Category: | Books

Amy Meyerson and “The Bookshop of Yesterdays”

Bookshop of YesterdaysYesterday was the official launch date for my friend Amy Meyerson’s debut novel The Bookshop of Yesterdays. It’s always a big day when someone in your writing community launches a book. This photo doesn’t even do justice to how packed Skylight Books was last night.

The book tells the story of a young woman who inherits her uncle’s bookshop in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles and quickly comes to realize that, before his death, he set up a scavenger hunt for her that leads her from book to book. As she follows the clues, she learns the truth about the falling out her uncle had with her mother years before.

The story is a book-nerd’s dream. It totally made me want to own a bookstore. And it got me thinking about how we, as writers, choose what titles to use when our stories reference other books. So today we’re going to pick Amy’s brain a little bit about her experiences writing The Bookshop of Yesterdays.

Here goes…

April: I love the setting of your story. And it’s such fun to read about a character discovering clues in the books her uncle left her. When choosing the books to use, how did you balance what was right for your characters with what you needed to move the story along?

Amy: When I had the initial idea for this book, I knew right away that the novels I selected for the scavenger hunt would make or break it. I wanted to celebrate books I love, books other readers love, too, but they also had to work for the story I was trying to tell. The novels Billy uses in his scavenger hunt have a dual function: within their pages, Billy has highlighted a section of the text and left a corresponding clue that leads Miranda to talk to someone from his past. The highlighted sections help Miranda interpret her interactions with the people she meets from her uncle’s life. For this to work, the selected novels couldn’t feel arbitrary or inconsequential. They needed to resonate with my novel, either narratively or thematically. The only way I could achieve this was by starting with my story, so I plotted out what happened in the past and worked it into a series of stories that people who knew Billy could share with Miranda. Then, I made lists of possible titles that could work as clues, whittling them down to what I thought were the perfect choices for each section. If this sounds challenging, it was!

April: It’s one thing to write a story and another to publish it. What kind of changes did Park Row suggest? Did you have to change any of the titles you originally used?

Amy: The biggest thing I’ve learned through this process is that it’s different for every writer (and probably for every book, too. I’ll let you know once I’ve finished writing the next one!). I’m sure some writers do very little rewriting, but I did a ton of revisions at every step of the process: getting the manuscript ready to send out to agents, reworking with my agent, then revising with Park Row. When I went through my first round of edits with Park Row, I ended up making several shifts in the plot. The challenge of reimagining the plot was that I also had to change the corresponding novels and clues. Many of the books I initially selected didn’t work anymore, so I had to choose new titles. Ultimately, the batch I ended up with worked a lot better, not just for the story but for a book about books. In earlier drafts, I chose books that I loved but that many readers might not have read.

April: The pacing of the scavenger hunt really keeps the story moving. Did you know, before you started writing, how many clues the scavenger hunt would have, or did you just kind of feel it out as you went along?

Amy: I knew that I wanted to have a bunch of clues, but I didn’t have a preset number. So, I really let the story guide the clues. That said, the clues were instrumental in helping me find my way through the novel. This was my first attempt at writing a novel, and writing something so long can quickly become overwhelming. When I write short stories, I like to lay the printed pages out on the floor and look at them all at once. It allows me see the structure of the story. You can’t do that with a 300+ page novel. So, I needed a way to think of the novel in smaller, more digestible chunks. I suppose chapter breaks can accomplish this, but for me, I needed something woven into the fabric of the story. The clues were a really useful device in giving the novel a clear structure.

April: I hear your publisher is doing a real-life scavenger hunt to promote the book. How do we get in on that?

Amy: Yes! I’m so excited about it. Since the novel is set in an indie bookshop, we really wanted to show a little love to independent bookstores when marketing this book. Local bookstores are an essential part of today’s literary community. They are where readers connect and discover new books. My publicist had the awesome idea of running a sweepstakes to celebrate the publication of The Bookshop of Yesterdays, where participants could participate in a virtual scavenger hunt, then enter to win a gift certificate to the independent bookstore of their choice as well as lovely hardback editions of five classic novels mentioned in The Bookshop of Yesterdays.

To enter the sweepstakes scavenger hunt, just go to: www.bookclubbish.com/ScavengerHuntSweeps (see below for more details*)

April: What does your writing routine look like? Do you write every day? Mornings or night?

Amy: As a professor, I’m very fortunate to have the summer and winter breaks to write. When I’m not teaching, I try to write in both the mornings and afternoons. During the semester, I try to get into a schedule where I write every morning, but it can be tough to find time on teaching days or during grading cycles. Some writers institute a daily word count, but I prefer to focus on a time goal. I try to write for 2-3 hours a day, longer in the summer. Sometimes, I can produce 10 pages in that timeframe. Other days, I struggle to get out a page. Because of this fluctuation, I think it’s best to commit to sitting down for a predetermined period of time. This keeps me focused on the process rather than the product.

