Monthly Archives: July 2016

What I Read: July 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in July:

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition.

I first heard about The Corpse Exhibition at a literature lecture at my alma mater. I keep a small notebook in my purse at all times so that I can scribble down names, titles or phrases I like when I’m at a lecture like this, or just out and about. The Corpse Exhibition was one of those book titles, and was brought up as an example of literature about life during wartime — and most importantly, written from the Iraqi point of view.

The Corpse Exhibition is a collection of Blasim’s short fictional stories. I knew the 200-someodd page book wasn’t going to be an easy read, based on the context alone. I had to put it down after every few stories, because they all deal with some heavy shit. There is a lot to unpack in every story: extreme violence, family relationships, nationalism, philosophy and legacy.

What struck me the hardest in The Corpse Exhibition is how every story points back in some way to the precarity of the body. For some characters, the body is a gruesome reminder that life can be taken away at any moment. For others, the body is expressly a political tool. And sometimes there’s a disconnect between physicality and identity that leaves one adrift. I cannot imagine living like that.

For the people in these stories, the war is always looming — even if it’s not explicitly mentioned. It permeates every aspect of their life, which is very hard for most Americans to wrap their heads around. It’s so, so important that we make room for voices like Blasim’s, because we usually only get one side of the narrative. The people who live in the Middle East are also humans just like everyone else with stories to tell, and both politicians and mainstream media conveniently forget that.

Reading The Corpse Exhibition in today’s political climate is extremely timely, and I highly recommend it. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite story from this collection, because all of them are very good.

 

Joseph Conrad’s Victory: An Island Tale.

I am a Big Fan of Joan Didion, and because Victory: An Island Tale was at the top of her favorite books list, I wanted to check this out. Last month, I read a novel that Victory inspired — while that wasn’t one of my favorite books either, I thought that if Joan (we’re on first name basis around this blog) liked it I would too. Before this novel, I had not read any Conrad so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Victory is a sizable novel that’s broken into three parts. The story centers on a European white dude named Axel Heyst, who is extremely cynical and tries to lead a life of detachment. Because of a series of events, Heyst ends up working for a coal company in Indonesia. While there, he meets a woman in a traveling musicians group who is being abused by the local hotel’s proprietor. Heyst takes her away to his own private island, and the hotelier exacts revenge.

I’m not 100 percent why Joan likes this novel or Conrad so much, because I thought it was was terribly inconsistent. I spent part of my reading time referencing summaries, because the story was hard to follow and had a lot of sidebars that I didn’t know what to do with. Conrad is supposedly known for his command of the English language, but I was not impressed. The ending, although very sad and predictable, was the only part of the book that I thought was good and lived up to this book’s “psychological thriller” label. And on top of all of that, Victory had a post-colonial setting with no real commentary on why that was important. Lena, Heyst’s lover, had no dimensionality and basically served as a plot device.

I’m glad that I read this book because I have a Conrad example in my knowledge fund, but I didn’t enjoy it. If anything, this book has taught me that it’s totally fine if your reading list deviates from what’s considered canon. In my experience, most of it isn’t that good anyway.

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop

Goodreads recommended this book to me about a month ago. When I read the synopsis of this book, I was immediately on board for a book by a woman that talked about journalism. Halfway through the novel, I found out that Waugh was actually an English man and journalist who was fed up with the industry’s dubious practices. So it goes.

Anyways, this satirical novel is set in England in the 1930s. Because of a name mixup with his much more famous cousin, a writer named William Boot is sent to cover a political revolution and civil war in a fictional African nation. Everyone involved, from the men who run the newspaper he writes for to the fellow journalists Boot meets, is extremely incompetent. They don’t shy from bending the truth and trying to pull one over on the publication.

Scoop‘s plotline is pretty entertaining and engaging, but in 2016 it seems pretty dated. There is literally no money for journalists to use to write off unnecessary expenses, and the ethics and accountability is a little bit stronger in an age where everyone on Twitter will fact check you. Waugh wanted to showcase how much journalism’s ethics had slid by this newspaper boom of the early 1900s, but I wonder what he would think about today’s climate.

If you are a fan of British humor, you will probably like this book. I will put Brideshead Revisited on my list, but I’m not in a hurry to read it. If you’ve read Evelyn Waugh and like his work, I’d also recommend Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

Emma Cline’s The Girls

The Girls has been getting a lot of good press lately in the literary world. I had read the Goodreads summary for it when I first heard of the book, and I was immediately intrigued.

