It took me a long time to read this month’s book club pick, in fact I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have a new review to share with you in time. Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter isn’t a long book, it’s your average 300 pages or so. But the mixture of a change in work schedule and a lot of things kicking off meant that I lost my regular reading time.

Despite those setbacks I knew that I wanted to read Sweetbitter. It, along with Emma Cline’s The Girls, was one of the most hyped books of 2016. It had a load of things I love in a book, a bit of a bildungsroman, an insight into a world I don’t know all that much about, and some romance. But it was Danler’s descriptions of food I was most interested in; good food writing is one of my favourite things to read.

I think the quote on the cover from Stylist – “think Girls meets Kitchen Confidential” – ended up being the most accurate description I read. Danler’s debut follows the classic coming of age format of a small-town girl moving to New York. However, Tess doesn’t dream of being a star or falling in love, she has no ambitions at all. Danler’s slight twist on the norm, still relies on the romanticism of moving to the big city even if the epigrams she often starts chapters with would claim be too jaded to be swept up by the delights of New York. It’s a tone that’s come to be used to describe the contemporary young woman in her own voice in the last couple of years, and it’s something that resonates me as someone who falls into that category.

Tess finds herself a back waiter at a Manhattan restaurant where meals probably cost more than I spend on groceries in a month. As someone who has never worked in a restaurant, but who has watched and read a fair bit about them, I really enjoyed Tess’s perspective. She’s finding her feet, and in a weird middle ground between front and back of house. Tess also finds herself in the middle of a bizarre love triangle, with a bartender called Jake, who she views only sexually, and the experienced waitress who takes Tess under her wing, Simone, who you could say is her real love interest.

As much as I quite enjoyed reading Sweetbitter, I don’t think it was quite deserving of the sparkling praise it received. It had neither the in-depth documentary style look at a restaurant I wanted nor a thrilling plot, so by the time I finally got to the end I had that slightly hollow feeling of “oh that’s it?”. The novel, like its main character, lacked drive or argument. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense, and reflects a stasis within an industry where everyone is seemingly only waiting until their big break as an author, actor, singer etc. On the other hand, as a reader as much as I’m happy to read about a character’s lack of direction I still want the text I’m reading to get me turning the pages. That said, I did keep reading and I did enjoy a lot of the time I spent reading.

If you’re looking for a slightly more indie feeling beach read or a casual lunch time companion this one is for you. If you watch Girls, Fleabag, or Broadcity I think you’ll like it, especially if you live in or love New York. If you’re looking for something more, I’m not sure if this one is for you. Now, I’ve read Sweetbitter, I’m really looking forward to seeing what Danler writes next (and I’m sure there will be something) to see if she capitalises on and refines what worked in her first novel.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Danler’s descriptions of food, and how she interweaves them with the story are one of the most praised elements of the book, what do you make of them?
  • How well do you feel you know any of the characters in the book?
  • Can you imagine the book as a movie? Who would cast in which roles?
  • Endings, for me, can quite often make or break a book, what are your thoughts on how Danler closes Sweetbitter?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use Sweetbitter themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Sweetbitter, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

Continuing my new found love of non-fiction, I recently read Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety and knew it had to be included in my next book club post because it had such a profound effect on how I think. I’ve been a big fan of De Botton’s writing for a while, but I’d never read what is arguably his most popular work.

Just in case you haven’t heard of it already, Status Anxiety is “a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.”

I realise that I’ve gotten to Status Anxiety over a decade after it was originally published in 2004, but I think I read it at exactly the right time for me. So many of the topics touched on in the book seemed to seamlessly weave into qualms and questions I’ve been having about my own life and the world around me recently. I feel like particularly after starting blogging and trying to navigate the world of work while deciding who I want to be and what I want to do, perceived status has been a silent shaping force in my thinking.

My perceived status does matter to me. I know some people will see that care as something negative, wrapped up in vanity and ego, which I guess to some extent it is, but not conicously. Status Anxiety has really helped me to understand why I care so much about my status and why that doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person. So much of how the world is shaped and organised is based on status, it’s how we’re taught to make sense of the world and our position. That doesn’t mean it has to rule us though. But even just knowing that has helped me debunk my negative perception of myself for caring about it, and to some extent diminish its impact.

My alternative cover design for Status Anxiety

The first half of Status Anxiety sets out De Bottton’s case for why status anxiety is real and a particular problem in the modern world (I would love to see an update on it for an increasingly digital world). He collates a thinking from a whole host of other philosophers as well as examples from throughout history. While at times this can feel more like De Botton is synthesising ideas rather than adding his own, the clarity with which he stitches these different ideas together is what makes Status Anxiety such a useful read. Yes, many of those ideas were out there already. Does a lot of what De Botton claims read like common sense after a while? Sure. But would I have read those other texts, or brought all of that thinking together on my own? I don’t think so. The principles this first section presented to me so eruditely have given me an additional set of lenses to view my world through.

