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

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Our July Pick for (Book) Soup of the Month is Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

2016 has so far been a year for the world to re-evaluate many issues.  The European Union.  Global migration and domestic immigration. The U.S. political system. #BlackLivesMatter.  Perhaps most pressing, this country’s propensity for gun violence has prompted Governor Brown to sign into law a slew of new gun-control measures, as the rest of the country dithers about the situation, even after the historic House sit-down in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

Speaking to the latter two concerns, the release in paperback of Jill Leovy’s devastating, true-crime survey, Ghettoside, could not be better-timed.  It reads like a novel, and this meticulously researched investigation of violence in South Los Angeles - specifically, black-on-black crime in urban areas, and the complexities of law enforcement therein - should be required reading for everyone who resides here. 


We all know that there are areas in Los Angeles where, more or less, one “just doesn’t go.”  An L.A. resident for over thirty years, I can say, with no pride, that I’ve not once been to Watts, the Hollenbeck Division, the Seventy-Seventh Street Division (where the L.A. riots broke out), nor any of the areas surveyed in this book, and have only a general idea of where they are geographically located.   Not only is there no pressing reason to go there, one of the very first things I realized about L.A. is that, realistically, one can live here without ever glimpsing the blighted areas of the region (the revitalization of Downtown L.A., with its many elements of gentrification notwithstanding). Once, on an Amtrak heading to Santa Barbara, I recall reading a sign specifying “Something Housing Project.”  “Oh, that’s what it looks like,” I thought, “interesting.” Our freeways, which were, in general, built through less affluent neighborhoods, serenely glide many of us over streets where lives are lost in shameful numbers. 

Leovy’s book is grounded in eleven years of research.  She was embedded in the LAPD’s Seventy-Seventh-Street Division, and in 2006 launched an online L.A. Times feature, “The Homicide Report,” an effort, she writes in her Author’s Note “to provide a…day-to-day accounting of every homicide in (L.A.) County.”  The blog ran for two years, in which she reported on “about a thousand” homicides.  Just think about that figure!  What have you been doing in the past two years?  And that’s only taking into consideration deaths, not assaults, not rapes, not robberies.  Typical of the striking detail of Ghettoside is the definition of “almocides” - almost homicides - a portmanteau reference to the “four or five injury shootings for every fatal one in South Los Angeles,” leaving thirty, mostly black, males per month “paralyzed, comatose (or) brain injured” in the early 2000s.  

There are many, many statistics in this book, as well as a survey of the great black migration from southern states after World War II, and much time is spent on minutiae of the inner workings of the LAPD.  So, in a way, it’s a sociological text, as well as a police procedural.  Another heartbreaking detail reported by Leovy:  three generations after that initial migration from the South, numerous parents sent their sons out of L.A., back to the areas where the families originally lived – explicitly so that the young men wouldn’t be killed. A police chaplain describes “homicide eyes,” a flat gaze common to the grief of family members losing loved ones to violence.

Regarding the always-controversial LAPD, Leovy’s approach is not at all the usual “us-vs-them” (i.e. cops-vs-criminals) narrative.  She doesn’t take sides, nor really discuss, the legacy of the LAPD.  Rather, she focuses on the interface between the criminal justice system and the communities it polices. She writes, “To assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception.” 


Where this already extraordinary book truly excels is in the depth of its characters, the details of individual cases Leovy witnesses in real time.  She relates the separate, seemingly random, shootings of two young black men, Dovon Harris (aged 15) and Bryan Tennelle, (aged 18 and the son of an LAPD detective who lived and worked in the precinct, a rarity) and the aftermath to their families.  She narrates the efforts of detectives Wally Tennelle, John Skaggs, Greg de la Rosa, and others, to navigate law enforcement protocol, bureaucracy, and complicated relationships within the force, as well as the maddening (to me) complexity of working with underserved communities, the codes and dynamics which prevail there, and the wracking reality of families’ bereavement living under what one detective termed, “The Monster – the whole mess of it.” 

