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Under a desert sky, avid readers, aspiring writers, small presses, independent publishers, and other enthusiasts of the written word gathered on the Mall at the University of Arizona campus for the Tucson Festival of Books this past weekend. The five-year-old Festival drew over 100,000 people with free admission, free parking, and an impressive lineup. This year, authors such as Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain), Jodi Picoult (Songs of the Humpback Whale, Sing You Home), Chang-Rae Lee (Native Speaker), and Luis Alberto Urrea (Devil’s Highway, Queen of America) were featured in panels that strived to appeal to a wide variety of literary interests.

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Festival goers walk the Mall at the University of Arizona.

“Every genre will be represented,” said Bill Viner, chairman of the Festival. The extensive program, featuring over 300 presentations and 450 authors over 2 days, attested to this commitment. Panels, workshops and presentations were offered in poetry, nuestras raices, and multi-genre (fiction covering more than one genre), as well as memoir, children/teen, mystery, romance, sci-fi/fantasy and literature. Apropos to the saguaro-dotted setting, the Western National Parks Association celebrated its 75th anniversary with an exhibit at Science City, an area of the festival dedicated exclusively to the sciences.

Panels addressing recent events in Tucson were included, too: “Remembering January 8” (the date of the 2011 shooting in Tucson) featuring Daniel Hernandez, credited with saving Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s life that day; and “¡Ban This!”, a literary journal conceived in reaction to the 2012 controversial ban on Mexican American studies in the Tucson Unified School District, which resulted in the banning of five books written by Latino authors.

Families were a common theme, with panels covering the many ways in which familial relationships form the core of contemporary and historical stories. Books about Arizona history or settings added local color. The festival offered live entertainment at various stages, the sounds of which occasionally competed with the presentations occurring in outdoor tents; at times, I had to strain to hear the wise and funny words of legendary independent filmmaker and novelist John Sayles over the riffs of a nearby rock band.

Although a storm system brought chilly weather and light rain on Saturday, that didn’t deter festival goers, who arrived prepared with rain gear. “I am always impressed by the number of people who participate in the Festival, and how well it’s organized,” said Kristen Metzger, panel moderator and program director at Tucson’s Reid Park Zoo. “The Tucson community loves it.” The sun finally came out on Sunday, bringing a bright end to Tucson’s biggest literary event.

The Tucson Festival of Books occurs each year in spring on the University of Arizona at Tucson campus. Since its launch in 2009, the Festival has contributed $700,000 to local literacy organizations. Recordings from the Festival can be viewed at www.booktv.org.

On your visit to the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, in addition to touring the famous barrios of Recoleta and La Boca, plan to spend at least a few hours exploring the neighborhood of Palermo and the Microcentro, and consider a day trip to the Tigre region to enjoy the natural beauty of the Parana River delta.

Palermo

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Oui Oui Cafe in Palermo

Lined with leafy green trees, eclectic boutiques, and hip bars and cafes, the neighborhood of Palermo draws both tourists and Portenos alike. Start the day right at Cafe Oui Oui. The heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread engulfs customers as soon as they walk into the quaintly decorated space. A simple menu offers savory egg breakfasts and baked goods for breakfast, with lunch options that include sandwiches, salads, soup, quiche, hamburgers, and house-made limonada – lemonade tinged with mint.

After breakfast, wander around Palermo Viejo. Near Plaza Serrano, Capital Diseño y Objetos offers cute and trendy items for home and office. Papelara Palermo, a wonderful handmade paper store, stocks paper crafts both fine and functional and all made by local artisans, and is an excellent place to pick up gifts, such as notebooks decorated with photos of Eva Peron. Owoko is a shoe box of a store with a vibrant collection of unique and colorful clothing for infants and children aged 2-7. The quirky selection of women’s apparel at La Merceria (Armenia 1609) entices; especially impressive is the rack of designer and vintage formalwear in the very back.

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Jardin Botanico

For a green respite from the streets, head to the Jardin Botanico (Av. Santa Fe 3951). Designer Carlos Thays fought to have the garden built to preserve green space in the city. With huge trees and many benches scattered along shady paths, the garden is a treasure much appreciated by Portenos.

