(Book) Soup of the Month
Presenting our (Book) Soup of the Month:
A monthly selection our booksellers want you to love, too!
April 2017. I first discovered Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet completely by accident. I was actually looking for one of his better-known books. This was when I still lived in New York and was given to taking long walks between the various bookstores on lower Manhattan. I’d wandered into a tiny used bookshop off of Broadway, around the corner from that other, more famous used bookstore. I’d come to this particular shop in the past and had valued their well-curated selection, but on that particular day the only book by Isherwood that they had on their shelves was Prater Violet. I’d never heard of it, but I picked it up and started reading anyway:
“Mr. Christopher Isherwood?”
“You know, we’ve been trying to contact you ever since yesterday afternoon.” The voice at the other end of the wire was a bit reproachful.
“I was out.”
“You were out?” (Not altogether convinced.)
“Oh...I see…” (A pause, to consider this. Then, suddenly suspicious.) “That’s funny, though...Your number was always engaged. All the time.”
“Who are you?” I asked, my tone getting an edge on it.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Imperial Bulldog Pictures. I’m speaking for Mr. Chatsworth…. By the way, were you in Blackpool any time during 1930?”
“There must be some mistake…” I got ready to hang up on him. “I’ve never been to Blackpool in my life.”
“Splendid!” The voice uttered a brisk little business laugh. “Then you never saw a show called Prater Violet?”
“Never. But what’s that got to to do with…?”
“It folded up after three nights. But Mr. Chatsworth likes [...]”
I was hooked. The writing was brisk, the characters fresh, the dialogue snappy, and the story didn’t waste any time in announcing itself. I bought the book and starting reading it right away on the train home.
Years later, Prater Violet remains my favorite novel. This slim volume is Isherwood at his best. It’s the story of a man named Christopher Isherwood—a fictionalized version of the author—who has been strong-armed into writing a romantic comedy with a famed Viennese director named Friedrich Bergmann. The pay is good and Christopher likes the work, though he quickly comes to realize that his primary role is to act as a sounding board for the eccentric Bergmann. This is 1930’s England and the specter of World War II looms large on the horizon. Bergmann’s wife and children are back in Vienna as the Nazi war machine marches on. Meanwhile, in England Bergmann tries to make the best of the situation by putting all his energies into adapting an unabashedly schmaltzy story about a young girl selling violets in Vienna’s famed Wiener Prater.
What drew me to the book all those years ago is the same thing that keeps bringing me back even today. It’s the way Isherwood foreshadows the horrors of the war years through a deceptively light story. This is not a heavy book, but it gestures towards some truly terrifying implications. You can read it as a light, charming tale or you can brood upon it as a historical parable. The novel works equally well on both registers. Regardless of how you choose to read it, though, I’m confident that you’ll want to read it and reread it over and over again, like I have.
- Dan Lopez, Book Soup Supervisor
March 2017. In a world where the rights and lives of transgender people are becoming increasingly visible, few books are as timely and important as Meredith Russo’s debut novel, If I Was Your Girl. Amanda is a typical transgender girl: knowing her true gender from a young age, she completes her transition from male to female by the time she is seventeen. After being assaulted in a public restroom, she decides she wants a fresh start, so she moves to a rural southern town to live with her father. It’s easy for her to make friends and find a boyfriend in a place where there’s no chance anyone will recognize her from before her transition. Living stealth (hiding her transgender history), however, takes a toll on her in a way she didn’t expect, and she yearns to share her secret with her friends and boyfriend even though she knows it isn’t safe. After her previous experiences, Amanda is understandably terrified to come out, afraid of the violence and ridicule that transgender women have experienced throughout history. When the truth finally does come to light, however, she learns that real friends are those who can see beyond her past and love her as she is in the present.
While much of the transgender experience involves cisgender (non-trans) people working to understand and respect trans people’s lives and identities, Russo takes this idea a step further by showing how Amanda’s transition affects her parents. Though her father does his best to support her, he does slip up. Coming in late one night, Amanda’s heart is shattered when he, half-asleep, calls her by her birth name. Many transgender people would react immediately with anger or sadness, but Russo shows Amanda taking a moment to understand, to be compassionate, and to give a little for her father. Similarly, when Amanda’s mother tells her, “I miss my son,” it opens up an honest and loving conversation instead of a rift between them. These moments are beautiful illustrations of how a family, even in the face of a child’s transition, can love and support each other.