The Girls is the story of a woman named Evie Boyd, who gets involved with a Charles Manson-like cult in 1960s Northern California. As an adult, Evie is pulled into retelling her part of the narrative. Teenage Evie is trying to navigate adolescence and her parent’s divorce, and is initially entranced by the woman who drew her to the group, Suzanne. Evie lives with one foot in her real life, and another in the world of the ranch the group is homesteading on. This novel deals in themes of adolescence, sexuality and liminality.

 

In particular, Cline does a really great job of meditating on the idea of orbiting. Evie feels a magnetic pull to the group, and its history becomes a part of her. Even though Evie doesn’t partake in the violence the group eventually commits, the story still unsettles her — as an adult she spends a lot of time, thinking about the what-ifs and where her life would be. Someone’s presence in your life can influence you in incredible ways, whether you realize it immediately or later down the road. Looking at someone’s story through this angle makes someone much more human, rather than someone who was casually connected to murder.

The only thing I didn’t like about this book, which is mostly my fault, is how liberally Cline borrows from the Manson story. Last fall, I listened to a superb podcast about Charles Manson’s Hollywood. I totally understand Cline’s fascination, but I knew exactly how the cult plot of The Girls was going to go. If you’re interested in The Girls, it’s better to know close to nothing about the Manson murders going into reading the novel. When you’re done, definitely check out the podcast.

What have you been reading lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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Link Party: 7/25-7/29

I love finding hidden spots on campus.

I love finding hidden spots on campus.

Here’s what I read this week:

1. How apps speak to us like children.

2. Default settings rule the world.

3. Inside the world of house cat pageants and our relationships with our pets.

4. The backstories behind a few of Seinfeld‘s funniest episodes.

5. The origins of the Internet meaning of “garbage.”

And a bonus: Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam’s “A 1000 Times.”

Have a wonderful weekend.

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Link Party: 7/18-7/22

California is perpetually on fire.

California is perpetually on fire.

Here’s what I read this week:

1. Donald Trump’s ghostwriter.

2. The complexities of the streetwear brand and lifestyle Supreme.

3. The street preachers of Las Vegas.

4. Hunter S. Thompson‘s life advice.

5. What’s in a last name?

And a bonus: This short documentary about the owner of downtown Los Angeles’s The Last Bookstore.

Enjoy your weekend.

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Culture Connoisseur: My Perfect Day in Los Angeles

Even though I’m really from a suburb about an hour outside of Los Angeles proper, I consider myself an Angeleno. My weekend plans often include a trek to the city, in search of good food and a new cultural experience that I can’t get in the bedroom community I live in. There’s also something thrilling knowing that some of my favorite actors and writers have walked the same streets and been in the same places, and partaking in some of the cultural traditions that the city prides itself on. LA’s pace and vibes inspire me to be more creative, and I start to feel antsy when it’s been too long since my last trip.

In a recent daydream, I thought about what I would spend a whole day doing in LA — regardless of money, time and mileage. I still have a long list of places I want to go to and eat at, but I have spots I return to constantly and some new favorites. Traffic (both foot and auto) and parking would thwart the plan if I tried to make it happen, but a girl can dream. Here’s what my perfect day in LA would look like, from beginning to end.

Start with a quick trip to Echo Park to visit Shout and About. I love this little stationery store so, so much. I usually go here looking for gifts for the ladies in my life, and always come out with something for myself. I’d definitely pick up Compartes chocolate (which has next-level packaging), a few enamel pins for my growing collection and pretty cards.

Hop on the 101 and cruise some surface streets to have brunch at Republique. This restaurant had been on my to-visit list for a long time, and I recently visited with my squad on a pretty Saturday morning. It’s pricy, but it’s 1000 percent worth it for both how good the food is and the atmosphere. It feels like I’m back in Paris, which is always a wonderful feeling. I’d get the breakfast plate with eggs, potatoes, slab bacon and a crunchy baguette.

Drive around the corner to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This is my happy place, and I feel lucky that I can visit so often. It’s easy to spend a few hours here, wandering from gallery to gallery. My new favorite thing to do here is enjoy a drink on the museum’s outdoor patio bar.

