"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, March 2, 2015

On Fiction & Feminism with Author Elisa Albert

Elisa Albert [Photo: Elisa Albert]

1) Your book is fiction, but like your protagonist Ari you are also a mother in real life. How did your own experience of pregnancy/childbirth/motherhood shape the novel?

It plunged me into a world of which I'd previously had no concept, and opened my eyes. I needed an outlet for processing what I saw and felt and observed around me. Ari became my vehicle for thinking it through. It was like going to live in a foreign country. 

2) Ari is constantly struggling to incorporate her motherhood into her feminist politics. I think this belief has developed - even among feminists themselves - that birth and feminism are mutually exclusive, like you can't be a mother and also be a feminist. What do you think about that?

Feminism and motherhood have long been push/pull. There's a kind of stale understanding of both feminism and motherhood underlying that. As the poet/doula Carrie Murphy says: there's not enough birth in feminism and not enough feminism in birth. The two are in fact spectacularly intertwined, and can inform each other in fascinating ways. I recommend Adrienne Rich's "Of Woman Born" as an excellent place to start.

3) I'm sure you've heard the complaint that Ari is "too unlikeable" of a protagonist. I find this complaint interesting because - while it's true that there are some harsh elements of Ari's personality - I wouldn't say she goes as far as, say, a Bukowski or Henry Miller character, who are often glorified because they are so appalling. Do you think there's a double standard at play here?

A wild double standard, indeed. Regardless, debating the "likability" of fictional characters is a joke at this point. Bukowski and Miller and Nabokov and Roth write fucked up characters well, that's why we adore them. The writing is where it's at. What's actually unlikeable is turgid trite hesitant fearful prose, I'd venture. Written with wit and verve and lust and brains and tits and soul and heart, we can love absolutely anyone, and peek into the darkest reaches of human nature. That's what's awesome about literature. Anyway, usually the folks who cry "unlikeable" are those who just can't tolerate human frailty reflected back at themselves. 

4) Female friendships are a complex subject. Again, I think there's an incorrect assumption that all women naturally band together and are nurturing and loving to each other all of the time. There's also the opposite viewpoint - that women are judgmental, jealous, and spiteful when they're together. Where does Ari's and Mina's friendship land in all of this?

Ari and Mina have a rare and precious friendship that is absent competitiveness, insecurity, and passive-aggressive bullshit. It sucks that their kind of friendship is relatively rare, but it's also great, because it's so special. It's one of the first of its kind for Ari, so it's really vital and healing for her. 

5) I think there's been a recent movement by female artists to represent friendships between women in a more conscious and real way, like you do in your novel. Lena Dunham's "Girls" and Illana Glazer's and Abbi Jacobson's "Broad City" are two TV shows that come to mind. Can you suggest any other examples? 

I liked Hilary Mantel's "An Experiment in Love." Mary Gaitskill is good. "How Should a Person Be?" by Sheila Heti was good. Sex and the City? Laverne and Shirley? The Golden Girls? Representations of female friendship are often subplot, but they're very much there if you pay close attention. 

Elisa Albert will sign and discuss After Birth on Thursday, March 5 at 7pm. 

[Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]


Monday, February 23, 2015

Don't miss Elisa Albert next week!

"After Birth is a romp through dangerous waters, in which passages of hilarity are shadowed by the dark nights of earliest motherhood, those months so tremulous with both new love and the despairing loss of one's identity -- to read it is an absorbing, entertaining, and thought-provoking experience."

- Lydia Davis, author of Can't and Won't


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

5 Questions with Paul Fischer

    Author Paul Fischer [Photo: Paul Fischer]   

1) For those of us who aren't familiar with Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, can you give us the bite-sized version of what your book, A Kim-Jong-Il Production, is about?

Shin Sang-Ok was the biggest filmmaker, and Choi Eun-Hee the most famous actress, in 1970s South Korea. They had been married, had divorced, had had a very dramatic Richard Burton-and-Elizabeth Taylor kind of life when, in 1978, they were both kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il, who wanted them to make propaganda films for North Korea.

2) What initially interested you in this story?

Before I knew all the details I was just fascinated by the idea of the Faustian pact, of an artist given unlimited resources on the condition that their work support a tyrannical regime. When I looked into it more thoroughly, I became obsessed with the setting, the events, the people involved -- and what the story reveals about North Korea today. 

