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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Recently, I’ve become very obsessed with Sally Rooney. At the the very end of December 2019, I finally got around to reading her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, and I was immediately hooked. I went out straight-away to get Normal People, which is even more critically acclaimed. I truly could not tell you which one I liked better; I think that Normal People left more of an impact on me, simply because I read the two books back to back, and Normal People was second in the line-up.

Normal People is about Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, beginning with their lives prior to going to university. The two engage in a secret relationship, which ultimately falls apart. However, both attend Trinity College Dublin, and it’s not long before they run into each other again. Ultimately, Marianne and Connell are unable to stay away from each other, and their relationship spans friendships and countries as their lives diverge on different paths.

Rooney’s character development drove the story in a strong way, allowing Marianne and Connell to experience life in a way that was incredibly real and believable.

This sophomore work asked me the question, “how important is it to keep a person in your life who seems to ultimately understand you more than anyone else?”

One of my favorite quotes (I dog-eared the page, underlined it, the whole nine-yards) is:

“Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.”

This line resonated, and really, the whole book, resonated with me in a way that literature hasn’t been able to in a while. I get this feeling as well, sometimes, that life is something non-tangible, that if you let it, it will escape through your fingers like shifting sand. I’m of the firm belief that good books will hold a mirror up to you, that they will cause you to recognize a fundamental truth, without the author knowing anything about you previously, and Normal People had that effect on me the whole time I was reading it.

I know I’m waxing poetic about this novel, not even offering critiques of any sort. I never really do in my book reviews. I think that looking at a book for its strengths is more beneficial than picking it apart, looking for any errors on the author’s part. And the strengths Sally Rooney displays in Normal People are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially for an author not that much older than I am.

As of the writing of this review, Rooney is only 28 and has two novels under her belt, and she was also the editor of the Irish literary magazine, The Stinging Fly. You can read The New Yorker article on her here. It’s a great read, one that makes me want to be more like her, if I’m being completely honest. I just ordered her short story, Mr. Salary, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

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My Year in Books

2019 was a very dramatic year for me, and I think that the books I read reflect that. My goal this year was to read 35 books, but I only made it to 20. However, I enjoyed the time I spent reading this year, and, according to Goodreads, I read over 6,000 pages. So, here are all the books I read, along with a brief review of three of my favorites.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

I’ve reviewed Sweetbitter before, but it was truly one of my favorite reads this year. Tess’s journey through the underbelly of New York City’s world of fine dining is captivating, as are the tense, almost masochistic relationships Tess develops with Simone and Jake.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

This book is a classic, and I can’t believe it took me this long to read it. I had previously read Hemingway’s short stories, along with The Old Man and the Sea, but The Sun Also Rises really cemented Hemingway as one of the best writers of the twentieth century in my opinion. Jake’s navigation of love and the ritual of bullfighting make for an incredible story, boosted by Hemingway’s unmistakable prose style.

Conversation with Friends by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends is a book that I think is going to stick with me for a long time. Frances is a 21 year old living in Dublin when she is thrown into the world of an older writer and her husband, an actor. I’m a firm believer that when one reads a book matters, and I think the reason I connected so much to Frances was because we are the same age, both college students, both worried about how the world views us, and both trying to make it as a writer. Sally Rooney’s characters are vivid, alive, and their development is incredible. I am about to start reading Rooney’s second novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does with those characters, as well.

This year brought a lot of personal changes for me, and I am pleased to say that I am much happier now, on January 1, 2020, than I was on January 1, 2019. 2019 was hard, but I don’t think I would change anything about it, and I’m glad I had these books to walk me through it.

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This week I read Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. It follows 22-year-old Tess, who moves to New York City in the summer of 2006. She walks into a random restaurant, the best one in the city, and lands the job. She quickly becomes consumed with the lives of the other servers, joining their active night life. But two coworkers, Simone and Jake, have her utmost attention. Jake is the bad boy that Tess can’t have. Simone is the older, wiser waiter who takes Tess under her wing. What follows is the awakening of Tess’s palate, her coming of age, and her realization of what she deserves from the world. She does this through drinking, partying, and falling in love. Her good decisions may be few and far between, but her bad decisions cause her to grow as a person.

