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Beyond the Headlines: How to Visit Cuba

Ever since President Obama's December announcement that the United States is resuming full diplomatic ties with Cuba, the Powell's buyers' office has been suffering from an epidemic of reverse island fever. It turns out that almost all of us harbor a secret desire to visit Cuba. Some of us want to eat lobster, swim in a turquoise ocean, and drink mojitos, while others are motivated by politics, music, or wildlife. The origin of my interest is easy to trace. When I was 18, I spent a miserable, sunburnt week on the deck of my grandmother's Palm Beach condo, reading the New Testament for school and watching my family play on the beach. One day, maybe to rescue me from the Bible assignment or my grandmother's morbid habit of inviting neighbors to look at my burns, my parents decided to take us on a day trip to Miami. That evening we had dinner at a sidewalk restaurant in Little Havana, Miami's Cuban neighborhood. It was a little La Cage aux Folles meets Buena Vista Social Club: couples in neon thongs rollerbladed past our table, while old men drank espresso ...


New Cookbooks for January and February: Healthy (and Tasty!) Cooking

Most of the new cookbooks released in January and February tend to fall into the "healthy" and "diet" arenas. Luckily, we live in a time when healthy cooking can be so delicious and filling that we hardly know we are dieting. Not in the mood to diet? There is a short list of dessert cookbooks included below as well.

For dinner last night, I made mini cauliflower soufflés from Ivy Manning's Weeknight Vegetarian: Simple, Healthy Meals for Every Night of the Week. (Not pictured: the other two soufflés that we gobbled down before I thought to snap a shot.)

The soufflés couldn't have been easier. Made with a base of cottage cheese, they didn't require the vigorous beating and careful baking of the usual fancy-pants soufflé. I might call this more of a rustic soufflé. The recipe quite lived up to the concept of being easy to make on a weeknight. Local author Ivy Manning can always be counted on for a thoughtful cookbook. Her recipes are nutritionally well-balanced and sometimes include unconventional ingredients that turn out to be a perfect blend: masa dumplings in chili; a mushroom and chestnut strudel; and, my favorite, apples in a Welsh rarebit!

From Katrine van Wyk, the author of Best Green Drinks Ever, we now have Best Green Eats Ever. I appreciate that Countryman Press has kept the pricing below $20 on this series. This is a rarity in the cookbook world. Author van Wyk includes enough eating-green information to get a beginner started, and there may be a thought or two new to the seasoned hand at healthy eating. (Antinutrients — what are those? See page 20 in her book.) Recipes are simple and well-designed, and almost every recipe comes with a picture. Best Green Eats Ever is a well-rounded and solid cookbook entry into vegetarian eating.


My Top 10 Talking Books

I have always been a reader, but eight years ago, strange circumstances conspired to make me totally book-dependent. I was stuck within four walls, desperate for distraction and a conduit to the world; but I had to live in total darkness, unable to see words on a page.

So, from the small player in the corner of my blacked-out room, electric voices became my companions. I embarked on a wild journey of literary promiscuity, because when my book collector went to the library, I never knew what would come back. To avoid getting books that I had heard before, I made a list, divided alphabetically; updating it on my brief forays out of the black. These forays were necessarily swift — my skin reacted with agonizing, invisible burning, even through clothing, to all kinds and levels of light.

Looking through my list now (the third edition, I think, but even that is dog-eared and scrawled over), I am amazed at what I have consumed: whodunits and bonkbusters, classic fiction and thrillers, chick lit and family sagas and romances. Some of the titles bemuse me, raising no twitch of recognition ...


Kazuo Ishiguro’s Playlist for The Buried Giant

The Powell's PlaylistThe eight songs on this playlist didn't "inspire" The Buried Giant, nor did I play them out loud while writing. And with the notable exception of the Arvo Part, the visual landscapes conjured up by these tracks are unlikely to match the setting of the novel. But each of them relates in some significant way — usually at the level of theme or emotion — to what happens in the story. I'm not going to spell out just how — I'll leave that to you. But let me say a little about why each song is special for me.

1. "Hickory Wind" by Emmylou Harris
There's a great subgenre of songs about homesickness, in which we're left unsure just what it is the singer is really missing. A place? A person? Or maybe an era of his or her life spent there? I love it when a song deliberately plays on this ambiguity. "Georgia on My Mind" is a classic example. (Georgia, of course, could be the place or a woman's name.) The wonderful Irish weepie, "The Mountains of Mourne" ...


Being John: On Sorrow, Writing, and Transmigration

November was cold that year. I dreamed of a blue snow closing around me like a fist. I was 12 and had few friends; I wore tragically misguided clothes, avoided the eyes of boys, told exorbitant lies. On Tuesday afternoons, I walked from the middle school to my grandmother's house in town, so she could give me piano lessons. I lived for those days, for the regal piano with its dusty runner and arrangements of cloth flowers, for the world she would build up around us — I used to go to Woody's Nook, to dance until three in the morning — I'll take you there sometime; you'll see, it's still the same. Now, tell me about all of the parties you've been going to. She never seemed to notice I went nowhere, lisped, had buckteeth. A bird alighted in the rose bushes and she pointed — Look, she said, he's landed there for us.

