Toni Morrison was one of, if not the, first writers who’s art, personality and legacy loomed large in my life. She had a distinct writing voice and a unique style. Equally laudable was her bold stance on race and racism that she incorporated in her prose, and often discussed during lectures and when interviewed. Growing up, she, along with, Maya Angelou, were the most prominent black female writers of the time, with my mother referencing them and my teachers including their books in our curriculum. I don’t know that can be said of most schools of the time because Morrison was not included in the official cannon of English letters. One of the benefits of living in Detroit, a predominantly black city, and going to a predominantly black high school, was getting some (not much, but some) exposure to writers of color.
Fast forward to just shy of a new century, and I remember being one of the first of my family and friends to anxiously see the screen adaptation of her renowned book, “Beloved.” Although it was clearly a tough literary venture to navigate and translate, a caution she presented to Oprah Winfrey when signing over the rights, and the results were a bit wanting, I still appreciated the specialness of the endeavor. It was a strong, successful and lone black female producer putting the iconic work of a legendary black writer on the big screen. Whether or not it was a completely successful cinematic venture or not, was secondary to the effort and what it represented. Just a few years later while living in New York, I attended what I think may have been my first book event. It was at the 92nd Street Y and featured Toni Morrison discussing her career and latest book. I was thrilled to witness the interview, showcasing her brilliance and legacy, while her message inspired any and all to tap into their inner creative selves. That, coupled with her affable and endearing, yet formidable presence and the unexpected honor to meet her at the end of long signing line, made for a night to remember.
Now older and in a career in which I am gratefully surrounded by authors, publishers and readers, I am afforded the luxury and honor to promote diverse books from emerging and established voices. Although the landscape is still mostly white and often male, it is also wonderfully more inclusive than times past. As such, I continue to recognize the impact of Ms. Morrison. The depth of her literary prowess is immeasurable, and the need for her moral barometer is undeniable. It is because of her we now have access to writers such as Roxane Gay, Tayari Jones, Yaa Gyasi, Zenzi Clemmons, Jesmyn Ward, Ta Nehisi Coates, and Zadie Smith, just to name a few. In other words, the reader, if they choose to, can now inhabit a world that is richer, more layered and refreshingly diverse.
In 2015, Roxane Gay interviewed Ms. Morrison for an airline magazine. She ended the interview as she does all her interviews, asking, “What do you like best about your writing?” To which Ms. Morrison, without hesitation, answered that she appreciated being able to “say more and write less, and give the reader more space.”
Toni Morrison, REST IN PARADISE.
As I am in the throes of organizing an upcoming special panel event on IMMIGRATION IN AMERICA, I am reminded of and emboldened by the success of the last (and first ever) special panel event I did last winter called RACE IN AMERICA. Here's a recap ...
To my utter surprise and delight, close to 150 people packed into the event room of Book Passage in Corte Madera last February (2019) to participate in a timely and important panel discussion event. Unbeknownst to all present, just by being there, they were supporting me and a monumental time in my life, personally and professionally. It was a Sunday, and by a seeming miracle, a dry Sunday- all day no less. Normally, in California, that wouldn’t seem to be such a phenomenon, but in the Bay Area that winter, the season was overwhelmed with rain. We went from several years of a drought, to the winter of 2018-2019 of endless rains. As such, I had to resist thoughts of low audience turnout due to weather. On that one fateful Sunday, we got welcome relief as heavens opened up to blue skies and pleasant temps. Of course, I was well aware that the good weather could also work against me, in that everyone would be taking advantage of the rare break from the rains and stay out hiking, biking and just not being inside. As it turns out, there was something we were all starved for more than a clear, dry day- to talk about the hot button topic of Race in America, present and future.
Although I have hosted many book events, involving author introductions and moderating , this was my first time curating an event and moderating a panel discussion. When I presented the project several months earlier for a special panel event evolving around a social issue, I knew it would be no small undertaking and especially daunting given the predominantly white landscape that makes up Marin County, where the event was held. Despite that, I felt a sense of urgency and welcomed the challenged. After securing the date, feeling Black History Month an appropriate time to honor such a discussion, I embarked on selecting the panelists.