April: Do you have any superstitions around your writing? Any little rituals you do to get your brain in the space to write?

Amy: No superstitions, but I always like to read before I write. I find reading a great novel really inspires me to sit down and get some work done.

April: What are you working on now?

Amy: I’ve been working on a new novel for the last few months. After several years of living and breathing the characters in The Bookshop of Yesterdays, it’s so fun and refreshing to build a new world. I’m still in the early stages, but it’s another family mystery, this time centered on a historic diamond. So far, it’s a lot of fun to write.

Lightning Round

April: Coffee or tea?
Amy: Coffee in the mornings, herbal tea at night.

April: Whiskey or vodka?
Amy: Whiskey. Only brown liquors for me!

April: Hemsworth or Gosling?
Amy: Gosling, definitely.

April: “Sneaked” or “snuck”?
Amy: It’s awkward, but sneaked.

April: Wetsuit or bathrobe?
Amy: Can I add a third option and say bathing suit? I’m a lap swimmer. I find the public pool is the best place to work through story ideas.

More about the real-life scavenger hunt: *NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER. Purchase or acceptance of a product offer does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes opens 06/12/2018 at 12:01 PM EDT and closes 07/03/2018 at 11:59 PM EDT. Enter online at BookClubbish.com/ScavengerHuntSweeps. Open to legal residents of the U.S. and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are over the age of 13. Void where prohibited by law. One (1) prize will be awarded, ARV $218.00 USD. Full details on prize and official rules available at BookClubbish.com/Bookshop-of-yesterdays-sweepstakes. Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received.


A big thanks to Amy for taking the time. Get your copy of The Bookshop of Yesterdays today.

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Some Serious Wisdom From Author Hannah Tinti

Pasadena Festival of Women Authors Hannah TintiA couple weeks ago I had the honor of attending the Pasadena Festival of Women Authors. If you follow along at all with my blog, you know I’m a big fan. This was my third year and each time I’m just aglow with bookish goodness for days afterwards.

If you’re anywhere near Pasadena, you should get on their mailing list so you hear when tickets go on sale – then you have to move fast because the event sells out in, like, a day. But it’s so worth the effort.

As always, every women who spoke had my full attention. There were so many little puffs of knowledge and insight that floated out into the air over the course of the day. But the author who really floored me, and I mean left me stunned, was Hannah Tinti.

Hannah Tinti

Hannah TintiHannah Tinti is the author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, a story about a father who protects his daughter from the legacy of his violent past and the truth about her mother’s death. She also wrote The Good Thief.

She started off her time at the podium talking about some of the trials and tribulations she has faced as a writer. In the three years I’ve been going to the festival, this kind of don’t-lose-hope-even-when-things-are-bad narrative is pretty par for the course, but then… oh but then.

Facing Our Fears

She talked about the importance of facing our fears. She gave a point-by-point strategy for dealing with fears, which, as I look at my notes now, I realize I can’t do justice. In a nutshell she said we should name our fears, declare a place of sanctuary that we can retreat to, grab a broom and chase those fears, and sometimes just pretend we’re not afraid until the truth catches up.

But talk is cheap. It was what she did then that floored me.

She had the audience snap with her, in a rhythm. Once the whole room, hundreds of (mostly) women, were snapping in time she shook her head and smiled. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she said. Then, after one more deep breath, she sang.

She sang as beautifully as any jazz singer I’ve ever heard. It was like she’d been doing it all her life. It was a mournful song, full of longing. I looked it up later that afternoon. It’s called My Love Is by Diana Krall. It’s a beautiful song, but really, the recording I found didn’t have anything on Tinti.

That took some serious bravery. I was so impressed.

Find a Place for our Pain

Should COULD have dropped the mic at that point, but she went on. She told a story about a man who had once suffered from phantom limb syndrome. He had lost a hand in an accident and even though it was gone he could still feel it. It felt like it was clenched in an excruciatingly tight fist and he couldn’t let go.

Long story short, a doctor discovered that by using a mirrored box, he could make it look like the missing hand was there. The one-handed man clenched his remaining hand, put it in front of the mirror and then opened it. His brain saw two hands relax and suddenly, the missing hand didn’t hurt anymore.

Said Tinti: the only way to cure our pain, is to create a reflection of it in the world. That’s what our writing is, she said, a way of creating a reflection of our pain in the world. By doing so, we let it go. It’s cathartic for writer and reader alike.

Me: Floored.

In truth, before the festival, Hannah Tinit wasn’t really on my radar. But if her writing has a fraction of the bravery and truth that her thirty-minute talk contained, it’s gotta be good. I can’t wait to read her books.