3) Your research took you to Pyongyang, a city few outsiders get a chance to visit. What was that like?

It's very surreal. Pyongyang is a city most North Koreans aren't allowed to enter: it's reserved for the elite but really built as a showpiece for foreigners. It's very clean, very quiet. There are very few cars, no businesses, no street names or numbers, no old people, no disabled people, no animals, no chaos. Loudspeakers play revolutionary songs all the time, everyone wears the exact same clothes. It feels very fake. It's as much of a real city as Disneyworld's Magic Kingdom is really a kingdom.

4) It's interesting that A Kim-Jong-Il Production was published shortly after the controversial release of the film The Interview. Was that planned? And are you at all concerned about retaliation from North Korea as a result of your book? 

No, it was a complete accident, and I think we had conflicting feeling about it -- whether it would make people interested in that whole world or whether it would create a certain confusion and fatigue by the time the book came out. Luckily it seems to have been the former.

As for retaliation, no, not really. The book portrays them as absurd but mostly it's about their dangerous, dark side -- which they're usually not unhappy to see talked about. It's being made fun of they have a problem with, really. When it comes to books they tend to just try and smear any Koreans involved, as in the case of Escape From Camp 14, for instance, where they didn't go after Blaine Harden but instead put a lot of effort into trying to discredit his subject. They've already tried to smear Shin and Choi, with little success. 

5) Any plans to turn your book into a film?

I'm having a few meetings while in LA! I think it's unlikely -- it would be an expensive film, with three Asian leads, and the possible threat of another Sony hack for whoever makes it -- but the possibilities are exciting, at least on paper. 

[Photo: Macmillian]

Paul Fischer will sign and discuss A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Director's Rise to Power on Wednesday, February 18 at 7pm. 


Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Cynthia Weil

Author, songwriter, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Cynthia Weil is coming to Book Soup this week and there are many reasons to be excited, some of which I will enumerate to you here:

1) Are there any 90s kids out there, Internet? I ask because Weil wrote the 1997 Hanson MEGA-JAM "I Will Come to You," which, ladies, you will recognize as the song that singlehandedly jettisoned you into puberty. Seriously, I was convinced Taylor Hanson would emerge from the heavens to rescue me from my destiny of PG movies and ten-o'clock bedtimes because of this song. Looking back now, it makes total sense that a grown woman was behind all that and not, you know, a twelve-year-old boy. My proverbial hat is off to ya, Cynthia!

2) Because she wrote a song for The Monkees titled "Shades of Gray" that's cool enough to not be included on the "Fifty Shades of Gray" soundtrack and because here at Book Soup we consider that a success.

3) And last but certainly not least, because I'm Glad I Did is Weil's debut YA mystery novel, set deep in the world of New York City's music business in the 1960s, and who understands the good and evil of that world better than the first-rate songwriter herself?

Cynthia Weil will sign and discuss I'm Glad I Did on Thursday, February 9 at 7pm. 


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

5 Questions with Amy Fusselman

Author Amy Fusselman [Photo: Amy Fusselman]

1. Your work tends to be intensely personal, even when you're taking on subjects that might seem impersonal at the outset, like the philosophies of space and play for example. I think there are a lot of writers who struggle with giving themselves permission to write creative nonfiction because it seems too personal. Do you ever find yourself struggling with this, and how do you deal with it? 

This is a great question. I feel that part of my passion about Savage Park is related to what you are asking about here. I do think the freedom to be creative is very hard for people to hold onto. It gets shut down at an early age.

In D.W. Winnicotts book, Playing and Realitywhich I read as part of my research for Savage Parkhe includes the following passage in his chapter on adolescence. I love this paragraph so much and have been trying to quote it as often as possible as a public service:

If you do all you can to promote personal growth in your offspring, you will need to be able to deal with startling results. If your children find themselves at all they will not be contented to find anything but the whole of themselves and that will include the aggression and destructive elements in themselves as well as the elements that can be labelled loving. There will be this long tussle which you will need to survive.

I really want this concept to make it into the public at large. The very common idea that if you are doing a good job as a parent, your children will be less trouble: so often this just isnt true. As parents, dont we want to raise our children to be whole peoplepeople who have access to all their emotions, who are alive and awake to all the beauty and possibilityand yes, the tragedyof life? I hope so. Savage Park encourages this.  