Russo’s straightforward presentation of the simple facts of a transgender person’s life is masterful. Through flashbacks, some of these experiences are highlighted: as a child, Amanda is confused by her father’s anger over a story she wrote about the woman she would grow up to be; as a teenager, she comes out to her mother and therapist after trying to kill herself. As Amanda’s story progresses, though, flashes of hope come through, from her first meeting with other transgender people to her positive relationship with her mother to her gender confirmation surgery. Russo’s prose leads the reader through a gamut of emotions, from fear and confusion to love and joy. She highlights the difficult parts as well as the wonderful parts of being transgender in a way that normalizes the experience. Amanda is truly relatable, because her dreams and desires are the same as everyone else’s: she wants to live happily as her authentic self, free from violence and fear.
Amanda’s story is not an unfamiliar one: a mind-boggling 45% of transgender people attempt suicide. If I Was Your Girl highlights this important fact, but also something greater: it is possible for transgender people to live happily, and it is possible for their families to love and support them through the process. For anyone who has ever been curious about the trans experience, who has a transgender friend or family member, or who is transgender themself, this book is essential.
- Adrien Sdao, Book Soup Supervisor
Click here to donate to the Trans Lifeline, a transgender specific crisis hotline: https://www.translifeline.org/
Click here to donate to the Transgender Law Center: https://transgenderlawcenter.
February 2017. I was an angsty nineteen-year-old atheist when I first read The Master and Margarita upon the recommendation of an angsty twenty-two-year-old boy whom I thought I was in love with. I didn't know what love or atheism were back then - no matter how religiously or politically informed or how "beyond my years" I thought I was - but I enjoyed the novel thoroughly enough that it stuck with me for years and I returned to it as a still-confused-but-about-
different-things adult. I still may not know much about love, and I still certainly have a lot of questions about my own existentialism and whether or not the powers people often refer to as "Satan" or "God" may exist, and I still, now, snuggle this novel tight against me as I sleep after a night curled up reading it. Because The Master and Margarita is just that type of book - the type that doesn't necessarily help answer any of your questions about life, but simply lets you know that you are not alone in your wondering. Other people are looking for answers, too, and this book is not about learning the answers but rather about the questions and learning more constructive ways to ask them. Yes, both times I read it I was left more confused and with more questions about myself and about the world around me than before, yet both times I was left thankful for that.
The Master and Margarita was written in Russian by Mikhail Bulgakov sometime between 1928 and 1940, but wasn’t published until 1967. It is a satire of sorts, making groundbreaking political statements while simultaneously attempting to investigate the deepest complexities of the human psyche. Plus there's a talking cat who likes to drink martinis, which is obviously the mark of a great novel, no? Most who have read it consider it to be classic Russian literature and one of the all-time greatest pieces of the 20th Century, though I have, surprisingly, found that even in literary circles it is not widely regarded as such and this is typically only due to the fact that, for whatever reason, many people haven't even heard of it at all.
The novel alternates between two settings (1930s Moscow and The Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate) but does so in an extraordinarily simplistic way. It centers around the plot line that Satan appears in Moscow disguised as a professor and wreaks havoc on the city, along with his "crew" (including the talking cat, Behemoth). Satan, or the "professor," is, of course, portrayed mostly as an evil being throughout, but he brings up many questions about skepticism which are worth contemplating and tends to specifically target the "non-believers." In one of my favorite scenes of the first part, Satan hosts a magic show at The Variety Theatre, satirically representing the wealth, vanity and greed that Bulgakov no doubt saw beginning to swallow the Soviet around him. One of the main characters, The Master himself, is a self-deprecating author who actually ends up burning an entire manuscript of his own historical novel about Christ, following multiple rejections which resulted in his inexplicable despair. One cannot help but wonder if these experiences were not loosely based on Bulgakov's own.
In the second part, we are introduced to the mysterious Margarita, who is The Master's lover and who continues to love and devote herself to him even though she believes him to be dead. Margarita is a fascinating and strong central female character, and it is actually through her interactions with The Master that we are able to gain a better understanding of him.
