Summer Reading

I’m jealous that my step-daughter’s assigned summer reading for school is The Great Gatsby. I wish I could read it again for the first time. I was 15 and my family was packing to move the day I discovered it. We were in limbo awaiting moving day and all of my books were already packed. In my search for entertainment I found one stray, The Great Gatsby, my parents’ book, overlooked in a stack of paperwork in a closet. Maybe it was because I was moving, already anticipating the feeling of being an outsider like Nick. Maybe with my teenage world view I related to Nick’s moral superiority. Or maybe it was as simple as being drawn to a character named Daisy since my dog was named Daisy. I don’t remember why I started it but the pull was immediate and never stopped. Years later at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles I sat through the theater group Elevator Repair Service’s stunning six-hour cover to cover reading of The Great Gatsby. Six hours and I was still as mesmerized by Fitzgerald’s language and characters as the first time I’d read them. So if you’re looking for your summer reading I recommend The Great Gatsby, along with the summer reading list I compiled for the Los Angeles News Group.

Pat Conroy, R.I.P.

A few weeks ago bestselling author Pat Conroy announced that he had cancer, prompting me to start writing a letter to him. Conroy is one of my literary and life heroes and I wanted to tell him that, and to say thank you.  He thought he had a lot more time. So did I. Here is the letter I never got to send:

Dear Mr. Conroy,

I don’t believe I’ve ever written a fan letter before. After decades in the book business and a lifetime of reading I certainly have a long list of favorite writers but a fan letter seems to me to be something one writes only to heroes. You, sir, have been one of mine.

Your writing is big and bold—what you jokingly called “grotesque…and egregious excess”—and it pleases me to no end because you hold nothing back from your prose, every flourish and embellishment perfect for the lush, southern settings of your novels and as utterly satisfying for this reader as a rich, southern meal. You write about family drama and secrets, subjects that I am well versed in but find impossible to articulate. As I know how difficult that challenge is you’ve earned my respect and gratitude for your attempts as much as for your successes. I treat the publication of your books like holidays: I take long weekends to enjoy your familiar voice and retreat into your worlds, returning after three days refreshed and satiated . The Prince of Tides especially has taken up, in your words, “contented residence in (my) heart.”

In your personal life you have reminded me of Mother Teresa’s quote: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” I have watched you address sweeping injustices with small, meaningful gestures that no doubt improved individual lives but also mine and other witnesses’ I imagine.

In the midst of the civil rights movement, and the painful integration of black students into the all-white Beaufort schools, you lobbied for black studies curriculums, objected to racial slurs, lost your teaching job fighting for what you believed in. You and your friend Tim Belk living in San Francisco at the beginning of the epidemic brought meals and support to young southern men dying of AIDS who were thousands of miles away from the families who had abandoned them. You helped Shannon Faulkner, The Citadel’s first female cadet who was forced to leave your alma mater because of abuse, threats, and violence, by quietly picking up the tuition tab at her next college. In response to the pending termination of your beloved personal trainer at the Y in your hometown you started Mina and Conroy Fitness Studio, giving her a place to call her own.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons you shared with me through your books and your example was a belief in forgiveness. A concept I would venture to guess you both struggled and persisted with. After the many years of publicly battling with The Citadel your blog post about accepting an honor from them in the form of a plaque said so much about the complicated nature of forgiveness as well as our capacity for it.

Integrity. Forgiveness. A love of language. I am grateful for all of these gifts you’ve shared. And as I’m sure you of all people can understand, it just took me a whole lot of words to get to the two most important ones: thank you.

Please take good care of yourself. As you mentioned, you owe us another book and some of us are still waiting for the next lesson. In the meantime you’re in my thoughts and prayers.


All my best,

Allison K Hill

Happy New Year! (6 weeks late)

Already six weeks into 2016. How can that be?! Well, now that we’ve all acclimated here’s my list of recommended books to start your year off right:

Get the full scoop on all of these titles in my February Los Angeles Daily News column, “5 Books to Help Live Your Life with Intention.

#OurSharedShelf

Actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, launched an online feminist book club this week: #OurSharedShelf. Rock on, Emma!

