Book Review – “Love, Loss, and What We Ate” by Padma Lakshmi

love-loss-and-what-we-ate
lovelossandwhatweate.com

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.

 

Recommended For:

People who love memoirs that include recipes. Top Chef fans, or anyone with a passing interest in Padma Lakshmi.

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On Representation – “The Mindy Project”

the-mindy-project
themindyproject.wikia.com

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.

Book Review – “The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

the-mistress-of-spicesI 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.

 

Recommended For:

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.

The Mistress of Spices Movie
santabanta.com

 

Book Review – “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Cursed ChildI’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, I wanted 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.

 

Recommended For:

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.

On Representation – “Ghostbusters”

 

Ghostbusters
ghostbusters.com

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.

Ghostbuster Girls
@zachheltzel

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.

Book Review – “Beautiful Darkness” by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

Beautiful DarknessWell, 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.

Recommended For:

Adults who will appreciate striking, lovely artwork juxtaposed with weighty subject matter.

5 Books That Changed My Life

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

 One Monster After AnotherThis 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 

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54772-scholastic-releases-baby-sitters-club-e-books-with-classic-covers.html
publishersweekly.com

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

 Pride and PrejudiceI 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

Quiet

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

 VegetarianOkay, 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?

 

Book Review – “Vaclav and Lena” by Haley Tanner

Vaclav and Lena
goodreads.com

Vaclav and Lena is gorgeous from beginning to end. The writing flows easily and the story is sad, but lovely. We meet Vaclav and Lena when they are 10 and 9 respectively, practicing for their first real magic show. They are both Russian immigrants, and it’s immediately clear that they are best friends who love each other very much. Though they have been friends since they were small, they are at the beginning of their prepubescent years, and their bonds are just beginning to be tested. Tragedy strikes right before their big magic show, when Lena mysteriously vanishes and leaves Vaclav confused and completely devastated. Seven years later, a long-awaited reunion reveals how they have both changed: Lena is damaged but recovering with her devoted adoptive mother, and Vaclav is a handsome, popular fellow. They are, however, still fundamentally the same two people, and they still deeply love each other. This love very quickly gives way to an impetuous romance, which threatens to be ruined yet again by the secrets surrounding Lena’s disappearance.

We don’t get the full story until the last quarter of the book, but when the pieces all finally start to fit together, we realize, along with Vaclav, that things haven’t always been quite as they seem. This book provides an interesting look into immigration and the emotions that swirl around such an upheaval. Vaclav, Lena, and both of their families deal with a lot of uncertainty and fear, and their stories give a realistic look into some of the difficult things people do and sacrifice for a better life.

Although I loved this book, there were a lot of ideas crammed in, which in my opinion tended to dilute the importance of some of the major themes. For example, the love of magic is a major thread running through the story, and it is probably meant to show Vaclav’s innocence and childlike wonder – which presents a stark contrast to Lena’s worldview. Although sweet and kind of cute, this enduring fascination with magic becomes a bit of a stretch as Vaclav moves into adulthood and the darker elements of the story are revealed. After a while, it starts feeling like the whole magic theme is just that – a theme. To me, the bones of the book were peeking through, and it temporarily yanked me right out of the narrative.

The love story was also a bit hard to swallow, but only because it reads kind of young to me. I’m a little more than a decade away from 17, so the speed and intensity with which they jumped into their relationship was hard for me to read without rolling my eyes. But I was a teenager once, and all of this is definitely an appropriate reflection of what love is at that age. Vaclav and Lena’s relationship definitely embodies the kind of passion I longed for at 17, and as a high schooler I absolutely would have devoured that section of the novel whole.

Regardless of its few faults, at its core, this is a beautifully told story of profound love, hope, and belief. Vaclav and Lena are at the center of it all, and the love that they hold for each other is the foundation of their lives. It helps them find each other, it roots them, and it protects them. The only redeeming force in their lives is love, and in the face of some genuinely dark subject matter, that’s incredibly heartening to see.

 

Recommended For:

Those who like a good love story but can handle some details about abuse.

Book Review – “Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham

Delicious Foods Let me start by saying that this book is not to be missed. It upset me, made me shout rage, and had me punching my fist in the air yelling, “Yes!” I read several sections out loud to my sister, who became invested in the trajectory of the story just through the bits and pieces I shared with her.

