Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

IMG_2667“Any business transaction—actually any life transaction—is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.”

A raw and gritty coming of age story, Sweetbitter explores a year in the life of a “backwaiter” in an upscale NY restaurant. At twenty-two Tess leaves her hometown and everything and everyone she knows for a move to NY and a fresh start. She doesn’t have dreams of stardom or any of the typical motives/reasons for which many people move to the big city. While she is unsure of what exactly she is in search of, the fresh start in a new city leads her on a journey of mixed experiences and self-discovery. We follow her story over the course of her first year in NY, as she experiences food, wine, and relationships.

“It’s an epidemic with women your age. A gross disparity between the way that they speak and the quality of thoughts that they’re having about the world. They are taught to express themselves in slang, in clichés, sarcasm—all of which is weak language. The superficiality of the language colors the experiences, rendering them disposable instead of assimilated. And then to top it all, you call yourselves ‘girls.’ ”

There are many times when I don’t fully understand the hype around certain books, but fortunately this is not one of those times. Sweetbitter is an incredibly engrossing book and one that I could sit and read without putting it down or taking breaks. It captured my full attention from the beginning as it dove into Tess’ journey, which is filled with a lot of excess. The author takes us into the behind the scenes world of the employees at an upscale restaurant, exploring the cuisine along with the chaos and personal relationships. The characters are flawed and not likeable and there is no distinct plot, and yet I still couldn’t put it down, which really speaks to the quality of the writing. The true strength of this novel is the way in which the author perfectly encapsulates the feeling of loneliness and the need to belong. A well written and impressive debut novel.

“’It’s a dangerous game, isn’t it? The stories we tell ourselves.’”

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin

IMG_2618“What I do not want, I think with sudden ferocity, is a small life – a life of mundane concerns, of fulfilled expectations, of commonplaces and banalities… – a life within four walls.”

Unique and utterly compelling, Forty Rooms tells the story of a woman’s life and choices through the rooms she has inhabited. The concept being that a woman inhabits forty rooms throughout her lifetime, which composes her biography. We meet the protagonist as a child in her home in Moscow and follow her as she grows and moves to the United States, with a desire for adventure and dreams of becoming a poet. But with life come choices, disappointments, victories, failures, and roads taken and not taken. The life of the protagonist is divided into rooms and moments, providing glimpses into key periods of time along with her thoughts, feelings, doubts and insecurities. In the end, was it a life well lived or talent wasted and opportunities squandered?

There is a dream-like, magical feeling to Forty Rooms that is as compelling as it is haunting. Through beautiful prose, the author effectively conveys the dreams, enthusiasm, and seemingly limitless possibilities of youth. As the protagonist grows into adulthood and into a life she may not have imagined for herself, it is difficult not to feel the weight of the choices made and the inevitable passage of time. There is also a fantasy aspect to the novel that adds a special element to the story as a whole and to its philosophical nature. What really makes this a standout book for me is how it does not rely on dramatic events or action filled pages, instead showing how life happens in the quiet moments. A beautifully written and thought-provoking novel. 

“Limits are best stretched by going inward, not outward; pain will find you no matter how cramped the cell you hide in; and joy – joy is always only a poem away. And there are no such things as small lives, there are only small people.”

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

IMG_2596“…tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth.”

Inspired by female Dutch painters of the Golden Age, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is composed of stories from three different time periods, which center around a painting created by the fictional Sara de Vos. In the author notes, Dominic Smith explains that he used “biographical details from several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age” in creating the character of Sara de Vos, and her story and the time period are brought to life through beautiful and expressive detail.

As mentioned, the book moves back and forth between three different time periods chapter by chapter. The first one being Amsterdam in 1631 when Sara de Vos becomes the first female painter to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke as a master painter. We are taken through momentous moments of her life including how she came to create the painting called At the Edge of a Wood, which becomes the centrepiece and connecting thread in the novel. The second time period is set in 1957 New York, where we meet Marty de Groot who is the owner of At the Edge of a Wood and what has come to be known as the only surviving work of Sara de Vos. A grad student, Ellie Shipley agrees to create a forgery of the painting for an art dealer and her story inevitably becomes interconnected with the owner of the painting. Lastly these stories converge in the year 2000 in Sydney, Australia where Ellie is a successful art historian and curator, and her past involvement in creating a fake Sara de Vos painting may become exposed.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is an intriguing novel that weaves together three interesting stories and brings to life a fascinating figure in Sara de Vos and an historic part of the art world in the Golden Age. It is very well written with characters that are full of depth and nuance. The stories and time periods weave together seamlessly, with each being captivating and engrossing in its own way. I enjoyed delving into the various aspects of the art world and particularly learning a little about female painters during the Dutch Golden Age, which I am interested in learning more about and exploring further. This is a well written and researched novel that I would recommend to those with an interest in art and history.

