we’re so committed to fitting in, while also acknowledging that we have to fit in to function in society. That contradiction keeps the novel interesting, and far away from “everyone’s special” after-school special territory.

Autistic people are so often used and abused by fiction writers to further plots, be an excuse for an allistic main character to show off their empathy, or to fulfill harmful stereotypes, such as that autistic people lack empathy or are overgrown children. I cannot emphasize enough how much I loved Murata’s approach in Convenience Store Woman. When you read, you don’t feel separate from Keiko. You’re not ogling her or judging her. You’re just experiencing the world through Keiko’s eyes, and if Keiko sees things a little differently than you might in her shoes, so be it.

Murata has a particular gift for descriptions. She engaged all my senses so vividly that I felt like I were experiencing the novel through virtual reality, a jolt straight to my neurons. That’s an especially wonderful feat considering that I’ve never been to Japan and am not particularly familiar with what a convenience store or small apartment might look like there. It doesn’t matter: the taste of a slightly spoiled mango-chocolate bun, or the look of Keiko’s feverish nephew, or the smell of an unwashed incel-like man–Keiko’s terrible sort-of boyfriend–was conveyed to me perfectly.

“Perceptive” is the word that I think describes Convenience Store Woman best. It indulges in all the specificities of Keiko’s life and suburban Japanese culture while still remaining remarkably relatable and accessible. It has sharp satirical elements, but it has a big, gushy emotional heart. It’s a book full of all those little anxieties and behaviors that you thought only you did, that you now realize others might, too. It’s a book to make you feel less alone. And goodness knows we need more of those.

Convenience Store Woman is sometimes quite dark and sad, other times quite joyful and funny, and always as delicious and comforting as hot soup–or the convenience store’s best-selling mayo-tuna rice balls. Highly, highly recommended. Just don’t read it while you’re hungry. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


My copy of Convenience Store Woman came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation isn’t a novel of either-or’s, but rather of messy middles. It follows a year in the life of a 20-something New York heiress who decides to drug herself into sleep for a year (with the aid of an unethical, conspiracy-addled psychiatrist) because she doesn’t like her life very much. That premise–and Ottessa Moshfegh’s almost gleeful execution of it–will horrify you. It will likely repulse you. And yet, from the first words on the first page, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is hypnotically readable, even enjoyable. My sense of anxiety and distaste never lessened, but it’s still, somehow, one of my can’t-miss novel recommendations of the year.

You can read my full review of this unforgettable novel below.


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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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  • publisher: Penguin Press
  • publication date: July 10, 2018
  • length: 304 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

But coming out of that sleep was excruciating. My entire life flashed before my eyes in the worst way possible, my mind refilling itself with all my lame memories, every little thing that had brought me to where I was. I’d try to remember something else–a better version, a happy story, maybe, or just an equally lame but different life that would at least be refreshing in its digressions–but it never worked. I was always still me.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, page 40

From June 1999 to June 2000, the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation decides to sleep. She’s an heiress to a lot of money. She’s a Columbia art history graduate. She has a nice apartment in Manhattan and a cushy job at a pretentiously “edgy” art gallery. Her parents are dead. She hates her best friend. She is an utterly intolerable person and seems to know it. So she sleeps in an attempt to start over, with the help of a psychiatrist so incompetent it’s almost malicious.

You would be forgiven, after hearing the premise, for thinking that My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a magical realist fairy tale. How else could someone sleep for a year? The answer is that the narrator doesn’t, exactly: she naps and sleeps and blacks out and visits the bodega and watches movies and starts the cycle over again. If the plot is dreamy, the novel’s feel is not; in fact, it is almost oppressively real, especially as it’s grounded in the quirks and side effects of psychotropic medications.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation name-checks all sorts of pop and high culture references with the density and playfulness of a Hollywood satire. (In fact, its closest tonal match is probably Netflix’s depressing-but-beautiful Hollywood sitcom Bojack Horseman.) It skewers the art world, skewers wealth, skewers college, skewers dating, skewers shopping, and skewers psychiatry.