This quickly became one of my favorite books of all time. I read this over a period of three days at my local Barnes & Noble, and when I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For someone who has worked in food service for years, I thought that Danler really nailed what it’s like to work in a restaurant, even if I’ve never worked in one as fancy as the one Tess lands in. This book made me want to drop everything and take a road trip, to have new experiences and summon my own coming-of-age. I found Tess to be an incredibly real character – she messes up, is unlikable at times, but in the end tries to better her self. One thing she seemed to struggle with was self-respect, almost until the very end of the book, when what I found to be her worst mistake was made. But through it all, you can’t help but root for her, want her to discover that she deserves more than she’s allowing herself to have.

Sweetbitter doesn’t have some mystery, something sinister going on in the background, or even a real plot. What it does is simply follow Tess’s life, and it was still interesting! I think what we all want is for our lives to be interesting enough for someone to want to read about it, to have someone root for us as we go through our life’s adventures, even if we don’t know they’re adventures while we’re having them. And it was refreshing to have a female character who was allowed to make mistakes and be unlikable, while still allowing us to want her to come out on top.

Stephanie Danler crafted a novel with gorgeous prose, incredible sensory detail, and a beautiful aesthetic that’s hard to top. I think it will be a while before I find a book that resonates with me as much as this one did.

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Bookstore Mysteries

Recently, I picked up a bookstore mystery – that is, like the name suggests, a mystery that surrounds a bookstore. It led me to another book like it, and now I think I’m obsessed.

The first bookstore mystery I came across was Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan. Lydia Smith is a book clerk at the Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver, Colorado, which is populated by the affectionately named BookFrogs. They are patrons, generally men, who frequent the bookstore, seemingly with no other lives to be had. They all have stories to tell, and more often than not, are all too eager to share them. One midnight, though, at closing, Lydia finds her favorite BookFrog, Joey, hanging from a rope on the third floor. He has a picture of Lydia, from her tenth birthday party, in his pocket.
Lydia is suddenly confronted, not only with death, but also with the past she has worked so hard to bury. What happens next is that Lydia has to deal with her demons while following the clues Joey left behind as she tries to figure out why he has killed himself.

I absolutely adored this novel – mysteries were what got me into reading, so finding one that focuses on a bookstore felt like hitting the jackpot. The story line was on just the right side of plausibility, and all the pieces fit together in the end. We are left grieving for Joey, but Lydia gets the closure she so desperately needed, both for Joey’s death and for her own past. Sullivan’s characters are also interesting to read, each one with defining characteristics that make them seem all the more real. One of my favorites is named Plath, a chain-smoking book clerk who consistently lends Lydia her car. Sometimes Lydia could be a little unlikable, like in the way she treats her boyfriend, but female characters should not be likable all the time, so it makes her character all the more real and developed.

Next up is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The story follows Clay Jannon, a young guy living in San Francisco, looking for a job. He stumbles into Penumbra’s one day, and suddenly, he is hired. But this bookstore isn’t typical. For one, like the name suggests, it is open 24/7. And Clay works the night shift. His customers are unusual – generally, they come in returning books and checking out new ones – not buying them. And these books are all mysterious, kept separate from the normal books. When Clay opens one, he is surprised to find it written in code. He finds all the other books written that way, as well. With the help of his army of friends and Mr. Penumbra himself, Clay sets out to figure out this mysterious code and what it means. This adventure will take him across the United States, underground, and even into the depths of a secret society.

Though I liked Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore more, I did really enjoy this novel. I found Clay’s narration to be funny at times, which of course makes the read more fun. Each of his friends has an eccentricity, like Kat, who wears the same t-shirt every day, or Mat, who is building his own city. Mr. Penumbra was the most endearing character, a sweet old man you can’t help but root for. My favorite part of the book was the ending, when the mystery is solved and friendships are solidified and life goes on for the characters. Though Sloan’s book was sometimes heavy-laden with tech jargon, he did his best to explain it in layman’s terms. Overall, this read was actually more fun and light-hearted than Bright Ideas. For two books I would put in the same genre, they are two totally different experiences, both offering a great escape for the reader.

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The hardest thing for a bookworm to do is pick their all-time favorite book. So, I’ve compiled a list of several of my favorites, along with a short summary and why I love them. In no particular order:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray is an impressionable young man, the muse of a talented painter named Basil Hallward. Basil’s friend, Lord Henry, takes quite a liking to Dorian, and takes him under his wing, showing the young man the Hedonistic ways of the world. Trouble comes when Basil finishes his portrait of Dorian – Dorian takes one look at it and wishes that he could stay that young and beautiful for the rest of his life. But is there more to this wish than Dorian intended?