But I digress! To answer your question: I dont struggle too much with giving myself permission. I struggle in trying to edit well. If the work is personal, I want it to be so for the right reasons.

2. Reading Savage Park, I was reminded of an amazing park in the city where I grew up called Brigadoon Park. The amazing thing about it is that it has three enormous cement slides that have been there since they built the park in the 1970s. All of the neighborhood kids know to slide down the slides on pieces of cardboard, even though there's a sign prohibiting that exact thing, because it makes you slide down about 10x fasterso fast that it's impossible to land on your feet and you usually fall hard into a sharp pile of tanbark. I wouldn't call the slides dangerous exactly, but they're definitely unforgiving. You kind of have to learn where the limit is, and sometimes that can only happen through minor injury. I've never seen any other parks like Brigadoon Park probably for this exact reason. Do you think American parents and children could benefit from more spaces like these?

What city is that? I was in San Francisco this summer and was told about a park I didnt get to visit, at Seward Street. It sounds similar. The Seward Street slides were designed by a 14-year old (!!) and built in 1973 (pic below).
But the short answer to your question is: Yes!!

Seward Street slides [Photo: teamboost]

3. There's a great anecdote in your book about how your toddler Katie greets inanimate objects by saying "Hi!" Do you think there's a difference between how children and adults approach space? What do you think changes?

I do think children, and especially young children, who are just learning to navigate space, are more open to the concept that its a medium with properties of its own. I think we adults are more prone to just seeing through it to get to what we want. Its stopped existing for us. I write in the book that play is a state of consciousness that we are born into, and it decreases as we age. I think thats part of it. We lose that flexibility in how we experience. We have to work at it if we want to keep it.

4. I loved the documentary "Man on Wire," so it was especially enjoyable to read about your interactions with Philippe Petit. Do you have any insight about the way "PP" (as you refer to him in Savage Park) approaches space and play? What do you think enables him to take on such incredible featslike walking on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towersthat most of us would never even consider? 

I love that movie as well and was so happy to take that wirewalking class with him. In class he referred to himself as a tenacious little rat and I thought that was an interesting image. Id say he has that approach to his artmaking. He is absolutely relentless in his efforts to bring his artistic visions to life. But that fire is balanced by a very disciplined and methodical approach: a profound respect for space and objects. PP can be a fantastic clownbut he is in no way the fool. He is an incredible artist.

5. I was reminded a little of Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust while reading your book. Are there any specific titles that you looked to for inspiration or background research while writing Savage Park?

I did read a lot for Savage Park and besides the Winnicott book I quote above, I have several others that I love. One is Johan Huizingas Homo Ludens. Its an overview of the play element of culture, and it has a lot of fun asides in it. For one, Huizinga felt that professional sports had completely lost its play element and suffered from over-seriousness. And he wrote that in 1938!

Amy Fusselman will sign and discuss Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die on Friday, February 13th at 7pm. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Don't miss film critic Matt Zoller Seitz tonight!

"Reality, in a Wes Anderson film, is a vulgarity, a cruelty, and a necessity -- for although his films are populated with people trying as best they can to create a superior cubbyhole of an illusion to live in, and for all that he adores and glorifies this effort, stubbornly, still, he always allows his beautiful worlds to be shattered. Like kids on the beach after a wave has sluiced through their sandcastles, Anderson's protagonists are left working up the will to rebuild again. We have faith that they will rebuild, perhaps less ambitiously but with more success. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, after the loss of illusion, only death remains."

- Anne Washburn, from The West Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel by Matt Zoller Seitz


Monday, February 2, 2015

5 Questions with poet & author Dale Herd

Poet & author Dale Herd [Photo: Dale Herd]

1) First, the obvious question: It's been 25 years since you published your last short story collection, Wild Cherries, in 1980. What have you been up to since then, and why did you decide to publish Empty Pockets now?