It even skewers the omnipresence of 9/11 in pop culture: as the novel progresses, the clock runs ever-closer to September 2001, and Ottessa Moshfegh gently toys with her readers with references to Zeno’s paradox of ever-halving time and an anti-terrorism taskforce that’s quartered in the Twin Towers. I was torn between marveling at Moshfegh’s talented satire and also feeling profoundly rubbed the wrong way by it. I think that’s the point. (To be clear, Moshfegh does not make light of 9/11–quite the opposite–but if you’re disturbed by reading some dark humor about the event, this novel likely isn’t for you.)

The emotional heft of the novel lies in the narrator’s relationship with her best friend, Reva, who visits the narrator frequently while she is “sleeping.” Reva adores her. She loathes Reva. Their push-and-pull–the (unnamed) narrator’s a WASP, Reva is an out-of-place Jew; the narrator is effortlessly thin, Reva is bulimic; Reva’s mother is dying, the narrator’s parents are already dead–allows Moshfegh to ruthlessly probe at the characters themselves and at broader archetypes about women in New York. Neither Reva nor the narrator is a good person. You don’t particularly enjoy spending time with them. Yet I felt an intense, almost mothering connection to both that kept me tethered to the novel no matter how far out it gets.

My biggest discomfort with My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a profoundly personal one. Many of the drugs that the narrator is prescribed for her “insomnia” are drugs I’ve taken myself for my very real bipolar disorder: lithium, Seroquel, trazodone, and Risperdal, for one, though the list goes on a lot further than that. As the narrator describes her weight loss, her wan-ness, her nausea, her atrophy, I became overwhelmingly angry. Psychotropic meds are horrible. If I didn’t need them, I wouldn’t take them. It’s a deep conflict I have within myself that I am an enormous advocate for mental health treatment, and also someone who loathes taking my meds.

In light of that, reading about a privileged skinny white girl taking those meds and dealing with their side effects for fun–or rather, not quite for fun, as she’s clearly struggling, but also not quite because she needs them–made me irritable. It got under my skin. It gave me bad dreams last night, not to mention all of the other disturbing things about the novel that bothered me, too.

And yet I am immensely grateful to have read My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a writer so talented that I felt literally dazzled, like I couldn’t look at a page too long or it might burn me. There is not a word out of place here. There is not a single careless joke or plot point, although the narrator as a character is deeply careless. It’s a marvel to watch the pieces fit together.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is as skillfully, intensely drawn as Escher art. It will befuddle you the longer you think about it, so don’t think: just read. Moshfegh’s protagonist may be busy wasting her life, but while reading about it, I only felt more intensely alive. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


My copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WARCROSS by Marie Lu

In Warcross, troubled teenage hacker and bounty hunter Emika Chen steals a power-up from a Warcross tournament, Warcross being the virtual reality sensation that’s taken over Marie Lu’s fictional vision of the future. Instead of getting arrested, Emika gets invited to Tokyo to help Hideo Tanaka, Warcross’s mysterious and handsome inventor, catch a dangerous hacker named Zero. What follows is an absolutely dazzling sci-fi adventure novel that’s both rollicking fun and a thoughtful exploration of the ever-increasing role tech plays in our lives. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

You can read my full review below.


Warcross Cover

Warcross by Marie Lu

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  • publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • length: 368 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Some people still say that Warcross is just a stupid game. Others say it’s a revolution. But for me and millions of others, it’s the only foolproof way to forget our troubles. I lost my bounty, my landlord is going to come screaming for his money again tomorrow morning, I’m going to drag myself to my waitressing job, and I’m going to be homeless in a couple of days, with nowhere to go…but tonight I can join in with everyone else, put on my glasses, and watch magic happen.

Warcross, page 27

The line between “young adult” and “adult” seems to blur more and more every year in publishing, and if you need hard evidence that that’s a good thing, you need look no further than Warcross.