One Tuesday, just before Thanksgiving, I arrived at my grandmother's house. The door was unlocked but no one was home; I let myself into the eerie quiet. I had never been forgotten before. I ...


The Coffee Shops I Have Loved

"Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?" – Albert Camus

In the five years it took for me to complete my book, The Monopolists, I wrote in more than 50 different coffee shops in six different states. They ranged from airport Starbucks to local roasters near my home in New York City to, yes, even the café at Powell's in Portland, a venue I began frequenting as a child.

The relationship between writers and coffee shops can be complicated, but I felt compelled to thank these coffee purveyors in my book's acknowledgements because they played a critical, often understated role in helping make a lump of ideas into a book. They inspired and empowered me, kept me warm and positive in dark hours with the manuscript, and prevented me from arriving at my book party in a straightjacket.

Thank you.

The nexus between coffee shops and ideas has a tense history. In 1675, King Charles II of England was so angered by the political activity taking place in such beverage meccas that he made a Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses, shunning the ...


Is Shame Necessary?

Is Shame Necessary? is my first book, so I am far from having earned the right to discuss writing a book in general. But I can say something about what it was like to write this book specifically. The main struggle was to keep momentum in the text, which, as for any book, seemed to fall to either plot, force of personality, or argument (or some combination).

It might be obvious from the title that my focus was argument. People who felt guilty about large-scale issues like climate change and other forms of environmental degradation, animal cruelty, and unfair wages have been misled into engaging with their guilt primarily as consumers (leading to the rise of eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and fair-trade products). However, individual purchases often wind up being minor compared to what is needed (organic foods, for instance, only represent four percent of the U.S. food market).

In contrast to guilt, shaming can lead to relatively quick, lasting, large-scale reform because it can work on groups and institutions, and is therefore a better stopgap on the way to regulation. One of the many examples of shaming's success is ...


Be Happy, Be Cheerful, Be Joyful, Be Anything But Gay

My new novel, Welcome to Braggsville, is a satire about four college kids who perform an "intervention" at a Civil War reenactment, and quickly discover that even the best of intentions can cause a world of hurt as they find themselves caught between the academic theories that have stoked their indignation and the harsh realities of race in contemporary America. As a writer, I tend to avoid the autobiographical, but, sadly, the comedic elements aside, this novel is inspired by one true event, a situation I could not have imagined, even if I were to crack my brain straight into a frying pan (like that famous breakfast commercial of yesteryear).

This event is one that required little remembering because it had always troubled me deeply. As my character Quint might say, it burned like a boil on a bunion. Now that, folks, is a real hive of discomfort.

Here it is: Near Bradenton, Florida, in the earliest of the '90s, there was a K3 rally. Lest ye be confused, a dash of disambiguation: This was not the Bosnian skating club (Klizačko Koturaljski Klub), the fraternity at Dartmouth (Kappa Kappa ...


The Powell’s Playlist: Issa Rae

The Powell's PlaylistI absolutely love writing to music. Even now, as I write this playlist, I'm listening to J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive. As I wrote my first book, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, music was in heavy rotation — I needed the perfect balance of music that was upbeat (to stop me from jumping head first out of the glass windows of the coffee shop, where I wrote) and soothingly encouraging (for those moments when I was either blocked or on a roll). Below, you'll find my most frequently played songs.

1. "Flight of the Navigator" by Childish Gambino
I basically had this whole album (Because the Internet) on repeat, but this song in particular fit into the "soothing" category. It's so beautiful and haunting and really helped me during those moments when I needed to just sit back and reminisce.

2. "Haunted" by Beyoncé
The Beyoncé album had just dropped right when I decided to start getting serious about writing this book. I would immediately skip "Pretty Hurts," and this song would put me in the proper ...


Q&A: Kelly Link, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare

[Kelly Link will be at Powell's City of Books for a reading on Wednesday, February 18, at 7:30 p.m. Click here for details.]

In a joint social media call-out, authors Kelly Link, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare invited readers to ask them anything they wanted. Below are some of those questions and responses.

Q: Where do you get inspiration for your characters?

Kelly Link: Karen Joy Fowler has said that, ideally, writers should lead boring lives and have interesting friends. I don't necessarily steal directly, but there have been times when someone tells a story about something that happened to them, or to a friend, and it's sparked an idea. For example, my sister told me about a friend who went to a wedding, stayed at a B&B, and had a disconcerting encounter with a piece of taxidermy which was making a lot of noise. I thought about that for years, and it ended up in a story called "The Lesson." Once you have a story idea, you begin to think about the ways that different kinds of people might behave, given a certain set of ...


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