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond

IMG_2572“The end of the world, the beginning of everything.”

Set in Antarctica, My Last Continent tells the story of Deb Gardner who studies penguins and acts as a tour guide during travel and research season. She fell in love with the continent and it is the one place she truly feels at home. It is also there that she meets Kellar, who is in search of home himself, and together they face the challenges of having a relationship when the draw they feel toward Antarctica keeps them apart. During one research and tourism season,  a cruise liner sends out a distress signal and Deb becomes part of the rescue, learning that Kellar is one of its passengers.

My Last Continent is told in flashbacks from the lead up to a shipwreck to past moments that were significant in Deb’s life. The picture the author paints of Antarctica is amazing and the issues it brings up regarding the effects of tourism on the continent is quite interesting. The relationship between Deb and Kellar is the focal point of the story, and unfortunately I did not feel the connection between the two characters and never fully engaged with that aspect of the novel. I did absolutely love the setting and appreciate all the fascinating information and facts throughout. It is a place and topic I will definitely look to read more about.

Bookshelf: Odd and Quirky Reads

img_2291Sometimes a book is just different. It surprises you, it confuses you, it makes you think, and perhaps leaves you scratching your head. But most of all it captures your attention and provides a unique reading experience. I love books like this. Looking at my bookshelf, there are five books that standout to me as odd and quirky reads that were surprising and confusing in all the best ways.

1. The Room by Jonas Karlsson
A story about a man named Björn who discovers a small, secret room that becomes his refuge from the open floor-plan office space and his co-workers. An amusing and wonderfully unique story.

2. The Blue Girl by Laurie Foos
Told through alternating perspectives of three mothers and three daughters, it tells the story of a time when a mysterious girl with blue skin was saved from drowning. After which, the mothers take turns visiting the blue girl and feeding her moon pies that contain their secrets. An odd concept but one that is very well executed.

3. The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
Josephine is hired as one of many bureaucrats entering an endless amount of numbers into something only known as “The Database.” Her new position and her husband’s increasingly odd behaviour begins to take its toll, leading to an unsettling discovery.

4. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
A unique book with elements of magical realism, fantasy, and science-fiction. Patricia is a witch with a deep connection to nature, and Laurence is a genius when it comes to science and technology. They find friendship in the challenging times of their youth, but end up going their separate ways only to reunite as adults, at a time when the world is descending into chaos.

5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
Told from the perspective of an unnamed woman who is taking a road trip with her boyfriend, Jake, to visit his parents’ farm.  The woman is unsure of her new relationship and is thinking of ending things.  However, the trip doesn’t go as she thought it would and things take a strange turn during an unexpected detour. Creepy and unsettling.

What are some of your favourite odd and quirky reads? 🙂

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton

IMG_2420“It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains.”

Margaret the First is a dramatization/re-imagining of the life of the 17th-century duchess, Margaret Cavendish. She was a writer who published works that included plays, poetry, and science-fiction that tackled topics of gender and power during a time when it was something women did not do, at least not under their own name. Margaret is a fascinating historical figure and Margaret the First covers her life, mostly through first-person perspective, with Margaret recounting her own story. This changes towards the end of the book where it switches to third person perspective as it wraps up.

“Yet how hard it is to point to a moment. To say: there, in that moment, I changed.”

This is an interesting book that depicts the life of a historical figure in a unique and intriguing way. With short chapters and captivating prose, the author provides a fascinating perspective of Margaret’s life and her writing and accomplishments during the challenging times of the 17th-century. It is a compelling dramatization and a good read for fans of Margaret Cavendish and also for those who maybe are not familiar with her, but are interested in a brief introduction. I myself do not have extensive knowledge of the duchess but thoroughly enjoyed this depiction and perception of her life and career, and found it to be a great starting point for further research on the subject.