I don’t know if anyone cares, honestly, but I want to explain why I’ve not posted anything in a while. I am frankly embarrassed that I haven’t written anything for this blog in months, but I feel like so much has changed. When I started writing here, I promised myself I would keep up with it no matter what. But whether we like it or not, things happen.
This is going to sound weak, but I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with my writing because I have been absolutely drained by my day job. I’ve continued to read and watch YouTube and live my life, but have not kept up with my writing. Which is not good, because that behavior is not getting me anywhere, either personally or creatively. For a long time I’ve called myself “the writer who doesn’t write,” and, while funny, that’s not what I want to be. I think it’s the plight of many a working creative person to be too drained by the daily grind to work on personal projects, but maybe that’s all just an excuse. I don’t know. But that’s where I’ve been.
Work exhaustion is not the whole story, though. Like many Americans, I have also been deflated by the whole election cycle, and everything that has happened since. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m an optimistic person, but I at least make the smallest of attempts to find a silver lining when life gets shitty. Unfortunately, like many Americans, and like many people all over the world, I’m having a rough time finding the bright side these days. I’m really having to work at it.
Funnily enough, though, the day after the election results came in, I couldn’t stop myself from writing. I typed up the following at work on November 9th, tossing professional decorum to the wind:
I’m sitting at work, trying to wrap my head around this election. I am in disbelief, I am in shock. The world feels upside down. I just want to go home and crawl into bed with a book, a cup of tea, a heated blanket, and a lot of French fries. I want to disappear from this world for a while. But I can’t, because I have responsibilities at work. Obligations, really. One of my bosses came in this morning, and approached me in such a casual manner that I was even more shocked. Doesn’t he know the world just flipped inside out? Maybe not for him, who is very wealthy, ostensibly white, and powerful. He is also a kind, very intelligent person, with the demeanor of a doctor. Maybe he just can’t deal with it, like the rest of us, and so refuses to do so. I hope that’s what’s happening. He has a job to do, after all. Right?
I have never been more aware of my skin color than in this election cycle. I am more aware of my gender than ever before.
And I stopped there, because I was at work, and because I felt too disheartened to go on. It was a lost day for me. I have since learned that at least one of my coworkers and a couple of my otherwise intelligent bosses, including the one mentioned, are Trump supporters. So that is a new reality I have to deal with every day. The daily reminder that I work with and for people who maybe see me as a token, who do not value me, whose votes have demonstrated that they have no regard for me as a woman, or for people of color, or for the fact that some uncomfortably Hitler-esque nonsense is rising to a boil in this country, or for reality and facts in general, is tough. But it’s a reality that I’m slowly learning to navigate, and I’m finding that I am a stronger, more passionate, and surprisingly more compassionate person than I thought I was. I never thought I could be so befuddled and bewildered than I have been by this turn of events, but I am also more vocal, more emotional, and more “woke” than I ever imagined I could be. I mean, this anxious introvert is actually out in swarms of people, marching for her rights, and for the rights of others to be heard.
So, for many reasons, I will write. I refuse to let my exhaustion from my day job deter me. I refuse to let my disenchantment with the world impede my progress any more. I’m trying really hard not to engage in negative self-talk, so I won’t beat myself up about it too much, but I know I have something of value to say, whether or not others agree. Now more than ever I think my voice is important. So I will write.
I was never too keen on short stories growing up. I’ve always liked getting completely immersed in lengthy novels, losing myself in another world, and the short stories I was reading always felt too . . . well . . . short to get lost in. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of short stories. In my humble opinion, a well-rounded reader should be able to at least appreciate written work in all forms (I still struggle with reading plays, but can appreciate their merit). I recently read this beautifully written article by Junot Diaz on LitHub about the beauty of the short story, and it deserves a read; it really reflects how I’ve been feeling lately about them. Earlier this year I read The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction for the first time, and each story in the collection completely blew me away. My ill-advised, half-formed opinion about short stories not providing a world to get lost in was shot to hell. And I’m so glad it was, because I probably would never have given Vampires in the Lemon Grove a real chance otherwise.
This collection, by Karen Russell of Swamplandia! fame, is dark, hilarious, introspective, and eerie. Each story includes a supernatural element, which gives the reader the unsettling feeling that virtually anything can happen at any time in these stories. Nobody is constrained by the rules of this world, and it can be off-putting, but in the best, creepiest way. The stories were all very, very good, but in the interest of time, I’ll only talk about three I loved and one I thought was just okay.
Reeling for the Empire is about a group of girls in feudal Japan who are basically sold by their fathers to a mysterious businessman in order to make money for the family and serve the empire by reeling silk for one year. In reality, these poor girls are enslaved indefinitely, turned into humanoid silkworms who must spin their uniquely-colored silk constantly to avoid death. The one girl who actually volunteers to go, as opposed to being sold, is the one who starts shaking things up in the factory after she finds out what is expected of the girls. This story is just bizarre, perfectly imagined, and exquisitely executed. Russell takes an outlandish premise and (dare I say) spins it into a story that explores the strength of women and the power of unity.
In The New Veterans, a massage therapist takes on a new client – a young veteran fresh from the front lines, who has a full-back tattoo memorializing the day a colleague died in a bombing. As the therapist works on this young man, she mysteriously finds herself able to physically manipulate his massive, intricate tattoo and slowly taking on his memories and, consequently, his PTSD. The more she works on him, the less he remembers and the more he physically and mentally heals – for better and for worse. I don’t pretend to know what veterans have to live with on a daily basis, but this story presents a different take on the traditional narrative about what civilians know and think of what homecoming soldiers deal with in everyday life. For me, it emphasized the fact that although we can listen to stories, unless we’ve actively engaged in battle or lived in a war-torn country, we can never truly know what that experience is like.