Despite the compelling story, it did take me quite a while to read Delicious Foods. I borrowed it from the library and renewed it once, which is to say that it took me around two months to read. Truthfully, this was partly because I was dealing with my own issues, but also because Delicious Foods is simply a harrowing read. This is an undoubtedly intelligent, complex, moving book, but was just difficult for me to get through. The story is enthralling, but is also intentionally violent and off-putting. It is by no means supposed to be a pretty story, but I tend to empathize too much with the characters in such well-written books, and I had to take a break every now and then to reorient myself with and appreciate my much happier life.

The story revolves around Darlene Hardison, her son Eddie, and the drug Darlene is addicted to – “Scotty” or crack cocaine. The story is told from each of their perspectives, with Darlene’s and Eddie’s chapters told in the third person, and Scotty’s chapters told in first person. It’s unusual to hear from the perspective of a drug, but Scotty has his own clear voice and tends to give a clearer, more brutal picture of what’s going on in the world than Darlene and Eddie sometimes can.

The prologue of the book begins with Eddie driving like mad, trying to keep a car steady while bleeding profusely from the ends of his wrists. We don’t know what’s going on at this point, except that he has just escaped “the farm” and has recently had his hands cut off. Undoubtedly a jarring way to start a book, but what’s even worse is that poor Eddie is more worried about getting pulled over and arrested for driving a “stolen” car with no license than about the fact that he may very possibly bleed to death. It definitely sets the tone for the rest of the book. Not until about 300 pages later do we find out what has led Eddie to careen away from Delicious Foods like this, hand-less. In the intervening pages, we witness how one major tragedy in Darlene’s and Eddie’s lives sends their future into a tailspin and lands them at Delicious Foods.

This book, perhaps most ostensibly, is a modern-day slavery story. The ways that Darlene, Eddie, and the rest of the workers at Delicious Foods are treated (mistreated, left untreated), kept ignorant, in debt, and in the dark, all hearken back to the days of American slavery. The workers are all minorities, mostly black. They sleep padlocked in a chicken coop on bunk beds that have rusty coils poking out of dirty mattresses. The farm’s owner has his own mansion (master’s house) on the premises – “Summerton” – where Eddie and his mother are eventually invited on dubious pretenses. The workers are all supplied with a steady stream of “Scotty” to keep them addicted, needy, and complacent, despite their inhuman, unlivable conditions. It is appalling, to say the least.

I had to keep reminding myself that this story is set in the present-day American South. I am a descendant of slaves on my dad’s side of the family, and kept thinking about what terrible obstacles some of my ancestors must have overcome for me to even be born. Without going too in depth about this theory, my opinion is that this book is at least in part a quiet commentary on American consumer culture. I think Hannaham is saying a lot about how, to this day, we as a culture still profit from the effects of slavery, from poverty and the disadvantaged. It’s unfortunately not hard to believe that a lot of the food we eat and clothes we wear are products of such dubious practices. This book serves as a good reminder that we are not so far removed from the days of slavery.

Toward the end of the book, we are fortunately rewarded with some forms of redemption, comeuppance, and hope for the future, small as they may be. Suffice it to say that if I wanted to write a dissertation on all of this book’s layers, I could easily do so. But that’s not what this blog is for, so I’m going to stop here. Please just read the book.

Recommended For:

Those who can handle some graphic violence and enjoy gritty tales of survival, slavery narratives, and eye-opening literature.

The Antidote to Reader’s Block is YouTube

I’ve been suffering from reader’s block for about a month now. “Reader’s Block” is not a technical term, but I’ve got it. I was on a roll with reading for quite a while, finishing about a book a week. Then, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t go on. It’s not like I don’t have interesting stuff to read – I have several large, overflowing bookcases full of books, as well as three tomes scattered around my house that I keep touching and staring at forlornly. I’ve been anticipating reading those three books for months, but…. I just haven’t had the will. I’ll pick up a book, read a page or two, then put it back down. This happens to me from time to time, and it’s usually related to some deep ennui. Unfortunately, this listlessness has extended to my writing, which explains the lack of blog posting.

Not everyone experiences this kind of melancholy, but I am personally all too familiar with the sadness and guilt that comes from badly wanting to read a book but just not feeling up to it. So, as an antidote, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube.

