Your 2020 Gift Guide — From My Friends!

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If you need to buy gifts this holiday season, but aren’t sure where to turn in a pandemic, may I suggest you look to my many talented friends? There are all different kinds of art to choose from here — books, comics, prints, albums. I left this post a bit late, my apologies, so keep in mind that Christmas shipping cut-off dates might have passed for some of these, but don’t let that deter you; I’m sure whatever you’re buying will be a great New Year’s gift. Shop local, shop small business, support your artists!

“The Lice” by Miranda Featherstone, in A World Out of Reach

Look, you may think reading more about the pandemic is the last thing you want to do, but what if the writing was really good? Miranda has been developing a clear, drily funny, and insistently honest style since at least the creative writing class we took together in high school. She’s written an essay about the worry and care we have for our children and the sickening fear and awareness of the frustrating limits of our own efforts that a novel coronavirus (or lice infestation) can induce.

The other essays in this book, selected by poet and memoirist Meghan O’Rourke, are sure to be as thoughtful and interesting.

Horned Warrior Friends and photos by Jez Kemp

Jez’s mind is a wonder, coming up with wonderfully smart and silly ideas at an astonishing speed. He writes and performs his own music, he’s perfecting the sunset timelapse photo, and he’s got a whole universe of characters that he draws and writes about. You can check out Horned Warrior Friends on their dedicated site, and if you go to the Redbubble site you can put the comics on just about anything (phone case, t-shirt, greeting card). You can also buy his photography and other artwork there (I am really partial to the sunset ones, but there are a lot of great pieces).

Quantum Leopard comedy by James Ross and many others

One of my favorite nights out in London, back when we had nights out, was the Quantum Leopard comedy night, run by the mustachioed Victorian waistcoat himself, James Ross. It’s a pay-what-you-can night with an explicit “no kicking down” policy, which means I can split myself laughing for three straight hours, without worrying that someone on stage is suddenly going to throw in something transphobic or go on a rant about fat people. And the quality of comedy is just top-notch. James was able to record one of the few shows he was able to put on in the midst of the ever-changing government rules this year, and you can buy it on the Patreon page.

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

Cathy and I worked together when I lived in Chicago. She helped train me, and we bonded over being from the same part of the southside. She’s written steadily for years, and I’m thrilled to see her debut novel — about faith, friendship, and family — make as big a splash as it has. It’s been featured in USA Today, it’s won the #SheReads Best book of the Year award, it’s been given 5 stars by Terry McMillan! Seriously, it’s one of the big books of the year, and for good reason — it’s powerful and impossible to put down. And lucky for us, Cathy’s got new books coming out in 2021 and 2022!

Now I Understand by Mikael Järvelin

I’ve spent many happy hours singing along with Mikke, and listening to him at open mics and my salons. He plays with delicate precision and writes introspective lyrics to match the mood. Think Elliott Smith via The Beatles, but Finnish. He’s released his first solo full-length as a digital album, and I highly recommend it (and I’m not just saying that because I appear on the track “Space”!).

Kit: A Bar Supply Store in Chicago by Lindsey Miller and Rachel Miller

Opening a brick-and-mortar specialty store in 2020? In this economy? Yes! Lindsey and Rachel, twins and Chicago natives, have jumped into this project, and I’m so proud and inspired by them. Rachel is an expert bartender (she literally gives classes on making cocktails — online! you can join!) and Lindsey is the project manager of your dreams. They’ve opened a store in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago, where pros and amateurs alike can pick up beautiful, useful bar kit. If you’re in the greater Chicago area, stop by to say hi!

Can We Talk About Consent? by Justin Hancock

Justin is an extremely knowledgeable and approachable sex educator. He runs BISH, a place for young people especially (but anyone, really) to get accurate, judgment-free sex advice (it’s like the UK’s version of Scarleteen). With Dr. Meg-John Barker, he runs a podcast and has co-authored a book. And now he’s got more! Can We Talk About Consent? is for anyone 14 and up, so if you’ve got teens in your life, I highly recommend you get this guide to talking about how we can build healthy relationships for life — that includes sex but also everything from how we make choices to how we can make respect for ourselves and others a foundation for everything we do. Pre-order so you have it by its early January release.

Mother of Orphans by Dedria Humphries Barker

Dedria has dug deep into her own family history to uncover the, as she puts it, “true and curious story of Irish Alice,” a white woman who married a black man in 19th century Ohio. When he died, Alice had to make the agonizing decision to put her children in an orphanage because she couldn’t afford to raise them. Dedria shares the voices of five women in her family, from Alice on down to herself, and the result is poignant and moving.

Anchorless Prints by Alithea O’Dell

Alithea’s studied the craft of letterpress and she uses a Chandler and Price machine, powered by foot treadle, to painstakingly make each item by hand (and foot, I guess!). She’s got stationery, greeting cards, stickers, and more. You can even request a bespoke commission via her contact page (not for Christmas this year, it is too late for that, but for the future). I think each print is just gorgeous.

Black History Month: The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an absolute pageturner; I read it in three days. The most immediately recognizable “oh that’s different” thing about this novel is that it posits that there is an actual, physical railroad ferrying slaves to freedom underneath the earth during the first half of the 19th century. But for me, the most notable thing about this novel is its approach to historical truth: everything written here is true, just not in the time that Whitehead writes about it.

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“Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the [Declaration of Independence] described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.”

Continue reading

Black History Month: Lucille Clifton

In my writing classes in college, one of the poets I often tried to imitate was Lucille Clifton. She had the wonderful ability to use as few words as possible to convey an idea beautifully and completely — by many definitions, that is exactly what poetry is, but so often length, rhyme, form, and complex wordplay clutter it up. Not in Clifton’s poetry. She wrote short lines, often adding up to just a few stanzas, using all lowercase letters and only necessary punctuation. Adjectives were used sparingly, and somehow metaphor was rarely necessary; these two loom so large in poetry in general, but after reading the few, perfect words Clifton chooses in each poem, you begin to wonder why we need them at all.

Clifton’s poems are funny, quietly poignant, intimate, inclusive. Reading poems like “blessing the boats,” you do actually feel a holy hand upon your forehead, the warmth of a sincere wish for safe passage across the unknown ocean of the future: “may you kiss/the wind then turn from it/certain that it will/love your back.” (And of course, this is the poem that is all metaphor, so okay.) Reading “here rests,” you delight in the picture of Clifton’s sister, who brought her pimp with her to read to her ailing father, getting her just reward after death: “may heaven be filled/with literate men/may they bed you/with respect.”

There’s no mistaking that Clifton grew up black in the Jim Crow era, that being a black woman informed much of what she wrote. Her eulogy for James Byrd Jr., lynched by white supremacists in 1998, echoes with the thousands of lynchings that came before and the fear of more to come: “why and why and why/should i call a white man brother?/who is the human in this place,/the thing that is dragged or the dragger?” Even “homage to my hips,” a joyous celebration of the particular curves of her body, doesn’t forget the wrongs done to bodies like hers for centuries in the United States: “these hips/are free hips./they don’t like to be held back./these hips have never been enslaved,/they go where they want to go/they do what they want to do.”

Clifton wrote about family, biblical characters, sensual encounters, the cancer she survived, the baby she had who didn’t. She often wrote about death and life and the shimmering, barely-there line between the two. She never wrote anything trite or superficial, but even her poems that grieve most openly about personal or historic tragedy are imbued with hope, a sense that there is always something in this world to celebrate — and to share with one another.

lucille-clifton

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Black History Month: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’s YA book The Hate U Give is one of those rare books that is perfect for all audiences — for black folks who want an honest reflection of daily reality for many of them, for white folks who want to be better allies in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for white folks who don’t understand why #AllLivesMatter is bad. 

Starr is a wonderful main character, full of verve and love. She witnesses the brutal, sudden murder of her friend at the hands of a cop, and spends the rest of the book grappling with the fallout of that event. Starr is a black teenager living in the city and commuting to a nearly all-white prep school in the suburbs, and much of the novel involves Starr navigating those two different worlds and figuring out her relationships in both of them. She’s also a teenager figuring out romantic relationships, and a sister joking around with her brothers, and a dutiful daughter in a family that expects a lot from her. There’s a lot of easy humor and genuine affection in this novel.

Starr’s family and friends are well-drawn characters as well, written with a complexity supporting characters aren’t always given. But it’s important that they be complex, because this book is so grounded in the real world that if there were any false note, you’d notice it immediately. Instead, I cried and feared for Starr and her loved ones as they helped each other through some of the hardest things people have to experience.

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Year in Review: What I Read and What I Hope to Read

Books! I want to read them all the time, I always have at least one on the go, and yet despite all that and my two months of unemployment at the end of the year, I still barely made it to 52 books read in 2016. I suppose the rest of life holds a lot of distractions. Anyway, I read several excellent books last year, several good ones, and a few duds. I made a concerted effort to read mostly books by women.

Let’s break it down.

Books read: 52

Books by women: 46

YA fiction: 12

Non-fiction: 8

Adult fiction: 32

Series read or completed: 3

Books read because I wanted to evoke a certain time and mood while I was in a certain place: 2 (The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast)

My favorite fiction titles: The Interestings, A God in Ruins, How to Be Both, My Brilliant Friend, All Our Pretty Songs, The Girl with All the Gifts, Texts From Jane Eyre

My least favorite fiction titles: The Quick, Burial Rites, The Heart Goes Last, My Life Before Me, Innocent

My favorite non-fiction titles: H is for Hawk, Notorious RBG

Non-fiction titles that surprised me by being disappointing, given how much I like the authors’ other work: Bad Feminist, Scandals of Hollywood

Hard copies read: 5

E-books owned: 3

So… e-books borrowed from the library: 44!

Books written before 1900: 1

Books written 1900-2000: 13

Books written 2000-2010: 1

Books written after 2010: 37

And with an eye to the future…

For 2017, I’m hoping to read:

  • 60 books
  • at least half by authors of color
  • at least half written before 2000
  • at least a third from cultures other than the US/UK

How about you? Any books coming out this year that you can’t wait to read, or authors who you’re hoping will do a Beyonce-like surprise release?