The final story in the collection, The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, is the story that haunted me the most. In it, the main characters, a group of bullying teenage brats, come upon a scarecrow that seems like any old scarecrow, until they look at it a little closer. After a bit of teenage-boy joking and general tomfoolery with the scarecrow, the boys begin to realize that it very closely resembles a boy they used to bully who just disappeared one day – Eric Mutis. What is so freaky about the scarecrow is that the more they look at it and the closer they get to it, the more it appears that someone has transformed the real Eric into something made out of wax, glass, and straw. The description of this scarecrow straight up freaked me out. It has dead, staring, but humanoid eyes, and later we find that the body is stuffed with the same grass-like substance Eric used to put in his bunny’s cage. These boys used to really go after poor Eric, both physically and mentally, and through flashbacks we find that despite it all, he was still kind to them. Eric was treated like trash by his peers and teachers alike, and when he just stopped showing up for school one day, they all quite literally forgot about him. Heartbreaking. It is revealed that he had a troubled home life (to what extent we don’t know), and now it seems he may have come to a terrible fate. And because these boys harassed him instead of protecting him, they are all partially responsible. I think I’d have to reread this one to fully grasp the entire subtext, but I found it to be a rumination on bullying and what happens to kids like Eric who fall through the cracks every day. This story was mesmerizing and terrifying all at once. I loved it.
The story I liked the least was actually the most overtly comedic of the bunch. Reading Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating is like reading a football-tailgating manual, only the teams are whales vs. krill. Dougbert is rooting for the little guy, hoping that this year the krill will overpower the whales. He is also actually mourning the dissolution of his marriage, and it’s hilarious to read. This story is objectively a good and funny one, it’s simply just out of place in this collection. I think it’s more fit for the amazing website McSweeney’s than for this particular book.
Part of what sets this collection apart and makes it so enthralling is the latent supernatural element, which left me unsure of what was real and what wasn’t most of the time. These stories are quite a departure from what I’ve read in short stories before, and on the whole they are so layered and complex that I felt like I only picked up on a fraction of their meanings. As with horror movies, it’s not knowing what’s around the corner that is the worst, and also the most captivating thing about this collection.
Readers who like short, engrossing narratives, supernatural tales, and a dash of horror in their stories.
Ever since I chanced upon it while wandering around a bookstore, Among the Janeites sounded like my kind of book. I don’t naturally tend to gravitate toward nonfiction, but at first glance, this little paperback sounded just like my cup of tea – a tome filled with personal stories of people obsessed with books. Among the Janeites features the lives of (mostly) women whose lives were changed by Austen’s works. They relate what their day-to-day lives are like, how they prepare for the annual Jane Austen Society of North America gatherings, and exactly how their lives have been altered by their favorite Austen tales. Though not a “Janeite” myself, I am fascinated by books and documentaries about people who love basically anything enough to embrace that thing body, mind, and soul. Fandoms are so interesting to me. Dressing in the appropriate garb, speaking in the customary fashion, living life as if in another world; I find all of it to be so compelling. So, after perusing the back cover, I was excited to delve into Among the Janeites and read about one woman’s foray into the vaguely familiar world of kooky Austen fanatics in their natural habitat, the convention.
I had very romantic notions about this book before I even cracked the cover, to be honest. I think I was expecting some light confection about frilly Austen-lovers, solely informed by my love of the offbeat and woefully underrated movie Austenland, about a superfan who stays at an immersive, 1800s-themed Austen resort (yes, I know there’s a book and no, I’ve never read it). After I grabbed Among the Janeites from my library’s shelves and dove in, I was greeted with a little anecdote involving author Deborah Yaffe and a deck of Jane Austen tarot cards. Not quite as romantic as I’d pictured, but interest piqued! That anecdote was followed by a more personal story about Yaffe’s young life and how she grew up loving literature and the works of Jane Austen. Eventually, she started to make her way to the meat of the story and began discussing the people she had interviewed. She related stories about these Austen fans’ everyday lives and how they came to be obsessed with Jane Austen, and also wrote quite a bit about her unsuccessful attempts at trying to find the right corset and dress for the annual convention. While reading these first few sections of the book, I learned lots of facts, including that the term “Janeite” was coined by some British dude in the late 1800s. All intriguing enough, right?
Well, yes, it was at first. But that’s where all the fanciful pretense ended. What followed this long and engaging introduction was continual chatter about dress shopping, alternating with strangely analytical biographies. There was so much talk about finding the perfect gown and corset for the convention, Yaffe sounded as if she was trying to hunt down a wedding dress. She was so distressed, moaning and lamenting her misfortune, that I actually said out loud, “UGH. I. Don’t. Care.” Perhaps she was attempting to hearken back to times when English gentlewomen had nothing more important to worry about than the gowns they would wear to each ball and the men they intended to marry. But those tropes are best left to Jane Austen, not to a modern woman lamenting the $200 corset she was simply forced to buy. Yikes. No. I could only read about it for so long.
Yaffe’s personal quest for THE dress (eye roll) might have been tolerable if the stories breaking up her personal anecdotes were appealing. But the way in which she wrote about these everyday women who are so deeply passionate about Jane Austen lacked any, well, passion. The stories, which I’m sure were actually delightful, came off as very factual and clinical. They weren’t presented in a compelling manner, and I felt almost as if I was reading case studies in a scientific journal. To put it bluntly, I could not have been more bored. Over time, I found myself picking this book up and putting it down over and over again, my attempts to read more than a page totally fruitless. I struggled with this book for a long time, desperately wanting to like it, but just frankly not caring for it. After wrestling with myself for a couple of weeks, I finally gave in to my despair and returned it to the library.
The whole process of finally giving up on a book, while not foreign to me, has always been so disheartening. This time especially, I was really disappointed in the book,and in myself. It’s not often that I put any reading material back down after starting it, because I don’t like giving up. But for some reason, this book made me hit my breaking point. I beat myself up about it for a while, thinking that if I had only stuck with it, the story probably would’ve gotten better. However, as disappointed as I was, I got a small but substantial bit of consolation from the fact that I’d only checked the book out and hadn’t bought it. And after all was said and done and I’d started an excellent new book, that feeling of small consolation turned into a flood of relief. I ended up being pretty proud of myself for not wasting my time slogging through something I wasn’t enjoying.
