Some great songs that make me think of great books

Scene: You’re sitting on the bus, watching the city go by as you travel to some mundane destination. You put your headphones on and crank the volume up. For twenty minutes (or an hour, or two), you’re going to stare out the window and pretend you’re in some trendy indie movie. You can’t read a book–you have motion sickness (er, if you’re me, at least)–so you settle for just thinking about books instead. After all, you’re a well-read heroine or hero, and you’ve got to be ready for your take.

Just me? Oh well. Get your faraway expressions ready anyway, because I’m about to share some of my favorite songs of the moment that put me in mind of some really great books. Headphones on. Buckle in!


#1: “Phone” by Lizzo

Book Pairing: This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

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

9780544786769“Phone” is a clever, silly song about heading home drunk after a night out. Even “feet all sore” in overpriced Louboutins and a lost phone can’t ruin Lizzo’s infectious self-confidence, just like a difficult home life and climb to fame can’t ruin Gabourey Sidibe’s charm and optimism in This Is Just My Face, her 2017 memoir.

If you’re thinking This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare is just another celebrity cash-grab memoir, you’d be wrong: Sidibe is genuinely fascinating. She grew up the daughter of a green card marriage between her tough-as-nails American mom and polygamous Senegalese dad. She went from a 20-something phone sex operator to overnight superstar when she starred in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, and her determination to not be a one-hit wonder is palpable throughout This is Not My Face. Luckily, there’s no chance of that. Sidibe continues to be a success on TV and on Twitter. She’s funny, sweet, down-to-earth, and completely fabulous–just like Lizzo. Let’s just hope Sidibe doesn’t lose her phone.

#2: “River” by Ibeyi

 

Book Pairing: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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

9781101947135Ibeyi is a twin-sister act whose music is ethereal and lovely, but whose lyrics pack a punch. They’re French-Afro-Cuban-Venezuelan and they’re constantly reckoning with the diasporic, colonial history that entails. (“Ibeyi” means “twins” in Yoruba.) “River” is a trance-like song about sins and redemption.

How fitting, then, that Homegoing also centers on the devastating legacies of colonialism through the lens of two sisters from modern-day Ghana. The novel follows their bloodline for 400 years through tragedies and successes, betrayals and loves alike. One sister remains in Ghana while the other is sold into slavery in the U.S. It’s rare that a novel feels as ambitious and politically relevant as this one while still remaining a damn good story, to boot.

#3: “Waiting Game” by Banks

Book Pairing: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

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

Sweetbitter CoverBanks slots neatly into the “weird girls getting it on” niche, right alongside FKA Twigs, Peaches, Robyn, and many more. “Waiting Game” is an intoxicating song about an off-balance relationship. “What if the way we started made it something cursed from the start?” Banks croons, and sure, it’s a little melodramatic…but so is love.

I reviewed Sweetbitter so recently that it seems almost redundant to include it here, but “Waiting Game” captures the essence of the novel so well that I just couldn’t leave it out. Throughout Sweetbitter, Tess always seems to be waiting: for love, for life, for the next magical flavor. She knows she can’t compete with the claustrophobic duo of Simone and Jake, but she tries anyway. Headstrong, young, dramatic, and kind of foolish: it’s a typical 20-something cocktail that Banks is the perfect soundtrack for. I love it.


Have any favorite book/music pairings of your own? Would you like to see this become a regular-(ish) feature on the blog? Let me know in the comments!

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • 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.

Friday Bookbag, 7.20.18

FridayBookbag

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

This week in my bookbag I have a novel with an unusual vision of the end of the human race, a coming-to-New-York story with a delicious twist, and an angsty Soviet American love triangle that promises to set me on fire. Let’s dive in!


Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Future Home of the Living God Coverthe premise: Evolution has started moving backwards, with women across the world giving birth to what appear to be early versions of humans–and Cedar Hawk Songmaker is pregnant. Caught between a well-meaning adoptive family and her Ojibwe birth family, Cedar desperately tries to keep her pregnancy a secret as martial law descends on the world and pregnant women are registered and interned in a desperate attempt to move evolution forward once more.

why I’m excited: I love when literary authors like Louise Erdrich jump the fence to genre (and vice versa, as you could argue Jeff VanderMeer did with Annihilation). Future Home of the Living God plays in the same sandbox as other sudden evolution/sudden infertility classics like Children of Men and Darwin’s Radio, but where those books are stolid and grim, I’m hoping Erdrich will bring a touch of sly humor to the proceedings. After all, the apocalypse means something different to Indigenous folks who have already seen the end of one kind of world. Plus, that cover is gorgeous. Using an ultrasound image as the background was a stroke of genius.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sweetbitter Coverthe premise: From the post I wrote yesterday about this book, restaurants, and other underutilized settings in literary 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.”

why I’m excited: Well, I’m already halfway through this one, so it seems a tad like cheating to say what I’m excited about now. The reason I jumped this book to the front of my TBR queue was because I wanted a sensual, melodramatic bildungsroman in my life, and boy, does this book fit the bill. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s soapy and funny and loud and sad and beautiful. I’m loving it. It’ll make you hungry, too.

Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Invitation to a Bonfire Coverthe premise: Zoya Andropova, a Soviet refugee who feels lost and isolated at a New Jersey boarding school, gets swept into a whirlwind affair with Russian author Leo Orlov, only to discover that it’s really a love triangle–his wife Vera lurks ever behind the scenes. As the affair grows more heated and more sinister, Zoya tries to disentangle the heady threads of national and ethnic identity, class lines, and, er…great sex, it would seem.

why I’m excited: Man, I don’t know! This could go either way, from being icky and terrible to being beyond great. Adrienne Celt based the story on the complicated marriage of Vladimir Nabokov, which I freely admit I know nothing about. I’m getting a little bit of a Sweetbitter vibe in that Invitation to a Bonfire seems to be a sensual coming-of-age story. I also love reading refugee stories, and though Soviet refugees constitute one of the biggest chunks of the American refugee population, they don’t seem to get their due in fiction. I’m ready to give myself over to this Soviet-angst-love-triangle drama, whether it lives up to my high expectations or not.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

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!