Sweetbitter is a combination love story and homage to restaurant life, particularly servers. It’s far from reverent and certainly doesn’t offer a warm-hearted view of the front and back of house scenes. It demonstrates that working in a restaurant is often a lifestyle and not just a job.
Told from 22-year-old Tess’s point of view, Stephanie Danler’s novel is unflinching when it comes to sex, drugs and ego trips. Tess arrives in New York City from the Midwest. With only limited diner experience, she lands a job as a back waiter in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. She’s unsure of herself, has no true motivation, but still simply seems ready to get on with her life, whatever it may be.
The novel’s four sections are broken down by seasons beginning with a sweltering summer. As each progresses I was increasingly disappointed. Summer and fall had my full attention as I expected Tess to develop interests and become more confident. By the winter and spring segments, I was disappointed. Yes, Tess makes some self-discoveries, but they’re minor in the scheme of things.
Part of the problem is that Danler never makes Tess’s obsessive fixation on Jake, the bartender, tangible or credible enough. His relationship with Simone, an older server who, inexplicably, fascinates Tess, is a mystery waiting to be solved; but it lacks tension. Instead, predictability takes control, which is far more bitter than anything sweet Danler has to offer.
(Barely) Three bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016
For some reason it seems the stack of books on my nightstand never, ever shrinks. Some titles have been there for longer than I care to confess. When I saw that The Light Between Oceans has been made into a movie, it was time for me to rescue it from the mountain of titles. (If I decide to see the film I need to read the book first.)
Written in 2012, this is M.L. Stedman’s debut novel set off the rocky coast of Australia following World War I. The author provides lyrical descriptions of the harsh life of a lighthouse keeper, Tom, made more comfortable by the love and vibrant personality of his wife, Isabel.
Tom has returned from the war surprised and guilt-ridden by his survival. He is well suited to the solitary life on an isolated thread of land. It isn’t until he meets Isabel while waiting for his next lighthouse assignment that he realizes what’s been missing from his life. They marry, and after Isabel miscarries multiple times, they believe their hopes of having a family will elude them. That is until a small boat washes ashore with an infant child and a drowned man.
Tom wants to turn the baby over to authorities; Isabel does not. What follows is a succession of heartache and lies borne of love. Stedman’s characters are real, full of faults. She raises poignant questions for all involved and readers are left to consider what they might do in a similar situation.
The Light Between Oceans
I hate to admit it, but I’m not as shocked as I once was by the barrage of images in the media revealing the plight of refugees from war-torn countries. The accounts of horror, squalor and multitudes are now commonplace. Thankfully, Nadia Hashimi’s fictional When the Moon is Low has shaken me from complacency in a way the reality no longer does.
This beautifully written novel follows Fereiba from her birth in Kabul to motherhood as she flees from Afghanistan with three children in tow.
Much of the narrative is first person voice as Fereiba recounts her life which begins when her mother dies giving birth. Her father remarries, but Fereiba is a motherless daughter in a country with little regard for women. She’s initially denied the opportunity to attend school, but eventually pursues an education and ultimately becomes a teacher. An arranged marriage provides her with the love, support and friendship she never experiences growing up.
With the rise of the Taliban, Fereiba fears for her family’s lives. What follows is an arduous journey, the kindness of strangers and the heartbreaking separation that occurs when she is forced to choose between waiting for her missing adolescent son, Saleem, and seeking care for sickly infant Aziz.
Midway through, Fereiba’s voice gives way to Saleem’s perspective as he tries to find his family. The goal is England where Fereiba’s sister lives. Saleem’s experiences are harrowing, but his determination is heroic in his efforts to reunite with his mother, sister and brother.
When the Moon is Low
William Morrow, 2015
Dinner with Edward is Isabel Vincent’s poignant tribute to an unlikely friendship that evolved for several years over elegantly-prepared meals.
Edward is the 93-year-old father of one of Vincent’s friends; his wife of 69 years has recently died. Vincent is in the midst of a rocky marriage. She is initially reluctant to meet Edward, after all he’s of another generation and she isn’t interested in taking on the role of caretaker. However, once they meet she comes to learn as much about herself as she does about cooking, dining, relationships and manners of a bygone era.
They begin to meet weekly at Edward’s apartment where he always has a martini glass waiting for her in the freezer and a gourmet meal to serve. Their conversations touch on recipes, Edward’s sweet memories of his deceased wife, Vincent’s job as an investigative reporter for The New York Post, her husband and daughter – among many other subjects.
Such a memoir has the potential to be sappy, but Vincent avoids this pitfall through the honest, albeit terse, descriptions of her own emotions and the imagery she creates based on the memories Edward shares with her. This is not a romance in the physical sense, but in an emotional one.
Each chapter begins with a menu Edward prepared. It always includes a dessert and the wine served. It isn’t a good idea to read this on an empty stomach.
More than anything, Vincent shows that the sustenance food provides goes well beyond what’s on a plate.
Dinner With Edward
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hills, 2016
Back-to-back taco tastings at two Los Angeles taquerias may not constitute a true test, but it did provide a fun opportunity for comparison – plus alliteration. Both Mexicali Taco & Co. and Yuca’s have garnered a lot of ink in The Los Angeles Times, mainly thanks to critic Jonathan Gold; all of it well deserved.
I first heard of Mexicali Taco several years ago in a Gold review. What I recall is that the owners travel to Baja a few times a week for the tortillas. While I think there are plenty of good tortillerias in East L.A., I appreciate Mexicali’s efforts. They are worth it. We ordered carne asada tacos. The meat comes almost naked on a plate, wrapped only in a soft tortilla. A grilled scallion is added for can only be color. It was the carne we were after, but a small salsa bar features a few different heat levels, pickled onions, radishes, slaw, cucumbers and lime. The charred diced meat is surprisingly tender.
However, Yuca’s carne asada is a bit more flavorful. These feature grilled pieces of meat with fresh onion, tomatoes and cilantro. They don’t need anything else except two corn tortillas, which don’t hold up well. Yuca’s offers a few outdoor tables, otherwise plan to eat in your car – if you can’t wait to get home.
The best of the taco world, where these two are concerned, would be Mexicali’s tortillas because they hold up well and have a distinct corn taste, and Yuca’s melt-in-your-mouth carne asada.
Mexicali’s Taco & Co.
702 N. Figueroa St.
2056 Hillhurst Ave.