 Top Feminist Reads for Emma’s Book Club

  1. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. My love for Roxane Gay knows no bounds. This is the perfect follow up to Watson’s first pick—Gloria Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Road. Steinem and Gay represent book ends to contemporary feminist history as well as offering different racial perspectives (not universal obviously but their own anyway) as both a white woman and a black woman, respectively. And Gay is just funny and smart and generally awesome.
  2. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine. Don’t be scared off by the academic title, Emma. This is a fierce, funny, important book about cultural stereotypes and neurosexism, the myth that men and women’s brains are “wired differently” and the subsequent dangerous repercussions caused by this belief in inherent gender differences.
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Fiction may seem like a departure from the spirit of your mission, Emma, but trust me when I say Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel—about a society that has dissolved to a point where fundamentalism is thriving, sexual violence against women is the norm, and women are subjected to institutional misogyny that makes them second class citizens with no control of their reproduction—will seem all too real in light of current events. #StandwithPP. #TheEmptyChair #YesAllWomen #YouOKSis #BringBackOurGirls
  4. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. Adapted from Ensler’s one-woman show inspired by over two hundred interviews with women from all walks, races, religions, and occupations talking about, you guessed it, their vaginas. Powerful. Painful. Hilarious. Victorious.
  5. What Will it Take to Make a Woman President by Marianne Schnall. The executive director of Feminist.com set out to answer her eight-year-old daughter’s question, “Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?” Featuring interviews with politicians, leaders, artists, and activists such as Gloria Steinem, Sheryl Sandberg, Nicholas Kristof, and Maya Angelou, Schnall addresses what may prove to be one of the most important questions of this election year. (Added bonus: Schnall uses this opportunity to encourage women to be leaders in their lives and in the world.)
  6. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. I consider poet and writer Audre Lorde’s collection of essays to be required reading for feminists. Through her personal perspective as a black lesbian she takes on a universal discussion of sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, issues profoundly important to the feminist movement.
  7. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf. I don’t know the origins of the bumper sticker, “If you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention,” but this book inspires this sentiment. The book’s title says it all.
  8. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This  Nigerian writer is so smart and so right on in her definition of feminism for the twenty-first century in this beautiful essay adapted from her Tedx talk of the same name.
  9. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai. This is the autobiography of a young Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. Her book offers and inspires discussion on a multitude of relevant topics including: the importance of education, global sisterhood, equality, female empowerment, and feminist activism.
  10. Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel. A provocative title by a provocative writer, best known for her memoir about drugs and depression, Prozac Nation. Though the book suffers presumably from the author’s admitted drug binge during its writing and research, its premise and its faults are worthy fodder for conversations and debate about defiance, self destruction and sexuality.
  11. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism by Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel. This pick is in honor of HeForShe, the UN’s campaign to bring men and boys into the movement to end inequality toward women and girls. Kaufman and Kimmel explain how understanding and supporting feminism improves men’s lives, too. They even received a nod from Gloria Steinem: “From sexist ads to honor killings, there are seventy-plus feminist issues explained…a relevant, inclusive, funny, and straight-to-the-point explanation of how and why feminism improves life for the male half of the world, too.“ Sing it, sister.

Thanks, Emma, for starting this conversation. I’m a big believer that books can change people’s lives (”This Book Will Change Your Life”); here’s hoping a book club can help change the world. 

Dear Publishers,

This is my second annual blog post about what readers are looking for. The information is based on the utterly unscientific insight deemed from working the bookstore sales floor during the busiest book buying time of the year. Take note.  