Warcross‘s premise manages to be straightforward and thought-provoking all at once: an impoverished New York City bounty hunter, Emika Chen, commits a crime by hacking a Warcross tournament and is then plunged into a world of immense wealth and intrigue when she goes undercover in the tournament herself to uncover the identity of a dangerous hacker. It’s not hard to follow the action, which frees you up to think even more deeply about a world where our economy and our free time are completely controlled by a video game. (That world certainly doesn’t feel very far away.)

Author Marie Lu worked as a video game designer before her turn as a successful YA sci-fi author. That means that she intimately grasps the incredible rewards of gaming. This is definitely a “fist pump” novel: one where the action, both in game and out, leaves you as breathless as a superhero movie might.

That also means her critiques of tech can go way deeper than knee-jerk, dime-a-dozen “the future = bad” takes on virtual reality. In Lu’s future, Warcross is empowering as well as dangerous: underdogs from around the world become overnight superstars who can provide for themselves and their families. Lu’s characters feel effortlessly diverse to the reader, but you can still sense how much thought she’s put into it: How might international stars react similarly or differently to online superstardom? (I loved how many countries were represented, from Kenya to Germany and far beyond.) How might a gamer who uses a wheelchair in the real world adapt to an able-bodied avatar in-game? How would translation work across languages?

I could list dozens of other questions the novel raises, and it makes the whole experience far richer and more immersive than a skin-deep, U.S.-centric novel with a similar premise would be.

Warcross‘s protagonists, Emika and Hideo, are on the older side for YA: Emika is 18 and Hideo is 21. This is where the blurring between young adult and adult comes in: this novel is perfectly appropriate for even young teens (there’s no intense violence or sexuality) but was still completely engrossing for me, a 23-year-old adult. This would be a perfect book for parent or mentors to share with tech-savvy teens: it will lead to great conversations about safety online and be super-fun, to boot. There’s such a dearth of books starring 18-to-25-year-olds out there (it’s like fictional characters just…stop living their lives between 17-30) that I would have been happy to find Warcross regardless, so it’s a nice bonus that it’s so clever and well-crafted, as well.

In Warcross, Lu writes with a light touch, equally comfortable with vivid action, painful emotion, butterflies-in-the-stomach flirtation, and thoughtful observation. Her rich imagination fairly leaps off the page, and her characters are distinctly and lovingly drawn. (There’s a huge ensemble supporting cast in this novel, but I had no problem telling them apart.) She’s preternaturally gifted, and Warcross is a treat.

Perhaps this novel’s only downside is its cliffhanger ending. Thankfully, it manages to feel genuinely open rather than exploitative, but the wait for the second book, Wildcard–coming September 18th, 2018–is killing me. In the meantime, I’m tempted to flip back to page 1 and lose myself in Warcross all over again. ★★★★★


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

Book Review: SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

Sweetbitter follows Tess, a 20-something who moves to New York in search of…well, New York itself. She miraculously lands a job at a high-end restaurant and begins a life full of heady food, drink, coke, and 3 a.m. benders with coworkers. She also falls hard for Simone, an aloof waitress full of Old World knowledge and mystery, and Jake, an otherworldly-beautiful bartender with secrets to keep. Sweetbitter feels miraculous, a wonderful novel superimposed onto the blueprints of a worse one. Coming to New York stories are cheap and well-trodden, but Stephanie Danler finds all the rough edges worth exploring. As I wrote last month, the novel’s vivid restaurant setting helps freshen it, but there’s other alchemical magic at work too. Danler finds the sweet spot between young adult and adult literature, turning the big swings and harsh failures of Tess’s 20s into a novel that feels decadent and rich, lofty without being bloodless. I loved every minute.

You can read my full review below. Please note that this review is a bit more NSFW than my usual and contains some sexual content and swearing.


