Thursday, December 29, 2016

SWEET BITTER by Stephanie Danler (fic)

Stephanie Danler speaks from experience when she describes, in this excellent book, the life of the staff at a high end restaurant.  Though we don't know the name of the fictional restaurant that is the setting of the novel, we do know that Danler worked at the famous Union Square Cafe in Manhattan. It is a good bet that her novel is a thinly veiled account of behind the scenes shenanigans at many a high end restaurant headed by a famous chef. The pecking order among staff is not a fluid one.  If lucky one works up the ladder from bussing to back waiters, waiters, head waiters, etc.  Presiding over this kingdom are sommeliers, barmen, sou-chefs, chefs and so on.  Some few never advance and there is a fair amount of back biting and undermining especially of the lowly "new girl or guy."

The novel is divided into the four seasons of the year with plenty of food, wine, sex and rock and roll.  It is no surprise that food is associated with sex, you can hark back to the earliest novels such as Fieldings "Moll Flanders" to find them paired up.  Of course the staff is young, and unlike past times, most are college grads or actors waiting for the right job to come along.  They consume drugs, a lot of drugs, and liberally sample the wines, along the way becoming familiar with the best vintages often showing off their knowledge to their customers, trolling for big tips.  Everyone knows his place, rarely stepping over the line, keen to the tiniest detail.  Should a surprise visit from the health department inspector occur, the staff goes into action worthy of a military combat drill.

The plot of the book is thin.  It revolves around three main characters, Tess (new girl), Jake (bartender-gradschool dropout), and Simone (senior server, older veteran and mentor).  We know little about their backgrounds.  Tess is fresh out of college from the midwest and comes to the big city to find herself.  She has no idea of where she is headed, but she wants to be in love with the city.  Her family is never mentioned, and she substitutes her colleagues for family, with Simone the mother figure as mentor.  Jake is scruffiluy handsome, his relationship with Simone a mystery, and Tess is drawn to the danger that he exudes.  Like all coming of age stories, Tess experiences the loss of innocence and struggles to find her place among those more experienced and jaded.

Danler is an accomplished writer and her description of the restaurant and the characters after hours life rings true and real. Her characters are well drawn and the reader, while rooting for Tess, is aware that life doesn't always have neat endings.  I liked this book a lot, there is depth to it and the writing is superior.  I recommend this novel as a good winter's weekend read.

Monday, December 19, 2016

SELECTED STORIES 1968-94 by Alice Munro (fic)

Nothing I can say would do justice to the mastery of Alice Munro's writing.  Her metier is the short story and she has written hundreds of them, each a gem.  For this she received a well-deserved Noble Prize in Literature.  There are 28 stories in this collection.  A Canadian, Munro writes about what she knows.  Her characters could be your neighbors or relatives, they could live in cities, but most often live in the countryside of western Ontario.  Many involve the past memories of the characters as they display universal human strengths and weaknesses.  Human emotions drive these stories, often with a woman as a central character, yet I wouldn't call Munro a woman's writer.  She is a writer for all mankind.  She has been compared to Chekhov and like him, her characters reveal themselves with their internal reactions to what life has dealt them.  They are all spellbinding and after finishing a selection, I find myself thinking, "this is my favorite," that is, until I read the next selection.

This is a wonder anthology to begin with or revisit if you are already a Munro fan.  Many of Munro's stories can now be read on line and the "New Yorker" has archived the many stories she wrote for that magazine.  I highly recommend this collection for all readers.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French (fic)

There are so many things I love about Tana French mysteries, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on this, her latest.  If you like mysteries and you haven't tried Tana French, do so immediately.  This is her sixth book about the Dublin Murder Squad.  French's lead characters have usually played a smaller role in a previous story, though in this book, we meet Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran for the second time.  They were previously in "The Secret Place."  You don't have to read the books in sequence to enjoy them.  I have not, and I have not read all yet, but look forward to doing so.

That said, I didn't enjoy this book as much as I had the others I have read, but it is still a good read, especially the second half of the book when the reader has gotten beyond the red herrings.  French teaches us a lot about the workings in the squad room in a very authentic way.  You see the professional jealousies playing out and often just plain meanness.  Her characters are very human with their flaws and quirks exposed to the reader.  Her mysteries are cerebral, you think you know what is happening and then discover hidden depths to a character.  French's characters all carry secrets, including the detectives.

The characters in this book slowly reveal themselves and their pasts. Conway and Moran were causally handed a case that at first seemed quite straightforward.  A woman, Aisling Murray, was murdered apparently while making dinner for a date. The date, Rory Fallon, a milquetoast sort of fellow, quite naturally became the prime suspect.  His interrogation tells you a lot about police methods and it is easy to feel sympathetic for sad Rory.  In the meanwhile, we learn a lot about Antoinette Conway, and begin to realize that her acerbic personality and defensive manner has a lot to do with the fact that being the only female and non-white in the squad room has made her vulnerable to bullying and ragging from her fellow officers. And then there is the added burden of having to deal with Detective Breslin, a blow-hard egoist who has been assigned to the case as a sort of overseer when things become more complicated. All the while, Conway is nagged by a distant memory of having met the murder victim before.  When she finally realizes when, she discovers a truth about herself, as well.

Like many of French's books, we walk the streets and discover the neighborhoods of Dublin.  We meet people from all walks of life, though more often, the working class Irish. The dialogue is terrific and authentic which adds to the enjoyment, though I would like to be better able to figure out the pronunciation of Irish names.  Enjoy.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

IN THIS STRANGE SOIL by Jillian Hensley (fic)

"In This Strange Soil" is sure to please and interest all readers of history and in particular those fascinated by the relations between the Native Americans and the early settlers of the country.  Jillian Hensley has taken a real event, which she meticulously researched, and has written a work of fiction which brings it to life.  The author tells us in a forward that at the time she was living in Westborough, Massachusetts (known as Chauncy in colonial days) she often walked by a plaque at the entrance of the High School memorializing the abduction of four young boys by the Mohawk Indians.  Haunted by this story, she began to research the early history of the town and the Rice family.  A fifth child, too young to withstand the arduous journey north into Canada, was killed.

The story takes place in 1704, a dangerous time in the early settlement of Massachusetts.  Similar and more familiar raids were also made on Deerfield and Lancaster and these stories have been told in New England history.  Hensley uses as her format a series of letters between French brothers of nobility, one (Etienne) an army officer and the other a Jesuit priest (Fr. Vincent de Surville) who has been sent to New France in Canada to convert the Indians and pastor the settlers. It is the time of the long war between England and France, waged on two continents, and in American known as Queen Anne's War, part of the collective French and Indian Wars.

While this is a short novel, there is a wealth of accurate information about the relations between the captives, Indians, and the French in Canada. Two of the Rice boys Timothy and the younger Silas, become close to their Indian families and elect to stay with the tribe, even after their father Edmond, tries to redeem them in a legal agreement with the French.  It was not unknown at the time for a number of captives, including women who chose to remain with their native families. In general the women had more freedom than they did with their Puritan brethren.  As a group those who chose to stay were known as "Unredeemed Captives."  Timothy eventually becomes a tribal leader and converting to Catholicism.  Father de Serville lives a life that would be hard to imagine for his noble family back in France.

I recommend this book to all readers and reading groups who are interested in early American history.  For those who read "Champlain's Dream" (reviewed in an earlier blog), this is an arresting companion to David Hackett Fischer's in-depth history of New France.