Favorite Quotes Friday: Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Friday, January 30, 2015

Tell the Wolves I'm Home was my pick for National Readathon Day

It was my mother who stood first.  She walked across the room, knelt on the floor next to Toby, and laid her open palm on his head.  I watched as she ran her hand over his soft feathery hair, and even though her back was to me, I think I heard her say, "Sorry."  I want to believe that's what I heard.  I needed to know that my mother understood that her hand was in this too.  That all the jealousy and envy and shame we carried was our own kind of sickness.  As much a disease as Toby and Finn's AIDS. 

- Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

This was such a simple and powerful passage to me, where so much of what this book had been working toward and developing finally came together in one beautiful and sorrowful moment.  The idea of comparing emotional pain and hurt to a disease like AIDS is so incredibly profound.  I feel like, so often, we are quick to discount emotional issues, particularly when they stem from relationships.  This is especially true of familial relationships, and euphemisms like "my crazy family" can hide years of emotional distress and very real problems.  

Narrator June spends so much of this book dealing with the emotional pain that stems from her family.  The jealousy, secrets and lies, shame, hurt, the silences - these are her family's currency, motivating everything that they do, how they treat one another, how they view themselves and the world, and everything that they say or cannot say.  

It is painful and difficult to see June contending with these deep emotional wounds throughout Tell the Wolves I'm Home, and it is even more painful when she comes to realize her own part in perpetuating these hurts.  But claiming these wounds as a disease is such a powerful action.  It shows June's depth and maturity, her desire to contend with these issues head on so that they do not continue to erode herself and her family.  And I think that is profound.  By minimizing these issues, it's difficult to see the deep and very real pain that they cause or to try to break the unhealthy patterns that have come to define how her family relates to each other and the world around them.  But if they are like a disease, than they must be fought like a disease: out in the open and with deliberate and aggressive treatment.  It will not be easy, and it will probably hurt, but there is a sense that in this moment, true healing can finally begin.  

Has anyone else read Tell the Wolves I'm Home?  What's one of your favorite quotes? 

What I'm Reading: The Paris Winter

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I was hoping that The Paris Winter by Imogen Robertson would be the kind of rich historical novel that is right up my alley.  The book tells the story of Maud Heighton, a young English woman who comes to Paris to study art at the height of the Belle Epoque.  Finding herself without sufficient funds to support herself and the threat of another cold Paris winter, Maud takes a job as a companion for a young French woman, Sylvie Morel, who she soon learns is addicted to opium.  Sylvie's brother Christian is not without his secrets either, and Maud quickly gets caught up in their web of deception and crime.  

While the plot sounds intriguing and richly complex, I thought its execution was much less so.  I think much of the book's failing lies with its characters, who I found to be underdeveloped, uninteresting, and poorly flushed out.  There are a lot of characters in this book, from Maud and her close friends Tanya and Yvette, to the villainous Morels, but Robertson doesn't develop any of them very well.  Even once I'd finished The Paris Winter, I didn't have a good sense of any of the characters, their back stories, or what motivated them to do what they did.  We do get quite a bit of background on some of the key characters, but a lot of it doesn't really advance the story or inform our understanding of these characters.  

Maud in particular felt very weak, and her shift in personality midway through the book felt unexplained.  It seems like Robertson relies on the circumstances of the plot to explain why Maud changes so much, but this isn't really sufficient and doesn't tell us anything about her character.  People don't usually change drastically in only a matter of days simply because of their circumstances, and I would have liked Robertson to explore Maud's shift in character in greater detail.  In addition, I thought all of the storylines revolving around Tanya and her various suitors felt pretty superfluous and could have lifted right out of the novel. 