I think it's closer to 35 years. In that time many things occurred: a great marriage, three sons, coaching ice hockey, surfing in Mexico, getting some movies made, meeting a lot of wonderful people, writing a few novels. Several of my friends, each a well-respected poet, got together unbeknownst to me and told the late Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press that I had been working on some new stories. Allan then wrote that he would like to see them, then suggested I do a New and Selected Stories collection. I welcomed the opportunity. The poets are, in alphabetical order: Bill Berkson, Michael Lally, Lewis MacAdams, Duncan McNaughton, Kevin Opstedal, and Michael Wolfe. I owe the publication of the book to them. Many of their works can be found at Blue Press Books.

2) Your earlier short stories are pretty unusual - they're all so nuanced and compact! They remind me a little of Lydia Davis, and also Jim Carroll. Who and what are your creative influences? 

Hopefully, of course, some of the later stories are as well. I don't know either Lydia Davis or Jim Carroll, although tangentially their paths have crossed with several people I do know. Lydia Davis went to Putney, a private prep school in Vermont, at the same time as one of my best friends, Tony Ganz, did, and he always remarks on what a talented and prolific writer she is, although I have yet to read her. Michael Wolfe published Carroll's The Basketball Diaries when we all were living in Bolinas. I never met Carroll, although I did see him once in the Bolinas Bakery getting a coffee. Michael always told me what a great writer Carroll was. I certainly think that's true. Don't you love anecdotal gossip? 
My influences? Pretty standard fare: the short paragraphs between the stories in In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway, then all of his great short stories, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Isaac Babel's Collected Stories, James Joyce's Dubliners, James Agee's A Death in The Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and, of course, the wonderful short stories of Chekhov and Maupassant.  Also, Bob Holt, a feature reporter at the Ventura Star Free Press, who taught me to always write a simple declarative sentence, something on the order of: "There is a long, flat sandy beach," to start a story with. A short stint working on deadline at a newspaper helps un-muddle your thinking and forces you to cut to the bone. If you want to write short, there is no better training.

3) How did you select which of your stories would be included in Empty Pockets? Any unifying theme, characters, or time period?

In general, they were chosen because I simply thought they were the best I could do. As for the last question, I leave all unifying themes to the reader; the characters are always people I have met; and, as to the time period, I believe if one is lucky enough to succeed with the work the time period is always now, following Ezra Pound's dictum: "Literature is news that stays news." It is presumptuous, of course, to call what I do literature, but it is what I always am striving for.

4) You'll be joined in conversation with Lewis MacAdams next month at Book Soup. MacAdams is a poet and activist known especially around here for his work cleaning up the L.A. River. How do the two of you know each other? 

After Donald Allen published my first book of stories, Early Morning Wind, way back in 1972, Lewis, who was the Director of Poetry at San Francisco State, invited me to read there. We met then and have remained good friends throughout the years and I hope for many more years to come. His collected works, Dear Oxygen, is a delight to read. Incidentally, he's the only poet who ever raised one billion dollars to restore a polluted river to its natural habitat. Who doesn't love that? If anyone deserves a MacArthur Grant he is that person.

5) What's next for you? Any future projects on the horizon? 

Currently I'm working on a sequence of novels titled: Rincon, Changing Weather, and Ventura, three tales that follow a group of close friends that met as surfers at the end of the 60s, and went on through the 70s and 80s pursuing their dreams. Then there is Dreamland Court, a Hank Williams type novel I have been working on since 1980, that I recently finished. Hopefully, it will be published soon and make a few people laugh.  

Dale Herd will discuss and sign Empty Pockets: New and Selected Stories with special guest Lewis MacAdams on Thursday, February 5th at 7pm. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Liked the movie? Read the book!

Red carpet hoopla aside, we all know that movies are the real stars of the Oscars. But with so many award-winning book-to-movie adaptations, it can be an exciting night for book lovers too. The fast-approaching 87th annual Academy Awards is no different, with plenty of spectacular movie nominations beginning first as spectacular books (some might even surprise you). This year Wes Anderson’s "The Grand Budapest Hotel," inspired by The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, leads the nominations (along with "Birdman"), so we’re especially excited to be hosting author Matt Zoller Seitz next month to sign and discuss his companion book to the film, which takes readers behind the scenes of Wes Anderson’s imaginative production. That said, we’ve collected the rest of the Oscar-nominated books below and highly suggest you give them a read.  
  • "Inherent Vice" (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), based on Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon 

  • "Still Alice" (dir. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) based on Still Alice by Lisa Genova 
  • "Gone Girl" (dir. David Fincher), based on Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" (dir. Peter Jackson), based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Monday, January 19, 2015

Happy Birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Our lives begin to end the day our we become silent about things that matter." 
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so you have to ask yourself: What are you doing today to help others? It’s what Dr. King himself believed was life’s most urgent question. And while it’s clear that our world in 2015 is still far from perfect, at Book Soup we recognize that change begins with our daily decisions, interactions, and routines. So what better way to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy than by finding a way to give back to your community? We’ve got some booklover-friendly ideas for those of you in the L.A. area to volunteer your services today and everyday.

1) Donate your old books: Downtown L.A.‘s The Last Bookstore is the largest remaining used bookstore in California and it runs Re-Book It, a free book donation pick-up service with service anywhere in L.A. County (and sometimes elsewhere in Southern California too). No book is ever thrown away and donations help local libraries, charities, hospitals and The Last Bookstore itself. Visit Re-Book It or The Last Bookstore online for more information. 

2) Volunteer for 826LA: 826LA in Echo Park and Mar Vista is a nonprofit organization that provides after school tutoring and writing workshops to help support students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills. There’s need for a lot more than just teachers and tutors too, so to find out exactly what you can do check out their Volunteering 101.

3) Become an adult literacy tutor with Los Angeles Public Library: Not really a “kid person”? No problem. You can share your love of reading with an adult in need through the LAPL's adult literacy program. Note: This community service is available throughout all LAPL branches, so you're not excluded no matter where you live.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Look Ahead at the Books of 2015

2014 was a great year for reading. We were moved by some astonishing debut novels from writers like Catherine Lacey (Nobody is Ever Missing) and Eimear McBride (A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing), plus the film releases of Gone Girl and Inherent Vice allowed us to revisit some literary favorites at the cinema. But whether you’ve made it through the massive to-read pile on your nightstand or not, 2014 has rolled cruelly on. It’s 2015 nowthe Year of the Green Wooden Goat Sheep. Ok, so I don’t know what that means exactly, but still. There’s a whole bunch of great new books to anticipate this year. Listed in no particular order, here are a few of the 2015 releases that I JUST CAN’T WAIT to read (SPOILER ALERT! They are all written by ladies): 

1) Binary Star by Sarah Gerard (Two Dollar Radio) - Two Dollar Radio consistently publishes work that the pushes the boundaries of contemporary fiction, and Sarah Gerard’s new novel sounds no different. It’s a dizzying, devastating roadtrip tale about illness, addiction and modern culture that defies literary classification.

2) The First Bad Man by Miranda July (Scribner) - This is the debut fiction novel from the artist, writer and filmmaker who gave us No One Belongs Here More Than You. I expect it to be both totally weird and wonderful. 

3) Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fusselman (Houghton Mifflin) - Fusselman is a seriously underrated contemporary writer. If you like Rebecca Solnit and Cheryl Strayed, then you’ll probably love Amy Fusselman. And you’re in luck because she’s reading at Book Soup next month!

4) The Remains by Annie Freud (Picador) - Inspired by Freud’s visit to an exhibition of Sung Dynasty artworks and also illustrated by the poet herself, The Remains is said to explore what’s left when everything seems broken or lost.  

5) Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing by Tracey Thorn (Virago) - Don't even get me started. Tracey Thorn is just the coolest and I can listen to her moody lady croons for hours on end. This book is part memoir, part exploration of the art and power of singing (cue “Missing”).

6) After Birth by Elisa Albert (Houghton Mifflin) - Hey, throw around the term “afterbirth” in any form and you’re sure to get my attention. Plus, Lydia Davis has only words of praise for this book, which seems like reason enough to pick it up. 

7) The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf) - DISCLAIMER: I already read an ARC version of this, so I know it’s good. For lovers of cult classic Bluets, Maggie Nelson does not disappoint with her latest meditation on queer family-making and “good enough” mothering.

8) In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume (Knopf) - Are you there God? It’s me, Adriana. I’m an “adult” now, but I never really got over the horrifying upset of female puberty. Thankfully, Judy Blume is publishing her first book for adults in 15 years and I’m sure it will make us all feel a little less utterly alone, just her like her YA books did once.