Judge if you must, but I am fascinated with people’s lives (which may explain my proclivity for writing). And food.  And makeup tutorials. And the UK, which I may or may not have mentioned before. What better place for all of those things than YouTube? This ennui has allowed me to spiral into YouTube oblivion, and I’ve had generally positive results. So, I want to share the top five channels I use to escape my blues.

 

1. Kaushal Beauty     

Kaushal Beauty
kaushalbeauty.com

Kaushal’s channel is the first one I ever subscribed to. I am a biracial lady with medium skin and not a lot of makeup knowledge, so I stumbled upon Kaushal while searching for eyeshadow tutorials for my skin tone. And What. A. Find. She LOVES makeup, and I love her.  An English darling with a winning smile and infectious personality, I have now plowed through approximately 98% of her videos. She is a very talented makeup artist, and seems genuinely kind and positive. I came for the makeup tutorials and stayed for the sunshine. And, honestly, for more tutorials, because she’s pretty damn good at what she does.

2. Rachel Khoo  

rachelkhoo.com
rachelkhoo.com

I started watching Rachel Khoo’s cooking shows on The Cooking Channel a couple of years ago, and I liked her instinctively. She cooks and shoots in her own, real kitchen, is not overly concerned with putting on a show or amping up her personality for the cameras, and has an appealing personal style. Her history is super inspiring (leaving fashion PR, moving to France without knowing a stitch of French, taking patisserie courses, and graduating from Le Cordon Bleu), and her food is to die for. She doesn’t update this channel much anymore, instead focusing on her fancy new website Khoollect, where there’s a lot of engaging and intelligent writing on food, beauty, fashion, travel, books, and more. I love absolutely everything she does and highly recommend signing up for her Khoollect newsletter. She’s basically just a badass boss, and watching her makes me feel like one too.

3. & 4. Samantha Maria and Samantha Maria Vlogs

Samantha Maria
samanthamariaofficial.com

I’m sort of cheating with these two channels by the same person, but you can’t really have one without the other. Samantha is a long-time YouTuber, and it’s easy to see why she’s remained so successful. A luminous spirit, she mostly films about beauty, fashion and styling on her main channel, and vlogs about her everyday life and jealousy-inducing vacations on her vlog channel. It sounds like it could get kind of boring, but definitely does not. Samantha somehow makes daily coffee runs, video editing, movie-going, and dog walks with two precious pups addicting to watch. She is also incredibly busy, constantly updating her style blog and running a small clothing line with her ruddy-cheeked fiance Jason. What I find most appealing is her genuineness, though; she’s not afraid to talk about how hard it is to make friends, how lonely freelancing sometimes is, and how crippling anxiety and depression can be – all things I can relate to. She is an everyday person turned YouTube star, and is so incredibly humble. I just like her. She doesn’t have it all figured out, but she tries to have fun and lives a life many of us dream of. Sam makes me want to be sunnier, more positive, and more grateful for my life every day.

5. Nerdy Nummies with Rosanna Pansino  

Rosanna Pansino
rosannapansino.com

I think Ro’s channel is pretty impossible not to have seen if you’re a nerd and watch YouTube. She’s bubbly, silly, a little geeky, and despite the cutesy title, actually makes some pretty legit and delicious-looking desserts. I love seeing her make treats that appeal to my personal dorky preferences, like Totoro macarons, Adventure Time tarts, Harry Potter Liquid Luck drinks (non-alcoholic and spirited), and Zelda-inspired Triforce lemon bars. She also hosts a wide range of special guests (Neil deGrasse Tyson, anyone?) and does hilarious food-related challenges with her sister and friends. I’ve taken a pass on her music videos (definitely a little much for me), but I’m down with most of her other stuff. She makes me smile and even inspires me to bake more, which I love to do. My sister even bought me Ro’s recently-released cookbook, so maybe I’ll make some of my own nerdy desserts next time I’m feeling down to pep myself up.

 

And that’s it! Those are my top gloom-reducing YouTube channels. This method of self-medicating seems to be working; I’ve been able to crack open a couple of books and legitimately start reading again. The only problem is that now I can’t stop watching these women’s newest videos,  so I get caught in the ol’ YouTube loop again and again. But there are worse things in the world. If I’m able to read and write again, what’s the harm in indulging in a little makeup tutorial or four? Right…?