Art À La Carte: Epic Fail

Chronological order of pieces above:

Brody Reiman, Photos of Paintings

Randy Hussong, Portraits of Persons Who Failed to Achieve Greatness

John McNamara, The Show-off and the Introvert

John McNamara, The Modernists


It’s the season of resolutions—a time universally dedicated to personal reflection. As I reflect upon the expectations I envision for the New Year, I am reminded of a gallery I visited in the fall entitled, Epic Fail. Held to showcase the work of the faculty of the Department of Art Practice, this exhibition examined the role of failure and how the perception of these mistakes influences the art-making process.

The gallery introduced the idea of redefining the criteria for individual success. Oftentimes, criticality that should be introspective is swayed by external guidelines—the lives of our peers, social media representation, and rigid, institutional definitions of progress—all of which project narrow images of possible success. This limited outline of success undermines individual progress, and allows many to perceive their unique approaches as failures.

The idea that resonated highly with me from the gallery was the concept of whether accepting the unexpected in the art-making process allows it to even be defined thereafter as a failure. For instance, does a stray brush mark or an unintended dent in a sculpture render the piece a failure since it deviated from the original conception of the piece? Or, is it the artist’s discretion to determine the significance of the change, whether they choose to embrace the new direction of the piece or not? It realigned the power and purpose from the object of work, and assigned it to the artist.

Like most, the prospect of failing elicits an instinctive response in myself to block out any reminders of the fact. Yet, the gallery reminded me of the importance of identifying a personal interpretation of progress, rather than blindly subjecting to another’s perspective regarding your own work. The artwork that I witnessed that day was all beautiful, intriguing, powerful, and ultimately made it difficult to assume that any of the pieces could at any point have been abandoned as failures. Rather than aimlessly labeling everything immediately as either a success or a failure, it begs the individual to approach the event foremost as merely an experience. It is a revitalization of popular perception that celebrates the hallmarks of individuality–one which I look forward to embrace as I embark on the New Year.


 

Location: Worth Ryder Art Gallery, 116 Kroeber Hall, UC Berkeley Campus

Wednesday, October 28th- Friday, November 13th, 2015

Artists Featured: Kwame Braun, Allan deSouza, Michael Hall, Randy Hussong, Sahar Khoury, Chris Kubick, John McNamara, Indira Martina Morre, Craig Nagasawa, Greg Niemeyer, James Sterling Pitt, Elise Putnam, Brody Reiman, Erik Scollon, Stacy Jo Scott, Azin Seraj, Katherine Sherwood, Stephanie Syjuco

TL;DR: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

This week’s TL;DR is on Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes. Published in April of 2015, the novel is the first book in a series. Its sequel, A Torch Against the Night, will be released April 2016.

an ember in the ashes laia
“You are full, Laia. Full of life and dark and strength and spirit. You are in our dreams. You will burn, for you are an ember in the ashes.”

[The Hoedown Throwdown Lowdown]

Five centuries ago, the Scholars were a peaceful nation. Their people worked to discover new medicines, wrote poetry and treatises, practiced trade, and celebrated the performing and visual arts. Then, everything changed when the Martials attacked.

The Martials enslaved the Scholars and forced them into abject poverty and deprivation. Education was criminalized; literacy was punished with death. The Martials instituted a brutal military regime led by the Emperor, whose rule is enforced by the Blood Shrike and terrifying soldiers known as Masks. These elite, highly-trained assassins wear permanent silver face masks that eventually fuse onto their skins.

Laia is a slave. When Laia’s brother Darin is arrested for treason, she seeks out the secret rebel group fighting Martial rule. The Resistance sends Laia to infiltrate Blackcliff Military Academy, the institute where Masks are trained.

Elias is a Mask. He’s one of the most promising students at Blackcliff, and a strong contender to be the next Emperor.

Cue plot: Laia and Elias meet; shit happens.

an ember in the ashes elias

“You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”

[Why You Should Read This Book]

One really outstanding element of An Ember in the Ashes is its world-building. This is key for any good fantasy novel, but it’s tremendously important in the YA genre, where a glut of fantasy, dystopia, and fantasy-dystopia have already flooded the market.