A similar treasure, nearby restaurant Hermann (Santa Fe and Malabia) is a Porteno favorite, and a solid option for lunch.  The old-fashioned restaurant charms with dark wooden booths and an antique wood and glass bar. White-jacketed waiters serve up hearty, traditional European fare, with dishes such as bratwurst, pork chops, and chopped vegetable salads.

The Microcentro

Downtown Buenos Aires, known as the microcentro, is bisected by Avenida Corrientes, the major thoroughfare of the city. A center of commerce, Corrientes lacks the large, shade-giving trees that enhance many BA neighborhoods, but it is a cultural haven. Start at El Obelisco, the national historic monument at the intersection of Avenida Corrientes and 9 de Julio, and wander down the street, taking in the myriad bookstores, theaters, bakeries, and confiterias (confectioners).

The city of Buenos Aires allegedly has more bookstores within its boundaries than the entire country of Brazil. This literary penchant is proven during a stroll down Avenida Corrientes. Most are Spanish-language, but some have a section devoted to foreign language books, including English, and the dedicated treasure-hunter can dig up archaic, ancient, and often hilarious tomes with some effort. One evening during my visit, the Avenida was closed to vehicular traffic for a book fair, with sofas set up on the street, open mics for writers, and bookstores open until late—a book lover’s dream.

True to its European heritage, Buenos Aires has marvelous pastries, both sweet and savory. Locals know that you can have anything in Buenos Aires delivered—from fresh chicken breasts to empanadas, meat-filled pastries—but Avenida Corrientes is an easy place to sample BA’s baked wonders for yourself. At the Havana store, you can buy neatly packaged boxes of the national sweet, alfajores, to take back home, but make it a point to sample fresh-baked alfajores and a variety of empanadas at one of the many bakeries on the Avenida. In its basic form, an alfajor is two buttery cookies sandwiching a sweet filling. There are as many different types of alfajores as there are Argentines: some are coated with chocolate, others with powdered sugar; some are cake-like and others crisp. Fillings vary from the classic dulce de leche (milk caramel) to raspberry jam.

BA also boasts excellent artisanal ice cream. Sample some of the city’s finest at Volta Heladeria on Avenida Callao in the microcentro. My Porteno friend advised me to select one fruit flavor, such as maracuja (passion fruit) or strawberry, and one sweet flavor such as dulche de leche granizado, a local favorite, or chocolate. Between alfajores and sorvete, BA has anyone’s sweet tooth covered.

Tigre and the Rio Parana

A day trip to the Rio Parana delta is a perfect addition to your Buenos Aires itinerary and a welcome break from the city. A short and scenic ride on the Tren de la Costa through some of the ritzy suburbs of Buenos Aires takes you to Tigre, the gateway to the delta region in outer Buenos Aires. Catch the Tren de la Costa at the Bartolome Mitre train station (Tren Buenos Aires) in Olivos, a suburb about 30 minutes from the Retiro train station in downtown.

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Museo del Tigre

From Tigre, you can wander along the riverfront through the town and visit the elegant Museo del Arte Tigre. Originally built as a social club in 1912, the museum is housed in an Italian-French-style mansion, graced with Doric columns, arches, and turrets, and is a National Historic Landmark. You can also board a water taxi, or lancha, for a ride up the river.

The lanchas are used by tourists as well as residents, who live on small islands scattered throughout the delta region that have no road access. The islands boast everything from plain cabins to modern homes and Victorian mansions, some in dramatic states of disrepair, making for a fascinating ride.

The land along the river is not open to the public, so if you want to get off the boat and walk around and explore the delta, you’ll need to purchase a paseo (tour) at the Tigre boat launch. It’s best to book a tour that includes lunch, preferably Argentine barbecue (parilla). Make sure to check launch times with tour vendors to ensure your timely return to Tigre to catch the train back to BA.

My Porteno host had called ahead and booked us a tour at Delta Aventura Bonanza, a little over an hour upriver. When we arrived, our lunch was being grilled on the outdoor brick barbecue. Fifteen minutes later, we sat in the quaint dining room of the property’s 1898 red brick house. The casera brought a small charcoal grill to our table, upon which sizzled the parilla: sirloin steak, chorizo sausage, chicken, and short ribs. The meat was flavorful and well-cooked, accompanied by a chimichurri sauce that exploded with flavor, and was so delicious so that we had to ask for seconds and thirds. You’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic parilla in the region.