I highly recommend The Master and Margarita to the highly religious and the skeptics alike. It can serve as either a fantastic introduction to Russian literature or a beautiful addition to ones literary arsenal. I will leave you with one piece of advice and that is this: If you are nineteen when you first read this, do yourself a favor and read it again sometime. Our lives and our minds, much like the plot of a complex novel such as this one, have the tendency to change in surprising ways.
- Molly Ash, Book Soup Bookseller
January 2017. We’ve considered making James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time a book of the month for a while now. Originally published in 1963, it’s since been discussed in conversations about Black Lives Matter and its recent protests. In August, Scribner published an anthology titled, The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, which features contemporary writers responding to many the same issues that Baldwin raised.
Despite these conversations, I’ve found it hard to describe exactly what The Fire This Time, a collection of two epistolary essays, accomplishes, perhaps because I have such a love for Baldwin’s fiction and perhaps because in this confusing era, I am seeking direction and what Baldwin gives us instead is experience.
In the second and longer letter (from a “region of my mind”) Baldwin describes his experiences as a young preacher, a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, and, finally, his (and America’s) position at “the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. . .Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” By this third section, Baldwin describes a bereft society eerily similar to our own, but the prescription for healing remains vague.
Maybe this is the challenge of writing about Baldwin’s non-fiction. He forces you to examine what’s in your own hands, to question yourself. There are no easy answers when the question is you, your responsibilities, your experience. In Raoul Peck’s upcoming film I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says, “There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. . . the white population of this country’s got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger it means you need it, and you’ve got to find out why and the future of the country depends on that.” He offers both question and condemnation.
I rue the absence of Baldwin’s thoughtful, brave, and articulate discourse on our country. Intelligent, contemplative commentary now is a chimera. Artists and activism are further denigrated, subjugated to either/or slots. Don’t you be creative, powerful and tell me what I don’t want to hear. Still, what are we to do?
If fiction can deliver a more poignant message, a more useful compulsion than non-fiction, then we should look to Baldwin’s stories for our mandates. I can tell you easily what Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about: listening. It’s about the black experience. It’s about addiction. It’s about brothers. It’s about music. It’s about discovering what our closest kin really are. Late in the story, Sonny, a jazz musician struggling with heroin addiction says to his brother, the narrator,
It’s terrible sometimes, inside. . .that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.
A clearer instruction can rarely be found. Later, Sonny’s brother watches him play piano for (seemingly) the first time and thinks,
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.. . .I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
In Baldwin’s fiction, you are the character, we, they, that’s empathy, that’s experience, that of reading, that of understanding, and, in either his fiction or The Fire Next Time, Baldwin provides us the mandate we crave and, ultimately, that we get—listen carefully, everything is in our hands.
- Marion Bright, Book Soup General Manager
December 2016. I'll be frank with you; I loved this book! I couldn't put it down and I became quite fond of Frank, Alice, and Mimi - three people thrown together by genetics, love, admiration, and the need to turn in a book - the advance of which has long been spent.
Be Frank With Me is a very sweet story about a mother and her very unique son. It's also about the pressures we put on ourselves to look after each other, and to prosper at work, and how you live when you feel like you're failing at both. I found it to be the perfect antidote to a pretty crazy year, one in which antagonism seemed to mainfest like actual air! This pretty little Tiffany box of a book was a great escape.
- Dan Graham, Assistant Promotional Director
November 2016. The immigrant story is as old as America. And it’s one we’re generally familiar with: somebody leaves everything they know behind to scratch out a hardscrabble new life in the land of opportunity for themselves and for their family. They prosper. Their children live wealthier lives. They assimilate. And the tapestry of America takes on a richer pattern, a grander breadth.
The Wangs Vs the World is not that story.
True enough, Jade Chang’s remarkable debut shares many of the classic immigrant story motifs, but it turns those conventions on their ear. Charles Wang is the scion of a landed mainland family living in exile in Taiwan following Mao’s revolution. He’s just starting out in business, but dreams of more than simply taking over the family urea factory. (Yes, urea as in urine. Turns out it’s in a surprising number of product!) He dreams of making it big and so with little more than his business acumen and gumption, he takes a gamble on America. The gamble pays off. At least for a little while. Charles builds a cosmetics empire, but when his hubris comes up against the 2008 financial crisis, Charles loses everything he’s worked for. America was a mistake, Charles reasons. With what little he has left, he resolves to go back to China and reclaim the land that the communists took from his family decades earlier. The need to reclaim his patrimony takes on epic importance as Charles faces the realities of his escalating failure. But before he can do battle with the communists, Charles first needs to reunite his far-flung progeny.