In her epilogue, Leovy writes that, as of 2015, “homicides in Los Angeles County have fallen to levels that (were) unimaginable…at the turn of the (21st) century…the Monster is in retreat.” You’ll have to read the book to understand the complexities behind The Monster’s unraveling. Since the epilogue was written, homicide rates have once again increased in Los Angeles, and  Leovy’s summary remains pertinent: “Anyone who tracks homicide in L.A. County can’t escape the obvious: black men remain disproportionately victimized…we should not disagree about the problem’s urgency.”  It’s a stunning and brave work. 
-Amelia, Book Soup Bookseller

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Fire Next Time

By Dan Graham

In chapter one of his new book Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, the Historian Jim Downs writes of the largest massacre of gay people in U.S. history. It was on June 24, 1973 at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans. It was a fire, intentionally set on the ground floor of the bar as a gay church group met upstairs. Thirty two people died.  It took a long time to identify the bodies because they were burned so badly, and to this day, two bodies remain unidentified.  The fire and deaths were met by a largely indifferent public.  I was just one year old in 1973.

That could have been it, a piece of history forgotten by even the most demonstrative queens among us, but the events of last Sunday morning at another nightclub, the Pulse in Orlando, Florida, changed all that.  Forty nine people dead in three hours and a hail of bullets at the hands of a monster. It was a sobering thing to wake up to, especially as Angelenos began to gather in West Hollywood, just down the street from the Soup, to march in or observe the annual gay pride parade.

There has been a long and rambling conversation this week in person and online about the purpose of this attack - was it terrorism, homophobia, the result of lax gun laws and the proliferation of mass casualty assault rifles, inept or uncaring politicians, religion?

Can't it be all of those things?

I, like many of you, soaked in it for days. I was stunned, tearful, and finally angry. And then it came to me - James Baldwin.

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!"

I went digging around my house for my old dog-eared copy of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's searing indictment of his country, a country that couldn't or wouldn't accept him. It's the one book that probably best captures my state of mind after this catastrophe. 

I watched talking heads on television ask me to pray and I seethed with rage. Many of them had previously gone on record as being against the very freedoms that gay people had only recently been granted. I know they'll do nothing.  Prayer is all they have; they lack the courage or will to do anything else.

You might be sick of people working this out in writing. I'm not. I can't read enough essays and opinion pieces, news reporting, and Facebook posts.  Thirty two people died in a gay bar just 40 years ago, and no one cared.  So I'll take the help from well meaning people who donate blood, or money for funerals, or simply a social media post in solidarity.

I'll think about Baldwin as I reread this book, and how disappointed he'd be by the present day - the problems of racism and homophobia, and how we thought we had turned a corner but it's still here, still burning.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Terrible Interview or a Wonderful Wit? Evelyn Waugh and the BBC

By Christina K. Holmes

We Book Soupers love us some YouTube clips, especially anything nostalgic or from a different era (hey, we are in the book business after all).  When Eveleyn Waugh's The Loved One was voted as our June (Book) Soup of the Month, I didn't waste a minute using my  Googling powers to see what I could dig up on the cantankerous Brit that fellow author James Lee Milne once described as "the nastiest tempered man in England."

What I found was this BBC interview conducted in 1953, considered to be the "most ill natured interview ever broadcast" according to the caption, though credit for that may fall to the interviewer rather than the author himself.  And as for comparing it to interviews in our current times, I'm sure we could all come up with worse (Kanye West v. every interviwer ever comes to mind).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Presenting our June Pick for (Book) Soup of the Month - Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One!

When he wrote The Loved One, a short satirical novel set in 1948 Los Angeles, Evelyn Waugh was, indeed, in Hollywood. The popular British author, known for Scoop and a Handful of Dust, had come west to talk about a possible film deal for his master work, Brideshead Revisited. The deal fell through, and Waugh clashed with what he perceived to be LA’s overall lack of propriety. He had a lot of complaints, and he was very inspired.

The Loved One follows Waugh’s surrogate, Dennis Barlow, a young-ish British poet hot off his first realpublishing success. Dennis heads to Hollywood, where he takes- and immediately leaves- a screenwriting gigat a studio, soon after finding employment at a pet crematory, “The Happier Hunting Ground.” Here, Dennis makes house calls to the rich and famous, disposing of their furry dead at outsize expense. But he isn’t the only expat in town, and the older, wealthier British set view his morbid occupation as reflecting poorly on their proud Hollywood community of actors and writers. They urge him to refocus his energy. The thing is, Dennis likes his new job. A lot. Dennis’ fascination with death causes him to wander Whispering Glades, a pristine all-service burial ground and mortuary.