A stellar and diverse group of talented and wise authors/activists came onboard, thrilled to partake in lending their voices on such a matter at such a pivotal time in our country. I could not have asked for a better mix of people- they all brought real-life insights and experiences on the subject from different perspectives. Below are their brief bios. If you couldn’t attend, check out the video of the event in its entirety by accessing this link. Please like the video and let me know what you thought about the discussion by leaving a comment.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras - was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Her first novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Doubleday) is an Indie Next selection, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a New York Times editor's choice. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Buzzfeed, Nylon, and Guernica, among others. She teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, and works with immigrant high school students as part of a San Francisco Arts Commission initiative bringing writers into public schools.
Brian Copeland - is an award-winning actor, comedian, author, playwright, television and radio talk show host based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began his career in standup at the tender age of 18 performing in comedy venues in San Francisco. n 2004, Copeland debuted his first one-man play, Not a Genuine Black Man at the Marsh in San Francisco. The play explored his childhood experiences as a member of one of the only African American families living in the then 94% white suburb of San Leandro, California.
Julie Lythcott Haims - is the New York Times bestselling author of How to Raise an Adult, an anti-helicopter parenting manifesto which gave rise to one of the top TED Talks of 2016, and now has over 4 million views. Her second book is the critically-acclaimed and award-winning prose poetry memoir Real American, which illustrates her experience with racism and her journey toward self-acceptance. A third book on how to be an adult, for young adults, is forthcoming. She is a former corporate lawyer and Stanford dean, and she holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard, and an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner of over thirty years, their two teenagers, and her mother.
R.O. Kwon - writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Buzzfeed, NPR, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in Seoul, Kwon has lived most of her life in the United States. Kwon’s nationally bestselling first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead, and it is being translated into five languages. Named a best book of the year by over forty publications, The Incendiaries was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for Best First Book, Los Angeles Times First Book Prize, and Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Prize.
Another special panel event coming soon to Book Passage and moderated by me - IMMIGRATION IN AMERICA: THE LAW, THE POLITICS, THE REALITY. SUNDAY, SEPT. 22ND at 4PM - Book Passage in Corte Madera
What do long road trips, hectic plane flights and basking on the beach have in common? For many people, it’s a good book. Summer is the season most synonymous with reading. Whether it’s having the time to kick back while on vacation, longer sunlit filled days to delve into your favorite genre while on the balcony, or simply making a shift in the type of books you read (keep it lighter, maybe even trashier for summer), more of us are getting our read on in June, July and August. Just recently, a colleague boasted to me that her reading drought was squelched. This after spending a long weekend away from the office and off the grid was she able to plow through a collection of carefully curated book selection. Not long after that conversation, another friend who was packing and preparing for flight across country sent a frantic text asking for book suggestions for her trip. I, of course, had no shortage of suggestions.
Just in time for this great seasonal pastime, numerous critically acclaimed bestsellers and/or indie titles have been released in paperback. This is especially beneficial for the consumer/traveler who doesn’t want to pack a heavier hardbound book. Below is a list (no particular order) of recommended titles. Most of this list include those books recently released in their lighter, more affordable format, but a couple hardbound exception are included. Clearly, they're worth the extra expense and weight.
It's the day before the Oscars and I'm hearing rumblings of a possible upset in a few key categories. Yep, the year's most creative and enticing film that took the movie industry by storm, Get Out, is said to have gotten last minute momentum among Oscar voters, and has won audience polls worldwide. Although on one hand I'd like to submit my ballot with selections of what I'd like to win or what should win, I'm weak (and broke), voting instead with my money and picking what I believe probably will take Oscar gold.
That having been said, I did happily, yet somewhat torn, check the box for Jordan Peele/Get Out for Best Original Script. Because of the Me Too movement guaranteeing a female win in some behind the scenes category, coupled with the impressive directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, I thought she and Lady Bird a lock in this category, but alas it will be Peele and his creative brilliance to prevail at least here. Also, expect this little film that could to take center stage at the Film Independent Spirit Awards the night before. And I am glad!
There's no time like now to DIVERSIFY your reading!