What follows is a road trip from Los Angeles to New York State as Charles, along with his children’s stepmother Barbra, collects his two youngest children from schools that he can no longer afford. Grace, the youngest, is a fashion blogging teen, nursing a grudge over being sent to boarding school in the first place and flirting with the idea of killing herself rather than enduring the indignity of her lost privilege. Her brother Andrew, the handsome, good-natured middle child, spends his time at college pining for true love while honing his stand-up set. Saina, the eldest, is coping with her own devastating turn of fortune. A recent art world “it” girl, she’s cloistered herself away from the Manhattan art scene she used to revel in to nurse the dual wounds of a disastrous show and a two-timing fiancé. It’s at her farmhouse that Charles intends to bring the family together again.
A family road trip may be just what Charles needs to buoy his spirits, but for Barbra it’s Hell on wheels. While her two youngest stepchildren simper and snipe their way across the continent in the backseat of their dead mother’s powder blue Mercedes station wagon and Charles hectors his lawyer via cell phone to secure the family land, Barbra is forced to reevaluate all the choices that have brought her to this moment. Is this really the life she signed up for when she abandoned her hard-working parents in Taiwan to scoop up the recently widowed Charles Wang all those years ago? And, now, faced with financial calamity, is it time for Barbra to reinvent herself yet again—this time away from the Wangs?
The Wangs Vs. the World is both a road trip novel and an immigrant story, and it does neither of them in ways that you would expect. That’s the book’s great strength. Despite the looming uncertainty, the Wangs never fail to support each other. Their love for one another and their shared sense of we’re-in-this-together dominate the story as their misadventures take them from moneyed Los Angeles to bucolic upstate New York and beyond. It’s this sense of filial devotion that perhaps reads most like the classic immigrant tales we’re used to reading. No matter what, the Wangs are going to stick together. They’re not going to let American ambition or Chinese bureaucracy stand in the way of their happiness.
I could go on. I still haven’t mentioned the humor—this is a funny book! Nor have I talked about Chang’s use of untranslated Chinese to immerse the reader in the world of the Wangs. But as jokes are best when not explained and road trips are memorable for the journey and not the destination, The Wangs Vs. the World is a book properly experienced firsthand.
-Dan Lopez, Author and Book Soup Bookseller
October 2016. Can you remember the last good fever dream you had? That uneasy sense of displacement, of things at once totally strange and vaguely familiar, of a world that adheres to its own set of rules yet not ones that we can so simply grasp? Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is a hallucination of the darkest kind, one that will grip you like vines and worm its way into your mind until you have no thoughts, no memories except for the ones that it wants for you.
This story benefits the reader most by the least amount of information he/she has diving in, so I will keep my summary short. Some time ago, maybe thirty years, maybe longer, an unspecified part of America's coast was taken back by nature. No one quite knows what happened. All we know is that a barrier appeared, surrounding this territory and cutting it off from the larger world outside. The American government quickly dubbed this "Area X" and created a mysterious new organization called the Southern Reach to observe and investigate it.
Over the decades the government has so far sent in eleven separate expeditions. The first brought back reports of a lush landscape seemingly untouched by man, save for the remnants of an old lighthouse. The second committed mass suicide within. The third turned on each other in a blazing firefight from the guns they brought with them. Each expedition following ended in some unforeseen tragedy, no members returning alive save for the eleventh, who left Area X, but only as mere husks of their former selves, until an aggressive cancer manifested and took them all.
Here we follow the twelfth expedition, composed of four unnamed women, experts in their respective fields. There is the surveyor, a militaristic woman with trust issues; the anthropologist, an empathetic and curious woman; the psychologist, the team leader harboring information about the territory and their mission; and the biologist, our impersonal point of view.
