Friday, July 21, 2017

Favorite Books 2017: First Half.

Doing a favorite-books-of-the-year round up at the end of the year always stresses me out, although I have done it several times here in the past. A year is such a long time. And my reading memory is bad. It's hard to recall all the exact reasons why I loved a book in January eleven months later. My general recollections with books or movies or other cultural things end up having to do more with emotion than detail as time passes by: Oh, I remember loving that. I liked that! But then when a student, for example, wants to excitedly talk about plot points or characters in a book they have also read, my mind blanks and I just have to nod enthusiastically or agree in vague, generic terms.

So I hoped to do more frequent round ups this year, every few months or so, both to reduce the anxiety and make more accurate and readable lists. But shockingly, that didn't happen! A six month round up still kind of stresses me out, to be honest, but it's better than twelve!

In general, I need to get better at writing about books on here. I need to get better at talking about books everywhere. It may seem strange, as I am a librarian and am very passionate about being one, but I feel like I'm still learning how to talk about books. The example above might be proof of that, but it's not all about having an old person memory.

Reading still feels like a very private thing to me, something that gets to the deep down quiet place inside of myself, a place that has remained the same since I was small. I've been writing more in a paper journal this year, and in that journal I've started thinking about parts of my identity that have traveled the bridge from the small girl in Pennsylvania to the grown woman in Oregon. So many things haven't traveled across that bridge (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) but there are a few important things that have. The need to be alone every now and then. The need to explore. And reading.

Maybe because of how personal my reading life feels, there's also a weird level of insecurity when it comes to being really vocal about books. Even though it's literally my job. I should say that I LOVE doing book talks at work. They are so fun, and kids get so excited. It is the best! My job is the best. But at the same time, these thoughts always wander in. What if I recommend books to people and they hate them, and subsequently judge me and my ability to recommend books? Or sometimes, telling everyone in the world about a story takes away from the personal connection I had with those characters, that time and place. Which is selfish, of course.

This is all a neurotic explanation to say that I'm going to be better about talking about books, because I want to be better at my job. I want to better influence this world that means so much to me. So I'll tweet and Instagram more about what I'm reading. And maybe in 2018, I'll write more frequently in here about books than every six months. But for now, here are my Top Ten fave reads of January through June of this year! I know, I know, it took a long time to get here, but here we go! This list is middle grade heavy because middle school was where I did the most book talks this spring.

10. Roller Girl, Victoria Jamieson
Realistic Graphic Novel; Middle Grade
Dial Books/Penguin 2015

This graphic novel was so great! Based on the summer camp that the world-famous PDX roller derby team, the Rose City Rollers, puts on for girls each year, it was super fun seeing all the Portland-y stuff incorporated into this book. But what this story really captured so well is universal: how hard it is when you start growing apart from the people who used to be your best friends. Astrid wants to be a roller girl. Her best friend Nicole...doesn't. Throughout the book, Astrid is so stubborn and dramatic about so much stuff, but it felt really real to me. You are stubborn and dramatic when you're a kid, especially when you're starting to discover who you are. I loved the art in addition to the writing--fun, colorful, accessible to readers of all levels.

Plus, this book won a Newbery Honor, which is really unique and wonderful for a graphic novel. Yay for graphic novels!

9. The Gauntlet, Karuna Riazi
Fantasy/Adventure; Middle Grade
Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster 2017

This book was pure fun. It's half Jumanji, half Rick Riordan mythological adventure. Farah and two of her friends get sucked into a twisted game called, ominously and awesomely, The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand. Farah's brother was whirled into the game first, but Farah and her friends need to complete a series of difficult tasks within the game before she can find him and they can all escape back to the real world. While the concept itself is fun, what makes this book really special is that Farah is Muslim and everything in the game has Middle Eastern and South Asian themes. All the food that's described in particular made me so hungry! It is not that this book is great just because there are diverse characters in it, it's that kids don't get to read these types of stories with these types of characters in them enough. And the folks at We Need Diverse Books are changing that, and it is super exciting and rad.

