Tag Archives: Stephanie Danler

Five Novels I’ve Read About Food

Cover imageFood features prominently on my agenda of pleasures in life, often overlapping neatly with travel, another priority for me. Naturally, I’ve spent many hours ogling cookery books with their gorgeous pictures of artfully arranged meals but I’m not averse to word pictures of food in fiction either. Here are five favourites which should get you salivating if you have a similar predilection. All but one have links to longer reviews if your appetite’s been whetted.

Kim Thuy’s slim, beautifully expressed Mãn is a love story, a work of aching nostalgia and a glorious celebration of language and food. It’s about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know – a match made for security rather than love. Her husband is older than her, a cafe owner who serves up soup and breakfast to émigrés longing for their families and a taste of home. Quietly and carefully Mãn introduces more dishes until the café becomes a restaurant, growing into a cookery school, then a book is published and a TV show made. She finds herself fêted, a quiet celebrity not only in Canada but in France where the Parisians eagerly attend her book signings. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella. It’s a quiet triumph – the kind of book that can be read and re-read many times. Kudos to Sheila Fischman for such a sensitive translation of a book in which the nuance of language is paramount.

With its gentle prose and quietly lyrical evocations of food, Mãn reminded me of Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt. The story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese cook, it’s a very different book but it shares the same lightness of touch and gorgeous delicacy in its use of language. In 1934 Binh is faced with a choice: accompany his employers to America, remain in France where he’s cooked for his ‘Mesdames’ for five years or return to Vietnam from which he fled in disgrace. Deliciously vivid descriptions of food are threaded through Binh’s thoughts and memories as he tries to decide what he should do, unfolding both his own story and that of the two eccentric women whose literary salon is about to be disbandedCover image

N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter keeps us in Paris with the story of the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier who died the year after Binh was faced with his decision. It’s an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life – his wife desperate to have a dish named after her as the great man has done for so many others – Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Kelby’s novel recounts the trials and errors of the quest for a dish worthy of the wife Escoffier has adored for decades despite his passion for another woman.

In Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, we first meet the orphaned five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723 enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. He’s rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential throughout his life. He’s the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, he’s a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Despite his many interests and responsibilities, he never loses his culinary curiosity. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is.

Cover imageIt was a toss-up between Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter for my fifth foodie title, both excellent novels set in restaurants. In the end, I plumped for Danler’s book, a twenty-first century Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Tess begins her training in what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, subjected to endless snipey backchat, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. Eventually she’s singled out by Simone, revered for her esoteric knowledge and expertise. Tess also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity, but finds herself drawn into the orbit of these two and their dangerous games. Danler writes beautifully about food in this thoroughly engrossing, acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Any novels about food you’d like to recommend?

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:

Idaho                                              The Cauliflower                          Sweetbitter

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The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

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Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

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Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

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First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

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Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.

Paperbacks to Look Out for February 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe first instalment of February’s paperback preview took a few steps outside my comfort zone but this one’s stuffed with tried and tested favourites, four of which made it onto my books of 2016 lists, and the fifth narrowly missed doing so only because things seemed to be getting out of hand.

My only disappointment with Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is that it hasn’t won the shedload of prizes I was hoping it would. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion, as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism.

Expectations were also high for The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson, another favourite writer of mine. The titular crime writer is Patricia Highsmith for whose work Dawson has a self-confessed addiction. Her novel is based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning and claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.Cover image

Sjón’s writing was a new discovery for me last year. Moonstone is set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter was one of those books that took me by surprise, much better than its slightly fluffy synopsis suggested. It’s set against the backdrop of a high-end restaurant in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

Cover imageMy last February paperback is Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing in which our unnamed narrator works in cancer research. Sitting outside on the smokers’ bench one day he meets a young Russian woman who introduces herself as a translator. He can’t help but be interested in this attractive young woman given to wry pronouncements about doctors and their well-meaning uselessness. It seems their friendship might become something else until the real reason for Marya’s presence in the hospital becomes apparent. There’s a welcome vein of quietly dark humour running through Duffy’s book, leavening its cool, slightly melancholic tone. It’s an unusual novel and it does that thing that good fiction so often does – educates us and helps us understand what it’s like for others.