The main reason I love The Picture of Dorian Gray is because of Wilde’s incredibly beautiful prose. Lines like “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic,” and “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope,” showcase the aesthetic movement that Wilde was trying to represent in his only novel.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

This series opens with Blue Sargent, a teenage girl in a family of psychics, pondering the many readings she has gotten that all say the same thing – if she kisses her true love, he will die. So, she has simply decided that she will never fall in love, thus avoiding the issue all together. But when she meets a group of boys from Aglionby Academy, everything changes. She joins them on their epic quest, looking for the grave of a Welsh king, the reward being a granted wish. This is a very simplified description of the first book in a series of incredible adventure, all-consuming friendship, and true loves.

Maggie Stiefvater really does it with her prose. Perhaps the most iconic quote in this book, in my opinion, is “‘Is this thing safe?”
“Safe as life,” Gansey replied.'” The lines can be quick, quippy, but they carry a heavy weight with them. Stiefvater is also a master of characterization. The characters seem real, like they’re your best friends instead of words on a page. She has heavily influenced my writing as I try to emulate that.

Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Emily Hughes is a regular seventeen year old – she loves her family and her best friend, Sloane Williams. Sloane has a habit of sending Emily lists when she goes on vacations, different things to do in each new locale. But this summer, things are different. Sloane has disappeared with her parents to some unknown location with absolutely no warning. All she leaves Emily is another list, with things like “Hug a Jamie” and “Ride a Horse.” Emily dutifully follows this list, hoping that it will magically bring Sloane back into her life. Along the way, she meets new people, makes new friends, and has an all together unforgettable summer

The reason this book made it into my favorites list is because from the beginning, I really connected with Emily. In fact, my best friend and I call each other Emily and Sloane because of this book. At the start, Emily is a shy girl with no penchant for adventure, and Sloane is her only friend. By the end of the book, though, she is able to push for what she wants, speak up for herself, and has had the summer of a lifetime. When I first read this, I was fifteen or sixteen, and I felt exactly like Beginning Emily, and I wanted desperately to be like End Emily. I am now. And I’ll always list Morgan Matson as one of my favorite writers for giving me a character to look up to.

Love Looks Pretty on You by Lang Leav

This collection of poetry and prose actually just came out last month, and it quickly worked its way into my heart. It’s harder to do a summary for a book of poetry, so I’ll skip to why I love it, including some snippets.

I think the reason this book resonated so deeply with me is because I was going through a heartbreak when I read it. The book focuses on love, but different kinds, especially self-love and platonic love, with less of a focus on romance. My favorite line is “The most beautiful thing is not when you learn to live without something; it’s the moment you realize you never
needed it in the first place.” And this is so true – if you’ve lived without something before, you can do it again, and you can, in fact, be better off without it. Leav’s words really struck a cord with me, and I’m very thankful I found this book when I did.

For now, these are the books I’ll leave you with. They have meant a lot to me, and I’ve read most of them several times. I’ll add books to this list as I come across more that reach favorite status. As a closing, have one last quote from Love Looks Pretty on You,

Don’t stay where you are needed. Go where you are loved.

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The Girl on the Train

            The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins was published in 2015. Before becoming a novelist, she was a journalist for fifteen years. Originally born in Zimbabwe, Hawkins now lives in London and has one other book, Into the Water.

            The Girl on the Train follows the story of Rachel Watson, a divorcee with no job, living with a friend from college. Every day, she takes the train into London, where she spends her time going to libraries and pubs. On this train, she passes by the house of a young, beautiful couple that she has named Jess and Jason. She has become invested in their lives and has created elaborate backstories for them in her head. Rachel is an alcoholic, an unreliable narrator, but she is also a sympathetic character, and we want to believe what she has to say, especially about the couple that is described as the epitome of perfection. That is, until Rachel sees something that changes the perfect ideal she has created. Her information is pertinent to a police investigation, but will they believe her?

            This novel is an intense psychological thriller, one that makes us question everything we are reading. Every character has a secret, from Rachel to her ex-husband to Jason and Jess. Hawkins does an incredible job with unreliable narration, making this an exciting read from start to finish. However, a lot of time is spent focusing on the fact that Rachel is an alcoholic, just reinforcing the fact that she is not to be trusted. While this fact is necessary to the story, the details seem a little tedious, like when we read of Rachel opening her third gin and tonic on the same train ride. Overall, though, the story draws you in, making the reader want to turn the page until it’s over.