8. Along for the Ride, Sarah Dessen
Realistic/Romantic Fiction; Young Adult
Speak/Viking 2009

Reading all of Sarah Dessen's back catalog became a hobby and a goal for me this year, one that I actually plan on writing a whole separate blog post about, so I'm going to save most of my thoughts for that. But I'll just say that while I think Saint Anything was my favorite of hers that I read last year, so far this year, Along for the Ride has given me the most feels.

7. Full Cicada Moon, Marilyn Hilton
Historical Fiction; Middle Grade
Dial 2015

The contents of this book are just as beautiful as its cover. This is a novel in verse, which I am just a sucker for. An absolute sucker. I don't think I've ever read a novel in verse that I didn't like. But! I was especially moved by this one. It's set in 1969, and Mimi and her parents have just moved from Berkeley to a small town in Vermont for her dad's job. Mimi, who is half black and half Japanese, suddenly stands out starkly from her white classmates, and most of this story deals tenderly and deftly with her finding her place in a foreign land. As you can imagine, it's by turns enraging and heartbreaking. At the same time that her racial identity is confusing to people, she's also a girl who wants to be an astronaut, which confuses people's gender expectations, as well. Mimi is the best, and so is this book.

6. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West
Non-Fiction, Essays; Adult
Hachette 2016

Aaand this is where we awkwardly jump from mostly-middle-grade fiction to non-fiction for badass ladies! Because I contain multitudes, and I'm a school librarian, but I'm also a body positive opinionated grown ass feminist, and it's good for me to read books like this every now and then to remind myself that I get to be more than who I am at work. Not that I'm NOT a body positive opinionated grown ass feminist at work, but, you know what I mean. I can't always be as loud of a woman as I am in my head. 

Like all essay collections, there were ones in here that I loved more than others, but overall I appreciate Lindy West for everything: her honesty, her humor, her ability to stand up to awful human beings online but still be vulnerable and human. The first essay in here had me legit laughing out loud, but after that, a lot of them take on more personal, serious tones, but I am here for all of it, the witty pop culture stuff and the gut-punching personal stuff. I don't always necessarily agree 100% with Lindy--which is good--but the world is better with her in it.

5. All American Boys, Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Realistic Fiction; Young Adult
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster 2015

All American Boys tells the story of police brutality and its fallout, from the point of view of the black kid who was brutalized and the white kid who witnessed it, and who also has a personal connection with the officer. I love Jason Reynolds and anything he does, so I loved the Rashad chapters, but I also loved Quinn's chapters. They were both really complex characters in tough situations, both with complicated relationships to the police, trying to figure out the right thing to do in a world that, honestly, doesn't give them that much guidance. This might be a small spoiler, but in the end, I think maybe it all wrapped up a bit too idealistically. But honestly, ideal conclusions aren't always bad for kids to see. Kids need hope. This was one of the first teen books to deal with police brutality, and to deal with it well, and it was a game changer.

4. The Marvels, Brian Selznick
Historical/Realistic Fiction; Middle Grade
Scholastic 2015

God, the painstaking detail that goes into Brian Selznick's books. They are magic and I have absolutely no idea how he does it. I don't think I could accomplish ONE of these masterpieces in a lifetime, and he has done THREE! And will likely do MORE! Anyway, if you've never read one of his feats of genius, they are half written word, half gorgeous pencil drawings, and they are enchanting. The Marvels is split into two: the first half, an epic visual journey through the seafaring, theater loving family of the Marvels; the second half, a novel about a boy running away from his boarding school to London, where he finds and tries to get to know his mysterious uncle. This book talks about Shakespeare, HIV, family, and loneliness, and every time I think about it it breaks my heart a little more.

3. The Screaming Staircase, Jonathan Stroud
Fantasy/Horror; Middle Grade
Doubleday 2013

This is one of those gems that I only read because a student recommended it to me, and then it ended up being awesome! This is a much scarier book than I would normally ever read (and YES, it's a children's book, WHAT OF IT). But after reading it, I understood why kids like scary books so much. Because man, was it FUN. Basically, it's about fighting ghosts in London, but it's written so well and charmingly. The suspense is spot on and wraps you in so you don't want to put it down. Kids' books are the best!