After lunch, coffee, and a luscious dessert of poached pears and strawberries with cream, we had a pleasant and easy stroll around the property, on levees and through jungles of bamboo and ironwood. I was loth to leave the beautiful delta region, but for the promise of home-delivered empanadas and alfajores waiting for me back in the city.

We love books for different reasons. We might love the language and imagery they evoke (God of Small Things) or be blown away by the pathos or moxie of a specific character (Lisbeth Salander). We become lost in the world the author creates (Harry Potter) or exposes (Thank You For Smoking).

Here is a selected list of books I’ve read recently and why, as a reader, I enjoyed them and why, as a writer, I found them instructive. We writers can learn much from authors that we adore. It behooves the beginning writer to seek out books that perform handily what we in our own work strive to accomplish. What books have you read recently that have moved you? I especially want to hear about books by women writers; we don’t hear enough about them in the mainstream media. Share your favorites in the comments below.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. This novel is laugh-out-loud funny, quite an achievement considering there isn’t anything innately humorous going on: only humans, their fuck-ups and foibles, and the love that, despite it all, we feel for each other—in this story, the love among friends in particular. Fowler’s magnificent wry and earthy voice enlivens this pleasantly meandering tale, which uses the work of Jane Austen and book club meetings as an organizing principle (design principle, in the words of John Truby). The story is told in the third-person plural voice; the book club itself is the omniscient narrator.

Bitter in the Mouth book coverBitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong. A sumptuous, inventive novel. The main character suffers from synesthesia: she tastes words. This curious affliction, adeptly conveyed by the author, sets the stage for a complex and deeply satisfying family drama. Truong is positively masterful with language, deft with character. And the story will make you sit up and keep reading for hours: this beautifully written novel is rich with surprises.

Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison. No one does heartbreak better than Dorothy Allison. Here, the heartbreak is between women and their men; and mothers and fathers and their daughters. Allison is superlative at revealing the emotion of characters, and her wisdom about the human condition knocked me over on almost every page. Her characters are electrically charged with passion, not a dull or poorly developed one in the house.

A Cupboard Full of Coats book coverA Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards. A unique narrative that breaks many writing-workshop rules but nonetheless drew me in with its powerful voice and kept me glued to the pages until the shocking and poignant end. Written in plain, urgent language, with a narrative line that moves between the past and the present. It’s about coping with long-buried tragedy and the vagaries of love.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen. Two sides of New York City—high-society glamour and gritty poverty—are adroitly depicted in this contemporary story of two sisters. The complexities of the relationship between Bridget and her rich and famous sister Meghan, as well as Meghan’s husband and teenage son, drive the story. A solid family drama set against the vibrant backdrop of New York, which is really its own superbly developed character.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Exotic setting—the Brazilian Amazon—and a whirlwind plot plays a significant role in this book, as they did in her masterpiece Bel Canto. Patchett’s prose is as lovely as ever. I didn’t realize how skillfully plotted this book was until I got to the end, at which time I turned back to the first chapter and reread it and marveled at how brilliantly it’s all set up. Many readers can’t get pack the protracted midsection of the novel, when Marina Singh is stranded in Manaus. Keep reading past that to when Marina finally finds the elusive Dr. Swenson. It’s worth it.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This book has been widely lauded; not much I can say about it that hasn’t been said before. Simply put, it’s brilliantly researched and powerfully told. Skloot’s book explores, through the story of one black woman and her family, the history and legacy of racism against African-Americans and lays bare the persistence, pervasiveness, and insidiousness of racism—from the perspective of a middle-class white woman. Want to deepen your perspective about racism against African-Americans even further? Listen to this discussion about the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the “fatal condition” of being a black man.

O’ahu Restaurants

Thanks to its blend of cultures and the increase in locally grown produce and meat, my island home, O’ahu, has truly come into its own as a culinary destination. From Ala Moana and downtown to the beachy ‘burbs of Kailua and Kaneohe, great-tasting—and reasonably priced—local cuisine abounds. Here are some new and old favorites discovered during my recent visit.

Hawaii Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe

In and around town

Queen’s Surf Cafe & Lanai, Kapiolani Beach Park. The best value & atmosphere in Waikiki for plate lunch. Special touches, like wooden platters instead of styrofoam plates and a fruit and flower garnish, elevate this beachfront, outdoor eatery. You can’t beat the location, which comes complete with salt spray from Queen’s Surf and sunset views. Weekend barbecues are reportedly a bit insane; try a weekday breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Kapiolani Beach Park, beachfront, between Kapahulu Avenue and the Waikiki Aquarium.