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Independent Bookstores – Where the Booklovers Go

independent bookstore day 2018Writers read. It is one of the defining characteristics of writers that we love books. Love ’em. Can’t get enough. And those of us over a certain age have, in our lifetimes, witnessed a  total transformation of how books arrive in the hands of happy readers. It looked bad there for a while (for those of us who love bookstores), but it turns out independent bookstores are on the uptick.

The First Hit

In case you weren’t paying attention, neighborhood bookstores were hit pretty hard when big box stores (Barnes & Nobles, Borders) came onto the scene in the  early ’90s. Then they suffered again when (in the late ’90s) when Amazon exploded onto the scene. Between 1995 and 2000 our country lost 40% of its indie bookstores. Dang.

Paper is Dead (or Maybe Not)

But then Kindle came along (in 2007) and crushed the big box stores. Just left them in tatters. Everyone said “paper is dead.” But they were wrong. What happened was a bifurcation of book sales.

On the one hand you have Amazon, where you go if you just want something fast and cheap.

On the other hand, you have your local bookstore, where you go if you want to immerse yourself in books and book culture.

What a Bookstore Is

It turns out that there is a market for the experience of a bookstore (those of us who love books aren’t surprised) and the demise of the big box stores left a hole for the indies to grow into.

Since 2009, there’s been a 40% uptick in the number of indie bookstores. This guy from Harvard, Ryan Raffaelli, recently did a study of how that was possible and what he outlines in his project summary are three things: community, curation, and convening. In short, indie bookstores know their communities, they work hard to offer the kinds of books their customers want, and they host book signings and book clubs to bring people together around books.

Indie Bookstore Day

This Saturday is Indie Bookstore Day, and indie bookstores across the country are hosting events to celebrate the fact that a bookstore is more than just a place to get a book.

To join the celebration, find the store nearest to you and make a date to go wander the isles just for the fun of it. Buy a book, or three (or, you know, more). Check out their calendar of upcoming events. Seriously, indie bookstores are the best. If you haven’t been to one in a while. It’s time you did. Have fun.

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The Best Books I Read in 2017

I read fifty-six books this year, forty-eight of them all the way through (if you follow along, you know I don’t have any qualms about not finishing books). That’s one less book than I read last year, and I had set a goal of sixty, but I have to give myself credit: at least four of the books I read this year were over 700 pages long. If I count them each as two, I totally hit my goal.

Anyway, of the forty-eight books that I finished, nine really stood out as fantastic books – the kind of books that I find myself telling people they need to read. Here they are, in no particular order and with no regard to publication date:


So Much Blue

Percival Everett, 2017
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Kevin Pace is working on a painting that he won’t allow anyone to see: not his children; not his best friend, Richard; not even his wife, Linda. The painting is a canvas of twelve feet by twenty-one feet (and three inches) that is covered entirely in shades of blue. It may be his masterpiece or it may not; he doesn’t know or, more accurately, doesn’t care.

What Kevin does care about are the events of the past. Ten years ago he had an affair with a young watercolorist in Paris. Kevin relates this event with a dispassionate air, even a bit of puzzlement. It’s not clear to him why he had the affair, but he can’t let it go. In the more distant past of the late seventies, Kevin and Richard traveled to El Salvador on the verge of war to retrieve Richard’s drug-dealing brother, who had gone missing without explanation. As the events of the past intersect with the present, Kevin struggles to justify the sacrifices he’s made for his art and the secrets he’s kept from his wife.


The Girls

Emma Cline, 2017
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Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.


Revolution of Marina M.

Janey Fitch, 2017
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St. Petersburg, New Year’s Eve, 1916. Marina Makarova is a young woman of privilege who aches to break free of the constraints of her genteel life, a life about to be violently upended by the vast forces of history. Swept up on these tides, Marina will join the marches for workers’ rights, fall in love with a radical young poet, and betray everything she holds dear, before being betrayed in turn.

As her country goes through almost unimaginable upheaval, Marina’s own coming-of-age unfolds, marked by deep passion and devastating loss, and the private heroism of an ordinary woman living through extraordinary times. This is the epic, mesmerizing story of one indomitable woman’s journey through some of the most dramatic events of the last century.


Ready Player One

Ernest Cline, 2012
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In the year 2045, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.

But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.


The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Lindsey Lee Johnson, 2017
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The wealthy enclaves north of San Francisco are not the paradise they appear to be, and nobody knows this better than the students of a local high school. Despite being raised with all the opportunities money can buy, these vulnerable kids are navigating a treacherous adolescence in which every action, every rumor, every feeling, is potentially postable, shareable, viral.

