Fall into a good book this autumn. Pair it with an adult beverage to complement the content. Debbie Stephens, an avid reader and Barnes and Noble bookseller, recommended some of this season’s best reads.
Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler
This novel feels like a memoir. Danler worked at New York City’s renowned Union Square Café, which is thinly veiled as her story’s setting. Her young narrator flees the midwest to tell its gritty back story. The restaurants’s food is sensual; the service is frenetically choreographed. The diverse staff work hard, stay up late, call drugs “treats” and become her makeshift family in the city.
The story is a paean to the city’s dark side and loneliness in a vast sea of people. The idealistic narrator is malleable and lands in unhealthy territory. We may not approve, but she’s intentional while claiming the city as her home. “I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t know.”
This is a coming-of-age story, poetically written. The author equates developing a palate to experiencing life. Her descriptive, almost languid odes to food and wine contradict her characters’ cocaine-fueled lifestyle. Non-foodies may improve their gastronomic vocabulary.
Pair with a complex Bordeaux and ponder the region’s “terroir.” Ask Michael Clausen at The Vintage to recommend one for your book club – they deliver.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
You have to be smart to be an astrophysicist. You have to be clever to write about astrophysics in stylish, witty and accessible language. Tyson can’t avoid using terms like hadrons and boson particles, but he manages thought-provoking and entertaining explanations.
Describing “particle soup” and the universe’s initial second, he writes, “a single hadron survived. Those loners would ultimately get to have all the fun: serving as the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias.”
You might slow your reading pace to absorb everything, but take a chapter at a time. Like sitting on a dock, staring at the stars and feeling small, there’s magic in this slim book. Science and big ideas can be daunting, but feeling insignificant is a small price to pay for a glimmer of understanding.
Star gaze with a Cosmo(logy) Cocktail, made with “Nas-drov-via” Vodka, crafted from Minnesota-grown potatoes and corn at Eden Prairie’s own Flying Dutchman Spirits distillery. (Shake ice with 2 ounces vodka, ½ oz triple sec, splashes of cranberry and lime juices; strain and enjoy “up.”)
The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik
Ferencik crafted a page turner. Thrillers aren’t typically coming-of-age stories; most coming-of-age books are about teenagers. This thriller is about decades-long friends facing 40 and they’re on the adventure of their lives.
The risk-taking ringleader convinces her less adventurous friends to explore Maine’s Allagash wilderness by river raft. We learn about how their life stories are woven together with complicated friendships, how they’ve supported each other through heartache and even broken each other’s hearts.
You can almost hear banjos playing the Deliverance soundtrack when these women meet the locals. Vivid descriptions of the soaringly gorgeous wilderness provide respite from the gripping storytelling. The wild river’s whitewater serves as a metaphor for the characters’ tumultuous lives. Their adventure is the stuff of nightmares.
Find a safe space outside and pair with France’s Moulin de Gassac Rose (way better than camping with box wine), available at The Vintage.
Hallelujah Anyway, by Anne Lamott
It’s easy to love Anne LaMott. She’s the non-judgmental friend we all wish for or want to be. The one with salty advice that doesn’t sting because there isn’t an ounce of self-righteousness in it.
Life can make us vulnerable, maybe even defensive. This endearing book is about finding mercy when the big world is cruel. Lamott references scripture, but her wisdom isn’t preachy. She loves people. And she’s trying to teach us to forgive them – and ourselves – even though she’s working on finding mercy herself.
Lamott finds humor in her own pursuit of merciful thoughts: “…she doesn’t even know she needs my mercy. She thinks she is fierce and superior, while I believe she secretly ate her first child. Horribly, she is perfectly fine.”
This is a comforting book to read if you have someone to forgive. Who doesn’t? Even if it’s yourself. “Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that?”
Pair it with a cozy soy latte to honor Lamott’s thirty years of sobriety.
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
Perry gives us more than an atmospheric, gothic tale. She weaves in religion, science, complex friendships, class consciousness, politics and feminism.
Cora is a wealthy Victorian with an autistic son who married young. She isn’t as sad to be widowed as polite society dictates. Her husband’s death frees her. She eschews corsets and leaves London to explore rustic Essex. She tromps through the fog in men’s boots, collecting fossils, cultivating friends and trying to confirm that the sea serpent haunting the village is a creature that survived extinction, not a monster.
Sophisticated Londoners meet quaint Essex villagers: a church rector, his sickly wife, a legless beggar and imaginative children. Perry plays with metaphors galore, including a surgeon mending a wounded heart and moss growing on clothes. Ominous portents abound, but this is primarily a story about a spirited woman and the people in her purview.
Moxie underlies Victorian formality in Cora’s repartee and letters. The characters learn lessons in friendship and we learn that a feminist or two walked the earth before the 1970’s.
Country folk: toast Leviathan with a British classic, Fuller’s E.S.B. from The Vintage. City sophisticates: quaff a Tom Collins crafted from Flying Dutchman Spirits London Dry gin (1 teaspoon sugar, ½ ounce lemon juice, 2 ounces gin, 6 ounces club soda. Dissolve sugar in juice, add ice, gin and soda, stir.)
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
Kentucky born, raised in Ohio after his family migrated the “hillbilly highway,” Vance offers insight into what it’s like to grow up with daunting barriers to success and find it against the odds. His upbringing is shocking, but he recounts it with a dash of pride. Vance’s grandparents would shoot anyone who crossed them. His early years included neglect and violence but he was adored by his sister and grandmother and benefited from their steadfast loyalty. His writer’s voice sounds like his career-launching Yale education, but his cultural roots hold his heart.
This is an enlightening peek into a slice of American culture. The media boosted book sales, citing it to explain how former southern Democrats became Trump voters. But Hillbilly Elegy is only a little about politics. It’s primarily a memoir about family loyalty, resilience, determination and gratitude for the people and institutions that saved him.
If you’re out of moonshine, read it with a small batch Kentucky bourbon, like Woodford Reserve, served “neat” in a Mason jar.