Which leads me to my point/piece of advice, and it’s a simple one: Don’t read stuff you don’t want to read. I know, it’s genius. It took me a long time to get here, but I’ve finally made it. It’s very freeing, not feeling beholden to a burden of a novel. There are simply too many good books out there to waste my time trudging through the dull ones. It was tough to get to this point, because I feel such loyalty to any book I choose to read (not unusual for a book lover, I’m sure). For me, that loyalty owes itself at least in part to the amount of time it takes me to pick out a new book after I’ve finished the last one. So when I do finally make that decision, it’s like the book and I are heading into unknown territory together, and after I’ve spent my hard-earned time and money, I don’t expect to be abandoned by my partner. If that partner ditches me, then I have no choice but to curse the day I ever met him/her and give up the journey. And I have no regrets about this now, either. I know they say you can’t appreciate the good without experiencing the bad, and that is true, but I can definitely read three chapters of a mediocre book and appreciate that I’ve read better. I’m not sticking it out in the muck while my partner wanders off, prattling on about corsets.
It’s important to read what moves you. We’re not going to live forever (probably), so we should spend time doing what we love and actually, I don’t know, enjoying ourselves while doing it. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself that you must read that Proust because all well-read and intelligent people read Proust, but you’re finding it to be long and confusing and boring. Just put it down. It’s okay. Maybe Proust doesn’t speak to your soul. I mean, on my shelf sits Swann’s Way, and I like to think I’m going to read it someday. But if I’m being totally honest with myself, I know that barring some major catastrophe that leaves me with only a flashlight and that behemoth of a book, I’m probably never going to make it all the way through. When I die, I doubt anyone will be impressed or even know that I read some stuff from the Western Canon once. It doesn’t matter. And I’m okay with it. I want you to be okay with it too. What does matter is the pleasure of reading, what we learn from our books, and how we grow from that knowledge. Whether you get that readerly satisfaction from Henry James or Helen Fielding or a bunch of clinical stories about women who dress in period costumes and obsess over Mr. Darcy is inconsequential. You have the right to like whatever you want, others’ opinions be damned.* When it comes to books, we owe no loyalty to anyone, man, book, or beast, dead or alive. We only owe it to our ourselves and our precious time.
So read what you want and tell that negative inner voice to kiss your ass (effingPrudence).
* I do, however, reserve the right to judge you harshly if you enjoy Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Because I can.
Like most of America, I first came to know Padma Lakshmi through a little TV show on Bravo called Top Chef. She is the beautiful, willowy, modelesque host who speaks very deliberately, doesn’t look like she eats food all day long, and escorts some of the country’s best chefs all around the world to compete with one another for prizes. I somehow peripherally knew some bits about her personal life, in the way that we all tend to know too much about celebrities these days – that she was in a relationship with and married to Salman Rushdie for quite some time, and that at some point she had a child with super rich dude Adam Dell – but otherwise I just knew her as the seemingly haughty host of a cooking competition.
When Padma’s book came out earlier this year, I honestly didn’t have any desire to read it. I like her fine, but have never been super interested in knowing her life’s details. But then she visited the studio of my favorite podcast, Buzzfeed’s Another Round – a fantastic podcast, by the way – to speak about her childhood, the book, and her struggle with endometriosis. Hearing her talk about these topics, and then hearing that Heben (one of the two whip-smart hosts) read the book, enjoyed it, and was pleased by Padma’s writing ability, I decided to go ahead and check it out from the library.
The book opens with Padma’s thoughts, just after she has moved out of her marital home and into a hotel. She is struggling to pick herself back up after a heartbreaking divorce, finding solace and her appetite in a forgotten box of kumquats that her mother grew and sent to her. Her discovery of these kumquats launches us into a reminiscence about how Padma met her future husband Salman, and from there she leads us through the events of her life a less chronological, more sensory- and remembrance-driven order. One memory leads to another in this narrative.
The absence of true chronological order in these events was hard for me to deal with at first. There is a small linear thread running through the book, but I wasn’t ever sure where in her life I would end up from chapter to chapter. This isn’t a complaint, though. At first it was confusing and seemed like an amateur writer’s foible, since most of the autobiographies I’ve read generally follow a traditional beginning of life to current/end of life structure, but I realize that this was a stylistic choice. As it goes, what annoyed me at first ended up keeping me interested throughout the rest of the book, and actually set this book apart from most other memoirs I’ve read.
Padma chronicles her life shuttling back and forth between India and America, her various modeling and television stints in Europe, her relationships and marriage, the birth of her daughter, binding them all together with her love of food. Her deep fondness for and enjoyment of various cuisines is central to the book; her descriptions of the dishes closest to her heart exemplify how important the combination of love, family, and meals are her life. At times she in fact seems overly eager to explain to us that she actually DOES eat, that food is one of the great loves of her life, though she also quietly mentions the pressures of her life in the public eye, and that she is often vain about her figure and doesn’t typically allow herself to eat food in large quantities. Hmmmm….. A little more off-putting are the times when she tells us that her life hasn’t always been easy, that she is actually a smart person and not just a beautiful one, and that she is truly grateful for all of the luck and opportunities she’s had. Not a surprise, but I find it a teensy bit disingenuous when very thin, successful, attractive people present themselves as “just like us.” I found myself rolling my eyes from time to time while reading, unfortunately.
Funnily enough, though, some of the most compelling and real parts of the book were when Padma was talking about things that actually make her just like us – her 30+-year struggle with endometriosis, the dissolution of her marriage, her custody battle, and the incredibly sad death of the man she loved, billionaire Teddy Forstmann. Yes, of course she would be involved with a string of powerful, wealthy, influential men, right? But I was actually fighting back tears during that last one. The touching way she chronicled her love for him and dealt with her grief during his illness and passing moved me. These were the most poignant, raw,and arguably best parts of the story, by far.
If nothing else, Padma’s life has been glamorous and interesting, and for me her stories served as a nice respite during lunch breaks at my recently-started new job. As a nice little bonus, the personal recipes peppered throughout the book are mouth-watering, and I regret not writing them down before I returned the book.