  • “Do you have any books with creepy narrators? I love creepy narrators.” (You are probably picturing a beady-eyed guy with grey hair, maybe a mustache; the customer was a middle-aged woman with glasses, paisleys, and a big grin.) I actually think this category was well covered this year (The Girl on the Train, Eileen, The Hand that Feeds You), but this customer argued, “You can never have too many creeps.”
  • “Do you have any poetry books for teens?” The young adult market is booming and there seems to be a disproportionally high number of dystopian novels and teen romances; surely we can offer them some good ol’ fashioned teen angst in the form of good ol’ fashioned poetry. And I happen to still have my junior high poetry journal if anyone is interested in publishing it. 
  • “I read The Martian and I’m dying to know what that guy did when he got back. You know, how he’s doing. Is there a follow up book?” This isn’t really a trend, more like a favor: this customer was so sincere in his interest and concern about the fictional astronaut Mark Watney that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he isn’t real. So I’d really appreciate it if someone can publish a sequel…”Former astronaut Mark Watnery has travelled the Milky Way but now he’s setting out on a new mission–this time in a RV called “Sam” with a dog named “Ruby.” And he’s about to discover the strangest planet yet, Earth.”
  • “Do you have any inspirational or funny audio books for an 80-year-old?” Or 70-year-old. Or 90-year-old. I’m asked this question frequently. The request is always for a gift for someone else so I can’t confirm whether the 80-year-old actually wants an inspirational or funny audio book but I will speculate that by 80 years old, you probably need one, or the other.
  • Multicultural children’s picture books. Please don’t make me say it again. #weneeddiversebooks
  • Books about Greyhound buses. The customer who made this request seemed fairly confident that we would have an entire section dedicated to Greyhound buses. I was speechless for a few moments then I tried to recover: “Are you interested in the, um, design or, uh, the culture or…?” “Both,” she said, without hesitation. Admittedly if this is a trend, she’s way ahead of it. 
  • “I have a friend who’s a big reader and I want to get them a book but I don’t know what they’ve read. Do you have any books on reading? Or the love of reading?” One of the most common questions I get. (And it happens to be the topic of a book I’m working on…)
  • “Do you have a good book to recommend?” Music to my ears. Still the most common question, one that brings me pure joy (and job security).

 Meet my new friend, Barney. Barney is recommending today’s books:   Barney’s Five Favorite Badass Dogs and Their Books    Luath and Bodger.  The
Incredible Journey  by Sheila Branford. These badass dogs (along with a Siamese cat named Tao) are at the center of this beloved children’s adventure about a trio of animals on a journey to find their owners.   Chet.  The Chet and Bernie Mysteries  by Spencer Quinn. With his one white ear and one black ear, this K-9 school drop out is the unexpected hero of this smart, charming mystery series about canine detective, Chet, and his human partner, Bernie Little of the Little Detective Agency.  Lava.     From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava .  This is no  Marley & Me . Veteran Jay Kopelman and journalist Melinda Roth somehow find a heartwarming tale in the harsh context of the Iraq war, complete with the realities of corruption, bureaucracy, human suffering, and moral ambiguity. This is the true story of Lava’s journey out of Iraq.   The Adventures of Hank and Mr.
Cornflakes.  This difficult to find picture book is about two dogs who work customs at LAX and live big off the loot they confiscate from travelers. One of the illustrations is of Hank & Mr. Cornflakes throwing a party with meat, fruit and liquor they seized at customs. The party is off the hook, complete with a DJ, cigars, and a live chicken.  Marrow (John Irving’s dog), Harold (Denis Johnson)’s dog, Bob Barker (Lynda Barry’s dog), Audie (Amy Temple’s dog)  and others.   Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs ,  edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepard. Dogs who write poetry?! It doesn’t get more badass than that.    Barney lives in Malibu, California and is currently working on a memoir. 

Meet my new friend, Barney. Barney is recommending today’s books:

Barney’s Five Favorite Badass Dogs and Their Books

  1. Luath and Bodger. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Branford. These badass dogs (along with a Siamese cat named Tao) are at the center of this beloved children’s adventure about a trio of animals on a journey to find their owners.
  2. Chet. The Chet and Bernie Mysteries by Spencer Quinn. With his one white ear and one black ear, this K-9 school drop out is the unexpected hero of this smart, charming mystery series about canine detective, Chet, and his human partner, Bernie Little of the Little Detective Agency.
  3. Lava. From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava. This is no Marley & Me. Veteran Jay Kopelman and journalist Melinda Roth somehow find a heartwarming tale in the harsh context of the Iraq war, complete with the realities of corruption, bureaucracy, human suffering, and moral ambiguity. This is the true story of Lava’s journey out of Iraq.
  4. The Adventures of Hank and Mr. Cornflakes. This difficult to find picture book is about two dogs who work customs at LAX and live big off the loot they confiscate from travelers. One of the illustrations is of Hank & Mr. Cornflakes throwing a party with meat, fruit and liquor they seized at customs. The party is off the hook, complete with a DJ, cigars, and a live chicken.
  5. Marrow (John Irving’s dog), Harold (Denis Johnson)’s dog, Bob Barker (Lynda Barry’s dog), Audie (Amy Temple’s dog)  and others. Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs, edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepard. Dogs who write poetry?! It doesn’t get more badass than that. 