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s kaleidoscopic narrative exposes at every turn the real human beings beneath the high school stereotypes. Abigail Cress is ticking off the boxes toward the Ivy League when she makes the first impulsive decision of her life: entering into an inappropriate relationship with a teacher. Dave Chu, who knows himself at heart to be a typical B student, takes desperate measures to live up to his parents’ crushing expectations. Emma Fleed, a gifted dancer, balances rigorous rehearsals with wild weekends. Damon Flintov returns from a stint at rehab looking to prove that he’s not an irredeemable screwup. And Calista Broderick, once part of the popular crowd, chooses, for reasons of her own, to become a hippie outcast.

Into this complicated web, an idealistic young English teacher arrives from a poorer, scruffier part of California. Molly Nicoll strives to connect with her students—without understanding the middle school tragedy that played out online and has continued to reverberate in different ways for all of them.


The Nix

Nathan Hill, 2017
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It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, in decades—not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s reappeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.

To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.


The Bear and The Nightingale

Katherine Arden, 2017
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Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.

Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.

But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.


Moonglow

Michael Chabon, 2017
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In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California, to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. That dreamlike week of revelations forms the basis for the novel Moonglow, the latest feat of legerdemain from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon.

Moonglow unfolds as the deathbed confession of a man the narrator refers to only as “my grandfather.” It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and marriage and desire, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at midcentury, and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of keeping secrets and telling lies. It is a portrait of the difficult but passionate love between the narrator’s grandfather and his grandmother, an enigmatic woman broken by her experience growing up in war-torn France. It is also a tour de force of speculative autobiography in which Chabon devises and reveals a secret history of his own imagination.

From the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of New York’s Wallkill prison, from the heyday of the space program to the twilight of the “American Century,” the novel revisits an entire era through a single life and collapses a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional nonfiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most moving and inventive.


Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi, 2017
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Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

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Light The Dark ~ Writers on Creativity

Y’all know I don’t write book reviews. I find them eternally stressful. BUT every now and then I read something that is so compelling that I just have to share it. Such is the situation I find myself in with this book I read recently titled “Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.”

Steal Like An Artist

To explain why Light the Dark is so great, I have to back up a little and talk about another book I loved: Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. This little coffee-table gem was published in 2012, and it’s a super quick read about being a writer, full of seriously good advice. If you don’t own it, I highly recommend you buy it, wrap it, and put it under the tree with a tag that says “From Santa.”

My favorite quote from Steal Like an Artist is this one:

I once heard the cartoonist Gary Panter say, “If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original.”

Brilliant. But off topic. What was I saying? Right. The quote I was going to show you is this one:

…if you try to devour the history of your discipline all at once, you’ll choke. Instead, chew on one thinker – writer, artist, activist, role model – you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them.

This struck me when I first read it, because it made sense, but I wasn’t sure how to go about finding the artists that my favorite artists looked up to. I mean, how reliable IS that wikipedia page? Then Light The Dark fell in my lap.

Light The Dark

Light the Dark is a collection of essays, edited by Joe Fassler, in which some of my favorite authors expound upon the prose that changed their lives. It is unlike anything I’ve ever read insofar as it gives intimate insight into what has inspired these authors (including Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King, Junot Díaz, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman… the list goes on, and continues to be impressive).

I just flipped through all the underlined passages in my copy of the book, thinking I would share a few, but there are just so many, and each brilliant flash of insight glows within a constellation of ideas in a way that makes one difficult to set aside on its own.

But there is one that’s been knocking around in my head since I first read it. It’s by David Mitchell:

You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.
For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing. I have a few ways to make sure I can carve out time.
Part one: Neglect everything else…

I have found such great peace in those few sentences. I stopped pretending I was going to teach myself the guitar. I stopped training for a marathon. I have time to be a halfway decent parent and one other thing. I choose writing. That’s not to say that I’ve given up on those things forever. Maybe once the kids are off to college I can free up some time by downgrading my parenting from halfway decent, but right now, I choose writing.

Finding Inspiration

We all know there is no shortage of books on how to be a writer. Many of them are quite good, but this book ins’t about how to be a writer, it’s the writers themselves talking about their love of words. And I just adored it.

So there you have it. My one not-a-review for 2017.

And if you’re into this kind of thing, stay tuned. I’m working on my list of favorite books of 2017. I won’t be reviewing them, just listing the ones I loved the most, but still, if you’re looking for title to pick up, that’s a post you’ll want to check in for.

Do you have a favorite book on writing or writers? I love hearing what other people draw inspiration from. Share it in the comments down below. Cheers!

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Reading #OutsideMyBookBubble

OutsideMyBookBubbleI usually avoid getting political here on my blog. I have opinions, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that I try to stay focused on the topic of writing, so I don’t get much chance opine on the issues of our time. But I’m taking a moment here. Because there is actually something we can do to make the world a better place, and it’s actually pretty damn easy. Here it is: read something from outside your bubble.

The Research

Over the years, I’ve read more than a few articles about how literary fiction can make us more empathetic and less racist. Check out this article from Pacific Standard, or this one from Scientific American, or this one from The Guardian.