Queen’s Surf Cafe and Lanai

Yataimura Food Court, Shirokiya, Ala Moana Shopping Center. Japanese specialty store Shirokiya’s in-house bakery, St. Germain, has long been the source of the finest bread and pastries in town. Now, the 2nd floor Yataimura food court is a destination in itself. With weekly food festivals, a beer garden, and everything from bento to ramen, curry to the homey vegetable-based crepe okonomiyaki, Yataimura offers a unique alternative to the mall’s generic fast-food court. Shirokiya store, 2nd floor, Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Cafe Julia. Hidden in a graceful courtyard in the historic YWCA building, Cafe Julia offers a pleasing respite in downtown Honolulu. Most cafe goers are employees of neighboring businesses, but the restaurant’s location across from I’olani Palace attracts visitors as well. Admire the soaring arches and original grillwork and the light and tasty Asian-Pacific fare. 1040 Richards Street, downtown Honolulu.

Cafe Julia, in the historic downtown YWCA building

Diamond Head Market and Grill. With a convenient location near Kapiolani Park and Kaimana (Sans Souci) Beach, Diamond Head Market and Grill is still a mainstay for tourists and locals alike. With scrumptious baked goods and only-in-Hawai’i grab-and-go deli items like Japanese sweet potato and beef stew, the Market remains my favorite part of this winning establishment. For lighter fare, skip the long line for plate lunch and burgers and grab a salad from the refrigerator case topped with mochiko chicken (chicken tenders coated in mochiko flour and fried), spicy ahi, or grilled salmon and tofu. 3575 Campbell Avenue at Monsarrat, Diamond Head.

Tamashiro Market. When I was growing up in Honolulu, buying fresh fish from Tamashiro Market was as much of a weekend tradition as going to the beach. This flourishing grocery also stocks farm-fresh produce and prepared food items, such as ten different kinds of poke and grab-and-go sushi, fried fish, and boiled edamame. 802 North King Street, Honolulu.

Poke at Tamashiro Fish Market

Sushi, high and low. In the Safeway Center on Kapahulu Avenue, very good quality sushi and other light Japanese food can be found at Ninja Sushi, where the super helpful and patient staff explain the dazzling array of menu items. For a higher end Japanese experience, try the unassuming but excellent Sushi Bistro on King, an authentic sushi and izakaya restaurant frequented by both local and visiting Japanese community. Ninja Sushi, 870 Kapahulu Avenue; Sushi Bistro, 1914 S. King Street, Moiliili.

Read about Hawai’i Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe

Hawai’i Kai, Kailua, and Kaneohe Restaurants

Uahi Island Grill, Kailua town. This small, casual restaurant serves inventive Asian-Pacific cuisine. The ahi salad and Jawaiian-style chicken were tasty, but what really sent me into a tizzy were the desserts. Chef Nick Yamada calls his burnt caramel tart, coated with Waialua Estate dark chocolate and macadamia nuts, a grown-up Twix bar, but I call it pure buttery chocolate heaven. 131 Hekili Street, Kailua town.

Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant, Kaneohe. A longtime favorite of Kaneohe residents, Pah Ke’s distinguishes itself with its Asia-Pacific menu items and its stellar desserts. An ahi chopped salad was tangy and flavorful. Peking Duck was served with the crisp skin tucked in house-made buns dabbed with plum sauce and the meat piled on a separate platter, a service that many Chinese restaurants in the States forgo. I’ve never been one for guava chiffon cake, but Pah Ke’s is the best I’ve ever tasted. Creamy lilikoi cheesecake is light and lovely, and the soymilk custard (far better than it sounds) was a nondairy revelation. 46-018 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe.

Yummy Korean BBQ. True to its name, this is freshly made and delicious Korean BBQ, with a choice of four vegetable sides—ranging from various kim chee to noodle salad—to accompany your smoky char-grilled meat and two scoops of rice. Meat jun, thin slices dipped in egg batter and fried, is the Korean answer to chicken-fried steak. Those with small appetites or no fridge to save leftovers may wish to opt for the mini-plate. With outdoor seating overlooking the marina, what better way is there to fuel yourself after a morning at the beach? Koko Marina Shopping Center, behind Cosmopolitan Sun Shop, as well as other locations.