Sweetbitter Cover

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

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  • publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • publication date: May 24, 2016
  • length: 368 pages
  • cover price: $25.00 in hardcover, $16.00 in paperback

Does anyone come to New York clean? I’m afraid not. But crossing the Hudson I thought of crossing Lethe, milky river of forgetting. I forgot that I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house. I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn’t catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between desiccated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.

Sweetbitter, page 4

20-something Tess comes to New York from Ohio as a blank slate with a vaguely alluded-to education in English literature. She doesn’t come to New York striving to be an actress, singer, writer, or artist; she just arrives for the sake of arriving, hungry for city living. She decides that working as a waitress is her best chance at making life in the city work, so she gets a job at a high-end restaurant in Manhattan and begins an education in good food and something called the 51%–the “something special” about back- and front-of-house staff. From there, she falls headlong into a love affair with food and two of her most mysterious coworkers. Hijinks (and a beautiful coming-of-age story) ensue.

For all the effort we put into getting kids and teens to read, I think that we put very little cultural effort into keeping adults readers during and after college. There’s a massive jump between the work of offbeat YA authors like A. S. King and the cloistered world of adult literary fiction.

That’s what struck me most about Sweetbitter: that it is a young adult novel in the sense that it intimately captures the things I care about as a 23-year-old moving through the world, in a way that very few literary novels (except maybe Nafkote Tamirat’s flawed The Parking Lot Attendant) have captured recently: love, hard work, love, hard pain, love, hard joy, love, with the intensity of it all dialed up to eleven.

Danler’s writing is dramatic, almost to the point of melo-, but not quite. At first when reading Sweetbitter’s mythology-tinged dialogue, I thought, no one talks like that. But because Danler writes a dazzling amount of dialogue for a dizzying array of characters, it works. For every allusion to Greek myth and the terroir of Old World wines, someone’s talking about puking after a night out and the latest girl the office manager is screwing under his desk. It’s hi-lo writing that perfectly captures the hi-lo atmosphere of restaurant work, no matter how “fine” the dining is at a particular establishment.

Sweetbitter hews so close to the border of cliché that it’s a miracle it never crosses into it. For one, a love triangle with an older, mysterious bartender and an icy head waitress is at its center. For the other, it’s a coming-of-age story about coming to New York. But in Danler’s hands those elements have an unexpected emotional immediacy. Tess snorts obligatory coke in a bar bathroom, but she also then buys a leather jacket with a heady (and recognizable to any 20-something) mix of self-consciousness and pride. She has hot sex in the back of a cab but also masturbates, miserably, in her overheated apartment in the middle of a damp December.

Sweetbitter is both archetypal and vulnerable, something in the vein of Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar but also something entirely its own. It’s both claustrophobic and expansive, confined to a restaurant that somehow contains a whole world within it. The tenderness with which the staff treat their regular customers is in sharp contrast to the vicious way they treat each other, yet both feel like manifestations of love. They’re a family. A completely fucked-up family, but still.

Sweetbitter is yet another book about a beautiful, thin young white woman, but it’s perhaps the best one of that ouevre I’ve ever read. It’s a book about the aged optimism–not quite pessimism–of your twenties, and how it mellows and deepens. I want to read more stories that live in that niche, ones with different specificities and desires and homes.

If you’re disaffected and bored and in a reading slump, I couldn’t recommend anything else to shake you out of it more highly than Sweetbitter. It’s sad and thrilling and cathartic at once, both a mirror-image of our world and a bright still life full of artistic license. Get some good grapes and cheese and take a hot bath while you read. You’ll lose yourself and your troubles, too. ★★★★★


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

Book Review: THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room begins on a claustrophobic prison bus, but from there, it opens wide to a tableau of prison, poverty, gentrification, stripping, sex work, murder, and references to Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. It’s technically a novel about Romy Hall, a mother who’s facing two consecutive life sentences, but it’s full of other interlinking stories, too: some brutal, some hopeful, most sad. It’s a novel that’s unsettling as much as it is enthralling. It’s not often that I feel I encounter capital-L Literature: a book that will be read and analyzed and loved decades or centuries from now and not just in this year or next year. I think that The Mars Room is that kind of literature.

