sweetbitter

2016 Reading List #80: Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

After finishing the complete canon of Arthur Miller’s plays last week—which also happened to be the last goal I had to cross of my reading list for the year—I was excited to dive into something new and different, which happened to be Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, Sweetbitter.

I’d been attracted to the cover of Sweetbitter for some time now, but I’m a bit jaded about buying new contemporary novels that are apparently adored by all audiences but me (yeah, I’m still bitter about Where’d You Go Bernadette? and Life After Life). But when I had a coupon a few weeks ago and it was days before my birthday, I finally bought the book on a whim, hoping not to be disappointed.

And, in short, I wasn’t! Though I was a bit nervous early in the novel, I found myself hooked pretty quickly. Sweetbitter is a coming-of-age story for a twenty-two-year-old young woman, Tess (who isn’t actually named until about two-thirds of the way into the book), who moves to New York and lands a job at a swanky restaurant. Tess is taken in by the sophistication of the place and intrigued by her coworkers.

While the book is definitely heavy on food descriptions that generally meant very little to me, I was invested enough in the characters not to be deterred. I found Tess a compelling leading lady because we really know so little about her, and the same goes for her peers. We really feel like we’re glimpsing a temporary slice of the lives of these people, so what comes before or after is important, but nonessential.

I get the feeling that some of this book has to be semi-autobiographical for Danler because it all seems so specific, but, as it’s her debut novel, I’m interested to see where she goes from here. It’s not often that I feel this way after reading a contemporary best seller, so this is pretty high praise. Don’t be scared by the low(ish) Goodreads rating as I almost was—Sweetbitter is worth a taste.

state-of-wonder

2016 Reading List #72: State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

I bought State of Wonder a month or two ago and couldn’t get over the itch to read it, so it became a project I began slowly before speeding through the majority of the book early last week. Ann Patchett does not disappoint in this twisty adventure story, but the conclusion did leave me a bit dissatisfied.

State of Wonder, in many ways, is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s most famous work, Heart of Darkness. However, I would’ve liked a bit more of Conrad’s influence here, especially because I kept looking for hints at his story. Though Patchett does plenty to distance her novel from Conrad’s tale, the basic premise is quite similar: Marina Singh, a pharmacologist who works in Minnesota, is sent to retrieve her former mentor from her mysterious research site deep in the Amazon. Dr. Swenson has been developing a fertility drug for years in her remote lab, and readers are quick to question whether her work is really making the progress it should be.

Though I was hoping for the eerie atmosphere of Heart of Darkness, much of Marina’s experiences in the Amazon are pretty mundane, apart from when she saves a young boy from being squeezed to death and some other crazy jungle stuff.

The biggest letdown for me came in the final twenty pages. Patchett delivers a REALLY great twist—seriously, it was totally unexpected and exciting—but the fact that it happens so close to the novel’s conclusion left me with lots of questions I wanted answered. I’m generally a fan of endings that aren’t perfectly tidy, but this was more an instance of feeling like she’d just introduced this great plot element and then left it without adequate exploration.

State of Wonder was my second experience with Ann Patchett (my roommate and I read Bel Canto together earlier this year), and I’d say I’m officially a fan. I look forward to more journeys with her in 2017.

playing-for-time

2016 Reading List #69: Playing for Time, by Arthur Miller

My journey through Arthur Miller’s collected works is nearly complete!

After finishing Playing for Time, I just have four more plays to read of Miller’s, so I’m trying my best to keep myself from scrambling through them at the end of the year.

Playing for Time was a different experience from many of Miller’s other works because it’s actually a screenplay for a TV movie (I didn’t know this until I’d already started reading). Miller won an Emmy award for his writing, and the film won several other Emmys as well.

Playing for Time is based on the true story of Fania Fénelon, a French singer sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Because she’s a singer, Fénelon’s life is spared so she can join the camp’s orchestra, but the musicians are only kept alive as long as the please the SS officers running the camp.

The story here is miraculous, but as it’s a screenplay, I imagine I would have gotten more from the work if I was seeing it. There are lots of details that I imagine play better visually than just reading them on a page, so I sometimes felt a bit distanced from the work.

For now, I think I’ll take a quick break from Miller to finish the only other current reading project I have (an accomplishment, since I was reading 4 books at the beginning of last week), Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. After this, I’ll likely return to Miller to read another play or two so I can cross this goal off my list some time in December.

big-little-lies

2016 Reading List #68: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

I’ve been in a very changeable reading mood lately. This mostly is manifesting itself in my spur-of-the-moment decisions to read something I just bought, regardless of how many things I’m already reading.

This is how I ended up reading Big Little Lies.

I’ve been mildly interested in this book since finding out HBO was doing a miniseries adaptation, but once the show’s trailer was released a few weeks ago, my resistance lowered, and I ordered the book last week. And then, though I was already reading four other books, I started reading it, too.

As it turns out, Big Little Lies is the perfect kind of juicy page-turner for spending a few days as a hermit. I didn’t read much of the book until Friday night, and then I blazed through over 300 pages yesterday when I decided I didn’t want to have to wait any longer to unravel the mysteries.

Big Little Lies is set in a small, coastal town in Australia and tells the story of four mothers whose children are in the same kindergarten class. I was admittedly skeptical about this plot set-up, mostly because I didn’t want it to be about bitchy rich mothers and their annoying children. The miniseries stars so many people I like (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, etc.) that I put this in the back of my mind and jumped in.

