There are some books you just can’t forget. Poemcrazy was written in 1996 by poet and teacher Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. Honestly, I picked it up because I LOVE the cover. I could never call myself a poet or even close. This book, however, opens the writing of poetry up in such an intimate mind blowing manner that even I feel like I could write a few lines that I might love. This is poetry for the average person but there is nothing average about the way Wooldridge tells a story.
Poemcrazy is in its 26th printing. Wooldridge has taught poetry in schools, prisons, on the street, in art programs and in homeless shelters. She offers free poetry programs at public libraries throughout the state of California. Oh if we could only get her to travel to Pennsylvania! The subjects of this book are the downtrodden, the challenged, those labelled as problems at home and in school. They are you and me – people who are drawn to images and beauty. What I fell in love with is the way with words, Wooldridge guides us new poets to larger versions of ourselves – versions that expand on individuality, experience and wisdom.
This is a book for those of you who love words; the way they sound, the way they flow together, the images they create. I would put it in the category of books like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Annie Lamott’s Bird By Bird. Although written on the fine art of writing, you do not have to be a writer to enjoy these books!
What I most loved about this book is that it gives me tools to both notice my life more deeply and ways to connect words to those feelings. Life seems more vibrant seen through these lens.
I love this book so much that I decided it would be fun to meet with others to play with some of the word activities Wooldridge describes. We are meeting at the Bookshop on November 2nd at 6:30 pm. There are a few more seats available for this program so if it appeals to you call and reserve your spot: 610 458-1144. The cost is $10.
During the early 1990s I worked in Chelsea, a few blocks north of Union Square. Taking walks during the day helped me manage my fatigue; my day began and ended with a two hour commute to the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Union Square Greenmarket was bustling several days a week, and a great place to walk during lunch and treat myself to something to be enjoyed at home. It was one of the first farmer’s markets of its kind in the city, and the first I had ever encountered. I was amazed by the vast variety of produce available at the market, all of it grown within a few hours of the city, and I was intrigued when I learned of nearby Union Square Cafe, the then ten year old restaurant that was to New York City what Chez Panisse was to San Francisco, the originator of the farm-to-table concept.
This past summer, an intriguing book rested comfortably on the NYT Bestsellers list for months. The cover features scrawled lettering and a broken wine glass, just a splash of red wine remaining at its base. The book is the debut novel of former Union Square Cafe backwaiter, Stephanie Danler and the title is Sweetbitter. I’m not sure how I missed the connection to Union Square Cafe, otherwise I would have read it immediately. This book is entertaining and relatable — for me — on so many levels. My connection to Union Square, my former life in college as a waitress, albeit never at restaurants as fine as Union Square, and of course, my appreciation for fine food and food memoirs. The fact that Stephanie Danler is such a gifted writer is the proverbial icing on the cake, or should I say the cranberry syrup and the whipped creme fraiche on the pumpkin cheesecake! The pages practically turned themselves as a I read Sweetbitter, This is a mesmerizing debut from a truly gifted writer.
Sweetbitter is a memoir, yet it is also a novel. (With a dash of kitchen confidential expose thrown in for good measure.) The lives of the staff at the restaurant begin when the restaurant closes. They are young, they are intelligent, beautiful and all living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. They work very hard to create memorable evenings for those lucky enough to finagle a table at the restaurant and then they play very, very hard, frequently staying out at bars and clubs until the first rays of sun meander through the skyscrapers to the Manhattanites below.
The main character, Tess, has arrived in New York City without a plan. A midwesterner without a clue, she drives straight over the George Washington Bridge in June of 2006 without realizing she needs money for the toll. From that moment on, the New York lessons hit her in waves, nearly extinguishing her enthusiasm for her new life. She wings her interview at the restaurant, arriving sweaty and disheveled, and miraculously is given a two week provisional position as a back waiter (read busboy). An incredibly lucky break, by any standards. The wait staff is less than welcoming, this is the server equivalent of hazing, yet she survives and is rewarded with a permanent position, a locker, and her “stripes”, the trademark striped oxford shirts worn by the staff.