Overall, I didn't think the writing was particularly strong.  It felt pretty flat and disengaging to me, and there seemed an odd tension in tone.  Throughout a lot of the first half of the novel, Robertson seems to be drying to capture older writing styles that better reflect turn of the century Paris.  But midway through, the writing seems to become more modern, which was a bit jarring for me.  Part of this can be explained away by the plot - Maud begins spending more time with "seedier" types who swear and engage in less savory activities - but still.  The narrative tone feels distinctly different, and the book doesn't feel very cohesive.  

I did like Robertson's inclusion of art in throughout The Paris Winter, particularly how she described different pieces that correspond to certain aspects of the story.  She made these pieces sound like a real art collection, and I enjoyed her critical artistic analysis of them.  I thought she tied up this aspect of the plot really well at the end; it felt like all of those descriptions came together in a very satisfying way. 

Two and a half out of five stars.  

Waiting on Wednesday: Lair of Dreams

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Today I'm participating in a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine.  Here's a look at an upcoming release that I'm excited to read.

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
Expected publication date: July 7, 2015

Here's the description from Goodreads:

After a supernatural showdown with a serial killer, Evie O'Neill has outed herself as a Diviner. Now that the world knows of her ability to "read" objects, and therefore, read the past, she has become a media darling, earning the title, "America's Sweetheart Seer." But not everyone is so accepting of the Diviners' abilities...

Meanwhile, mysterious deaths have been turning up in the city, victims of an unknown sleeping sickness. Can the Diviners descend into the dreamworld and catch a killer?

I read The Diviners in January 2013, a few months after it came out and before I knew it was going to become a series.  I knew nothing about the book or Libba Bray when I bought it.  I just thought it looked interesting, and I devoured it while on vacation.  It's a delightful mix of historical fiction, YA, supernatural and the occult, mystery, and murder.  The characters are lively and engaging, with complex stories and secrets.  I particularly loved the protagonist Evie O'Neill.  She jumps off the page, and it's hard not to root for her, even when she keeps getting herself into complicated situations.  The 1920s New York City setting brings it all together, giving The Diviners a rich and diverse backdrop, as well as some great historical flare ("It's all jake!").    

I heard that Bray would be turning this book into a series and was already working on the next installment a few months after I finished The Diviners, and I was pretty excited.  I think The Diviners works great as a standalone book, without a lot of obvious setup for sequels at the end.  But there's so much left for Bray to explore, and I can't wait to see where she takes the story and her characters.  Lair of Dreams was originally slated for a 2014 release, first the summer and then the fall.  But now it's scheduled to be published in July 2015, and I really hope they stick to this release date because I'm so anxious for this book to finally come out! 

Bray wrote a really beautiful and deeply personal entry on her blog in March 2014, which may help explain some of the publication delays (though I'm not sure, so please don't take my word on this).  It's also one of the most moving personal accounts of depression that I've ever read, and I so appreciate her candidness about her experience.   

Is anyone else excited to read Lair of Dreams when it comes out?  What books are you most looking forward to?   

What I'm Reading: The Good Girl

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica came so close to being a really great read for me.  It's frequently been compared to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, but I don't think the comparison is very apt.  The Good Girl feels a lot slower, less mysterious, and it doesn't have much of the same heart-pumping elements that make Gone Girl such an intense and hard-to-put-down thrill ride.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  I just think that fans of Gone Girl who are expecting much of the same from Kubica will be disappointed.

Here's the synopsis of The Good Girl from Goodreads:

Born to a prominent Chicago judge and his stifled socialite wife, Mia Dennett moves against the grain as a young inner-city art teacher. One night, Mia enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn't show, she unwisely leaves with an enigmatic stranger. With his smooth moves and modest wit, at first Colin Thatcher seems like a safe one-night stand. But following Colin home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia's life.

Colin's job was to abduct Mia as part of a wild extortion plot and deliver her to his employers. But the plan takes an unexpected turn when Colin suddenly decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota, evading the police and his deadly superiors. Mia's mother, Eve, and detective Gabe Hoffman will stop at nothing to find them, but no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family's world to shatter.

An addictively suspenseful and tautly written thriller,
The Good Girl is a compulsive debut that reveals how even in the perfect family, nothing is as it seems….

To me, The Good Girl is less of a mystery and thriller than a slow boil exploration of a kidnapping gone wrong.  Through three different narrators - Mia's mother Eve, the detective investigating her disappearance, and her kidnapper Colin - Kubica is able to examine different facets of this situation.  She looks at the sorrow and guilt that Eve feels, as well as how Mia's disappearance affects and strains the relationship between her parents.  I think Eve's narrations are some of the most beautiful and sorrowful parts of the novel, artfully revealing the pain of being a mother whose child has disappeared and not knowing where they are or if they are even alive.  

I also thought Colin's sections were really interesting, offering an intense and intimate portrayal of the complicated relationship that develops between him and Mia.  And this is where I think The Good Girl really succeeds and what it's really about.  It's less interested in uncovering the mystery behind Mia's kidnapping than exploring the nuances of the captor and captive relationship.  Kubica moves far beyond the simplistic good guy/bad guy dichotomy, and in doing so, she is able to delve into the complex relationships and interactions between humans in horrific situations.  Colin is always Mia's kidnapper, but they live together for weeks, completely isolated in rural Minnesota, and it's almost impossible that some sort of relationship wouldn't develop out of that situation.  Kubica explores this with care and finesse, and I think that this is her book's most interesting offering. 

I had some issues with character development and tone throughout The Good Girl, particularly in regard to Detective Gabe Hoffman.  He comes off as such a misogynist, arrogant jerk at first, a man who is always looking to make a petty dig at anyone who seems to undercut his authority in any way.  He felt like such a simplistic character, and I didn't get much from his sections early on.  But then, he suddenly changes and stops being such a jerk, and he and Eve develop an intimate relationship as they work together to find Mia.  This felt so unexpected and undeveloped, and I couldn't believe that Detective Hoffman would change so much without any real explanation.  It made him feel like such a weak character, and it was difficult for me to get much out of his sections in the book. 

Finally, The Good Girl offers a very last minute twist ending, which I felt was wholly unsatisfying.  Since this book had been compared to Gone Girl and is categorized as a mystery/thriller, I was looking for twists and mysteries throughout, trying to figure out what really happened.  I had all but given this up until the very end when we get a sort of after-thought explanation that doesn't really make sense and seems to run counter to what the book originally sets out to do.  A good mystery should give readers all of the pieces so that they can put them together on their own.  It shouldn't be straightforward or easy, but the answer shouldn't feel out-of-the-blue, reliant on information that readers only get when the mystery is finally solved.  But this is what The Good Girl does, and the answer really doesn't make sense.  The pieces don't fit into place, and it makes the whole kidnapping plot feel completely superfluous.   

The Good Girl is a solid effort with some flaws.  Three and a half out of five stars.            

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Today I'm participating in a meme hosted by Book Journey.  Here's a look at what I've been reading lately and what's coming up for me. 

Finished Last Week:

The Paris Winter was just OK.  Not great or even really good, but not bad.  The conceit is interesting, but I felt that the execution left a lot to be desired.  I'll be posting my review later this week.   

Tell the Wolves I'm Home was simply stunning.  I can't believe it's a debut novel - it's so good with some of the best writing that I've seen in a while.  I almost feel like I can't even talk about this book, at least not yet.  It left me speechless.

Currently Reading:

When I went to Europe this fall, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was one of my favorite stops, and I loved their collection of 17th century doll houses.  The Miniaturist focuses on one of these doll houses, telling the story of the young wife who received the house from her husband and her efforts to furnish it.  I'll be interested to see everything that this fictional account explores.

Coming Up:

The Fortune Hunter is another one I picked up because of my trip to Europe.  Vienna was one of my favorite cities, one I hope to visit again because there is so much that I didn't get to see or explore.  I loved learning about Empress Elisabeth of Austria (called "Sisi" for short), especially her obsession with beauty, youth, and fine clothing.  Apparently there's an entire museum in Vienna dedicated to her clothing!  The Fortune Hunter focuses on Sisi's relationship with a cavalry captain, and I can't wait to read it and learn more about her.  I think she's going to be a very rich and interesting character. 

Like Room, I started The Night Circus a while ago and never finished (oh life).  I enjoyed it a lot - it's such a descriptive book, and Morgenstern is wonderful at creating a magical tone and atmosphere throughout.  I'm excited to go back and finally finish this one.  

What have you been reading lately?  

Where My Books Have Been: Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffee House

A few weekends ago, I visited Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffee House in Seaport Village for the first time.  For someone who loves independent bookstores and a good cup of tea, this place is pretty perfect.  It's intimate and eclectic, with used books and recent releases, as well as a lot of fun gifts.  The best part is that there's a coffee house and comfortable reading chairs right in the store, so you can grab a cup and your book and/or journal and spend a couple of relaxing hours among fellow book lovers.

Upstart Crow doesn't have a huge book selection, but I was able to find a new book that I was looking for (Tell the Wolves I'm Home).  For me, the biggest draw is that they have a place to curl up with a good book, and the atmosphere is great.  Funky, colorful, and quiet, it's a unique stop for any book lover, and I'm happy to support bookstores like this.  

It's also located in beautiful Seaport Village, which is right on the water.  It's quaint and mostly quiet (it can get a little touristy, but it's not too bad), and there are a lot places to sit and read outside.  Jordan and I enjoyed this view of the ocean while sharing a warm pretzel.   

Seaport Village offers a great collection of unique shops, many of which are local to San Diego only.  My favorite stops include Presenting the Soap Opera, the California Candle Gallery, and Sinfulicious.  I may have to write a review about that last shop because it is so cool - they make completely customized bath and shower products right in the store, giving each customer their own signature scent.  Mine is Ruby Grapefruit and Italian Blood Orange, the perfect mix of citrus for a fun and very refreshing scent that isn't too overpowering.  I love it!      

Where are your favorite places to read and/or write? 

Favorite Quotes Friday: Room

Friday, January 23, 2015

About a million years ago, I posted about reading Room by Emma Donoghue.  Long story short, life got in the way, and I never finished the book.  So I quietly put it back on my shelf, marked it as to-read on Goodreads, and just this week picked it back up.  I finished it in about a day (thereby adequately shaming my past self) and was completely captivated.  It's a beautiful and heartbreaking story, focusing on one of the most horrific tragedies (kidnapping, captivity, and sexual abuse) that can happen to a person while illuminating the power of the human spirit and the depth of love and courage that people can still have in impossible situations.

I may still write a review of Room, but today I wanted to share one of my favorite quotes from the book.  It's from the very end, a conversation between the narrator, five-year-old Jack, and his mother, and this passage really struck a cord with me:

I walk to Bed Wall and touch it with one finger, the cork doesn't feel like anything.  "Is it good night in the day?"
"Can we say good night when it's not night?"
"I think it would be good-bye."
"Good-bye, Wall."  Then I say it to the three other walls, then "Good-bye, Floor."  I pat Bed, "Good-bye, Bed."  I put my head down in Under Bed to say, "Good-bye, Eggsnake."  In Wardrobe I whisper, "Good-bye, Wardrobe."  In the dark there's the picture of me Ma did for my birthday, I look very small.  I wave her over and point to it.
I kiss her face where the tears are, that's how the sea tastes.
I put the me picture down and zip it into my jacket.  Ma's nearly at Door, I go over.  "Lift me up?"
Ma sits me up on her hip, I reach up.
She holds me by my ribs and lifts me up up up, I touch the start of Roof.  I say, "Good-bye, Roof."
Ma puts me down thump
"Good-bye, Room."  I wave up at Skylight.  "Say good-bye," I tell Ma.  "Good-bye, Room."
 Ma says it but on mute.
I look back one more time.  It's like a crater, a hole where something happened.  Then we go out the door.

To me, this passage underscores how people who suffer traumas and acts of atrocity often carry these tragedies with them.  They do not have to define them or limit them, but they are a part of who these people are.  It doesn't help to hide these traumas away, to act like they didn't happen.  As Jack says, they leave a hole where something happened, a hole that needs to be recognized, addressed, dealt with out in the open.  Room is a physical sign of the wounds Jack and his mother now carry.  

And to Jack, it isn't all bad.  Room was his first home, his entire world for most of his life.  It holds many happy memories of the life he shared with his mother, a life he never knew was so incredibly limited because of their captor.  So saying good-bye is in part bitter for him.  He is saying goodbye to a place and to things he loves.  And in this way, Donoghue illustrates how even the darkest and most unimaginable tragedies aren't always black and white.  That people can create good in horrific situations, that there can be love and life where it would otherwise seem impossible. 

Ultimately, though, I think the act of saying good-bye is the most important facet of this scene.  It shows Jack and Ma's autonomy, that they are choosing to go back to the physical space of their tragedy and say good-bye to it.  In doing so, they acknowledge Room, they acknowledge the trauma and tragedy they suffered.  And then they say good-bye, they choose to move on.  I think that's the hardest place to get to if you have encountered any sort of suffering in your life.  But ultimately, Donoghue is hopeful.  It may be hard, but Jack and Ma can move on.  They can have a rich and beautiful life despite what happened to them.  And isn't that an amazing thing? 

Has anyone else read Room?  What's one of your favorite quotes?  

What I'm Reading: All the Bright Places

I picked up All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven on a recent trip to the bookstore.  I hadn't heard anything about it, but I wanted a new YA book to read, and this one intrigued me.  It focuses on Violet and Finch, two high school seniors who are dealing with loss, grief, mental illness, depression,  hopelessness, and suicide.  Don't let that scare you off - there's a lot of heartfelt, touching, and even funny moments in this book, though it explores some very serious issues.  But I think that is part of its success, that it is able to capture so much of the teenage and human experience, all of its rich beauty and its heartbreaking pain.

I could probably nitpick and find things to complain about, but I'm not going to.  This book isn't perfect, but I was completely caught up in it.  There is an earnestness to Niven's portrayal of Violet and Finch that let's you know she has personally experienced some of what they are going through.  Her author's note explores this more fully, describing how mental illness, depression, and suicide have touched her life.  So yes, this book isn't perfect, but Niven makes an honest and ardent attempt to capture what it's like to live with mental illness, to feel the specter of hopelessness and worthlessness lurk in the deepest corners of your mind, to understand why people feel suicidal and how this impacts those around them.  And for that, I am in awe of what Niven is able to accomplish in All the Bright Places.

I hold mental health issues close to my heart because I have been personally affected by them in my life, and I'm constantly shocked by how misinformed, uneducated, and uncompassionate so many people are when it comes to very real emotional and mental health issues.  I think a lot of this stems from how mental health and illness are treated in art and by our culture and the media.  I can't even talk about Silver Linings Playbook without getting mad - it's such a reductive and frankly insulting portrayal of mental illness, one that seems to say that the key to recovery lies simply in finding a pretty girl who makes you dance.  It minimizes the difficulty of living every day with a diagnosed brain disorder and the hard work of making a recovery in favor of the usual romantic comedy fare.

But I digress.

All the Bright Places is an important book because it offers an earnest attempt to understand the difficulty of living with a mental illness and working through depression, and the book doesn't shy away from asking the hard questions.  This is particularly true when it comes to suicide, and the book does an excellent job of exploring both why someone would want to commit suicide and how this affects the people they leave behind.  I think in regard to the latter, All the Bright Places is particularly successful.  Even today, so much of the discussion around suicide focuses too much on the "selfishness" of the person who commits suicide, often reducing them to a coward who doesn't think about others.  Not only does this ignore the major and often untreated mental issues that motivate people to suicide, but it also leaves those who are left behind with no real way to mourn or process the loss of their loved one.  Niven's book shows how important it is to allow survivors of suicide to remember those they lost, to talk about them, the good and the bad, to put the word "suicide" out in the open rather than keep it hidden like a secret.  Suicide happens.  It affects people.  And we need to be talking about it, taking away the stigma of it so that we can better help people in the future.

Again, it isn't perfect, but in a world where most books don't talk about mental illness, depression, or suicide at all, or they offer overly simplified portrayals that don't really understand or cut to the heart of what it's like to be affected by these, All the Bright Places is a breath of fresh air.  It's moving, compassionate, tragic, and gorgeous, offering a rich look at the internal lives of two complicated individuals.  An important book about a subject more of us need to be talking about.

Five out of five stars. 

What I'm Watching: Her

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

*Note: I started this post over a year ago and never finished and published it, probably because I felt like I had too much to say about this beautiful film that greatly affected me.  I came across it in my drafts folder recently, and I think I'm ready to share it.  I've tried to leave it as-is, with a few words added at the end to tie-up my review.   

When I first saw a preview for Her, I wasn't too intrigued.  Man falls in love with his computer - meh.  I also wouldn't call myself a Spike Jonze fan, not because I don't like his work, but rather because I actually haven't seen enough to judge it.  I've only seen Adaptation, which I love, but that's hardly enough to form an adequate opinion.  But, as I mentioned previously, my husband and I do like to watch films, and after being disappointed by American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, we thought we'd give this one a try.

Attempting to sum up my feelings about this film seems like an impossible feat.  I loved every moment of Her. There is something so honest and earnest about this movie.  It is beautiful in its quietness, sadness, and joy.  It feels emotionally raw and exposed, incredibly vulnerable.  Once you set aside its conceit - and I think that the film does this masterfully - Her is, at its core, a meditation on the human experience and our often desperate attempts to find some sort of connection in this world.

To me, Her is kind of like a parable, though it is less focused on illustrating some moral principle than on inviting us to contemplate the most fundamental aspects of our humanity.  I understand that some people won't "get" this film, that perhaps it is too much to ask them to look beyond the ridiculous narrative about man who falls in love with his computer.   But I think that the film invites us to do just that.  Her downplays the technological aspects of "Samantha" (she is primarily located in a small, slender notebook-like device that seems almost primitive compared to our smartphones) and the logistics and stigma surrounding OS and human relationships, choosing instead to embark on a rich emotional journey that plunges the incredible depths of sorrow, joy, isolation, loneliness, relationships, wonder, despair, excitement, loss, love, hope, and contentment.  This film captures something so true and innate about the nature of our existence.  It beautifully and heartbreakingly portrays both the incredible burden and the incredible joy of the human experience.   At times, Her shows its characters almost breaking under the weight of their lives, and yet, they also manage to find hope, joy, and redemption, often in the most unexpected places. 

It's not often that a film moves me in the way that Her did.  I will admit that it doesn't take much for a movie to make me cry, but I usually cry because of the film's plot or what happens to its characters.  In Her, the plot and the characters don't really matter, not in the way that they do in other narratives.  It doesn't matter what Theodore Twombly has lost; it is enough for us to know that he has and to see how this loss has affected and devastated him.  It doesn't matter why he is having trouble connecting with other people; it is enough for us to know that he is and to feel the palpableness of his isolation and loneliness, his desperation to find some sort of connection.  It doesn't matter what his emotional and internal struggles are; it is enough for us to know that they are there and to see the weight of that metaphorical burden made physical in the posturing of his body.  In this way, I think that Her is able to capture some aspect of each of us.  Because haven't we all, in some way, experienced loss, loneliness, or emotional struggles?  Haven't we all, at some point, been overcome by the sheer weight of living as a human in this world?

Sometimes I think I have felt everything I'm ever gonna feel.  And from here on out, I'm not gonna feel anything new.  Just lesser versions of what I've already felt. 

To me, Theordore's fears and struggles are so innately human, and I couldn't help but connect with his story on a deeply personal level.  In a world where movies seem to be getting bigger and bigger, with more complicated special effects and seemingly astronomical budgets, it's nice to see a film that is so stripped down and that tries to illuminate such simple yet important truths about the human experience.

Five out of five stars.  

Favorite Concert Venues: The Troubadour

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Jordan and I love going to concerts.  I probably love them more than he does, but he's a very willing concert companion, which I appreciate.  We've been to some of the most well-known and best concert venues throughout Southern California, and one of my favorites is the Troubadour

The Troubadour is a laid-back, small-ish concert venue in West Hollywood.  It's mostly standing room only with a few seats in the balcony, and although it can get pretty packed, I've never found it to be uncomfortable or claustrophobic.  Because it's on the smaller side, you don't have to arrive right when the doors open to get a spot with a good view - you can see from pretty much anywhere, and even the back isn't that far from the stage.  Moreover, tickets are usually between $10-15 with no minimum drink requirement, which makes it one of the more affordable venues in the Los Angeles area and an economical choice for frequently concert-goers like us.

A lot of really great up-and-coming bands have played at the Troubadour, and we've been able to see awesome headlining shows from artists like Kongos, Bad Suns, and Twin Atlantic.  A lot of these artists spent the past year touring as openers for other more well-known groups, so it was fun to see them headline at such an intimate venue.  The Kongos show in particular remains one of my favorite concerts of 2014.  They played for a solid hour and a half, pausing for an impromptu jazz session in the middle of their set where they really started to groove.  It was amazing.




Bad Suns

Bad Suns

Twin Atlantic

Twin Atlantic

Twin Atlantic

Because so many groups that play at the Troubadour aren't super famous, the venue is able to get local bands as openers, and Jordan and I have discovered some great new artists this way.  Our favorite is Badflower, a group that really knows how to rock.  They have a solid sound, and their sets are always tight and energetic.   



Does anyone else like going to concerts as much as I do?  What are some of your favorite venues?  

10 African American Books that Everyone Should Read

Monday, January 19, 2015

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, I wanted to share a list of 10 African American books that I think everyone should read.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are many, many other important titles that I would be happy to recommend.  I've read more African American literature than most because I focused on it in both undergraduate and graduate school, and I'm always surprised by how few African American literary works the average person has read.  I've gotten used to people asking me who Toni Morrison is when she comes up in conversation or telling me that they've never heard of Giovanni's Room.  It always makes me sad to meet another person who has missed out on this incredibly rich and important literary tradition, so today I'd like to share 10 African American books to get you started.

1. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956)

I wrote my Master's thesis on Giovanni's Room, so it holds a special place in my heart.  Baldwin is so incredibly skilled at utilizing fiction to explore such important issues as race, sexual abuse, social economic status, oppression, privilege, and national identity, carrying on a conversation that many black writers started long before him.  He is also brilliant in illuminating the purpose and benefit of fiction, an important distinction for an author who wrote in so many different genres.

2. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)

A poignant and powerful meditation on our present day relationship to and understanding of the history of American slavery.  The book literalizes this relationship, forcing the protagonist to contend with the past in a very real way.  It is equally beautiful and heartbreaking. 

3. The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt (1901)

This evocative and intricate novel presents a fictionalized account of the Wilmington Insurrection in 1898.  It illuminates many of the major issues at the turn of the century, including lynchings and violence against blacks, interracial relationships, segregation, political unrest, and immoral behavior. 

4. Iola Leroy by Frances Harper (1892)

Iola Leroy is one of the earliest narratives to focus on mixed-race individuals and the pressure they face to "pass" as white.  The novel also utilizes sentimental literary techniques, which were important in a lot of anti-slavery literature and slave narratives (such as Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe).    