While I can’t say Love, Loss, and What We Ate was the most engaging read from the get-go, I did actually end up liking this book much more than I anticipated. All in all I wouldn’t categorize the book as particularly deep or inspirational, but it was amusing and varied enough to suit anyone who wants a sentimental little read about the life of a famous TV host.
People who love memoirs that include recipes. Top Chef fans, or anyone with a passing interest in Padma Lakshmi.
I recently started watching The Mindy Project on Hulu. Though I’d previously watched the pilot and thought, “Oh, this is truly funny. I should dig into this,” I never followed through. Until now. And holy crap, I don’t know what I was waiting for! Each 30 minute episode is a perfect little nugget on its own, with A and B story lines that unfold unexpectedly and round out nicely. However, as the story goes, I’ve found it hard to just watch one episode at a time. And why should I, really? This show is so well-written (duh, because Mindy Kaling is involved), has an off-beat sense of humor in the same vein as New Girl, and builds tension well. The whole series is pretty impossible not to binge-watch in a short time frame; my sister and I watched the first 38 episodes in a span of three days, so….
The story obviously revolves around Mindy, who is an accomplished OB/GYN co-running a practice with her two male counterparts. She is mega-intelligent, but she is also a major drama queen, kind of shallow, and relatively clumsy. She loves Hollywood gossip. She is rather materialistic. Her body is not the willowy Hollywood ideal, and she addresses that from time to time, whether it’s mentioning how proud she is of her big butt, or thanking someone for commenting on her flat feet, proudly stating, “I almost never fall down.” (See? Weird comic gold.) She says dumb things and makes cringe-worthy mistakes, which we all do.
And that is what is so refreshing about Mindy – she is relatable. She doesn’t always say or do the right thing, which I can definitely relate to. Also, I recently read that the average American woman is a size 16-18. And while Mindy is a size 6-8 (I only know because I read her first book), even seeing any leading female character who is above a size 4 is sadly refreshing and oddly more representative of the general public. Seeing her on the show is actually what inspired me to write these posts on representation.
I personally felt a strange kinship with Mindy from the outset because my body shape is nearly identical to hers, which is something I never, ever see in the media. Like, ever. Everyone is perfectly proportioned on TV – no one is ever smaller on top and larger on bottom, except for frumpy moms. It’s incredibly irritating. And Mindy is anything but frumpy, in style or attitude. The fashion on this show is incredible, so much, in fact, that there have been several web pages and serious retrospectives dedicated to Mindy’s many outfits. It’s cool to see someone with our proportions taken seriously, stylistically, and dressed in a flattering manner. But style aside, Mindy is a cool, informed (though with some weirdly and hilariously conservative views) 30-something who somehow manages to maintain the attitude and pep of a preteen while running a successful and time-consuming business.
Yet perhaps what is most different about The Mindy Project is that its lead character has dark skin, is a woman, and is still undeniably the star of the show. AND that star is also the show’s creator and head writer! Even in this day and age, that is all such an anomaly. Though great strides have been made in the past few years, a female minority lead character in a popular television show is unfortunately still something pretty rare to find. Add on the titles of series creator and lead writer, and you have something pretty unique. It makes me hopeful to think about young girls/women (and boys/men) of color seeing themselves in Mindy on TV, maybe thinking “Hey, I can be a doctor!” or “I can be the main character on a TV show!” or even “I can be a writer and director and TV star too!”. Mindy – the actual person – has certainly been a source of inspiration for me.
At the tail end of my first (of many) binges on this show, I just remember taking a quick break and saying, “It’s so nice to feel represented.” Superficially, seeing Mindy Kaling on my television, with my body, makes me feel not so awful about these inherited large hips, or small chest, or extra few pounds, because she is a confident, bad bitch. Not only does she own her shape and wear some killer outfits, but she doesn’t let her body alone define her. It’s kind of sad to think that at 31, I am so excited to see someone who kind of looks like me on TV that it almost brings tears to my eyes. It may seem like a small thing, or a superficial thing, but I’ve never really had that before. And sometimes it’s the little, seemingly insignificant things that hit us the hardest. Just seeing someone who resembles me in such a cursory way has made me think hard about what I’m doing and about the things I want out of my life.
Because, more importantly than the physical representation, it is heartening seeing a female, minority writer living her dream. It’s just incredibly encouraging. Mindy worked her way into writing for The Office, penned some of the best episodes, and then took off to make something all her own. And while I realize that she has had a lot of amazing privileges and opportunities, it gives me hope that one day, if I work hard enough and stick to what I’m good at, I can also live the writing life I imagine. She helps me remember that the only limitations I have are the ones I place on myself.
I don’t know what Mindy Kaling hoped to accomplish when she created this witty, hilarious, well-written little show, but she has definitely made something significant.
I originally happened upon the movie adaptation of The Mistress of Spices a few years ago while perusing a going-out-of-business sale at my local Blockbuster (R.I.P.). I liked the film well enough that when I later visited the Half Price Books that is just a few doors down from that now-defunct Blockbuster, I saw the novel and snatched it right up. I knew it couldn’t be bad; the book is almost always better than the movie, right?
Of course. Both versions have their own merits, but I can honestly say that the book is so different from, and much better than, the movie.
The story revolves around Tilo, a woman who has basically lived a few vastly different lives within her short existence. Each phase of her life is so unique that she adopts a new name upon each transition, although I find it hard to remember any but “Tilo” since that is the name she uses for the longest time. She is born into an unremarkable family, but with the innate power to grant wishes. Her gift makes her family the most powerful one in the village, attracting the attention of some vicious pirates. They eventually burn her village to the ground and kidnap her, yet she becomes their pirate princess in time, taking on a new name. Eventually borne away from the pirates as well, not-yet-Tilo lands on a mysterious island and learns how to manipulate spices from an ancient crone called the First Mother. When we first meet her, she is already in what is basically her third incarnation – Tilo, a mistress of spices who has just woken up in a magically constructed shop, inhabiting the body of an old lady and communing with spices in order to help people.