2. The Serpent King, Jeff Zentner 
Realistic Fiction; Young Adult
Crown/Random House 2016

The Morris Award winner this year, The Serpent King is...not fun. But it is stunning. There's not a lot of action in this book, as opposed to The Screaming Staircase, but the characters are so good. I love books where not a lot happens but the characters are so good. The main character, Dill, is a poor kid in the South whose father, a delusional preacher who believed his power to control poisonous snakes was proof of the power of God, is currently in jail for possessing child pornography. The story shifts between Dill and his two best friends, Lydia and Travis. All three are incredibly different but somehow fit together in a place that isn't too kind to any of them. 

I liked this book for a few reasons: even though Dill's father is obviously an example of religion gone bad, Dill still struggles with what Christianity and faith means to him. One of my students whose Christianity is really important to her loved this book. And I love that both she and I could love this book. I also liked this for its honest portrayal of what it's like to be poor, especially in a small town. How hard it is, how it makes you feel stuck, no matter how much more privileged people tell you you just have to dream big and everything will be better. These characters were all real and brave in their own ways, and getting to be part of their friendship through reading this book felt really special.

1. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
Realistic Fiction; Young Adult
Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins 2017

THUG has been THE It book of the 2017 youth literature world. And having finally read it, it deserves every single accolade it's been given. I have to be honest and say that I started reading this book--which begins right off the bat with a fatal police shooting--soon after it was released in March. And by the time I got to the chapter where Starr, the main character who witnessed the shooting, and her mother left the police station, I had to put the book down. I was so infuriated by everything that had happened already in the first 50 pages and I knew everything that was going to happen next. And with everything happening in the world these days, I just couldn't handle it. Which is ultra white privilege-y of me, to just shut my eyes to things that are hard. Which I recognize. But a few months later, I did pick it back up, and once I did, I couldn't put it down for the next 400 pages. Not only is this an important story, but it is such a well written, engaging one. It is so wonderful.

I hate that I even have to say this, but everyone should read this book because it takes the headlines and humanizes them. I hate it because I wish human beings inherently saw other other human beings as human in the first place. But alas, I know how many students at the high school where I work tried to write research papers for their English classes this year about how Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group. So I know that we don't. And I hate that my first thought was how parents and some students will be upset about this being in my library because of how much cursing there is. But man, I hope protective parents can get past the words to the story. Because I was absolutely floored by it.

Runner-up good reads from the first half of 2017 that I ran out of space for: Marian by Ella Lyons (historical queer YA fiction); Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch (non-fiction; education policy); and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (luscious middle grade fantasy, current Newbery winner). See you in December for more.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

LA & Joshua Tree 2017: Top Ten.

My goal for capturing my personal adventures on this blog lately has been to condense everything into a Fave Five list. But in thinking about the jam packed week we just spent in Southern California, documenting only five things simply doesn't feel right. So this will be a Top Ten kind of adventure! 

Top Ten adventures, especially in the heat of summer, are exhausting but epic. I am happy to be home in my green, temperate Pacific Northwest, reunited with my cat and dog and my own bed, but also grateful for the time I got to spend in both the desert and the adrenaline fueling freeways of LA. While it had been a while since my last visit, I've been to LA a few times now, and even though it's sprawling, overwhelming, and gritty, there is something I love about it. There is something freeing about exposing as much skin as possible to the hot sun (even though I know how bad it is for me), and something refreshingly primal in remembering how green-blue the Pacific can look, in contrast to the stormy, overcast blue-gray I'm used to in the Northwest (even though I love that Pacific, too).

I love the food and the street art. I love the palm trees and the Spanish language flowing everywhere, listening to KROQ while sailing down freeways in a smooth rental car. I love how different it is from everywhere else I have ever belonged, but how I can still feel a small tug from somewhere inside towards those unforgiving landscapes and streets. All week we kept saying, "There are too many people here." But like New York, like all major metropolises, there are reasons why so many humans flock to a single place. And the more people, the more stories, the more possibility. It's a vast, complicated place, but that means there is always more to explore, more to want to return to and know.