Waugh’s portrait of Glades was clearly taken from Forest Lawn Memorial Park, which he was fascinated with, and which indeed played the part in the book’s totally restructured and poorly-reviewed 1965 film adaptation. It’s here at Whispering Glades that Dennis meets the beautiful and cosmetically gifted Aimee Thanatogenos (literally “beloved, born of death”) with whom he becomes infatuated. Aimee has an infatuation of her own: her boss Mr. Joyboy, a simpering mortician known for imprinting his bodies (called “Loved Ones”) with a blissful smile. Dennis attempts to woo Aimee by sending her famous poems he didn’t write. Mr. Joyboy attempts to woo Aimee by sending her the most radiant corpses to decorate.

 The Loved One provides a searing, viciously observant send-up of 1940’s Los Angeles. While peripherally involving the film scene, Waugh focuses instead on a larger coagulating set of morality and values, a culture of “packaging” people, and indulgent obsessions with beauty, death, and, above all, beauty in death. It’s not only Hollywood that finds itself under fire, but the funeral and mortuary industry, a business portrayed as invasive, exploitative, artificial, and spiritually desolate. Yet, for all its garishness, Whispering Glades exudes gaudy, mystical charm, and like Dennis, the reader cannot resist taking a closer look.

I first read The Loved One in a high school satire lit class alongside Gulliver’s Travels and Candide. As a native Virginian who had never seen anything but the east coast, I was distinctly aware that many of the references to LA culture and geography were far beyond me. I longed to be in on the joke. Five years later, as I journeyed west on a weeklong road trip, I cracked my copy open and found myself again brimming with ghoulish curiosity. It was my first literary picture of Hollywood (and, yes, I still wanted to move here after reading it).

The Loved One is a truly unique book about Los Angeles, written by an outsider who was briefly an insider, a house guest who may have sent a “Thank You” note to his hosts but secretly kept a list of grievances. The book’s success in America baffled Waugh, who perhaps thought we didn’t have the ability to laugh at ourselves, that we didn’t fully understand what he was saying, or a little of both.  While sometimes referred to in criticisms as Waugh’s “hate letter” to America, The Loved One is also unbelievably fun and silly. It’s a crisp, dishy work from a writer at the top of his game.

-Donald, Book Soup Bookseller 

Purchase your copy HERE

Monday, May 9, 2016

Book Soup Interview with Sara Majka

 By Christina K. Holmes

This week, I had the privilege of interviewing author Sara Majka on her collection of short stories Cities I’ve Never Lived In, our (Book) Soup of the Month. And, just like these wooly stories sketch shadows of brilliant truths in the mind for the reader to ruminate over days later, so too will Sara’s words on her collection, writing life, and influences. 

Most of the stories in Cities I’ve Never Lived In are rooted in towns and cities across the eastern seaboard. How is place central to your stories?

Place was the thing that influenced me most when writing this collection. I started writing it when I moved--very briefly, just for a year--to the center of Maine. It was not a happy year for me, and I spent a lot of time driving down to Portland and became inspired by the people and the isolated coastal towns. My dad was in the Coast Guard and growing up we lived for a short time in Maine. Still, I don't know why that year was so important. Something about being there really triggered something for me. And then I also spent time in Provincetown, Massachusetts (as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center) and in New York City, and those places made it into the collection as well.

Your narrator seems to meander in and out of her stories, starting in one place and ending in others. Can you tell us more about why you chose to tell her stories in this way? Is this style a reflection of her character?

Sometimes the only answer I have to things is: that's how I am, or how I see things, and I think this is one of those examples. That meandering or drifting was a lot of how life was for me back then.

Your narrator’s insights are extremely poignant. One line in particular struck me in your title story: “I didn’t want another period of instability, and I felt the suspension you feel when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stay”. How did you choose to balance these sparks of acute awareness with the plot of your stories?

I really enjoy reading those sorts of lines in other people's work. I like writers who want to directly tell you something, who have that inclination--of course, it has to be well done and fit the narrative. But I fell in love with Graham Greene's The End of the Affair right away because he started to talk about what love was. I'm on the road right now or else I would take out my copy and make sure that he actually does that. But in my memory he does. And Carson McCullers. [H]er book The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©. In my memory she spends half that novella trying to get at love, what it is, how it works.