In short, what they say is that reading literary fiction helps us to be more comfortable with ambiguity and more able to understand different perspectives. And in the world we’re living in, it seems like these are skills we could all stand to bolster.

So I hereby challenge all of us to take the #OutsideMyBookBubble challenge.

The #OutsideMyBookBubble Challenge

It goes like this: Commit right now to reading ten books by authors who don’t look like you. That’s the only rule. There’s no time frame. You don’t have to read them all at once. There’s no genre requirement. And to be clear, I’m not even saying you have to finish these books.

In fact, you have every right to put down any book that doesn’t grab you, always, because reading is, and should be, fun. I’m not assigning homework here. I am simply proposing that we pick up books that might open our minds a little, read the first forty pages and see if they grab us. If so, keep reading. If not, try another.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.


What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

In its simplest form, What We Lose tells a story of a young African American woman coming to terms with adulthood and the death of her mother. As Thandi tries to process the truths that cannot possibly be, she swings from gut emotion—“She’s gone. But she’s here, I can feel her. I can see her that day they told us that everything was going to be all right. But she’s not here. But I can feel her arms around me. It feels like the breeze coming off the river…it smells like her breath.”—to searing observations about the word in which we live: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like a being a well-dressed person who is also homeless…you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe.” The novel weaves in and out of the past and present, from memories of childhood to Thandi’s own pregnancy and love affairs, to visits to her mother’s childhood home in Johannesburg. There are photographs, graphs, drawings, pages filled with a single line that infuse the story with an immediacy. Through Thandi’s pain and process, she (re)constructs her identity from the memory of her mother, family, her experiences, and the reality of the world that surrounds her. A breathtaking novel. –Al Woodworth


Luminous Heart of Jonah S. by Gina Nahai

From Tehran to Los Angeles, The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is a sweeping saga that tells the story of the Soleymans, an Iranian Jewish family tormented for decades by Raphael’s Son, a crafty and unscrupulous financier who has futilely claimed to be an heir to the family’s fortune. Forty years later in contemporary Los Angeles, Raphael’s Son has nearly achieved his goal–until he suddenly disappears, presumed by many to have been murdered. The possible suspects are legion: his long-suffering wife; numerous members of the Soleyman clan exacting revenge; the scores of investors he bankrupted in a Ponzi scheme; or perhaps even his disgruntled bookkeeper and longtime confidant.


Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

This sweeping family saga encompasses seven generations of descendants of a Fante and his captured Asante house slave. After giving birth to a daughter, Maame manages to escape, making her way alone back to her own village. She is taken in by an Asante warrior, becomes his third wife, and has a second daughter by him. The two sisters, Effia and Esi, will never meet, their lives will follow very different paths, but their descendants will share a legacy of warfare and slavery. Effia will marry an Englishman who oversees the British interest in the Gold Coast slave trade. Esi will be captured by Fante warriors, traded to the Englishmen, and shipped to America to be sold into slavery. Progressing through 300 years of Ghanaian and American history, the narrative unfolds in a series of concise portraits of each sister’s progeny that capture pivotal moments in each individual’s life. Every portrait reads like a short story unto itself, making this volume a good choice for harried teens, yet Gyasi imbues the work with a remarkably seamless feel. Through the combined historical perspectives of each descendant, the author reveals that racism is often rooted in tribalism, greed, and the lust for power. Many students will be surprised to discover that the enslavement of Africans was not just a white man’s crime. VERDICT Well researched, beautifully told, and easy to read, this title is destined to become required, as well as enlightening, reading for teens.—Cary Frostick


Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. While brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that comprise the novel’s framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel’s heart–motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce–pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bone is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.


Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.


The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.


Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson

Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is lost in the underworld of 1830s New Orleans. Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and the pawing hands of a schoolteacher hellbent on marrying him, he jumps aboard the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey which challenges our notions of freedom, fate and how we live together. Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative and philosophical allegory.


Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour

A wry and haunting first novel from a fresh Iranian-American writer, Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a sweeping, lyrical tale of suffering, redemption, and the role of memory and inheritance in making peace with our worlds. Growing up, Xerxes Adam is painfully aware that he is different—with an understanding of his Iranian heritage that vacillates from typical teenage embarrassment to something so tragic it can barely be spoken. His father, Darius, dwells obsessively on his sense of exile, and fantasizes about a nonexistent daughter he can relate to better than his living son; Xerxes’s mother changes her name and tries to make friends; but neither of them offers their son anything he can actually use to make sense of the terrifying, violent last moments in a homeland he barely remembers. As he grows into manhood and moves to New York, his major goal in life is to completely separate from his parents, but when he meets a beautiful half-Iranian girl on the roof of his building after New York’s own terrifying and violent catastrophe strikes, it seems Iran will not let Xerxes go.


Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling

On the reservation, danger looms everywhere, rising out of fear and anger, deprivation and poverty. Fiery-haired Louise White Elk dreams of both belonging and escape, and of discovering love and freedom on her own terms. But she is a beautiful temptation for three men-each more dangerous than the next-who will do anything to possess her…


Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe

Red Shoes, the most formidable Choctaw warrior of the eighteenth century, was assassinated by his own people. Why does his death haunt Auda Billy, an Oklahoma Choctaw woman accused in 1991 of murdering Choctaw Chief Redford McAlester? Moving between the known details of Red Shoes’ life and the riddle of McAlester’s death, this novel traces the history of the Billy women whose destiny it is to solve both murders—with the help of a powerful spirit known as the Shell Shaker.


The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Plague of Doves—the first part of a loose trilogy that includes the National Book Award-winning The Round House and LaRose—is a gripping novel about a long-unsolved crime in a small North Dakota town and how, years later, the consequences are still being felt by the community and a nearby Native American reservation.

Though generations have passed, the town of Pluto continues to be haunted by the murder of a farm family. Evelina Harp—part Ojibwe, part white—is an ambitious young girl whose grandfather, a repository of family and tribal history, harbors knowledge of the violent past. And Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, who bears witness, understands the weight of historical injustice better than anyone. Through the distinct and winning voices of three unforgettable narrators, the collective stories of two interwoven communities ultimately come together to reveal a final wrenching truth.


Ravensong: A Novel by Lee Maracle

Lee Maracle, author of the best-selling I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism, sets this novel in an urban Native American community on the Pacific Northwest coast in the early 1950s. Ravensong is by turns damning, humorous, inspirational, and prophetic.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.


The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as six other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.


The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

A “wild opera of a novel,”* The Queen of the Night tells the mesmerizing story of Lilliet Berne, an orphan who left the American frontier for Europe and was swept into the glamour and terror of Second Empire France. She became a sensation of the Paris Opera, with every accolade but an original role—her chance at immortality. When one is offered to her, she finds the libretto is based on her deepest secret, something only four people have ever known. But who betrayed her? With “epic sweep, gorgeous language, and haunting details,”** Alexander Chee shares Lilliet’s cunning transformation from circus rider to courtesan to legendary soprano, retracing the path that led to the role that could secure her reputation—or destroy her with the secrets it reveals.


Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Anju is the daughter of an upper-caste Calcutta family of distinction. Her cousin Sudha is the daughter of the black sheep of that same family. Sudha is startlingly beautiful; Anju is not. Despite those differences, since the day on which the two girls were born, the same day their fathers died–mysteriously and violently–Sudha and Anju have been sisters of the heart. Bonded in ways even their mothers cannot comprehend, the two girls grow into womanhood as if their fates as well as their hearts were merged.

But, when Sudha learns a dark family secret, that connection is shattered. For the first time in their lives, the girls know what it is to feel suspicion and distrust. Urged into arranged marriages, Sudha and Anju’s lives take opposite turns. Sudha becomes the dutiful daughter-in-law of a rigid small-town household. Anju goes to America with her new husband and learns to live her own life of secrets. When tragedy strikes each of them, however, they discover that despite distance and marriage, they have only each other to turn to.

Set in the two worlds of San Francisco and India, this exceptionally moving novel tells a story at once familiar and exotic, seducing readers from the first page with the lush prose we have come to expect from Divakaruni. Sister of My Heart is a novel destined to become as widely beloved as it is acclaimed.


Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

After escaping the cruel wrath of her abusive father, Boy Novak finds comfort in a small Massachusetts suburb and a widower named Arturo, whom she later marries. Boy is quite taken with Arturo’s daughter Snow, but it’s the daughter she has with Arturo that complicates their quiet lives–Bird’s birth reveals that both Arturo and Boy are light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. Harkening back to the great passing narratives, like Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and, most notably, Passing by Nella Larsen, Boy, Snow, Bird is about both the exterior and interior complexities of racial identity. The perception of Arturo and Boy’s race and social class is threatened by Bird. But it’s the psychological conflicts that are the most devastating. Arturo was raised with “the idea that there was no need to ever say, that if you knew who you were then that was enough, that not saying was not the same as lying.” Is passing dishonest if it isn’t an active decision? Boy, Snow, Bird is a retelling of Snow White, and the wit and lyricism of Helen Oyeyemi’s prose shares the qualities of a fable. But this novel isn’t content to conclude with an easy moral. In fact, Oyeyemi complicates the themes she establishes. Her writerly charms shouldn’t be taken for granted; the beauty of her writing hides something contemplative and vital, waiting to be uncovered by readers. –Kevin Nguyen


The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves. The New York Times has praised Lahiri as “a writer of uncommon elegance and poise.” The Namesake is a fine-tuned, intimate, and deeply felt novel of identity.