Here's what we discovered this time, starting, of course, with food:

10. Komodo & Chego (& okay, more)

When we first got in, we spent the day exploring Venice, always an entertaining venture. But during a day that involved air travel and an unforgiving heat wave, we were wiped and needed a break from the crowds pretty quickly. Dipping in to Komodo for lunch was the perfect respite. I had three of their tacos: the Asian Marinated Chicken, the Loco Moco, and the Banh Mi Chicken. They were all delicious, but the Banh Mi (in focus in the photo) was undoubtedly the juiciest and my favorite. Although in terms of prettiest, props need to be given to the Loco Moco, which had the cutest, tiniest little fried egg atop the cutest little beef patty.

I also splurged for one of their "nectars," fancy SoCal word for juice, in the seasonal special of kumquat. And not only was it delicious and ridiculously refreshing, but the excellent workers in the dining room gave us constant free refills, which I was not expecting at all. I would definitely go back and try everything else on the menu.

In other Korean fusion news, another favorite place of mine was Chego!, a Roy Choi creation in a Chinatown mall that you might miss behind the line for Howlin' Rays chicken. This was, in fact, how we ended up eating it, once we realized that a 2+ hour wait for chicken wasn't going to quite work in our timeline, but I'm really glad we did. I opted for the Sour Cream Hen House bowl, along with an order of the Ooey Gooey Fries. Both were outstanding--those Ooey Gooey Fries were really something else--but my only complaint was that I truly wish the serving sizes were smaller. That might be an obnoxious thing to say, and it is very likely that I created my own downfall by ordering TWO dishes covered in that ultra rich sour cream sambal, but I could only dig into half of each before feeling completely overwhelmed and overfull. It's always disappointing to me when I have to waste so much good food, especially on vacation when I know there's not many other options, aside from finding a homeless person to give to, which I don't always remember to do.

We did make Howlin' Rays a goal though, and returned the next day determined to survive the wait and eat that Nashville hot chicken because, like, it's good not to give up on goals. I had an anxiety attack about an hour into the wait, but with the helpful donation of a Xanax by Manda and a trip around the block to the Chinatown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I made it through. Thank you, public libraries, for not only contributing to the betterment of our societies but for providing an air conditioned place for a girl to take some deep breaths in.

As for the chicken itself once we finally achieved it, I got the hot level of heat because it's called HOT chicken, right? Even though I was warned it contained ghost peppers and the description on the menu is "burn, baby, burn," I didn't know if I'd be able to do it after the first bite. But again--goals. It took a lot of focus and a lot of pickles and comeback sauce but I ate it, and it was really good, but to be honest my memory is more of the pain than the taste. Like, if hiking 150 miles on the PCT last summer was a 10 in difficulty for me, finishing this fried chicken breast was probably about an 8. I just want to make the people who love me proud.

Finally, I don't have any pictures of it, but I must also mention the mac & cheese from Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, outside of Joshua Tree. This was the strangest location of anywhere we ate, but it was worth the weird drive to nowhere. My actual entree was the pulled pork sandwich, which you could tell was actual freshly pulled pork with a great sauce, but my side of mac & cheese was out of this world. I couldn't finish it because at a certain point my stomach forced me to stop, but I ate enough until I was in pain because it was SO GOOD.

I promise the rest of this list won't be as long-winded as this. There was just a lot of food.

9. That "Lock Trump Up" Guy on Venice Beach

As we walked up and down Venice Beach, we kept crossing paths with a man who was pulling a boombox in a wagon, blaring over and over a little rap diddy he had clearly penned himself entitled "Lock Trump Up." The chorus of this was pretty easy to catch on to, and it brought me pleasure each and every time. This was a couple days before the Trump Jr. emails, so I imagine now he could definitely revise his Russia verse!