I’ll stop a moment here to mention — again — that Stephanie Danler is an incredibly talented writer. That’s where the novel part of this debut figures into the picture. The plot incorporates the lessons she learns from senior staff about everything from identifying the origins of an oyster by taste, the development of her palate, her burgeoning knowledge of wine…wine regions, varietals, terroir, how to pronounce, taste, sell and properly present and uncork a bottle at a table, and, the four tastes accessible to us through those funny sand papery bumps on our tongues — sweet, bitter, salt, sour. The plot deftly develops a map of the hierarchy of wait staff and the relationships within and outside of the restaurant; in short the back stories that make her colleagues interesting to her and to us, as readers. Tess’s relationship with an older server/mentor and the handsome, bad boy bartender does occupy a significant portion of the novel’s focus, too much at times, but the restaurant is the epicentre of her life, and as such, so are her fellow employees.
There is no lack of restaurant drama here. I found myself having mild heart palpitations on a night when one of the servers — her mentor — is shaken by a guest and loses it, retreating to the wine cellar and leaving her tables in limbo. The restaurant is immaculate by New York standards but as filthy as you would imagine a kitchen that serves three seatings seven days a week would become. Her descriptions of fruit fly infestations and the evening the health inspector shows up are riveting.
Stephanie Danler’s talent is on full display with her often sensual sometimes shockingly raw descriptions of all of these: food, excessive drinking/drugging, sex, the life lessons learned by a young twenty something living in New York City for the first time.
By the time the novel comes to a close, Tess has been treated less than fairly. I fumed as I read the last pages of the novel detailing her setup and eventual demise, yet she remained grateful for the experience, stoic and the opposite of bitter. I am thrilled that she was able to transform her experience into this remarkable and highly acclaimed debut — there is a large plate of karma being served up here, to be sure!
The venerable Union Square Cafe closed about two years ago, citing rent increases. It is scheduled to reopen sometime this fall at a new location, not far from the greenmarket. I would give anything to be one of the those fruit flies on the wall, the evening Stephanie Danler saunters into the restaurant and is seated — hopefully — at the best table in the house. She deserves it!
I am often drawn to stories that take place during the Roaring 20s. The glamorous years of the American dream have always fascinated and inspired me. Libba Bray’s The Diviners is what happens when you mix these golden years with a gripping paranormal mystery.
Main character Evie is sent to live with her uncle in New York City after a scandal involving her occurs in her hometown. However, Evie sees this as an awesome opportunity to find stardom and escape her boring life. Throughout her misadventures Evie meets a diverse cast of characters that are brought together through one common trend - their secret powers. When a dangerous supernatural killer emerges, Evie and her newfound friends must use their special abilities to solve the crime.
This plot description does not do the story justice, for it is so much more than your average mystery. I was immediately immersed in the world that The Diviners so beautifully portrays. The city was so booming with culture it felt as though Bray had lived in the 20s herself. There were many details that really made me feel invested in the story and its characters. For example, the use of 1920’s lingo created quirky dialogue and memorable scenes.
It is also worth noting that Evie is not the typical Y.A. archetype heroine. She is wild, vain, and makes many mistakes. I found myself in a love-hate relationship with her, which made her all the more realistic. Bray tackles a variety of social topics from interracial and gay relationships to the prohibition. This makes The Diviners as informative as it is spooky. And seriously - the imagery in this story has quite the eerie mood! The serial killer depicted has a disturbing style that certainly made me afraid. But this only made me more interested in knowing how everything would turn out.
It is not a fast read at 600 pages, but the plot kept me turning page after page. This is only the first of a four book series, with the 3rd book making its debut in Spring of 2017. I am eager to pick up the second book and find out what happens next. Overall The Diviners was a very well-rounded story. I would also recommend the audiobook version, as it only adds to the immersion.
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop