The Saturday Read – ‘Sweetbitter’ by Stephanie Danler

Who will you become? That’s the question we should ask when we consider a new job, but often the promise of a new opportunity obscures the answer until we find ourselves caught in the rip tide of the unconsidered.

The Saturday Read this week is ‘Sweetbitter’, a novel by Stephanie Danler perfectly captures what it’s like to be 22, taking your first job in New York City.

“Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.”

There it is. That moment when we shed one identity and begin to sculpt the new. This is the magic of the author’s prose; transforming the familiar.

Set to debut as a six-part STARZ series on May 6, I encourage you to snag a copy and read this book while imagination is still your own and small screen images can’t get in the way of literary transport.

“…nobody remembers what it feels like to be so recklessly absorbent.
When you can’t see in front of you life is nothing but surprises. Looking back, there were truly so few of them.”

I’m not sure why we rely on non-fiction to inform our knowledge of life@work. Best seller lists are full of management philosophy exuding from ivy covered walls and concrete corporate towers. But it’s the fiction writers who add a touch of imagination and humanity to the workplace, who are the true management gurus.

“I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.”

‘Sweetbitter’ is a book about work and the communities we build around us to manage the connection between self and the enormity of place, in this case, New York City. It’s about expectations colliding with reality in a spot where following your dream invites on-going comparison to an alternate career path.

“We called them the Nine-to-Fivers. They lived in accordance with nature, waking and sleeping with the cycle of the sun. Mealtimes, business hours, the world conformed to their schedule. They were dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding while we were working, diminishing, being absorbed into their scenery.”

On the last night of her paperback book tour last June, the author read from the novel and shared her own career narrative with a group of readers at independent bookstore, Pages in Manhattan Beach, California.


She alluded to similarities with her main character, Tess, and her early career working as a waitress in Seal Beach and later in NY at the Union Square Cafe. “At age 22 you are in the stream of experience, nothing is premeditated; autonomy without consequences. After six months at the Union Square Cafe I was no longer a writer.”

She pursued a successful path in the restaurant industry until she was confronted with “a hinge moment – the crushing feeling in your chest” when you realize your current commitment @work is delaying your dream job.

She applied to graduate school, went back to serving tables, took notes and spent 12 hours on Tuesdays creating a manuscript – ‘Sweetbitter’.

“That is the story of how I stopped waiting tables.”

One more thing, Stephanie Danler is obsessive about poetry. And that’s the strongest argument to read the novel before viewing the series. The book is beautifully written, in one instance transforming the cacophony of random dinner conversation into a poem.

If you’ve ever been a server, this book may stir a memory or two. A restaurant is where many of us started out, absorbing and ignoring life lessons on the fly. It was our workplace and Ms. Danler was one of us.





The Saturday Read – It’s Independent Bookstore Day!

Today is Independent Bookstore Day. Instead of recommending a book this week, I recommend you find your local independent bookstore (not Barnes and Noble) and spend an hour browsing their selection.

One of my favorites – Pages in Manhattan Beach, CA.


Just what does IBD celebrate?

“Independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal is a day well spent.

Indie bookstores, whether dusty and labyrinthine or clean and well-lighted, are not just stores, they are solutions. They hold the key to your love life, your career, and your passions. Walking the aisles of a good bookstore means stumbling upon a novel from India that expands your heart. It’s encountering an art book that changes the direction of your life. It’s the joy of having a perfect stranger steer you toward the perfect book.

In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads, bookstores are not a dying anachronism. They are living, breathing organisms that continue to grow and expand. In fact, there are more of them this year than there were last year. And they are at your service.”

Today, day five of #OnTheRoad, I will be visiting Main Street Books in Davidson, N.C.IMG_3337.jpg

Enjoy selecting your Saturday Read!

The Saturday Read – William Finnegan ‘Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life’

When you do a book reading in Manhattan Beach, California you need to use a microphone so the guys with ‘surfer’s ear’ in the back can understand you. Last night New Yorker journalist and lifetime surfer William Finnegan used a mic as he read from his well reviewed new book and this week’s ‘Saturday Read’, ‘Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life’.

The Q&A at the reading was closer to a book club discussion than a publicity event. Most of those attending had either read the book or the excerpt in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker magazine. This is not just a book about surfing. Mr. Finnegan is a well regarded journalist with a resume that includes reporting from South Africa, Somalia, the Balkans, Central America and Australia. Robert Boynton included him in his conversations with America’s best nonfiction writers in ‘The New New Journalism’.

“A self-described “specialist in the unexpected,” Finnegan writes stereotype-defying descriptions of the kinds of people—young, black, poor, foreign—mainstream journalism tends to dismiss with a pastiche of clichés and statistics.”

It’s this specialization in the unexpected that results in a memoir not just about surfing for surfers, but about life and friendship, as noted in The New York Times review:

“…a particularly remarkable feature of “Barbarian Days” is the generous yet unsparing portraits of competitive surf friendships that make up a major share of the narrative. As Finnegan writes: “Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls.”

He first wrote about surfing in ‘Playing Doc’s Games’, profiling Mark Renneker for The New Yorker in 1992. Twenty three years later Doc returns along with a global cast of supporting characters inviting the reader to go out with them on the water.

Why should a non-surfer invest in a memoir subtitled ‘A Surfing Life’? Because it’s an everyman’s story of reconciling passions.

At the reading the author described surfing as “the North Pole of irresponsibility, the opposite of achievement. War reporting had a built in urgency, surfing did not.” He has spent 50 years managing the opposition between two drives: writing and chasing waves.

Surfers are our environmental ‘canaries in a coal mine’. Responding to a question on how surfing differs from other sports, the author focused on the “98% of surfing that is an absorption in the ocean, what your local spot is, how well you read the waves and ride. Surfing is not competitive, it’s an experience of beauty – an understanding and engagement with nature.”

Near the end of the book he refers to an A.J. Liebling essay, ‘Apology for Breathing’ noting that “Liebling was pretending to apologize for being from New York, a city he loved lavishly and precisely. Now I’m one of those New Yorkers incessantly on the point of going back where I came from. But with me it’s not a matter of packing up or staying on, but rather of being always half poised to flee my desk and ditch engagements in order to throw myself into some nearby patch of ocean at the moment when the waves and wind and tide might conspire to produce something ridable. That cracking, fugitive patch is where I come from.”

‘Barbarian Days’ is a beach book. It’s an ocean book. It’s a memoir to guide you to your own story and “that cracking, fugitive patch” where you come from.