You can read my full review below.


The Mars Room Cover.jpg

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: May 1, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $27.00

Do you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.

The Mars Room, page 25

Romy Hall’s life is over. Convicted of murdering her stalker, she’s been separated from her 7-year-old son and prickly German mother in order to serve two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) in a women’s prison. After thirty-seven years, she will see the parole board that will determine if she can start serving the second sentence–requisite on good behavior, of course.

But what motivation possibly exists for good behavior when you know you’re going to be behind bars forever either way? Not much, I imagine, and The Mars Room tells the sometimes sordid, always riveting story of Romy’s bad behaviors past and present, inside and outside the prison.

There are other linked characters whose stories we experience, too, including a former leg model on death row, a dirty L.A. cop with an intriguing moral code, and a well-meaning G.E.D. teacher who gets in over his head with the women at the prison.

The Mars Room excels at casting light on the absurdities, hypocrisies, and desperations that exist in the American criminal justice system (and in our society at large). Its characters seem to exist perpetually at the end of a rope, and in a less-good novel, I might have pitied them. This novel, however, evokes feelings that are much more complex: I wanted to scold, wanted to yell, wanted to embrace, wanted to weep. It’s an emotional symphony that’s unbearably loud but also impossible to walk away from.

Kushner writes characters who are as frustrating as they are compelling. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia are intense and constant presences here, and slurs and vicious acts are perpetrated by every character. At first I found it too upsetting to handle and set the book aside. I’m glad I went back, though: Kushner seems to truly understand what people tick, and that includes bigotry. It doesn’t feel like it’s there for shock value; it isn’t malevolent so much as mundane, and somehow that mundanity is even more chilling than a clear-cut villain would be.

The literary community has been buzzing with talk of “unlikeable” female characters lately (most recently in this excellent interview with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects fame), and I think that The Mars Room digs deeper into that idea than any novel I’ve ever read before, and here’s why:

There’s a world of difference between an “unlikeable” protagonist like Amy Dunne of Gone Girl–a wealthy white woman who speaks truth to a power that she also, sort of, possesses–and an unlikeable protagonist like Romy, a sex worker who lives in a hotel in the Tenderloin, who leaves her son with random babysitters, who steals and does drugs and manipulates men into giving her what she wants, whose own lawyer won’t let her take the stand because he knows the jury will hate her.

One kind of unlikeable woman has a go, grrl! cachet (like alleged scammer Anna Delvey, though as far as we know Delvey isn’t a sociopathic murderer like Dunne), and one gets sent to prison for life with no friends, no family, no lovers, and no advocates, like tens of thousands of real women nationwide.

Its virtuoso character development aside, The Mars Room also features some damn good settings. Kushner paints a portrait of a seedy-but-rapidly-gentrifying San Francisco in word-pictures as neon and memorable as strip club lights. The Mars Room is set in the early 2000s, around the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the claustrophobic jingoism of that moment adds immeasurably to the novel. We don’t hear so much about the inside of the prison as we do about the polluted valley where it’s located: a smart decision, I think, since most readers have an ample idea of what a prison looks like. A poisoned, isolated scrap of California eucalyptus and redwood forest was much more frightening and interesting to me than cinderblock walls.

Lastly, Kushner’s prose is simply magic. I can’t decide whether there’s a lot happening in The Mars Room or barely anything; it’s told mostly in flashbacks which are usually a tension-killer for me. Yet in Kushner’s skilled hands, stories that should be foregone conclusions (prisoners facing life, prisoners facing the death penalty) are as gripping as an action movie. Kushner takes the world we see every day and clarifies it into something eerie and hyper-real, something that literally kept me up at night while I was reading.

The Mars Room is a triumph: a novel that is at once sharp and declarative, fuzzy and gray. I could argue a million different things about it and I’m sure you could argue ten million back at me. It’s unforgettable. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★


My copy of The Mars Room came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.