That’s it for February.  A click on any of the five titles will take you to my review. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New books for February are here and here.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Two

Cover imageAfter a stonking start to my reading year, the second instalment of 2016 favourites covers the four months from March to June with just eight books, beginning with a rediscovered American classic. First published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog requires a strong stomach to get through the first page but the rest of this wrenching novel makes the effort well worth it. Written in straightforward yet cinematic prose it tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same room they’ve slept in for all but the few years they were at university. The publisher’s comparison with John Williams’ celebrated Stoner may seem extravagant at first but Savage’s novel proves itself to be more than worthy of it.

My second March novel seemed a little overlooked at the time – I hope the paperback publication has put that right. Opening in 1999, Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow follows a young PhD student as he parties his way around a city in the midst of transforming itself. Erades vividly evokes Moscow awash with people on the make while others look on in dismay, charting the changes from the invasion of expats – welcomed everywhere with open arms – to the rise of the oligarchs, Putin and the war in Chechnya. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this debut. What could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that.

Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier was April’s surprise success for me. It took some persuasionCover image to get me to read it – its structure seemed too tricksy by half. Parker, a veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes who steps on an improvised explosive device – just as Parker did – from the point of view of forty-five objects, ranging from the tourniquet tied around what’s left of Tom’s leg to his occupational service medal. Parker carries this off beautifully, managing to be both objective and extraordinarily vivid in his descriptions of what happens to Tom. It’s a thoroughly impressive and inventive piece of work. Not an autobiography but it’s impossible not to think of the author’s own experience when reading it.

If Anatomy of a Soldier’s structure sounds a little too unconventional for you best steer clear of May’s favourite. Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower is an extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna’s story, the avatar with whom she became fascinated as a child. It has two narrative strands running through it – neither chronological – with a multitude of diversions and devices, from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera. Barker frequently pulls the rug out from beneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before.

June made up for April and May’s sparse favourites with four winners for me, starting with one of the most talked about British novels of this year, at least in my neck of the Twitter woods. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. A very fine book indeed.

Cover imageMy second June favourite is Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer which sprang from her self-confessed addiction to Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It’s based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator, further unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter caught my attention for June’s preview when I speculated that it might merely be an entertaining piece of fluff but it turned out to be much better than that. It shares a restaurant backdrop with a January favourite, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, this time in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.

The first half of the year was rounded off for me by the discovery of Icelandic author Sjón’sCover image writing through Moonstone. Set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this book whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review of each of the books should you be interested. The third books of the year post will cover July and August, two months whose splendours rival those of January and February.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: Dangerous liasons in the kitchen

Cover imageSweetbitter is one of those books that turned out to be very much better than I expected. Its blurb reminded me a little of Merrit Tierce’s viscerally intense, short, sharp Love Me Back with its restaurant backdrop,  the location changed from Texas to New York. I knew I’d probably read it but Tierce’s book had so impressed me that I expected Stephane Danler’s debut to fall short, going as far as to describe it as ‘fluff’ in my June preview. That’ll teach me to judge before reading. It follows twenty-two-year-old Tess who turns her back on smalltown Ohio and talks her way into working at a top New York restaurant.

In late June 2006 Tess drives to New York, finds herself a place to live in a ratty Williamsburg apartment and heads off to what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, determined to work there. She’s interviewed, somewhat eccentrically, by the general manager and is convinced she’s failed to get the job but Howard spots a ‘fifty-one percenter’, someone prepared to dedicate herself to the constant demands of the restaurant. Tess begins her training, subjected to endless snipey backchat, shouted at, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. As she proves her mettle, she’s pulled into after-work trips to the Park Bar,  joining in the excesses, sometimes a little too enthusiastically. Eventually she gains the attention of Simone, so accomplished with guests that her tips are a steady twenty-seven per cent. Tess is entranced, thrilled to be singled out and inducted into Simone’s esoteric knowledge and expertise. She also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity. Tess is drawn further and further into the orbit of these two who are, it seems, more than close.

Danler has a keen eye for characterisation. Tess’s gaucheness, occasional flashes of brash confidence and her aching obsessive yearning for both Jake and Simone’s attention are sharply drawn. There’s a touch of Les Liaisons Dangereuses about these two, both magnetic but damaged personalities locked into a deeply dysfunctional relationship in which Tess becomes entangled. Small, subtle touches mark the passage of her year – she becomes ‘Tess’ when she passes her training, no longer the generic ‘new girl. Danler writes beautifully about food and delivers some neatly turned out phrases: Jake takes Tess on ‘a rough pantomime of a date’; staff are ‘fluent in rich people’. The sheer hard physicality of restaurant work coupled with maintaining the appearance of polished urbanity despite the controlled chaos of a working kitchen behind the scenes is vividly conveyed. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her. Sweetbitter comes complete with a paean of praise from Mr Bright Lights, Big City himself, Jay McInerney, and more than lives up to it. In other words, not fluffy at all…