Tilo does her best to cater to everyone who comes into her shop, letting the spices speak to and guide her in helping abused wives and unhappy, bullied children. She never leaves the confines of her shop, but is happy knowing that she is living a life of service, and will never want for anything. However, her whole world is turned upside down when a beautiful American man comes into the shop, seemingly able to see past the old lady facade to Tilo’s true self. Oooooh!
Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the movie version. It skips over some of the major plot points in the book, and while that’s not unexpected, it’s a little annoying. The star of the movie is the beautiful, young Aishwarya Rai – already a huge departure from the book, since Tilo is supposed to be a young woman trapped in an old lady’s body…. Thanks, Entertainment Industry. I mean, the movie is good, and if you want to see it, I’m sure you can find it somewhere. It’s fluffy and light and doesn’t capture the depth or beauty of the book, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.
I’ve only read one other book by the very prolific Ms. Divakaruni – Sister of My Heart – and I remember liking it, but this book is already much more memorable to me. Her writing style is very lyrical and sensual, and the manner in which she weaves the real world with the mystical one is reminiscent of Isabel Allende. The imagery in The Mistress of Spices is so incredibly rich and colorful, I can still see Tilo riding on the backs of sea serpents, sassing the First Mother during her magical spice training on a remote island, summoning the courage to go against the spices’ wishes in order to fulfill her own, scooping out mounds of turmeric, packaging up fennel seeds for a customer, and even standing nude, clutching a single red chili as the walls of her shop tumble down. So many images continue to reverberate in my mind, which to me is the sign of some seriously imaginative storytelling.
I also find Divakaruni’s approach to the immigrants’ stories fascinating. The entire book is populated with immigrants, mostly Indian families living in California. The struggles and horrors that I imagine many non-native people face in America are fleshed out in agonizing detail through the people that Tilo meets and helps. To be sure, there is no glossing over bullying, racism, and violence here. I had to close the book a few times because I was so upset by these fictional people’s very real experiences. But just as the awful experiences are laid out in detail here, so are the joyful, lovely, and loving moments. I became so invested in the characters that watching them fall in love, narrowly escape terrible situations, and find their own personal versions of happiness truly felt like such a triumph. I eagerly plowed through the last few chapters to see if this character had managed to leave her abusive husband, or if that one had found his way out of gang life. I felt like I knew them and only wanted the best things to happen in their lives.
The central love story involving Tilo is pretty compelling as well. Her struggle to reconcile her past choices with her wishes for the future makes up much of the book, and that struggle is so relatable. As Tilo begins to grapple with this newfound love and what it might mean for her lifestyle, she finds herself becoming less in tune with the spices (less objectively magical) and more human. Yikes, haven’t we all been there – trying to hold on to our personal truths while becoming engulfed in something/someone else. This was probably the most accessible part of the story for me, if only because I often get consumed with things (typically my working life and how much I hate the daily 8-5 grind) and only remember who I am and why I’m here in snippets. Tilo’s ability to balance it all and stay true to herself to the end was inspiring for me. Basically, this book spoke to me on another level, which, in my opinion, is what good writing is meant to do.
All in all, this is a wonderful and engaging book. It will remain on my shelf, until I loan it out to any friends in need of a richly detailed, satisfying story.
Fans of Isabel Allende and/or magical realism. And those who, like me, enjoy the story so much that they can’t quite bring themselves to give movie adaptations away . . . even if they are a little inferior.
I’m not going to reveal any Cursed Child spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin it for people who haven’t experienced the story for themselves. But there are a lot of things that happen in this script, so I will delve into the plot some. If you haven’t read the story yet and want to be totally surprised when you do, skip this review for now.
When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, I was reasonably satisfied with the ending, but devastated that the series had finally ended. At the time, I was honestly kind of disappointed that the series concluded with Harry, Ron, and Hermione all grown up and sending their own children off to Hogwarts – I wanted to see what life was like a year after The Battle of Hogwarts, how they were adjusting, how the wizarding world had changed. I almost felt robbed of the ending I felt I deserved, and resentful that the distant future had already been laid out for me – I wanted to be the one to imagine what happened as they grew older, Iwanted to decide their fates and the names of their children (I love J.K. Rowling, but “Albus Severus”? I can’t get over that mouthful. And seriously, what pressure to put on a little kid!) But in retrospect I realize that my feelings stemmed from my own desire to see the possibility of the trio’s adventures continue – a need for the story to not really be over.
Well, little did I know that the story was indeed not really over. When I found out that there was a sequel coming out in play format, I was simultaneously excited and apprehensive. I’ve often thought about how lucky I am to have grown up with these characters, to wait for the books to be released and witness history happening, to finally be alive at the same time as a favorite author and to see her clear up any ambiguities or misconceptions about the universe and characters she created. I was excited and grateful for the privilege of getting to see the author create more content in the here and now. But another part of me said “let sleeping dogs lie.” I had accepted the ending of the series and didn’t want the story to be tarnished. But, obviously, my curiosity won out, and I somehow managed to walk right in and pick up a copy of the book/script at Target on the day it was released (everywhere else was sold out and had people waiting on orders – FYI, always try Target!).
I was immediately surprised and pleased to find that story picks up exactly where Deathly Hallows leaves off, with Harry, Ginny, Hermione, Ron, and Draco dropping their kids off at Platform 9 ¾. At this point, Harry is a man stretched too thin – he has too much work to do at the Ministry, is trying to be a good parent with almost no example to follow, and is still navigating the trappings of a celebrity life he never asked for. Ron is still Ron – irreverent, always eating, always a beat behind, but still a strong and loyal friend. And Hermione is the freaking badass she always was, wielding the strength and authority she was always destined to wield. (I pumped my fist and shouted when I found out where she had ended up, career-wise.)