The second half of the book poses some potential solutions to suffering from status anxiety. I have to admit that I didn’t get along as well with this half of the book. I wasn’t really all that convinced that any of the solutions presented worked as anything more than outward performances, but I guess it is hard to know how someone else truly thinks. This section, for me, turned into a challenge to try and think of ways that I could reduce my own status anxiety. I have yet to find a solution, but maybes the first step in that is just acknowledging it as a common condition.

I would whole-heartedly recommend Status Anxiety to anyone and everyone. It’s such a good eye opener and thought provoker. It doesn’t have all of the answers, or anything that’s particularly ground-breaking, but I think that’s its power. It’s easy to relate to and use as a platform to start reconsidering your own thought process. Plus, despite being a philosophical text it is surprisingly accessible and easy to work your way through – I think it took me a little over a week to finish just reading it in my lunch breaks.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Do any of the anxieties and principles suggested in the book affect you? If so how aware of them were you?
  • To what extent do you think that status anxiety can be diminished or eradicated? Have you done it?
  • How do you think social media has affected our perception of status, and thus our feelings of status anxiety?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Other books (this list is a little short because I need to read some more to be able to recommend things to you confidently – please add to this in the comments, and I’ll amend the list!)

Why not use Status Anxiety themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Status Anxiety, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

I am a sucker for a RomCom. There’s something about their familiar feel-good factor that I just love and can’t stop watching. But, I don’t really ever read Romantic Comedies. I’m not sure why. I think it’s perhaps something to do with an internalised stigma that they’re somehow less worthwhile than “more serious” fiction. I know they’re not, and yet something has held me back from really getting into them.

That was until I chose Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project as my holiday read last month. I knew I wanted something easy and fun, and I thought, after reading glowing review after glowing review, I thought The Rosie Project would be the perfect pick and it really was. I had such a good time reading it, and honestly, it felt so good just to be sucked into a story and get to revel in an upbeat love story.

This month’s cover redesign takes inspiration from Don’s relationship with ice cream (and relationships)

The Rosie Project is the story of “a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, [Don Tillman], who’s decided it’s time he found a wife”. So, he decides to apply logic to the problem and designs what he calls ‘The Wife Project’, a survey to find his ideal woman by filtering out the smokers, the heavy drinkers, the late arrivers, and those with any dietary requirements. Surprisingly, he runs into a couple of hiccups along the way.

One such hiccup is Rosie Jarman, who although being recommended by one of Don’s only friends Gene, quickly fails to meet The Wife Project’s standards. Despite not being wife material, the pair do embark on another project together, one to find Rosie’s father. The progression of that project sees their friendship begins and many hijinks ensue.

As I said in my intro, what really stood out to me was just how easy The Rosie Project is to read. That might sound like a strange thing to praise, but finding a book that really pulls you through its pages and makes you smile as you go can be hard to find. While I didn’t find it to be laugh out loud funny (it’s rare I find a book that makes me audibly chuckle) I did find myself grinning at the end of each chapter. It was a story I could imagine on screen, which is I think why I enjoyed it so much.

That enjoyment was sustained throughout. But there were moments when Don’s Asperger’s seems to be skated over or easily forgotten in a way that doesn’t quite ring true. For example, he describes his intense dislike for being touched, but when it’s convenient to the plot that seems to be forgotten. As a novel that tries to get into the mind of a man with high-functioning Asperger’s to me at times that felt like it didn’t ring completely true. However, maybes those quick solutions are just part and parcel of creating a book with such pace, and similar plot solutions are generally taken as part and parcel of the genre.  

If like me you’re a fan of a romcom, or you just want a story you can race through I’d highly recommend The Rosie Project. It’s fun and light, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Romantic Comedies characteristically have quite set plot points, how does having a sense of what’s going to happen before you go into a novel change how you read it?
  • How well do you think Simsion presents and handles Don’s “cognitive difference” in the storyline?
  • The Rosie Project was originally started as a screenplay, do you think that has had an effect on the writing style?
  • How does Don’s initial Wife Project compare to how the web has tried to make a science out of dating?
  • What’s your favourite ice-cream flavour? Can you tell the difference between it and something similar? (This is the aspect of the book I’ve probably spent the most time thinking about)

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

 

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use The Rosie Project themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Rosie Project, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

I almost picked up a copy of Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe a few years ago. It was a staff recommended read in Waterstones, and its unusual size and simple cover caught my eye. But, for some reason I didn’t buy it. Then, earlier this year, I came across Naïve. Super again, in another recommended reading list, and it brought me back instantly to reading the first page of it in store. So, I got myself a copy, nestled into my favourite reading nook, and got started.

Naïve. Super is the story of an unnamed man having a quarter life crisis. At the age of 25 he has lost his sense of purpose and joy, and so leaves his master’s program and goes to stay in his brother’s apartment while he is away. He has nothing to do all day but send the occasional fax, throw a ball, and mindlessly play with a hammer and peg game. He’s trying to quiet his thoughts, to feel okay, but he’s not quite sure how.

Along the way he befriends a boy named Børre and takes a trip to New York. But all the while his focus moves between the tiny details of the day to day and huge questions of the nature of time and the universe.