This guy was in fact different from the guy who resided over the booth pictured above. But they are both true American heroes.

8. Little Tokyo

We spent time in a lot of different neighborhoods, but I found myself particularly charmed by Little Tokyo, specifically Japanese Village, a pedestrian friendly plaza full of shops and restaurants. Cafe Dulce is the heart of this inviting neighborhood, and it's full of donuts, rotis, sandwiches, salads, matcha, and strong coffees and teas. I tried the Hong Kong milk tea and it was intense and delicious. 

7. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

While I've already talked about food a lot, ice cream deserves its own number. Shockingly, we didn't eat a ton on this trip, but we saved the best for last with a visit to Jeni's Ice Creams on our last night in town. The shop was bright, attractive, and friendly, and I got a scoop of salted peanut butter with chocolate flecks and a scoop of orange blossom buttermilk frozen yogurt. Both were wonderful.

This ice cream date followed a dinner at Yuca's Taco Stand down the street in Los Feliz, where I got a cheap and perfect burrito. One thing I will say about a trip to LA is that it is almost prohibitively expensive--I don't know how we survived it--especially the food and drinks. Having an authentic, simple, and completely affordable last night meal--taco stand and ice cream--was so thoroughly enjoyable.

6. San Gabriel Square

For the last half of our trip, we stayed at a nice hotel right across from San Gabriel Square, a huge shopping mall full of Asian shops and restaurants that was so fun to explore. We had dinner one night at Wang Xing Ji/Juicy Dumpling on the second floor of the mall, and everything we tried was really good and our waitress was so kind to us, even though it was clear we were ignorant white people. I ate my whole meal with chopsticks (a skill I have always been poor at) and I don't think I made too much of a fool of myself! We also learned the proper way to eat a dumpling (even though I still just popped the whole thing in my mouth).

We bought a bunch of Japanese candy at Aji Ichiban, some Hong Kong pastries at Kee Wah Bakery, and of course, a bunch of adorable and cheap things from Daiso Japan, the BEST STORE EVER. Another morning, I got a lavender milk tea boba at Boba Ave 8090, and was so delighted when it came in this fat little bucket of a cup. This photo sadly does not really capture its delightfulness.

5. The Abbey

The food was just fine, the drinks were expensive (although they were expensive everywhere), but goddamn, there is something about a gay bar. I just immediately felt so happy here, in such a deep and safe way, like I immediately feel happy and comforted when I feel the rumble of Dykes on Bikes about to start a Pride Parade. If we had more money and time, I would have stayed there all night. I understand why straight people are jealous of us. We are special and we are fabulous.

4. Seeing Good People

Because we are lucky enough to know a lot of wonderful and talented folks, we know a lot of people in LA. We were able to meet up with a lot of them: singing "That's Amore" with Cat at C&O Trattoria and watching her kill it at karaoke, having a fantastic brunch with Ali at Messhall Kitchen, enjoying a long lunch in Chinatown with Ann, and being able to squeeze Zoe and Pablo in Malibu on our very last day. All of it made my heart richer. And still, we missed being able to catch up with Erial, or Ellie and Matt, as well as some of our extended families who live in the OC. Guess we'll just have to go back...

3. The Broad

Manda was able to reserve us tickets to The Broad, a new-ish art museum in Downtown LA that is free but so popular that you have to reserve a spot weeks in advance, and people wait in a standby line outside every day for the chance to get in. I am so glad Manda is on top of these things, because this really was a wonderful museum. 

The top attraction is Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room, for good reason. A room full of lights, mirrors, and water, each visitor enters alone for 45 seconds. You have to sign up for a chance to visit the room pretty much as soon as the museum opens, or you might not get in at all. I know, intense art museum times! I was happy we were able to get in, especially since the exhibit is only on display through September of this year. While I enjoyed my time in the room, what I enjoyed as much or more was watching a small girl, maybe six or seven years old, exit the room ahead of me, her eyes wide and full of wonder.