Recently, a white co-worker of mine- an especially smart, savvy, liberal, forward thinking colleague- with a voracious appetite for reading, that to narrow the selection, she's taken books by white men out the mix for awhile ... And for Black History Month she's focusing entirely on African-American writers and subject matter. While I commend her for her decision, diversifying (aka focusing (not exclusive, but focus) on minority and women writers) my reading is something I've been implementing for the past couple of years, and it's been true source of enrichment and delight, while also helping to narrow down the selection pool (there are sooo many good books out there!!!!). For this month, I'll feature and rotate brief reviews/ write up on some of my favorites.
For now, a short list below should get you shopping, borrowing, swapping and reading ...
- UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, novel by Colson Whitehead (just released in PAPERBACK- YAY!)
- REAL AMERICAN, memoir by Julie Lythcott Haims (see my full review here)
- JUST MERCY, social issue non-fiction by Bryan Stevenson (see my full review here)
- AMERICANAH, novel by Chimanamanda Ngozi Adichie
- WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER, politics/social non-fiction by Ta-Nehisi Coates (I can't emphasize enough how powerful and searing this book is. Every black person and every white person should read this!)
-I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, a classic novel by Maya Angelou (there are some books worth re-visiting)
More to come (not a title, just a promise from me).
IN PRAISE OF THE GIFT THAT KEEPS GIVING
If ever there was a good year to give the gift of a book, now is it. It’s been a banner year for books released by established, as well as, new writers. If you’re lucky to get your hands on a favored book that’s a signed first edition, even better. I have the honor of working with events for the world’s best and liveliest independent bookstores. And by lively, I do mean a bookstore that is more like a literary outpost with three locations, boasting up to 800 author-related events a year! As such, I get to witness the sheer delight people have in shopping for, selecting, giving and getting books, be they new, used, hardbound, paperback or coffee table. It’s discovering characters and experiencing stories in a new and affordable way. It’s maybe going to the politics and social issues section and stumbling into a hot button topic. Trust me, with the year we’ve all been having, it’s a section with brisk sales and hugely populated events. It’s the area that featured dynamic and insightful books such as “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.” I think the title speaks for itself. Additionally there is “Shattered” about How Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump is the riveting story of a sure thing gone off the rails, “We Were Eight Years in Power” by the always provocative Ta-Nehisi Coates, just to list a very few.
On the fiction side of things, Zadie Smith’s latest book, “Swing Time” is out in paperback, but there is a host of her younger (not that she’s old) American counterparts that introduced the world to themselves and their talent with stunning debut novels. That includes Brit Bennett with “The Mothers,” Zensi Clemmons with “What We Lose” and “Homegoing” by Yaa Giassi. For those who want a dose of reality, laudable biographies abound. I never thought I’d be much for indulging in memoirs, but thanks to feminist writers like Ariel Levy with her knock out book “Rules Do Not Apply,” “When Breath Becomes Air” by the Dr. Paul Kalanithi, actress Gabrielle Union’s “We’re Going to Need More Wine,” and “Real American” by Julie Lythcott Haims, I’m a believer. All of these deftly combine painful truth, with wit and inspiration. They tackle life issues such as race, abuse, homosexuality, life and death.
I could go on and on, but instead I’ll just leave you with yet another selection of suggestions(fancy for “list”) that I hope can be helpful while figuring out that special gift for the pickiest on your list. In addition to the books listed above ... FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION ...
Devotion (poems) - Mary Oliver
Obama: In Intimate Portrait - Pete Souza
Sloutching Towards Bethlehem (special edition) - Joan Didion
The Sellout - Paul Beatty (It’s in paperback now, but there are still some signed hardbound copies out there)
The Floating World - C. Morgan Babst (a lovely, touching story with the backdrop of hurricane Katrina from an writer that is New Orleans native)
Stay With Me - Ayobami Adebayo (unforgettable debut novel set in Nigeria.)
Since I launched this website, with particular emphasis on my writing related to film and books, I have been committed to highlighting diversity. Although my personal reads are not exclusive to women and minorities, it does take up the majority of my reading time and it is those groups I choose to review and promote. In an industry with a history of being dominated by white men, it's refreshing to discover new voices and often under-represented stories. Along the way just recently, I have encountered an impressive array of wonderful writers, some new, some seasoned professionals, but all enlightening and inspiring (not to mention envy evoking, with several twenty-something year olds who can boast stunning debut novels).
