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!

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!

Review: HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Monday Reviews

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: June 7, 2016

9781101947135Some books are so flawless they skate through my memory, leaving a pleasant aura in their wake but not much else. Homegoing is not one of those books: it’s flawed, frightening, ambitious, and hopeful, and best of all, it sticks with you.

Since I first picked up Homegoing two weeks ago, I have not gone a day without thinking about it, struggling with it, and marveling at it. Yaa Gyasi has achieved something remarkable here, and this book is everything I want literary fiction to be.

The story spans over 300 years, exploring the lives and bloodlines of two half-sisters–each unaware of the other’s existence–born near the Gold Coast. One sister achieves a life of relative privilege as the “wife” (read: glorified mistress) of a British slave trader, while the other is sold into slavery in the fledgling United States. Evil and suffering taint both branches of the family, including those left in Ghana, who must slowly reckon with their complacency and cooperation in the transatlantic slave trade.

The novel sags in the middle, especially because of its unusual structure: each chapter is told from the perspective of one member of one generation (alternating between branches of the family), and just as you expect to settle into one story, you are jolted to the next. Some of these stories are more riveting than others: standout chapters belong to Quey Collins, a half-British, half-Fante boy forced to choose between British colonial expectations and happiness; Kojo Freeman, a free black man in the 1850s whose life is upended by the Fugitive Slave Act; Willie Black, a gifted singer who trades the Jim Crow South for the subtler segregation of New York City in the early 1900s; and Marjorie Agyekum, who struggles with her Ghanaian-American identity, unable to assimilate into whiteness but equally barred from assimilating into American blackness.

Between these standout chapters, I occasionally found myself bored, and I was also sometimes irritated by the borderline deus ex machina resolutions of certain character arcs. But these are minor quibbles compared with the enormous payoff of Gyasi’s risk-taking: a novel that reckons with the cost of slavery to both sides of the Atlantic.

Gyasi pulls off this historical epic because she grounds it intimately in present-day discussions of race. Homegoing clarifies the connection between the enslavement, torture, and rape of black people 300 years ago and today’s racism, mass incarceration, and police brutality; it also illuminates the less-considered legacy of those who cooperated with the British and were both rewarded and condemned as a result.

All that, and it’s still a damn good story–Homegoing is not Metamucil for guilty (white) readers, but rather a literary banquet as complex as the African diaspora itself.

Through fiction, Gyasi achieves something history textbooks rarely do: she finds the lives in our facts and the questions in our answers. She finds nuance in the blunt horrors of American racism and absolution in the lives of modern-day Ghanaians. Homegoing is a debut of the highest order, and Gyasi is a writer to watch. 4/5 stars.

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