How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

In this debut novel, the García sisters—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía—and their family must flee their home in the Dominican Republic after their father’s role in an attempt to overthrow a tyrannical dictator is discovered. They arrive in New York City in 1960 to a life far removed from their existence in the Caribbean. In the wild and wondrous and not always welcoming U.S.A., their parents try to hold on to their old ways, but the girls try find new lives: by forgetting their Spanish, by straightening their hair and wearing fringed bell bottoms. For them, it is at once liberating and excruciating to be caught between the old world and the new. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents sets the sisters free to tell their most intimate stories about how they came to be at home—and not at home—in America.


In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas―“The Butterflies.”

In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters―Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé―speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human cost of political oppression.


Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years is nothing short of remarkable. Her protagonist, August, is one of four girls coming of age in 1970s Brooklyn who become “always and all ways” friends until one by one their lives take different turns. Woodson is able to convey so much with so little—her words and sentences are beautifully crafted to fill you with emotion and understanding in a single line that feels effortless and light. The girls’ lives move to the beat of disco rhythms, the chant of Double Dutch, and later the pleas of their boyfriends to do just this one thing…Their neighborhood is both lifeline and trap, as so many places are, and it’s hard to say for sure why some break the tether and others become what they once scorned. Another Brooklyn is a breathtaking account of growing up female and black in a time of conflicting pressures and crushing assumptions, and in doing so creating a lifetime of memories. –Seira Wilson


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love.


I’m not going to bother listing books by white authors. Something like 90% of books published are by white authors. You don’t need my help with that.

Be The Change

Gandhi has been quoted as saying: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

In short: Be the change.

Taking this tiny step as readers is such a simple way to engage in the world around us, to open our eyes and equip our minds to see what is outside our own small realms of experience.

Who’s with me?

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22 Hours in an Ecuadorian Detainment Center

I had a whole post planned out for today. It was about a writing exercise I use while traveling to keep my writing mind sharp. As you know, I try to keep my posts focused on writing, but as a storyteller, I can’t pass up the opportunity to share this one with you.

After I left the hotel in in Orlando on Sunday, I met up with my husband and kids in Dallas so that we could all continue on together to Quito, Ecuador. My husband was born in Quito and we try to go back and visit the extended family as often as we can. This year was the first time we were brining both kids.

On the plane, my husband used our passports to fill out the immigration forms, but some time between that and when we made it to the front of the immigration line, my passport vanished. It was just gone. We checked the bags. The flight crew checked the plane (they wouldn’t let me back on to check, but they swear they looked). We retraced our steps. Nothing. They couldn’t let me into the country without a passport.

I stood on the no-mans-land side of the immigration area and watched through two layers of glass while my husband negotiated on my behalf.

Anxious and pacing, I got hot and took off my sweater. I was wearing a floor-length cotton dress, because when I’m traveling and have to sit for hours on end, dresses are just a lot more comfortable. It wasn’t a scandalous dress, by any means, but it was only a matter of minutes before I noticed a guard looking at my chest. I turned away. A few minutes later an airline employee walked over, and without a word, leaned around me to look at the tattoo on my back. I felt very much on display, but I was hot. I decide to stick to my American feminist ideals and leave the sweater off for my own comfort. It’s not like it’s a muslim country. Women were walking by in far less clothing than I was wearing.

Anyway. Around 1am, they escorted me to a holding area where I was allowed to talk to my husband. He explained that they were detaining me. As soon as the embassy opened at 8am, he would go and try to get me a temporary passport, but American Airlines policy said that if we couldn’t get me documented by 5pm local time they would have to deport me on the next flight out, leaving at 12:15am Tuesday.

So I hugged my husband goodbye and went through a door to the detainment room. A few minutes later a guard came in with a couple of bags from the store in the airport – my husband had insisted they deliver a care package to me: six bottles of water, some chips, a snickers bar, and three energy drinks (because thankfully my husband knows the things I need to survive – I had told him I would be fine with the jerky and nuts I had in my bag, but he knows me better than I know myself sometimes). Ecuadorian Detainment Center

It was a pale room with fluorescent lighting and nothing in it except cushioned chairs. There was a small bathroom with a shower stall. They told me not to drink the water from the tap. The door was locked behind me. A guard stayed in the room with me, but I haven’t seen eyes that bloodshot since college. He promptly laid back in one of the chairs and fell asleep.

I immediately locked myself in the bathroom and changed into jeans and a t-shirt. Feminist ideals aside, it’s frankly harder to rape someone who is wearing a tight-fitting pair of jeans. If you’re a guy you’ve probably never done the calculation, but the ladies out there will know what I’m talking about.