Bubbies. Still the best and most creatively named ice cream on the island, with two locations: the original spot in Honolulu, with its blush-inducing, racily named sweets, across from the Varsity Theater, and a second location in the Koko Marina Shopping Center, where the desserts have family-friendly monikers. It’s not listed on the chalkboard menu, but you can get your ice cream dipped in chocolate coating for extra indulgence. 1010 University Avenue; Koko Marina Shopping Center near Zippy’s, 7192 Kalanianaole Hwy.

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First night of the DNC

The 2012 Democratic National Convention gets off to a fiery start in North Carolina with inspired speeches by a roster of powerhouse women, capped off by First Lady Michelle Obama.

On the first night of the Democratic National Congress 2012, the women speakers set a strong tone for the week. Nancy Keenan, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, made a powerful appeal to women voters. “Don’t assume that women know the truth about Mitt Romney,” she said, making a strong case that reelecting Obama is the only way to safeguard women’s health and women’s reproductive rights.

Pulling together, heroism, and hard work were recurrent themes, demonstrated most clearly in a speech by Tammy Duckworth, Democratic House Candidate in Illinois. One of the first Army women to fly combat missions in Iraq, Duckworth revealed her moving personal story, starting with her immigrant mother and ending with her service in the armed forces, in which she sacrificed both legs for the cause of her country. Her elegance and confidence yielded received a standing ovation.

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, outlined the key benefits of Obamacare, focusing on the ways in which the Affordable Care Act protects children and senior citizens and ends discrimination against women. “Being a woman is no longer a preexisting condition,” said Sebelius. She was followed by Arizona mother Stacey Lihn, who brought many in the audience to tears speaking about how the Affordable Care Act, which forbids lifetime caps on health care, has eased her concerns about caring for her chronically ill child.

Alabama native Lily Ledbetter, namesake of the Fair Pay Act of 2009, spoke passionately about equal pay in a country where women still earn only about 70 cents to each dollar earned by men. “Maybe 23 cents doesn’t sound like a lot to someone with a Swiss bank account,” Ledbetter said, in one of many of the night’s references to Romney’s monied background. But the pennies add up, Ledbetter continued, and they make a difference to working families to pay for the little things and the big things.

As for the big speaker of the night? I don’t have enough words to describe my deep admiration for First Lady Michelle Obama, but I’ll try to select a few: Rousing. Elegant. Heartfelt and utterly sincere. And there is no better advocate for the American people, or for Barack Obama. She sums up the reason I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and the reason that I still believe in the Obamas as our First Family:

“When you’ve worked hard and done well,” Michelle said, “and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No, you reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”

Come November, I know what I’m going to do to keep the door open—and what you can, too.

ImageOn Sunday, May 27, 2012, the Bay Area commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. First opened to the public in 1937, the bridge is an engineering marvel and one of the man-made wonders of the world. Few images of the San Francisco Bay Area are complete without it.

There is another number we must consider during this anniversary: 1,558. That is the number of lives to date that have been confirmed lost to suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge since it opened. More lives have been lost to suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge than on any other structure in the world: an average of two confirmed deaths per month, to say nothing of unconfirmed deaths. Countless more lives have been impacted: family, friends, bystanders who have witnessed jumps, bridge patrolman, Coast Guard sailors, and bridge workers. 

In his new book, The Final Leap, author John Bateson courageously takes on this taboo topic and reveals a stunning truth long known to Bay Area suicide prevention activists: suicide from the bridge easily could be prevented, even ended, if a suicide barrier were erected, but an astonishing lack of political will and awareness around a barrier have thus far prevented any lifesaving measures from being enacted – a shame we must collectively acknowledge and act to change.

The Bridge Rail Foundation, who has for years fought tirelessly for a suicide barrier, will be present at the anniversary celebrations at Crissy Field. Take a moment to see their Whose Shoes? exhibit. Contemplate the enormous tragedy of lives needlessly lost. And learn what you can do to apply the political pressure needed to stop the tragic loss of lives from one of America’s greatest icons.

Coming soon: A review of Bateson’s groundbreaking book, The Final Leap (UC Press, April 2012).

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