Ember distinguishes itself from its competitors through its emphasis on non-Western people, places, and cultures. Rather than falling into the common trap of Eurocentrism, the novel contains many references to Islamic and South Asian culture. Djinns, ifrits, and ghuls all roam this magical world, peopled by civilizations like the Martials (based on ancient Rome), the Scholars (based on the Golden Age of Islam), the Marins (ancient Greece), and the Tribesmen (Bedouin nomads). Main characters of color – and specifically main characters marked as brown – are a refreshing change from the whitewashed norm.

an ember in the ashes helene
“The field of battle is my temple. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.”

[Please Do Not Read This Book if…]

  • You’re not into violence, mutilation, and torture. This book is twisted – maybe not Game of Thrones twisted, but it definitely doesn’t shy away from gruesome doings. While Tahir doesn’t generally depict graphic violence, in one particularly horrific exception the Commandant brands Laia with a poker stick. Throughout the story there are situations involving physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, as well as threats of rape. Slavery is a key element of the plot.
  • You hate love triangles. You’ll really hate Ember in the Ashes, because this book is really a love rectangle. Keenan is sometimes into Laia and Laia’s kind of sweet on Keenan, but Laia also feels some type of way about Elias, and Elias kind-of-sort-of-maybe likes Laia too. But Elias also has all these weird feelings for Helene, and Helene’s desperately in love with Elias, so…? Anyway, it’s all a mess, and it gets in the way of an otherwise excellent story.
an ember in the ashes
“All the beauty of the stars means nothing when life here on Earth is so ugly.”

[When and Where to Read This Book]

For me, the dominant image from An Ember in the Ashes is Blackcliff. Imagine the Commandant stalking down the dark, gloomy halls. Picture a stone courtyard with masked assassin-children assembled in perfect lines. Can you see the spires against stark grey skies – the cold clink of a steel-tipped boot against the cobblestones – the menacing glimmer of an ever-shifting mask? Everything is rock and slate and dirt and fog. Everything is dun and ash and gunmetal and a deep, deep black.

Clearly, An Ember in the Ashes is a fall/winter of book. Read it when the day isn’t a day at all, but rather an infinite grey. The world should be overcast, melancholic, quiet. Can you hear the patter of endless raindrops on your roof? Pull aside the curtains. The light filtering in through your window should have a gloomy quality.

Make sure you’re in the mood to be alternately scared, horrified, and thrilled while reading Ember. Halloween season is perfect. Read this book while curled up in bed, snuggled into three sets of blankets. Make sure the room is quiet and free of distractions. Keep snacks and warm drinks on hand. If you’re reading at night, be prepared to stay up until you’re done; Ember will keep you hooked no matter how late it gets or how much work you have to do.

an ember in the ashes
“I do not doubt, I do not hesitate. I am the Lioness’s daughter, and I have the Lioness’s strength.”

[If you liked An Ember in the Ashes, you might also like…]

Teach Me How: Meditation

IMG_0002“Take a deep breath in…and out…” I never thought I would be hearing these words coming out of Valentina’s mouth. Valentina, one of my closest friends, had set up a meditation zone in her bedroom. We are sitting on decorative pillows on her floor next to a candle,potpourri filled Buddha head and her meditation book, Journey to the Heart: Daily Meditations on the Path to Freeing your Soul.

IMG_2707I have tried meditation before, but I was really only taught to sit quietly and clear my mind. I am a 22-year-old college student trying to decide what to do with my life and how to graduate on time—I can’t simply “clear” my mind. Valentina turned on some soft piano music and sounds of running water, which surprisingly was extremely calming. She then read aloud an excerpt from the book, and I was amazed to hear that the story was called “Honor This Time of Change”, and centered on the transition between two stages of life.  When Valentina read the words “we may not know where we’re going. It may not feel like our feet are on solid ground. They aren’t. We’re crossing a bridge to another part of our lives,” it was as if these words were meant just for us, as we struggle to discover what our places in the world will be next year.