It is great to know I am not alone in this thirst for the diverse. It’s no secret that representation is a big topic in the bookish community. As it should be.
"From hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, founded by Ellen Oh, to #OwnVoices, founded by Corinne Duyvis, writers, agents, and publishers alike have been spreading awareness of how important it is to not only see an accurate depiction of yourself reflected in books, but to read about marginalized characters WRITTEN BY marginalized people. Books written for us, by us, can help eliminate misconceptions and stereotypes in stories." (Teen Vogue)
Please refer to my Book Reviews section to peruse existing titles reviewed. More will soon be added, including books by Ariel Levy ("Rules Do Not Apply"), "What We Lose" by Zinzi Clemmons, and "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi, just to name a few.
Cheese, Champagne & A Fabulous French Film
Francophiles stand and be counted ... Let’s celebrate Bastille Day with a few classic French films that you can enjoy without pulling out the passport to take an expensive trip abroad. I love French cinema and embrace any excuse to be whisked away to the city of lights, if only in my dreams or via le television.
For a great heist movie look no further than Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1955). This was set to be the perfectly executed crime, technically speaking, but the element of human emotions gets in the way. Although the whole movie is fun and intriguing, this has one particular scene that stands out and it has to be experienced to be believed. In it, while the bank heist is underway and everyone is playing their part, the at least seven minute scene takes place sans music or dialogue. That’s right, we’re talking seven minutes of silence, heavy breathing and close up shots of criminals under a time crunch. Sound boring? It’s anything but. You’re holding your breath and on the edge of your seat the whole time.
Anything from the French New Wave era - a cinematic movement of the 50s and 60s, headed up by the legendary Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Goddard, that forever changed how films were made and watched:
If a dramatic family saga is more your style, then “Jean de Florette” (1986) and its follow-up companion movie, “Manon of the Spring” will enthrall. This is an intriguing family drama sprawling over a couple of generations pertaining to land, class, love and vindication as a greedy landowner and his “slow” nephew block the only water supply to a neighbor. The cast is stellar headed up by the late great Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil in his debut. Jean de Florette’s follow-up, “Mannon of the Spring” (1986) features a debut performance by a captivating Emmanuelle Beart. This is where they juicy revenge comes in.
For a more contemporary selection, Michael Haneke’s “Cache” (2005) is a gripping thriller mystery showcasing dirctor Haneke at his best. Set in the household of a respected literary power couple, played by two of France’s most extraordinary actors, Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, they start receiving video tapes with odd and disturbing messaging in their mail. The husband takes matters into his own hands to solve the source of the scare tactics unfolding a thread to his childhood that challenges perception and memory while threatening his mindset, marriage and life as he knows it. There is nothing straight forward or easy about this. In fact, plan to watch this at least 2-3 times in order to absorb everything, which is a nice way of saying you'll never get it in one viewing.
On a light note, the 2011 dramady, The “Intouchables” is a story of an unlikely friendship without the cliches or sappiness of most other such films. Based on a true story of an affluent quadriplegic who hires an unemployed, gregarious troubled young immigrant as his caregiver, “The Intouchables” is imbued with charm and interlaced with subtle humor. As an added bonus, the use of music by Earth Wind and Fire is fantastic. I wouldn’t qualify this as great filmmaking or complex storytelling, it is solidly well-written, undeniably enjoyable and absolutely uplifting as personalities collide but an endearing friendship persists, changing both their lives forever. No doubt, in the hands of most American directors, this would have been a recipe for cheesiness and predictability, but thanks to writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano and their European sensibility, it’s anything but. Let’s see if I’m proven wrong on this last count when the American/English version starring Robert De Niro and Kevin Hart comes out soon.
So, open up a little Champagne accompanied by a bit of Brie on a baguette while watching any of my humble, yet delicious movie selections from above and ... bon appetite!