I drank one of the energy drinks straight away because I felt insanely vulnerable and I had no intention of sleeping. Due to the time difference, it was only 11pm in California so I texted the house sitter back home. For about an hour we tried to find my old expired passport (because I knew that would expedite getting a new one), but no luck. But she did find a photocopy of my current passport. She texted it to me and I texted it to my husband.

If you don’t have a copy of your passport somewhere, stop reading right now and go make a copy of it. I’m telling you. You don’t think you’ll ever need it, but you might.

Once that was done, there wasn’t much to do but wait. I had just started reading “The Name of the Wind,” so I settled in.

Around 5am I nodded off for a few minutes and woke to the creepy, stoner security guard staring at me. I drank another energy drink.

Around 7 things began to pick up again at the airport. Apparently the detainment room is the only place to charge a cell phone, so guys would come in and sit in the corner chair while texting or whatever. No women. Only men. There is something so unnerving about being locked in a room where men can come and go as they please.

I didn’t feel like chatting so they assumed I didn’t speak Spanish. It was comforting to eavesdrop on their conversations and hear all the usual inane banter of bored employees.

While my husband was at the embassy, I was trying to figure out how to get a replacement passport as quickly as possible from my end. I called the state department. I would need a birth certificate so I called record locating companies. The Internet was slow, but I was able to fill out a lost passport form on the state department website. I texted my family. My mom had a copy of my birth certificate in Portland, but she was out of town, so my sister had to drop everything and go dig through her storage space to find it.

In between desperate texts and phone calls, I read. This is what the first couple pages of “The Name of the Wind” look like after a day of trying to figure out what to do.

By 3pm it was clear the embassy wasn’t going to be able to produce the documents we needed. I was getting deported. I texted my sister and asked her to FedEx the birth certificate to Dallas. Then I sat there for another seven hours, waiting to be deported.

At 11:30 I was escorted to the plane. As soon as I was buckled in, I fell asleep. I never thought an airplane seat could feel so safe.

I spent Tuesday getting new passport photos and sleeping at a hotel in Dallas.

Wednesday morning I woke early to meet the FedEx package in the basement of the hotel, then hopped an Uber to the Dallas passport office. They were AWESOME. Two hours later I had a new passport. At 5pm I boarded a plane for Quito and now I’m here!

I finally made it.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get rid of this copy of “The Name of the Wind.” It feels like an old friend. I was so grateful to have a good story with me. After food, water and a tight-fitting pair of jeans, a good book was the perfect thing to have with me for a really, really long day in detainment.

On Tuesday we’ll get back to our regular programming. I’ll stop talking about myself and tell you about that writing exercise I use while I’m traveling. Promise.

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A Joshua Tree Birthday for Me

Joshua Tree If you follow me on Instagram, you probably saw that I recently turned 40. I wasn’t going to have a party, I really wasn’t. But my sister insisted. She told me she would plan the whole thing and just asked where I wanted to go. I said Joshua Tree, because I love the desert.

So last weekend, she flew down from Portland and we met a few of my girlfriends out at a rental house just north of the Joshua Tree National Park border. We went to a super-hippy yoga class on Saturday morning, and then about half of our group went on a horseback ride in the desert, just as the sun was setting. It was particularly lush out there, given all the rain California has had this past winter. I saw plants I had never seen before in the desert.

Joshua Tree

While we were gone, the other half of the group, the women who opted not to ride horses, were busy setting up my birthday present. My sis had put the word out weeks before and collected 41 books from friends and family. That’s forty, and one to grow on – like candles, get it? They were stacked up in a big ‘ol tower for me to discover when I came in.

Joshua Tree

The tower came with a list of each title and who it was from. It was the best birthday present ever. Seriously. I was all giddy, and spent a good hour taking the pile apart and looking at who each book was from. I went to bed that night all glowy, just thinking about all the books waiting for me.

The next morning, we drove through the park and did some exploring. (I really wanted to hike, but my foot is still healing from a running injury, so we stuck to driving around taking pictures.)

Joshua Tree

It was a wonderful birthday weekend. A million thanks, to my most awesome sis.

Joshua Tree

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Pasadena Festival of Women Authors 2017

Pasadena Festival of Women Authors

If you follow my blog at all, you know I’m really into writers supporting each other. (If you’re new to the blog, and you live in LA, check out my #LitLifeLA page for weekly opportunities to see your favorite authors read their work in person.) Well, I get even more excited about writers being supported by the general public, so you can imagine my excitement for this Saturday, when the Pasadena Literary Alliance will host their annual Pasadena Festival of Women Authors. I’m like a little kid waiting for Christmas. Continue Reading →

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Ten Amazing Books

Best Books I Read in 2016I read fifty-seven books this year. Many were new publications, but just as many were not. Of those fifty-seven, ten grabbed my attention in that way I’m always hoping a book will. Here, in no particular order, and in no way respecting the tyranny of recent publication, is a list of the best books I read in 2016. Continue Reading →

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