The rest of the museum is also great, though, and includes a lot of video installations, as well, to an extent that I hadn't experienced before in art museums. I understood approximately 10% of these films, but still, it was cool. What I was most taken by were a number of huge sculpture pieces by the African artist El Anatsui, almost all made from found materials like wrappers and aluminum and copper. They were absolutely astounding. 

2. Universal/The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

This was the original intention for our trip, and as with all theme parks, it was amazing and exhausting! Disappointingly, though, this day helped me discover that I am, in fact, old. Meaning, apparently my system can't handle 4D things, or, I don't know, anything fun. We had expensive but incredibly useful Front of the Line passes, so within twenty minutes of being inside the park, we had already accomplished the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster, which was short but fun, even if some of the rotations made my stomach hurt a little. We then raced into Hogwarts for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. The design of this ride and the whole building itself is really incredible. However, once we were strapped in and started racing through the air, I very suddenly thought, oh no. Oh dear. And I proceeded to close my eyes, grip my constraints tightly, and just pray pray pray that I wouldn't throw up. A quick jaunt into the dark, cool Three Broomsticks helped considerably, but eventually we had to stop going on the 3D/4D rides. Which consisted of most of the rides in the park. And I love rides. While in line for a Krusty Burger, there was a generic old white dad in front of me who said, "Hogwarts made me even sicker than the Simpsons ride," and I was like RIGHT?? and immediately thought, oh my god, I am a generic dad. This is who we've become.

Anyway, I also got drunk off of one huge, overpriced Duff Beer, thoroughly enjoyed the Jurassic Park ride, and loved Waterworld. We returned to Hogsmeade later in the day to shop at Honeydukes and visit Ollivander's. Both were wonderful, but Ollivander's was truly magical. My favorite part of the Wizarding World for sure.

1. Joshua Tree

Apparently visiting Joshua Tree in the middle of July is not something most tourists do, as the temperature each day we were there made its way into the 100s. Still, even though it was hot AF and we literally couldn't do a lot of things outside for any extended period of time during the day, I still found myself feeling really connected to this bizarre desert landscape. I can definitely understand why artists and freaks, a population I typically feel a kinship with, are drawn to it. Even if I don't think I could ever live there. Because I like feeling the sun on my shoulders but I also like sweaters.

Kathy and I woke up early one morning to do a short hike at Hidden Valley in the park, which I highly recommend. Even though it was only a mile loop, it was so full of weird plants and rock formations and landscapes that it felt like we had traveled to a whole different world. In town, we loved Crossroads Cafe, and pastries and smoothies from Natural Sisters. I loved the friendly park rangers and learning all about Joshua trees in both national park visitors' centers along Highway 62. And of course, I loved looking at all the strange art and random stuff around Art Queen.

We stayed in this really awesome little camper, nicknamed The Cubbyhole on Airbnb, and once the sun started to go down it was cool enough, meaning in the 80s, to sit outside or enjoy the hammock. This was my favorite part of Joshua Tree, and perhaps of the whole trip--just sitting outside the Cubbyhole, reading and looking out at the landscape, enjoying the golden hue the sun shone onto everything as it made its way through the sky. Our first night there was lucky enough to be a full moon, and it rose quickly and suddenly, a bright red fireball at the horizon from the haze.

We also saw lots of animals in the desert: a coyote, lizards, quail, and a bunch of roadrunners! One animal that we saw too much of, though, was bees. At both Keys View and Cholla Cactus Gardens in the park, there were actual warning signs about the bees, and as we saw them literally swarming in the parking lots like a horror movie, we decided to stay in the car. I don't know if this happens all year or just during the summer, but let me tell you, it was NOT advertised in the brochure.

We learned a lot of things on this vacation like: never try to drive to Malibu on a Saturday. Always take advantage of a pool and hot tub if your hotel has a pool and hot tub. Budget more money for parking. Budget more money for constant hydration when you visit the desert in the summer. A Joshua tree is not a woody tree but an agave! We might want to kill each other at the end of long, hot days, but we still love each other. All we probably need is a good night's sleep. From the food to the desert dust still residing in all of my shoes, I'll be processing this vacation for a while.