A Lackluster Not-So-Feminist Ending for a "Groundbreaking" Series
After six seasons of what many considered the fresh, groundbreaking series with a feminist edge, Lena Dunham’s Girls ends on a disappointing note. Over the years I have popped in and out of this HBO series, as in, not a regular viewer or big fan. That said, on some level I always understood the show’s appeal to the masses, and could appreciate the level of writing, producing and directing that it mostly delivered, especially at the hands of such a young talent. Although for me that was never enough to make me wait with baited breath for each episode or jump on the gushing bandwagon. This mostly because for all the good it had going for it, it always seemed to be outweighed by the fact that all the characters were whiny, self-absorbed and annoying. Also, let’s face it, at my age I can only take so much of the 20 something angst.
To be sure though I think women of all ages could appreciate (at least at first) that the main character, Hannah, is not your typical leading lady, and that was always ok. Not only is she, what some would say, a bit curvy or chuncky, that never seemed to matter to her or anyone else on the show. From day 1 she was comfortable in her skin and happy to flaunt it. Of course, it did hit some point where the in-your-face with my big body, love it or leave it attitude, seemed to go overboard. “All right, all right, we get it. You love your body. You’re happy to be naked.” But I digress.
For the series finale (spoiler alert), is a few months in to her decision to move from Brooklyn to Upstate New York and take on a teaching position with a local not named college. She has also delivered her baby, who is Black for some unsaid reason, and rooming with her self proclaimed best friend, Marnie who is hell bent on helping Hannah raise her son. At the point of the episode, the school year has not commenced and Hannah is having a rough time with the early stages of having a baby. Most of the latter revolves around the fact that the baby is not breast feeding despite Hannah’s best efforts. Unfortunately, this becomes the focus of the show. That and Hannah whining, bitching and moaning over the breast feeding issue and taking it as a personal assault on her character, determine to scar the kid and her for life. Needless to say, Marnie and Hannah’s mother (she flies in at Marnie’s request to help) are casualties of Hannah’s internal war. She is steadfast in throwing blame and responsibility for the baby’s care; yelling at her support system, and throwing in the towel. By show’s end, she takes a long walk and a deep breath, returning to the house willing to give the feeding a try again, with success. Fade to black. Ugh!
Really, you end the series with not much of time progression or character development? And only two other members of the original cast? For this, they should have just ended with the episode the week before (the girlfriends arguing in a bathroom at an engagement party for Shoshana, but later making up, sort of, and dancing the night away). Or they could have had the gang all together for Hannah’s baby shower, toasting to the past and to her new future (kind of sappy, but effective). Truth be told, I think it would have been better ended further in the future, showing Hannah professionally successful and embracing her life’s choices to move, having a steady job/career, and happy as a single mom. Wouldn’t that have been more interesting and satisfying? Not least of all, it would have sent a better message to the young female audience?
Reading: A Secret to Success or Sanity ... or Both?
A few months ago, I posted something about President Obama’s impressive, yet highly suspect summer reading list. In my piece I implied that it was hard to believe that someone so important and obviously busy would have time for leisurely reading. Whether he actually did the reading and created a recommendation list, or pawned it off to a staffer, I reasoned that the act of promoting reading in itself, was important and only added to his cool nerd factor. Since then and very recently, he has released yet another reading list and granted a sit-down interview with the New York Times regarding the invaluable role books have played during his presidency. Because of this, I have checked my skepticism at the door and embrace and applaud the fact that some people can be President of the United States and keep up with reading more than Homeland Security briefings.
Between dealing with Congress on one hand, terrorism on the other and mounds of meetings and appearances in between, clearly the presidency is a highly demanding and stressful position. In the midst of the daily grind and throughout his tenure, Obama explains in the article that books have been a source of inspiration and comfort. A few of his favorites are writings from Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. For obvious reasons, these are leaders he idolizes and whose challenges he can sympathize with, but judging from his latest list, it’s not just the oldies but goodies that get him through. He is seemingly an avid reader of contemporary books, both fiction and non-fiction. And although he admits that reading may not necessarily make him a better person, it does give him the ability to “slow down and get perspective on things.” Maybe that’s something we all can ponder, myself included, as we maybe procrastinate on reading or choose yet another streaming binge over a good book. Whether it's a secret to success or sanity or both, consider reading.
Check out the NY Times article at