Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stephanie Danler, SWEETBITTER

This book could have been the fairly predictable story (think The Devil Wears Prada x Kitchen Confidential) of a lonely and naive 22-year-old coming from the sticks of Ohio to NYC, taking a job in a high-end restaurant, meeting a hot (but damaged, naturally) bartender, experimenting with drugs, scraping by in a rotten little apartment, finding a mentor who turns into an enemy when threatened, and evolving to a wiser self. But this book is both more nuanced and more painful than that synopsis suggests, showing how profoundly a lack of self (we don't even get Tess's name until a good way into the book) shapes every aspect of one's life. The knowledge of food and wine and the restaurant industry feels like we're being let in on secrets, like Tess is; and the writing is deft, playful, and suggestive. "A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember." "I don't know what it is exactly, being a server. It's a job, certainly, but not exclusively ... One doesn't move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter." "So--some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning." A very good debut.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Another historical page-turner by the author of *Devil in the White City*. Like that one, this book blends two related stories: that of the German U-boat commander and that of the Lusitania, including stories of the captain and some individual passengers (which I found fascinating). There's a kind of magic about the way Larson interweaves the two stories. I mean, we all know how it ends, right? But the alternating chapters mimic the feeling of watching the two vessels move closer and closer .... you can't put it down. What I liked most is the way Larson situates the sinking within several historical contexts--the recent Titanic disaster; the political machinations of WWI, with Britain desperately hoping the US would join in the war; President Wilson's personal life; the newspaper reports, etc. An intelligent, accessible read for history lovers!


I think this is an important book. It's pretty well acknowledged now that there's been a swing in the pendulum of parenting, from what some call "benign neglect" toward helicopter parenting. By "helicopter parents," she doesn't mean parents who care about their children and support their interests, even when it's not always convenient; she means the parents who try to forestall all failures, disappointments, and heartache ... and end up with kids who have a poor sense of self-efficacy and low self-esteem, and can't cope so well with the real world, once they're beyond their parents' realm.

My favorite Crazy Parent story: a young man working long hours as an investment banker had a mom who tracked down his boss's private number and called to complain on her son's behalf. The young man walked into work on Monday and was handed his personal items in a box with the note "Ask Your Mother" on top. Egads.

Lythcott-Haims is a former Stanford dean and a parent herself, in Palo Alto, which she describes as a hub for helicopter parenting. What I found valuable is (1) the way she historicizes this pendulum shift, pointing out why it has happened; (2) her discussion of the how helicopter parenting is harming our kids, leading to anxiety, depression, and addiction; (3) her condemnation of the arms race of college admissions and suggestions for how to stop perpetuating it; (4) her caution about "the perils of parenting alone"; and (5) the number of resources she uses (TED talks, other books, etc.), some of which I am going to look at later.

My one gripe is that she sets up the past as somewhat idyllic ... as if life skills were naturally absorbed by children in previous generations. She writes that "children who are otherwise healthy and developing normally used to develop these skills naturally in the normal course of childhood." Well, maybe. But there's a gray area there around "developing normally." I was brought up in a household that was normal in some respects, but my family was pretty non-relational; my parents were certainly not helicoptering. But while I learned some self-reliance, they didn't teach me a lot of the life skills on that list. I went to college having no idea about some things; I had to pick them up later, and was often embarrassed by my lack of knowledge or frustrated or just puzzled about how other people knew how to talk to professors, or cook a real meal, or change a tire, or whatever. So in my view, the "benign neglect" can go too far.

My favorite quote: " ... we've lost a sense that it takes a village to raise a child, and instead of being able to rely upon informal community networks to help us raise 'our kids' in the public sphere, we're each left to raise 'my kid' alone in the private sphere where we are anxious and alone in figuring out how to best prepare our kids for the world outside" (p. 120).

I would recommend to people who liked *Excellent Sheep* and (one of my favorites) Judith Warner's *Perfect Madness, Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.*

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


I enjoyed this spicy satire of money and manners in modern-day Singapore. It's full of shallow, scheming characters and lists of clothing designers and a lot of posturing and whining that is at times annoying and at other times just plain funny. So in some aspects, it's a beach read. But on another level, it's a satire with the social maneuvering writ VERY LARGE. So I found myself thinking of Jane Austen, the Best Satirist Ever of social manners and the ways money shapes people's lives. This book is in some ways a revved up modern-day Asian version of Pride and Prejudice, maybe combined with Emma. Lots of narcissism, controlling behavior, and obtuseness; a Mr. Collins figure; and an overbearing mother worthy of comparison to Mrs. Bennet, who is married to a man who hides in his study to watch action movies (a la Mr. Bennet). And through it all, a Lizzie (Rachel) who manages to stay true to herself. There's another couple that, despite best efforts, fails to keep their marriage together; they are the Fateful Warning of how pernicious this money-obsessed culture is. My only gripe was the "big reveal" at the end about Rachel's father, which to me felt unnecessary; the book was succeeding on its own terms; it felt to me like Kwan was setting a piece of filet mignon atop a delicate chocolate mousse to add some "heft" at the last minute. Sorry, food metaphors abound ... there was just so much good food in this novel! But I'd recommend this book for a fun, engaging read.