I read in your interview with A Public Space that the title story is quite autobiographical. Does it make you feel vulnerable to incorporate part of your own life into fiction? How do you safely separate the two?

It doesn't make me feel vulnerable, and I don't know why, as I'm a relatively private person. I'm not even sure private is the right word, as my first inclination is always just to reveal what is going on, so I'm willing, always, to reveal a fair bit, though I do have a reserved personality.

I have this thing I think to myself, one of those things that makes sense to me but might not make sense when said out loud, but I think to myself: the more you give away the more that's left. It's sort of like that saying, hiding in plain sight, but the spirit is somewhat different.

Why did you chose to work with a first person narrator? What did it provide you as a writer?

I can't seem to get away from a first person narrator. Every story starts with one when I write. Sometimes if the first person narrator tells a story, I can then, later, during revision, take that frame out and what's left is the third person story. But I always have to create a narrator and then it's them and not me who tells the story. It's a lot of work! Two whole worlds to create. But just telling the story seems weird to me, like I'm talking in a fancy accent or in a serious voice. It also feels too broad. Creating the narrator helps to narrow the focus.

Can you tell us about your influences? Do you have any particular writers that inspire you?

Yes! So many books. I tend to think, though, with this collection that my biggest influences were [W.G.] Sebald and [Alice] Munro.

Is there anything outside the writing world that impacts your storytelling, for example art or film?

Visual art. I love museums. I love the space of it and the quiet of it, and being able to wander about and look at color and shape.

Why are you drawn to short fiction?

I grew up wanting to write a novel. I was an avid reader as a little girl, and naturally you don't really read short stories that young. Except in school. But I just read novels on my own and so that's what I wanted to write. But as I got older and started to write, whenever I tried longer it didn't work out. I seem to need the speed and movement of the shorter form.

Can you tell us about your writing process? How do you begin? How do you know you’ve finished?

Oh, the process is almost humorous, it's so...I can't even come up with the right word. Slow still suggests forward progress. What I do is almost a meditation on nothingness.[O]r a meditation on writing rather than writing itself. It's almost like every day that I write, I have to work to accept the way in which I write. I have to accept that it's not about moving forward or getting something done.

Much of the work I do is to make something shorter. I'll write and write and think I'm doing a novella or even...dare I say....a novel, and then I start editing and it becomes ten pages. That's my joke about my process, but it's also somewhat true.

And finally, what book or books are you reading currently?

I'm in the middle of Jonathan Lee's High Dive. He worked for A Public Space (he's at Catapult now) when my book was coming out and he was (and still is) a great help.

Order the book HERE

Monday, April 18, 2016

By Christina K. Holmes 

The votes are in. No, I’m not talking about what author would win the presidency (It’s Kurt Vonnegut by the way).

I’m talking about the vote that really counts: the one you make every day as a consciousness, grassroots-loving, local business supporting, citizen of the world. Your decision to shop local and independent. Cast your theoretical vote towards independent bookstores in this great U.S. of A by coming out for Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, April 30th.

What is this you ask? It’s a day when hundreds of bookstores participate in exclusive events and sell one of a kind books and artwork to show our appreciation for our book-loving  patrons. It’s also a chance for you to support us: a community of bibliophiles recommending our little hearts out everyday. In case that doesn’t convince you, here’s a listicle.  


Top 5 reasons to come out to Independent Bookstore Day:

  1. Support your local bookstore! Take the opportunity to stroll through Book Soup for new books, stationery, or maybe just to check in on your favorite booksellers.
  2. The events are awesome. Curious George will be at Book Soup reading - bring your kids and extra bananas!  Author Jim Colucci will also be here discussing his book Golden Girls Forever. Then to finish off the evening, a live DJ set and happy hour. See the schedule here.
  3. The official Independent Bookstore Day merch will be out of this world, including a rumored Neil Gaiman coloring book (The rumors are true).
  4. Make a day of it and do a bookstore crawl. Like a pub crawl but better for your health. It’s a perfect excuse to go to neighborhoods you haven’t been in a while and check out the scene.
  5. Books, books, books and more books! Need I say more?