The Potters, Weasleys, and Grangers are all related at this point, so their kids are all brothers, sisters, and cousins, and there are too many of them for me to keep up with, honestly. But the story centers on Albus, Harry’s youngest boy, and Scorpius, Draco’s only son, who strike up an unlikely friendship on their first train ride to Hogwarts. Albus is the most like Harry (kind and unsure, but bold, reactive, and hotheaded at times) and, of Harry’s three kids, feels the pressure of his father’s accomplishments to most. Scorpius is witty, very intelligent, and instantly likeable (he’s basically Ron and Hermione combined, oddly enough), but bears the weight of coming from a family of former Death Eaters, and of his father’s expectations for a type of greatness he’s not sure he’s capable of. So these two boys bond over their shared “outcast” status. The story jumps years at a time, and we witness Albus grow closer to Scorpius as he drifts further from Harry.
It has to be mentioned that Harry is, unsurprisingly, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are subtly and sadly reminded that he grew up in an abusive home, that his whole existence has been riddled with struggles, that things will probably never be easy for him, and that his demons will never truly leave him. So, on top of everything else, as the distance between Harry and Albus widens, Harry starts to experience pain in his scar again. Uh-oh.
When Albus is about to begin his fourth year, a Time-Turner prototype is recovered from dark wizard Theodore Nott’s home. Because all of the Time-Turners were thought to have been destroyed during the battle at the Ministry of Magic, this is a huge discovery. Of course, rumors start to fly, and Amos Diggory pays a visit to the Potters’ home, with his niece and caretaker Delphi in tow. While Harry refuses to even acknowledge to Amos that a Time-Turner exists, Albus hatches a very Harry-like plan to, with the help of Scorpius and Delphi, right some “wrongs”. Unfortunately, Albus, Scorpius, and Delphi are no Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and there is no Dumbledore to oversee their shenanigans…. Yikes. Suffice it to say that things go very, very wrong.
I won’t go any further plot-wise, for fear of ruining the spectacular, gut-wrenching ending. But I will say that although I’ve never understood the love for and obsession with Draco Malfoy that many people have (I find it kind of disturbing, as he was an incredibly cruel, unsympathetic character for about 6 books, and imagine it has something to do with good-looking Tom Felton’s portrayal in the movies), in this play we see Draco in a new and forgiving light. I suppose there was always a kernel of good in there, and his goodness is allowed to grow and shine here. I actually ended up really liking the sucker. Who would’ve thought? Also, I laughed a lot, felt a true and profound sadness for Harry, and cried twice while reading: once during a scene between Harry and Dumbledore’s portrait, and once very close to the end. I’ll leave it at that.
If you love the wizarding universe and you haven’t managed to or wanted to or really felt compelled to read this, please do so. I was ambivalent at first, but I was so moved and satisfied by this addition to the series. The only thing that would make it better would be seeing how they manage to pull all of this off on a stage.
Potterheads who can’t afford to fly to London to see the play, but feel like getting their little hearts ripped out again by words on paper.
I’ve been thinking a lot about representation in the media lately. As I get older, and as I witness the increasingly terrible things happening by the hour in our country and around the planet, I have begun to open my eyes a bit more and think more critically about what’s being presented to me in the media every day. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve just questioned things in general (“But why?” was my favorite question), but witnessing such dramatic changes in the world recently has gotten my wheels turning even more. So I’ve felt compelled to write a couple of posts about representation in popular culture, specifically in the movies and TV I’ve been watching recently.
This past Friday, I went to see the new Ghostbusters movie. I was pretty excited about seeing it, since I was really enamored with the original two films when I was little. I have adored Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy (and Paul Feig) for a long time, and was pumped to see an all-female cast reinvent a classic movie I love. And my excitement didn’t wane at all during or after the movie – it was absolutely great. My favorite character was Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), a constant source of comic relief who was given to frequent bursts of genius and bouts of odd behavior. She just spoke to the bizarre weirdo in me, and her unabashed strangeness was refreshing; it’s nice to see a character who is so comfortable with herself from beginning to end. In general, the movie was funny, had well-rounded characters, was filled with impressive special effects (which I normally don’t care about), included cameos by all of the previous cast – minus the lovely and much-missed Harold Ramis, of course – and managed to honor the original storyline while building something fun and new. Five stars out of five, would see it again, for sure.
Now, unless you’re totally disconnected from all media, you know that there has been a lot of hullabaloo about this movie. There have been a lot of misogynistic, ignorant, and frankly stupid things said and written about these Ghostbusters all being women, not to mention the barrage of hatred and racism that Leslie Jones has been dealing with, and it’s all so incredibly frustrating. So the Ghostbusters are women instead of men – boo hoo. It truly makes no difference, and I am over the whole “women aren’t funny” nonsense – it’s so early ’90s. These chicks are damn good at what they do, a lot of which is being funny. Each character is nuanced, each has her own interesting backstory. This isn’t the treatment that women have historically gotten in movies, including the original Ghostbusters, where women were largely just props or love interests. We so rarely get to see four women who are the stars of a major motion picture, let alone women who are allowed to be flawed yet unequivocally brilliant. These ladies aren’t concerned with finding the right outfit to wear, and oh my god, it’s so nice to see women who aren’t obsessed with falling in love or finding the right man. Those things are not even a fraction of what I worry about in life, nor are they the things the women around me spend their time fretting over, so it’s nice to see reality actually reflected on the screen.
And as far as Leslie Jones goes, what exactly is so wrong or different about her? There are women of color all over this country. Some have – gasp – even been in movies before! Why the attacks? What do these trolls find so threatening about her? I don’t get it. Her portrayal of Patty Tolan is fantastic – a tough, opinionated, smart woman whose intense working knowledge of the city’s layout is integral to the film. The character holds her own, supports her friends, and has great comic timing, just like her three counterparts. She did a great job. This hatefulness is upsetting, and yet another unfortunate reminder that racism is alive and well, as if we needed another reminder – but that’s a conversation for another day. I’m just flabbergasted by all of the negative nonsense I’m reading, and I’m not going to spend any more time trying to suss it out or bestow more attention on it than is deserved. There was so much hateful bile being spewed before this thing even came out, I doubt a lot of naysayers will even see far enough past their own noses to appreciate the movie for what it is. The film has been made, it is what it is, and if spending my hard-earned money to see it was a political statement, then I’m happy to have done so.