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

It's hard for me to talk about this novel because I love it so much and it's played such an important role in shaping my understanding of race, womanhood, and relationships between men and women.  It's beautiful, poetic, tragic, and completely engrossing.  Everyone needs to read this.  

6. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet A. Jacobs (1861)   

This book.  This is the book that changed my life.  That started my fascination with African American literature.  That grabbed my attention and didn't let go for five years.  I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and I spent years researching everything I could about this book and Harriet Jacobs, its author.  This book showed me why African American literature is so important, and it shaped me as an academic, thinker, writer, and person.  So much of what I love about literature, what issues interest me, and how I approach the world is because of this book.  This is the most important book that I have ever and probably will ever read in my life.

7. Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen 

I'm including both of these novels because they very much go hand-in-hand and are often treated as a set.  Both explore the struggles and difficulties associated with being a mixed-race individual, and both are tragic and heartbreaking.  Larsen is an extraordinary writer who plunges the depths of her characters' inner lives, bringing to light their complex emotions, very real fears, and all too human desires.  

8. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

If you only read one book on this list, it should probably be Beloved.  Toni Morrison is a genius, one of the best living writers we have today.  She is a master storyteller, utilizing traditional African storytelling techniques and magical realism, and she is unafraid to confront some of the ugliest and most tragic subjects head-on.  I still can't believe so many people haven't read this book and/or don't know who she is.  She's a Nobel Prize winner for goodness' sake!  Read it.  Now.

9. The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker (1970) 

I read this book a long time ago and can't remember the specifics of it too well.  But I read it in a day - I couldn't put it down!  And I enjoyed it a lot more than Alice Walker's more well-known The Color Purple.  There was something so engrossing about this story.  It had me completely mesmerized.

10. Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)

This is one of the saddest books that I have ever read, but it's so important, in great part because it illuminates an aspect of American history that most people don't know about: the abuse and enslavement of free blacks in the North.  The protagonist Frado (frequently referred to as "Our Nig" by the white family with whom she lives) suffers incredible cruelty and abuse at the hands of self-proclaimed abolitionists, and even those who sympathize with her refuse to act to help her.  In this way, Our Nig powerfully utilizes sentimental literary techniques to indict the North.  A powerful and important read.

Have you read any of these books?  What are some of your favorite African American books?  

Where My Books Have Been: The Last Bookstore

Los Angeles doesn't have many independent bookstores.  I blame this on two facts: 1. Los Angeles is primarily dominated by the entertainment industry, so most people are watching/making TV shows and movies instead of reading.  2. Los Angeles isn't very pedestrian friendly and most people drive everywhere, so there's not the same foot traffic that a lot of independent bookstores thrive on.

But even so, Los Angeles has its hidden gems, and one of my favorite independent bookstores is the Last Bookstore in DTLA.

The Last Bookstore pretty much has it all: a huge collection of both new and used books, including hard-to-find editions of your favorite classics and the most recent titles on The New York Times Best Seller list.  They also boast an impressive record selection for those of us who like to collect vinyl, and they have a backroom with an impressive array of used books that are only $1 each.  Throughout the store, you can see really cool art displays, many of which feature books and text in unique ways, and there are quiet corners to simply sit and read.  For those of us who like to peruse, the Last Bookstore has one room where everything is sorted by color, rather than author or title.

There are also a lot of great events at the Last Bookstore, including author events with such well-known names as B.J. Novak and Tony Hale.  Authors Ransom Riggs and Tahereh Mafi even got married there!  Some of the store's upcoming events include comedy shows, musical performances, and a talk with literary agent Steven Hutson and 20 reasons you're not getting published.

If you ever find yourself in the DTLA area, I recommend that you stop in the Last Bookstore for an hour or two.  It's such a unique spot, and there's something there for everyone.

Where are your favorite places to read and/or write?
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