Books to Look Out For in June 2016: Part 2

Cover imageTruth be told, Barkskins is only here out of nostalgia. Like so many readers, I was a huge fan of The Shipping News with its cast of eccentric, affectionately portrayed characters and its depiction of the wilds of Newfoundland. I also became a fan of Proulx’s short stories – Close Range had some wonderful, occasionally shocking and often funny pieces in it. I went off the boil with Accordion Crimes which told me far too much about accordions and not enough about the many cultures in which they’re played. Too much research which may well be an accusation levelled at Barkskins, weighing in at a doorstopping 730+ pages. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it follows Rene Sel and Charles Duquet who arrive in New France, penniless and willing to exchange their freedom for land for three years. Rene is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman but Duquet makes a name for himself, first as a fur trader then setting up a timber business. Proulx’s novel follows these two and their descendants across three hundred years, travelling across North America to Europe, China and New Zealand in what the publishers describe as ‘stunningly brutal conditions’. I wish I could say I was thrilled at the prospect but, in truth, my heart sinks…

I’m feeling much more enthusiastic about The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel, set in an Essex village in the 1890s. Rich widow Cora Seabourne moves to Aldwinter where she and the local vicar are soon at odds over the Essex Serpent said to be rampaging through the marshes, taking lives as it does so. At a time when the newly emerging theories about the natural world clash cataclysmically with the Church and all it stands for, Cora, an enthusiastic naturalist, and Will find themselves embroiled in passionate debate. ‘Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take’ say the publishers. After Me Comes the Flood, Perry’s first novel, went down a storm so expectations for The Essex Serpent are high.

Back to the twentieth-first century for the rest of June’s titles, several of which herald the holiday reading season beginning with one that I’ve spotted on Twitter and particularly like the look of. Alice Adams’ Invincible Summer uses an irresistible structure following four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy. ‘Invincible Summer is a dazzling depiction of the highs and lows of adulthood and the greater forces that shape us‘ say the publishers. I’m hoping for a nice slice of self-indulgent entertainment although nothing too sickly. This kind of novel needs a little bit of a bite to work for me.Cover image

Dean Bakopoulos’s SummerLong is aimed fairly and squarely at readers wanting to immerse themselves in an engrossing piece of entertainment by the look of it. Its main attraction for me is its small-town American setting. Realtor Don Lowry is busy hiding the fact that the marital home is in foreclosure while his wife Claire spends her time lusting after Charles, the failed actor who has come home to put his father’s affairs in order. As the temperature rises, inhibitions fall by the wayside setting the scene nicely for a bit of domestic drama. ‘Summerlong is a deft and hilarious exploration of the simmering tensions beneath the surface of a contented marriage that explode in the bedrooms and backyards of a small town over the course of a long, hot summer’ according to the publishers. Sounds like a winner.

As does Stephanie Danler’s debut Sweetbitter with its New York restaurant setting. Twenty-two-year-old Tess is determined to escape her provincial home and lands herself a job as a ‘backwaiter’ at a well-known restaurant where her colleagues are convinced that fame and fortune are just around the corner. It’s the restaurant setting – and of course, the young character making her way in New York – that attracts me perhaps in the hope of another Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce’s riveting debut which I read earlier in the year. Setting the bar far too high there, I’m sure, but you never know.

Much more sobering, Jung Yun’s Shelter seems to question the intergenerational debt when Kyung Cho, a struggling academic up to his eyes in money troubles, is faced with what to do when his prosperous parents’ lives are thrown into disarray by an act of violence. Kyung’s childhood was one of material privilege but emotional deprivation. When he decides to take his parents in, he begins to question his own qualities as a husband and father. ‘Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound’ say the publishers which sounds like something to get your teeth Cover imageinto after the fluff of Bittersweet and Invincible Summer.

Ending what’s become something of a mixed bag, Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Everything I Don’t Remember picks up the life of Samuel, a young man who has died in a car crash, and tries to piece it together through conversations with friends, relatives and neighbours each of whom seems to have a different view of the young man they knew. It’s also the story of the writer who is re-assembling Samuel’s life ‘trying to grasp a universal truth – in the end, how do we account for the substance of a life?’ A very big question on which to end this second selection of June’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more substantial synopsis. And if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, here it is.