Thankfully, the story isn’t that at all—Moriarty herself mentions in the book’s acknowledgements that it’s a story of friendship, and it really is. Though there’s certainly a feud or two among parents, the book is much more about the importance of female companionship, which I really appreciated.

The real fun of the story, though, is that you know a murder happens among the kindergarten parents, though you don’t know the victim or the perpetrator. I did kind of guess at the ending early on, but that may have been because I was flipping through the novel to see where it was headed and got some hints.

Big Little Lies is enormously fun and worthy of a binge-read if you’re so inclined. Since the TV adaptation is due in early 2017, I’d recommend this during some quiet time over the holidays. Nothing says family like a good murder mystery.

 

the-girls

2016 Reading List #61: The Girls, by Emma Cline

I’ve been interested in reading The Girls since it was featured on every summer reading list in the past months, but my skepticism about contemporary literature made me hesitant to invest. In the end, I don’t really feel better or worse off for having read The Girls. But hey, sometimes a little ambivalence is better than hatred.

The Girls is a fictionalized retelling of a young girl involved with a group meant to resemble the Manson Family of the late 1960s. Evie Boyd is entranced by several girls who live on a ranch with Russell, our Charles Manson character, and quickly tries to enmesh herself in their culture.

The story is really set in the present-day, starring adult Evie, and though we know from early on that she wasn’t involved in the murder the group is famous for, we don’t really know how she avoided it. In 1969, Evie is a girl desperate to grow up and be given attention and love, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see her agreeing to some pretty terrible things if it means earning respect from her superiors.

Though I was immediately intrigued by the framework of this novel, I was never quite dazzled by the actual thing. Cline’s novel is a strong debut, but I felt a bit removed for the entire reading experience. The novel’s concluding chapters are chilling, but those 30 pages were the only time I was truly invested. Cline’s habit of writing in sentence fragments was also bothersome to me—though, to be fair, that might have more to do with my failed ability to turn off the English-teaching part of my brain during pleasure reading.

In hindsight, I can see why others would like The Girls, but it wasn’t something I’d add to my list of favorites. At least I can know rest happily knowing I gave it a fair shot and came out none the worse.

Managing entertainment with a full-time job

Hello, long lost blogging world. Apologies for my absence (not that I assume anyone noticed).

Life has been odd lately, mostly because I’m a person who goes to work every day and teaches people and isn’t a student anymore. These are new things and they’re nice things, but they’re also still a little strange.

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed in my life, though, is my constant pursuit to watch and read as much as I possibly can in a day. So, to catch you up on my latest reading and viewing ventures, here’s a quick recap of my life lately.

Books — A few weeks ago, I reached my 2016 goal of reading 52 books, so now, I’m free to enjoy my reading just a bit more. I still have three other reading goals to accomplish: read Arthur Miller’s collected plays, read something by Jane Austen, and read something by Charles Dickens. Thankfully, I’m 5 plays away (out of 18) from checking Miller off the list, and I’m about 1/3 of the way through Sense and Sensibility. Progress! Otherwise, my roommate and I have been enjoying more read-aloud projects (we’ve done a 700+ page collection of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto so far), and I’ve read both Amy Schumer’s and Jessi Klein’s comedy memoirs in recent weeks.

Movies — I’ve been in a bit of a movie slump lately, mostly because my attentions have been taken up by watching all kinds of TV. Recent viewing experiences have included The Light Between Oceans and Fruitvale Station, both of which were tear-inducing in very different ways. I’m also planning to watch Straight Outta Compton today. Otherwise, I’m doing my best to keep up with all the film festival coverage and anxiously awaiting the release of La La Land and Manchester by the Sea.

TV — This is the area where I’ve been shining my brightest lately. After finishing Felicity a week or two ago, I’ve wandered through lots of viewing. I finally finished rewatching Game of Thrones, including the most recent season, I rewatched most of Rome with my mom, I sped through Netflix’s The Get Down and Amazon’s One Mississippi, and my roommate and I have just started Stranger Things. My current solo TV project is Sex and the City, which I’m slightly embarrassed to say I started watching last Tuesday, and I’m already halfway through season 4. Turns out not having homework means I have a slight struggle making myself turn the TV off.

And in exciting TV news, the Emmy awards are tonight! Here’s hoping for lots of Game of Thrones victories and unexpected wins.

What are you watching and reading these days? I’m always open to suggestions.🙂

bel-canto

2016 Reading List #56: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I’ve been a terrible blogger of late, but sometimes that’s what happens when you’re a grown up with full-time employment. My lack of posting has no reflection on my consumption of pop culture, though—I’ve been reading and watching things like a pro.

And speaking of reading… Bel Canto was the second shared reading project my roommate and I have embarked upon since the school year started. We decided to read it together over the summer, and it turned out to be a lovely shared experience.

Bel Canto takes place in an unnamed South American country, where a diverse group of people have gathered for a swanky birthday celebration at the home of the vice president, only to have the party overtaken by terrorists in search of the country’s president. Despite the set-up, Bel Canto is a book with minimal violence, and the story is much more about overcoming differences than fighting with enemies.

I had a few issues with bits of the content and characterization, but the story is largely a compassionate one that pulls you in and breaks your heart by the end. I’d definitely recommend it for a quiet/sweet/sad reading experience.

And just a quick, fun tidbit: apparently my roommate and I are influential tastemakers (though we’d always assumed this anyway) because two days after we began reading, the film adaptation of Bel Canto was announced, and it’s set to star Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, and Demián Bichir. With a cast that good, here’s hoping for a satisfying movie.