Go to the Westside to pick up coffee from Philz and sandwiches from Ike’s Place. Philz has a really good mint mojito iced coffee, but the last few times I’ve been I’ve really enjoyed the gingersnap iced coffee. It’s a pretty busy coffee shop, so I’d find an outside bench to sit, sip and enjoy the Santa Monica sea breeze. After coffee, I’d go north to Westwood to get a sandwich to go at Ike’s Place. This is the holy grail of sandwich places, and if you’re local and haven’t been there before you need to go ASAP. I always get the Stephan Jenkins, which has turkey, provolone, pesto and grilled tomatoes. And always, always, always get the dutch crunch bread.

Take the 405 back to the 101 to go to a Hollywood Bowl concert. This place is magical on a summer evening, and they have the best classical music concerts. I’m excited to go for the first time this summer in the next few weeks. Here’s also where the Ike’s sandwiches come in — picnicking in your seat with a cold beer or glass of wine would be the best prelude to a night of music. It would be the perfect cap to a perfect day in my favorite city.

What would you do for a perfect day in Los Angeles, or your own city? Tell me in the comments.

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Link Party: 7/11-7/15

Summer isn't too bad, I guess.

Summer isn’t too bad, I guess.

Here’s what I read this week:

1. Pokémon Go is a work of art.

2. The people behind your favorite streaming music playlists.

3. The Library of Congress and its uneasy relationship with the Internet.

4. What it’s like to be allergic to life.

5. The suit that couldn’t be copied.

And a bonus: Nora Ephron on Crazy Salad.

Have an incredible weekend.

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What I Read: June 2016

To help me stay on track in my 2016 goals, I’m documenting the books I read all year. Here’s what I read in June:

David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

I bought this 23-story fiction collection at The Last Bookstore approximately 1 million years ago, and finally pulled it out of my bookshelf at the beginning of the month. The only other DFW book I’ve read is Infinite Jest (which I need to reread soon), and I wanted to try some of his other fiction.

I expected Brief Interviews to be really good, but this book’s style and DFW’s command of the English language blew me away. I especially enjoyed reading the story series that the collection derives its name from, where an unnamed author interviews men with seriously warped minds  — but you don’t know what questions are being asked, which makes you reevaluate your expectations of the literature you read. The other short stories I thought were exceptional are “Adult World” and “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon.” I know a lot of people either adore or despise DFW, but you can’t deny that his work makes you think. I have yet to find another writer in the same vein of originality. I am also probably the only person in the world that enjoys doing this, but I like having to pause and look up a word that I don’t know. If you’re into experimental fiction or just want an intense brain exercise, this book is for you. 

V.S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas.

I was surfing the Internet one day and stumbled across a Brain Pickings article that detailed Joan Didion’s list of favorite books. I’d already read A Farewell to Arms and loved it, so I was pretty confident in how much I would like her list. I ordered Joseph Conrad’s Victory (more on that book in July) and Guerrillas, since I had read elsewhere (it might have been another one of her interviews but I can’t remember) that Guerrillas drew on Victory.

The story centers on an English woman named Jane, who comes to a Caribbean island to visit her South African boyfriend Peter. Peter works with Jimmy Ahmed, who is the leader of an agricultural commune Peter is sort of but not really helping to establish. The story doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative, but culminates in the island’s violent political upheaval. The ending of this novel is graphic and violent and I’m not going to discuss it here, but if the premise sounded interesting I’d advise against reading Guerrillas if sexual violence triggers you. 

My main takeaway from Guerrillas was that it’s a commentary on the emptiness of liberal values and the lasting effects of colonialism. Jane thinks she is intellectual and understands the island’s political situation clearly, but finds out throughout the course of the novel that she really understands nothing. You can have a lot of well-intentioned ideas about race and politics, but understanding the reality of a grim situation and the social forces at play are a completely different thing. The paradise isn’t real.

This book is also a testament to how important multicultural voices are, and that we can’t rely on the white canon to tell the stories we need to hear.  I would not count this as one of my favorite novels, but it helped to round out a genre I don’t usually read. If you’re looking for other books about postcolonialism, I would also suggest Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother.

 

Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.

In a complete reversal of my David Foster Wallace experience, I’ve always loved Joan Didion’s essays but never read her fiction. Play It As It Lays is her second novel, and one that she’s brought up in her later nonfiction and interviews.

The novel centers on a young actress named Maria Wyeth, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown in a California psychiatric hospital. With the exception of a few chapters from the perspectives of her friend and ex-husband, Maria recounts what has brought her to the hospital — a toxic marriage, a haunting abortion and an alleged participation in her friend’s suicide. Maria is marooned from a world that was supposed to bring her success and happiness, and instead spends her days driving all across Southern California and up to Las Vegas.

 

I was unsurprised by the book’s premise, because Didion’s work often deals in themes of anxiety, unfulfilled potential and disconnect from reality. For someone who was deep in the Hollywood way of life and made a living from it, she has always been highly critical of what it can do to an outsider. I didn’t read a lot of criticism on Play It As It Lays, but I can imagine that Didion drew from her own experiences and the stories of the people around her. But as always, I am in awe of Didion’s prose and how she can say volumes in just a few words. If you read this and like it, read her nonfiction collections The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

 

Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

If you’ve been reading my monthly recaps, you know that I’ve been working through the Neapolitan novel cycle for a few months. The further I progress, the more this series lives up to the hype that initially drew me in. I was thinking about this book the other day, and realized that I probably haven’t committed to a series like this since middle school. That’s how good it is.

Save for a very quick flash-forward to the last time Elena Greco sees Lila Cerullo, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay picks up right where The Story of a New Name left off. This novel mostly focuses on Elena’s marriage and family life, with a few sidebars on Lila’s life after she leaves her husband. While Ferrante has woven several major themes throughout the series, this installation seems to pause on class structure and gender equality. It is so hard for these women to achieve any kind of success and enjoy it, because of the traditional gender roles they’re forced to conform to and the violence and political tension happening around them. Their friendship dramatically suffers because of their fragile personal lives, and in their selfishness Elena and Lila don’t seem to grasp that they’re dealing with some of the same issues. I’m interested to see how it plays out in the final book. 

I predict that in the next few decades, Ferrante’s work will be at the center of incredibly smart academic analysis about literature and gender studies, as well as popular culture. I wish that there were more Ferrantes in the world — or maybe I just haven’t discovered them yet. This series is so good that I haven’t intentionally looked up spoilers, because I want to be surprised at how it ends. If you still haven’t started My Brilliant Friend, get on it.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is another book I’ve had kicking around in my bookcase. I bought it in high school before I had access to Amazon, so all of my classic books came from the Barnes and Noble reprinted classics carousel. I’ve tried to read it a few times before, but got distracted by other books every time.

 

In Victorian-era England, Dorian Gray is a wealthy and beautiful young man. He’s also the muse of an artist, who paints Dorian’s portrait. Under the influence of another wealthy guy, Dorian finds himself worried about losing his youth. In a supernatural experience, he trades his soul so that he’ll stay the same but the portrait will age. After a tragic romance, Dorian indulges in every hedonistic vice he can find, including brothels and opium dens. Spoiler alert — in the end, the portrait can’t save him from dying.

I was extremely disappointed with this novel, so much so that I chided past-Zoë for spending $5 of her babysitting money on it. I read Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in high school and liked it, but didn’t find this novel particularly amusing. Dorian has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, so I didn’t find any room to sympathize with his benders. I knew going into reading The Picture of Dorian Gray that it’s supposed to be a philosophical discussion on the purpose of art, but I didn’t find it riveting.  I found myself flipping through pages wholly uninterested, because I don’t really care what a white British dude — however subversive he was — thinks about art. 

Have you read anything good lately? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Link Party: 7/4-7/8

Can't go to LACMA without visiting Matisse's "La Gerbe."

Can’t go to LACMA without visiting Matisse’s “La Gerbe.”

Before we get to the main event, I’d like to share one piece of wisdom that has served me well throughout my life: It’s better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.

Here’s what I read this week:

1. Up close and personal with Donald Trump and his supporters.

2. The Fantastic Roald Dahl.

3. Should famous artists’ social media profiles be saved and archived?

4. Marie Kondo and the war on stuff.

5. This is an incredibly well-written and thoughtful feature on Chili’s.

And a bonus: A photo essay on a 600-year-old salt co-op in Peru.

I hope you’re having a wonderful summer, and that you enjoy the rest of your weekend.

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