Before I saw the movie, I came across a photo taken by a guy named Zach Heltzel in this Buzzfeed article that really spoke to me. In the picture, there are two little girls dressed as Ghostbusters (they were apparently part of a red carpet performance) who are meeting Kristen Wiig, and the adoration on their faces is palpable. They are seeing themselves in her, that they can also be the badass heroes of the story. That it isn’t about winning the boy or besting your rival, but about really smart ladies working together to kick butt and save New York on their own. It’s a touching photo. We all consume so much media these days, it’s important for kids to see adult versions of themselves sometimes, to see that they have the option to be models and movie stars but to also be scientists and bosses in control of their own lives.
As a little girl, I wanted to be a Ghostbuster, despite being very afraid of ghosts. My sister and cousin and I would jump around on my cousin’s bed and listen to the soundtrack on repeat. We would beg our Granddad to play “Cleanin’ Up the Town” on the piano while we danced around and pretended to bust ghosts. We were three little girls who didn’t care that the Ghostbusters were boys, because we were fortunate enough to grow up in a family that assured us we could do and be anything we wanted, not in spite of, but because we were girls. But that mentality was not one that the general public has ever really shared, and it’s important for everyone to know that they can be ones making change for the greater good. And it still would’ve been nice to see a lady who was actually fighting the good fight with them back then, not just Annie Potts managing their calls from behind a desk or the love interest Sigourney Weaver, who was strong but also a secondary character susceptible to possession (in more than one sense).
Watching the reboot this past Friday, it was exhilarating to see these four intelligent, tenacious, imperfect, hilarious women doing cool stuff. I felt a bit like the adorable little girl staring up at Kristen Wiig in Zach Heltzel’s picture, honestly. Because now, as an adult, I actually get to see myself in the Ghostbusters too, and it’s pretty cool.
Well, Beautiful Darkness most certainly lives up to its name. This short graphic novel has beautiful artwork by Kerascoet entwined with some truly dark subject matter written by Fabien Vehlmann. I got a sense of the story from the cover of the book, which shows a tiny blonde girl peeking around a gigantic grey hand that appears – accurately – to belong to a dead person. However, I didn’t anticipate it being as raw and dark as it is. When I finished this short book, I was left thoughtful and, frankly, pretty bummed out.
The story begins with three squeaky clean, charming little people living a fairy tale life, when they are suddenly hit with a deluge of pinkish fluid that forces them out of their habitat. Chaos ensues, and we see more of these little people fighting their way to safety. The facts of the story are not completely spelled out, but in just the first five or six pages, we see these people crawling out of the orifices of what is revealed to be a dead schoolgirl lying in the forest.
We immediately begin to see these hordes of tiny people rebuilding their lives outside of the dead child’s body. They construct homes with her school supplies, eat her crackers to survive, and start breaking off into different factions. Subsequently, the best and worst facets of human nature are explored through the lives of these factions of small people, and through our speculations about the horrors that this young girl has clearly experienced. We can only infer what terrible things have happened to the little girl as we get further into the story, but we visually witness the equally horrifying ways in which these little people begin to behave. Death is commonplace, murder is just a fact of life, executed with little thought and no remorse, and only the most cunning survive.
As the story progresses, we witness the young girl’s body transform and decay while simultaneously watching the main character, Aurora (also the name of the dead little girl), change from a kind, youthful, hopeful girl into a hardened, disillusioned survivalist. And as a result, the ways in which the reader comprehends the story begins to change too. Because the landscape is mostly painted from the small people’s point of view, it’s only once we’ve acclimated to the darkness of the story that we begin to realize that things are not immediately what they seem. I had to go back and really study the artwork to get that the pink fluid forcing the little people out was actually blood filling the dead schoolgirl’s nose, and that the little fishing pond they find is not filled with tadpoles but is actually made of semen. Yikes.
This book is so complex and intentionally vague that it is completely open to interpretation. I couldn’t decide if these little people living inside of the girl are different aspects of her personality, or different aspects of human nature in general. Or both. For example, the little Aurora is loving and helpful, seeming to represent the best in people, while her larger and equally beautiful counterpart Zelie is cruel and conniving, representing the worst. Jane, the only small character who is an adult, is sad, resourceful, wise, and knowing. I took her to be the lost adulthood of the murdered schoolgirl, which is heartbreaking. But I could be totally wrong – and that is part of what’s so intriguing about this book. It can be interpreted in so many different ways, and leaves several unanswered questions that we are left to puzzle over long after the book has ended.
My interpretation is that Beautiful Darkness is basically the human experience writ tiny. It manages to realistically detail the best and worst aspects of human nature in all of their beautiful and gruesome glory. This is a deeply affecting story that is definitely not for the faint of heart, but is a short and absolutely worthy read.
Adults who will appreciate striking, lovely artwork juxtaposed with weighty subject matter.
I just got back from a little summer vacation in the tiny, sleepy, hot-as-hell, artistic town of Marfa, TX. The trip afforded me lots of free time, especially because the WiFi in the casita where my beau and I were staying was not the best (which was decidedly for the best). Almost everything in Marfa closes at around 8pm, so there was plenty of time to sit back and catch up on some books I’ve been needing to finish. I even had time to delve into a new, weird “children’s” book that I’m not totally certain is actually for children.
There was also a lot of quiet time for me to chill out and contemplate my life – specifically where mine is going at this very moment. I quit my 8 year, steady job about 8 months ago, and I’m trying to decide exactly what I want to do now. This break from steady work brings up a lot of things that I never really had time to think about when I was working my butt off every day, and I’m trying to decide in what direction I’d like my life to go. I’ve been freelancing and thinking about the things and creative pursuits I love the most, and attempting to decide how to make them into careers. In these ruminations, I’ve realized that if I know one thing, it’s that I love books. They have made an enormous impact on my life, so much that I might even venture to say that books are basically my life. So this thought pattern led me to evaluate which individual books have changed the course of my life over the years (maybe in the hopes that I’ll stumble across another one that will knock me onto the correct path).