Barney lives in Malibu, California and is currently working on a memoir. 

Retreat

For the next three days I am on a writing and restoration retreat of my own making. (And that of my sweet husband’s, since he’s holding down the fort at home.) So in honor of my retreat I (quickly, because I’m supposed to be working on my book not writing a blog entry) offer you your own opportunity for retreat:

Five Favorite Mini-Retreat Books

  1. 8 Weeks to Optimum Health: A Proven Program for Taking Full Advantage of Your Body’s Natural Healing Power by Andrew Weil. I woke up this morning and drank lemon water and practiced yoga. I know these two things are the perfect way to start each day, yet I never do them. Retreats are a good time to re-focus on our health and healthy habits. Over the years I’ve often turned to this book to re-focus myself. Dr. Weil is simple and elegant in his health advice and his steps, though not revolutionary, are easy and effective ways to take care of yourself. 
  2. Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. This one’s for the ladies. A funny, intimate, irreverent, poignant, straight shooting, heart baring, girl power book that will jazz you. Rhimes is known for her hit shows: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder but now she can add bestselling author and sisterhood guru to her resume. 
  3. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat with Sylvia Boorstein by Sylvia Boorstein. Don’t you love this title? I’m a “doer” so Boorstein’s book is a good reminder for me to just stop. Stop and Be. My favorite meditation teacher/writer, Jack Kornfield, called this book: “Graceful, clear, completely user-friendly instructions for mindfulness practice.“ And it’s true, Boorstein makes Buddhism and mindfulness accessible; she also adds humor and stories to enliven and engage.
  4. Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch. When I think of David Lynch I think of his surreal, often violent, arguably brilliant and weird films, including Blue Velvet, the only movie I’ve ever self-censored. (I started watching when I was 17 and quickly realized that I was too young.) But Lynch is also a spiritual and philosophical being with 30 years of transcendental meditation practice that informs his creative process. His book of 85 brief chapters is random and somewhat incohesive but I didn’t care; it was refreshing to have someone discuss spirituality and creativity in a unique way and the panning for gold pays off. (There’s also a scattering of biography, filmmaking, and gossip.)
  5. Anne Lamott. If you’re a writer, you should read Anne Lamott. If you’re a human being, you should read Anne Lamott. And if you’re looking for a retreat, well, Anne Lamott is your facilitator, your guide, your new kick ass best friend. Read Bird by Bird as a reminder to take baby steps when things seem overwhelming. Read Operating Instructions as a reminder to let go of worry and control and allow events to unfold naturally. Read Help Thanks Wow for a reminder to ask for help, show gratitude, and ook for the sacred and extraordinary in the everyday. Read any of her nonfiction books and you’ll be given the gift of a funny, wise, entertaining teacher.

I’m off to write and restore…

Poetry Saturday!

Years ago I brought a guest with me to an art opening at the Hammer Museum here in L.A. I was deciding whether to date this man who was considerably older than I was and a little bit of an enigma. At the end of the evening I asked a couple of friends what they thought of him. One replied, “He seemed nice.” Another said he was “handsome and smart.” And my friend Stephanie Ford gave it thoughtful consideration, then described him as “curmudgeonly and urbane.” And in her two words I suddenly understood the strange push and pull I had been feeling toward this man for months. That’s what Stephanie Ford, my friend and poet, does. She simply and eloquently reveals the heart of the matter. And her new collection of poems, All Pilgrim, reveals our ordinary day to day lives here in Los Angeles. With titles like “If Every Point is an Origin” and “Temporary Assets of the Visible West” her poems manage to see through the smog of the city and honor its light with a surprisingly hopeful undercurrent and a wonderfully specific vantage point. And through her efforts our ordinary days spent merging with traffic or gridlocked seem suddenly extraordinary.