From page one it is apparent that nothing is what it seems. Through the biologist's inner narrative a portrait is painted of a dark Eden filled with bleak visions, creeping madness, and unimaginable terrors of a distinctly Lovecraftian nature. I read this book in one sitting, unable to free myself from its grasp until it was through with me, then immediately went and bought the second book. Yes, it is the first in a trilogy, the Southern Reach Trilogy, but make no mistake, this book works perfectly on its own. Each book continues the narrative, but is wholly different in theme, save for the impending dread dripping from the words. For those brave enough to venture within Area X on the twelfth expedition, stay strong, stay sane, and pray you come out the same, if you come out at all.
- Ben, Receiving Supervisor
September 2016. There are many ways in which one could categorize James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods. It’s a modern slave narrative, and a frightening one to be sure. It’s a comment on the present state of race relations and economic disenfranchisement in America. It’s a hero’s origin story, one in which the hero spends most of his time in the underworld and comes away from it more than a little scarred. Its title is even suggestive of the heroic mythology: if you eat the fruit of the underworld, you won't leave it unscathed. While Delicious Foods is all of these familiar things, it harnesses these attributes and emerges as a strikingly original, emotionally jolting and exquisitely written novel.
Our heroes, impoverished African American mother and son Darlene and Eddie Hardison, each are grappling with their respective handicaps right from the start. Eddie's physical handicap, introduced in the novel's introduction, remains a mystery until much later; we're confronted by Darlene's right away. A college-educated woman still devastated by survivor's guilt over her husband's lynching and trapped in dead-end work, Darlene has started to walk the street, hustling for johns to support both her young son and a just-barely-functional dependence on crack cocaine.
Right from the get-go, we meet “Scotty,” the literal personification of crack. Every other chapter is presented with Scotty’s sassy, serpentine narration as he (or she, or it) relates the story, interjecting "Bye, Felicia"-style sparklers that up the humor of many seedier passages, but also hammer home the grit:
“Get out there! I said. Ain’t nothing shameful ’bout trying to survive, bitch. Don’t you know the street always got a answer?”
Very soon, the street does seem to present an answer: One night, Darlene is approached about a job that will pay well and house and feed her. Before she can fully comprehend what’s happening, Darlene signs her rights away and is transported to her place of employment. Far from being a heaven-sent opportunity, the employer, Delicious Foods, operates nefariously, to say the least, fostering its employees' existing drug habit to keep them docile, all the while subjecting them to sub-standard working and living conditions and garnished wages. Constant threats of swift and arbitrary punishment for any infraction hang in the air like a flock of grackles. Darlene plans to call her son as soon as possible to let him know her whereabouts, but she’s denied access to a phone on the first night. Then the hours turn into days, then into weeks.
When Eddie finally tracks his mother down and joins the Delicious workforce himself, the company's management takes note of his natural tendencies towards leadership and his ability to seemingly mend anything broken. Soon, even Eddie finds himself stuck in the vortex of a cruel system balances occasional rewards and constant depravation. It’s equally unclear if Darlene will ever quite be ready to break up with Scotty and, by extension, the new normal she has made for herself at Delicious Foods.
From its kinetic opening chapter to its gruesome denouement and cathartic finale, Hannaham never fails to surprise the reader with intriguing, but believable, twists and turns, narrative curveballs that ratchet up the tension but never seem implausible. However grim or hopeless the situations in Delicious Foods seem to get, Hannaham's elegantly composed chapters and painterly prose never leave the reader wanting for moments of beauty or the promise of salvation.
For such a brutal and sweeping work, the word "sensitive" also comes to mind when discussing Delicious Foods. Hannaham's depiction of addiction, both shocking and relatable, makes Darlene's descent into Scotty's clutches, and the clutches of Delicious, all the more understandable. Add to this a lineup of characters that, in less capable hands, would come off as cartoonish: the small town curmudgeon named Sparkplug, the alcoholic bum named Tuckahoe Joe, local hookers named Giggles, Fatback and Kim Ono. Here, all are rendered with a vivid immediacy that makes them authentic, knowable, existing in a place beyond the traditional stock character. I was on the alert for ham-fisted passages, for contrived secondary characters with goofy names, and for preachy or didactic asides about addiction or poverty. By the final pages, my fears were still unmerited.
No single encapsulation really does justice to Delicious Foods. When I describe it to friends and customers, I usually say that it's a bit like The Wire, only it’s more Southern, more rural, more surreal. It feels at once rooted in the present conversation about racial and economic inequality, and, at the same time, effortlessly timeless. It’s reminiscent of, and compares favorably, to great works like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus. Yet, for all its familiar aspects, Delicious Foods remains truly unlike anything I’ve ever read.