It’s a navel-gazing novel, but it never feels like its wallowing. Even when the plot isn’t necessarily moving forward, he has a sense of progression of hopefully looking towards a solution towards a happier future. He’s finding his way rather than being completely lost. That really struck a chord with me. Even if all feels lost, you can look forward and you can still be good. He’s depressed (or at least he seems to be for many of the novel’s pages) but he’s also a good person, who is impacting on so many other lives without even really noticing. That’s what’s heart-warming, at least for me, about this short little novel.

Loe’s prose is remarkably simple. The sentences, like the chapters and the book overall, are simple. The language is simple. The structure is simple. But it never feels unintelligent, or lacking depth. There’s something endearing about the narrator’s voice, just as there is something about how he views the world. That endearing simplicity was what I enjoyed most about this book. It was a much needed 150 pages of respite from books, and quite frankly a world, that are so jaded.

I’m so glad that I waited until now to read it. I think I got a lot more out of it than I would have when I was in my teens. There’s something about its naivety that I really appreciated now, and found almost soothing, that might have irritated me before.

I will say that if you’re looking for a book that’s packed with action or fast paced dialogue, this isn’t going to be one for you. But if you’re looking for something hopeful and reflective, and that can act as respite for a busy mind and a burdened soul, you should probably go and grab yourself a copy.

It’s a little bit weird. It’s a little bit introspective. It’s a little bit philosophical. It’s a little bit sad. It’s a little bit hopeful. And it’s more than a little bit readable.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • There are a number of reproduced searches and letters in the book, did you enjoy their inclusion? Did the change in reading format add to your reading experience?
  • Loe writes in very simple language, how did you relate to the naïve voice of the narrator?
  • Naïve. Super is extremely short, are you a long-read or a short-read kind of person?
  • If you’re reading Naïve. Super in English, as I did, you’re reading a translation, to what extent do you feel you’re reading the same book as someone in Loe’s native Norway?
  • The narrator makes a lot of lists, lists of things that used to make him happy, things that make him happy now, how do his lists compare to your own?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

There’s not as much out there (in English at least) about Naïve. Super as previous reads, so this list is a little short than the last few book club’s recommended reading lists.

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use Naive. Super themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Naive. Super, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

I would never have thought to have described myself as a fan of non-fiction, but here I am recommending my second work of non-fiction to you in the book club. That book is The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It’s part memoir, part art history investigation, and part philosophical investigation into loneliness. As someone who moved to a big, lonely city not that long ago it was a wonderful introspective companion.

In her mid-30s Laing moved to New York for a relationship, which fell apart just as she crossed the ocean. In a new city, half away across the world from friends and loved ones and feeling the acute space left behind by losing a partner, this moment of intense loneliness sparks Laing’s investigation into the feeling. She documents her own experience of loneliness and her growing understanding of works of art she had seen a million times before.

This investigation into art and loneliness begins when Laing realises she could cast herself as a figure in a Hopper painting. The Lonely City is broken up into four artist studies: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. Each study really delves into the life of each artist and touches on how their loneliness is present in their works. Laing doesn’t limit herself to simply discussing the artist in question, in each section she investigates parallels in other works and the characters who surrounded them.

I learned so much in these sections. Like Laing, I had never really paid much attention to Warhol or Hopper despite, or perhaps because of, their popularity. But when I heard more about their lives and their loneliness images I had seen time and time again took on a new depth and humanity. While I feel like that happens whenever you learn more about an artist, there’s something so private about a person’s loneliness that Laing’s depictions really cut to the bone in a way that was at once beautiful, fascinating, and a little intrusive.

The only thing I would have wished of this book is that Laing’s personal moments of loneliness were given greater weight and better interwoven into the artist’s stories she tells. The art history moments feel at once like interludes where you wait for the author to return and also Laing’s focus. Laing investigates the stories of other artists’ but seems to forget at moments that perhaps the most compelling story she could tell is her own. But then again, maybe Laing is simply distancing herself in the same way that she describes Warhol and others doing.

That imbalance didn’t detract from my fascination with gaining a greater understanding of the people behind some of the most famous names in art. There is something wonderful about realising, and re-realising, you aren’t alone in feeling alone. However, fleeting that comfort might be it is the true power of literature.

Laing’s dedication to The Lonely City reads: “If you’re lonely, this one’s for you.” I think that’s my recommendation if you’ve ever felt lonely or lost in a city, isolated in a sea of people, then this book is for you. You’ll see and understand yourself in some of its pages but you’ll also feel a little less lonely whether that’s in comparison or companionship with the lonely characters she describes.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Try looking up the artworks for one chapter as you go. Or, if you’re naturally a look-er up-per, try just imagining for a chapter. How does having the images, or not, in front of you change the reading experience?
  • What would you say the tone of the book is?
  • Did you end up mapping your own experiences onto the book? If so where?
  • Are there any other artworks, or images, which conjure loneliness for you?
  • How does knowing the story of an artist change how you view their works? Does it make them more personal? Less lonely? More lonely?
  • After reading it, do you see the feeling of being lonely as a positive or a negative one, or something else?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use The Lonely City themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Lonely City, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.