Posted in books

Sweetbitter

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.

Posted in books

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.