It’s undeniable that every book I’ve ever read has changed me in one way or another, but there are really only a handful of books that I can say have truly changed the trajectory of my life. Today I thought I’d share these books as a way to sort of commemorate where I’ve been. Though I wouldn’t say that these are my all-time favorite books or anything, they have absolutely each altered my world at some point in my life.
I’ve listed these books in my own personal chronological order, from the first I discovered to the latest ones to affect me.
1)One Monster After Another by Mercer Mayer
This is the first book I learned to read by myself. I was very close to my grandmother, and she was a voracious reader who passed her love of literature on to me. She spent her retirement watching me, my sister, and my two cousins while our parents were at work, and it was in this time that she taught 3- or 4-year-old me (obviously can’t remember the exact age) to read. I remember sitting on Grandmother’s lap and making her read One Monster After Another to me over and over while I turned the pages and memorized all of the words. I read this story about one letter’s fantastical, roundabout journey until I made the connection between letters and words, and could read the book on my own. As you can see, my copy of this book has been read to death, and I imagine it will only get worse if I ever have children. I don’t care. I’m keeping it forever. It jump started my life’s passion.
2) The Baby-Sitters Club Series by Ann M. Martin
Yes, this is a series and not an individual book. As a kid, I was absolutely OBSESSED with the Baby-Sitters Club books. It’s the first book series that I ever started collecting, and it was at this point that I distinctly remember starting to carry a book (usually more than one) with me at all times to read. Reading this series also helped me acquire the skill of being able to keep story lines separate and read more than one book at a time. But what was the most revelatory for me about this series is that it definitely shaped my views on girls and on female friendship. The main characters in these books are strong, diverse, enterprising girls who know what they want and work for it. They are cool, creative, and smart, and I wanted to be all of them (except Mallory, who I suspected was unfortunately the most similar to me). They also drove home that women and girls should support one another instead of tearing each other down, the latter of which is unfortunately what we too often see on TV, in magazines, online, and subsequently in our own relationships. These strong female role models with their ideal, yet still realistic friendships have definitely stuck with and shaped me. (Also, fun fact, I’m not really a fan of Kirsten Dunst, but I think it’s worth mentioning that she was the model for the little girl on “Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls” cover.)
3) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I was deep into the Baby-Sitters Club books when my sister introduced me to the wonders of Jane Austen. I was at an age when everything I did started to feel stupid and baby-ish, and felt like I needed to be reading things other than kids’ books (oh, budding adolescence). My sister had read Pride and Prejudice in one of her English classes and, promising I would like it, basically forced me to drop what I was reading one summer and pick it up. And I am so glad she ripped the BSC book out of my hands (speaking in hyperbole here), because reading Pride and Prejudice changed my world. It basically introduced me to the vast world of classic literature, and to the notion that there were a multitude of well-written, mature books in existence that I had no idea could be so readable and just so . . . good. I remember putting down the BSC books and never picking them up again (somewhat sadly, because I still think I developmentally should have continued reading them, but c’est la vie). Though Jane Austen is undeniably one of the best, the Bronte sisters speak a little more to my soul; however, I never would have had the pleasure of discovering this about myself had it not been for Jane Austen’s most acclaimed novel. I literally shudder to think of what I might be filling my head with now if I had never read Pride and Prejudice.
4) Quiet by Susan Cain
This is arguably the most important book on this list to me. I am generally a pretty *quiet* person, but I absolutely love to talk to people about Quiet. I can honestly say that I am a completely different person after reading it. In 2013, at the tender age of 28, I finally stopped apologizing for who I am, and it is thanks to this book. To those who are closest to me, it’s old news that I’m shy and an introvert (the two are not synonymous), but this is usually at least a little surprising to people I’ve worked with or interacted with in social settings. I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding my true nature, mostly because I’ve spent my whole life (see: 27 years) exhausting myself, trying hard not to be shy and withdrawn in basically every school and social setting. In reading Quiet, I found out that I’m an HSP (highly sensitive person), innately shy, and an introverted introvert (there are indeed other combinations of extroversion and introversion, I’m just the furthest to the introvert side). And I no longer apologize for any of it, because I’m convinced that it’s how I was born. Though my parents thankfully never asked me to be anything other than myself, our extrovert-idealizing society did and still does demand other patterns of behavior from me. It was such a sad revelation to see that I had basically spent my life apologizing for who I am, and such a relief to accept that I didn’t need to do it anymore. I bet that almost any true introvert can relate to the feeling of shame that goes along with not wanting to go out with friends sometimes (or almost ever), or fearing working in an open office plan, or avoiding public speaking at all costs. The sort of self-acceptance I have experience is beyond measure. I’ve often said that I should be a spokesperson for this book, because it quite literally changed everything about my life. After many, many years, Quiet has helped me learn that there is nothing wrong with me, and I have finally made peace with the very core of myself
5) The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Okay, so the book itself is amazing, enough so that it inspired me to write a “professional-sounding” review that I’ve shared here on this blog. But on its own, the book would not necessarily have made this list (although it’s fantastic and probably the first piece of truly frightening literature that I’ve enjoyed as an adult). What is so personally important about The Vegetarian is that the review I wrote for it recently landed me my dream freelancing gig, which is reviewing books for a major publication. If finding out that your creative pursuits can get you work isn’t life-changing for an artist, I don’t know what is! Reading, writing, and getting paid to do both has been my dream for a very long time. My first review hasn’t been published yet, so I don’t necessarily want to say which publication I’m contributing to, but I’ll definitely share it here when I’m officially published. Needless to say, this book has changed my life and will always remain dear to me.
So those are my five life-changing books! I do, however, have to mention somewhere in this post . . . the Harry Potter series. Of course. I didn’t include it because I feel like EVERYONE talks about how it changed their lives, and I wanted to offer something different. For the record, though, Harry Potter is such an important series to me, for many reasons that would take far too long to list. Suffice it to say that growing up with this series has changed how I read, write, think about the world, and view others. It offers solace when I need it, and is always a joy to return to. It’s amazing that reading words on a page can make me feel like I’m going home, no matter where I am or how many times I revisit the story. What’s more life-changing than that?