I keep track of the books I read on Goodreads, and I also write mini-reviews of nearly every book I read on there. If you’re on Goodreads, or if you’re looking for a way to keep track of what you read/what you want to read/what your friends recommend you read, feel free to add/follow me on there. There’s a link and a list of what I’m currently reading to the left on this blog’s main page, or down at the very bottom if you’re reading on a mobile.

A Stroll through Montparnasse Cemetery

The famous cemetery in Paris is Père Lachaise, the largest in the city limits and the final resting place for Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, among others. I didn’t make it out there on my recent trip to Paris, but I did visit Montparnasse Cemetery, which is about a 20-minute walk from Luxembourg Gardens, in the 14th arrondisement. It’s split into neat sections by broad avenues, and the whole thing is surrounded by a tall wall, so it’s a nice little respite from the bustle of the city outside.

My friends and I tried to reconcile the two maps provided, which used different labeling systems, and in the end we managed to visit each of the graves we’d hoped to see. We went through and paid homage to some great artists.

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Man Ray (it reads ‘unconcerned, but not indifferent’ — quite a way to look at your own death)

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Charles Baudelaire (yes, people left flowers, notes, and poems)

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Samuel Beckett (so plain a tombstone that it took us several passes to find it)

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Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (I was surprised to find them sharing a grave, although I don’t know why that would be)

And then I witnessed possibly the most French thing ever: two men drank beers and played Serge Gainsbourg songs next to his grave, the quiet guitar and plaintive accordion echoing through the quiet cemetery on a Friday afternoon.

Name in Print

Last year, I synthesized four books on the health care systems of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales into one book on the health care system of the United Kingdom, for a series put out by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, part of the World Health Organization. I’m by no means an expert on the health care system of any country–real experts did a lot of work on the manuscript I put together, to ensure it was accurate and comprehensive. But I put together the basic body of the work, and it took a lot of time and effort, and I’m very proud of the result. This series is put together mainly to help policy-makers in different countries see how health care policies work in other countries, so they can decide what policies to incorporate into their own countries. So you’re not going to find this in Barnes & Noble, but you can check it out on the website if you want to see my name on there as a contributor. I also got a hard copy in the post last week–look!

WHO book cover

Pretty cool

A Quote for Your Weekend

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I’ve always liked this characterization in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!:

“She had three jolly old teeth left in the front of her mouth, and when she grinned she looked very knowing, as if when you found out how to take it, life wasn’t half bad.” (p. 140)

That’s pretty much how I’d like to see things into my old age, and that’s the way I’m starting off my weekend.

A Good Looking Library in New York

The 5th Avenue branch of the New York Public Library is famous enough to make it on some tourist itineraries, including mine. When I stopped by yesterday, I went to the “cameras allowed” section of the reading room and tried to stay out of people’s photos in the rotunda on the third floor, and I watched in amusement as actual New Yorkers tried to actually use their library amid all this.

The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library

The Reading Room

The Reading Room

Apparently the library still uses pneumatic tubes to shuttle call slips around when people are searching for books in the vast catalog, which I find delightful. They have one of the 48 surviving copies of the original Gutenberg Bible, which showed still-vibrant black ink, a few lovely illuminated letters, and what looked like notes scribbled in the margins.

It was an impressive building, and a fine place to pass an hour.

The Map Room of the New York Public Library

The Map Room of the New York Public Library

Me and the globe

Me and the globe

One of four panels showing the history of books in Western civilization--one guy is rocking jorts and the other guy decided pants weren't necessary at all. That is what I took from this.

One of four panels showing the history of books in Western civilization–one guy is rocking jorts and the other guy decided pants weren’t necessary at all. That is what I took from this.

The Bookshelf Challenge

At the beginning of 2012 I realized I had quite a few novels on my bookshelf that I hadn’t ever read. This seemed silly, to own books that just sat there without being enjoyed. So I endeavored to read through as many of them as I could before leaving on my trip in September 2012. I have about 45 unread, and I’m hoping to read 20 or even 25 by Labor Day.

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Kindred — Octavia E. Butler
American Salvage — Bonnie Jo Campbell
The Love Wife — Gish Jen
O Pioneers! — Willa Cather
Father Brown Stories — G.K. Chesterton
A Tramp Abroad — Mark Twain
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou
Dangerous Laughter — Steven Millhauser
Go Tell It on the Mountain — James Baldwin
The Sound and the Fury — William Faulkner
The Glass Castle — Jeannette Walls
All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — Annie Dillard
A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit

UPDATED AUGUST 4:

Okay, so I read 14 books off that shelf and a few from the library or borrowed from friends. Not my goal, but not bad. I’m packing all my books away this weekend, so that’s the end of the Bookshelf Challenge for 2012. I might revisit it when I move back to the States — whenever and wherever that might be!

Here’s a photo of the shelf post-challenge (the books on their sides are the unread ones).