- Kieran, Book Soup Bookseller
August 2016. Take any chance you get to read the essays of Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone magazine. No one these days captures the absurdity and sheer joy of popular culture quite like him. Maybe the Real Housewives and Kimye is not your bag, but trust us, you'll revel in the word play anyway, and his enthusiasm is catchy.
Sheffield is one of our finest rock journalists, too, possessed with a keen knowledge of all musical genres and his writing is witty, wonky, and completely accessible to the casual reader. He's not imbedded with the artist's entourage, he's reporting live from the sweaty mosh pit! He's a proxy for all music fans.
We chose Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time as our August pick for (Book) Soup of the Month because it's a fantastic book, one that will make you laugh, cry, recall your own early-adult life, and probably send you back through your old record/CD collection. If you are of a certain age, you might even be fortunate enough to still have a collection of mix tapes from the 90's.
Each chapter in this memoir begins with an actual playlist that Sheffield created at key moments in his early adulthood. I don't want to give away too much because the real thrill of this book is the discoveries you make along the way - young love, nights out, songs and bands you have long forgotten. Just keep some tissues handy. That's not to say this book will break your heart, but it's touching. It's a quick read, and a delight as well.
We thought maybe you could use a fun read to close out the summer, and while Mix Tape is not a new book (it was published in 2007), it's one that we thought you might have missed. If you love it as we do, please keep in mind that Sheffield has authored several other excellent collections including Turn Around Bright Eyes and most recently On Bowie. There's another new book on the horizon too, Dreaming the Beatles: A Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, which will be published by Dey Street Books in October.
- Dan, Book Soup Assistant Promotional Director
July 2016. 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
JUNE 2016. 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
MAY 2016. Sara Majka’s Cities I've Never Lived In is a graceful meditation on loneliness and loss, following the travels of a young New England woman fresh from a divorce. In fourteen interconnected short stories, this unnamed narrator drifts in and out of place, in and out of belonging, moving through settings familiar and strange. Crafted in language at once spare and rich with detail, each story in this collection took me by surprise with moments of instant recognition, as if Majka had tapped into a feeling I'd felt many times over but been unable to name.
The New York of Cities I've Never Lived In is one where the light on the subway strips strangers of artifice, "as if on the trains they wore the faces they had when alone." In its Maine, young women vanish into thick, coastal fog and islands are reduced to rubble. These settings, among others, find our narrator both surrounded by humanity and dreadfully cut off from it.
"The Museum Assistant" and the title tale are standout stories, exemplifying the collection's major themes:
In "The Museum Assistant" – a brief, atmospheric tale – an employee at an overlooked museum on New York City's Upper East Side obsesses over strangers she encounters, yet misses opportunities to genuinely connect. Everything in her life feels uncertain "in the way we sometimes wonder, when in love, whether this might be a person we don't love at all." Confronted with an image of herself as a child, she wonders how she ever could have felt the determined, focused certainty she sees.
"Cities I've Never Lived In" follows a young artist on a journey through mid-sized cities of the central United States in which she tours a series of soup kitchens (whether this is well-intended performance art or crass tourism in other people's misery – or if, perhaps, those are one and the same – is largely left to the reader's discretion). Our narrator awaits phone calls from a lover, visits church "knowing that it could be an answer to the loneliness, but that you had to believe in order for that to be the case," and ponders, with her mother, whether art can be too compassionate, whether art is inherently unkind.
"There are not enough cities in the world to make me happy," the narrator thinks. And this, perhaps, could serve as the collection's tagline. Its characters and the locations they move through are haunted by unhappiness. No change of scenery can erase this fundamental fact.
If the stories in this collection can, at times, feel inconclusive, that is only because loneliness and isolation – the central themes Majka revisits compulsively, unceasingly – are themselves without conclusion. Cities I've Never Lived In does not purport to offer solutions, and its few moments of true compassion can be hard-won. Nevertheless, readers will find in these stories moments of almost painful self-recognition. Majka's debut reminds us that, as insoluble as loneliness can seem, it is the job of the artist to make us feel, if not less alone than at least like our inherent, human loneliness is not only ours to bear.
-Nadine, Book Soup Supervisor