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Valentina fell silent, and we both became focused on wiping away all of our thoughts. At first I kept opening my eyes, looking at Valentina and then around the room. After a few minutes of trying to focus on my breath, I finally felt myself starting to relax. Instead of trying to erase all thoughts from my subconscious, I just thought of calming and happy thoughts—like swimming through a clear blue pool in the summer . When the chimes sound played from her phone, the time was up and we had officially meditated. I was a little bit sad that the time had flown by so fast.

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Valentina told me that she started meditating because of her new job at Ritual Yoga studio in San Francisco. As soon as she had arrived for her first day, her boss said, “okay good you’re here—let’s meditate.” She thought to herself, “what do I do?” but sat down and made her best effort. “I didn’t really know what I was doing” Valentina explained. “I opened my eyes a bunch, looked at them to make sure I was doing it right until finally I just let myself stop being so self conscious. I finally got to look into my own head and see how many things were going through my brain. My first meditation session is when I first understood how to get rid of all of that.”

Although I did not feel like a meditation pro, I felt much calmer after we opened our eyes. I asked Valentina if she felt as though she has changed since starting regularly meditations, and her answer was an overwhelming “yes.”  She explained: “If I’m really stressed out about something, I’ll sit down and say ‘I’m really busy and I’m really stressed out but meditating is going to help me be more productive in the long run.’ And afterward I feel so much better and so relaxed and productive. I realized that I can actively calm myself down.” After just one meditation session with Valentina, I felt more balanced and ready to focus than I have in a long time, and that is just what I needed.

Art À La Carte: Spotlight on Scarlett Hooft Graafland

You feel much more aware of how small we are as humans—how vulnerable we are amidst these enormous, spacious landscapes.

Raw.

Overwhelming.

Delicate.

Empowering.

I stumbled upon Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s work and was instantaneously envious. I felt the discord between the enclosure of the four-walled library I was sitting in and the landscapes that I was looking at through my computer screen. The spaciousness, the enormity of her images simultaneously terrified and inspired me.

Accustomed to the confinement and predictability of the narrow spaces of a city that I experience everyday, the emptiness of these remote locations presented me with a unique conundrum. Unlike cities where every inch of concrete is perfectly mapped out to placate any fears of ever approaching anything unexpected, these landscapes portrayed the vulnerability that comes along with the possibility of being in a space that is untouched and unexplored.  I was overpowered by the mere thought of these environments, yet, somehow, looking at Graafland’s images, I found myself yearning to be lost in the Altiplano of Bolivia.

Inhabiting the border between straight photography, performance and sculpture, Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s photographs are records of highly choreographed live performances in the Salt Deserts of Bolivia, the Canadian Arctic, rural China, Madagascar, Iceland and Vanuatu. In these remote and often surreal landscapes she constantly refers to a more profound cultural discourse of her surroundings, which she utilizes as her canvas.


BARE Interview with Graafland:

What was your inspiration for this project?

Most of my inspiration comes from the power of nature and the vastness of the Altiplano landscapes in the highlands of the Andes. You feel much more aware of how small we are as humans—how vulnerable we are amidst these enormous, spacious landscapes. It is almost as if the landscape ‘dictates’ the outcome of the photograph. And I love to be able to play with these surreal atmospheres. The Salar Salt Desert, for example, invited me in like a piece of drawing paper with the endless, almost blinding whiteness of the place.

I visited Bolivia for the first time after I heard a story about a Bolivian artist, Gastón Ugalde, who utilized Laguna Verde, a green lake, as his ‘gallery’. He created projects at this site and invited other artists and musicians to perform there. The New York Times deemed Ugalde the ‘Andy Warol of the Andes’ because of his method of work, where he utilizes big groups of assistants to help him create his extraordinary installations and sculptures.

The thought of utilizing the lake as a starting point for artwork intrigued me and I managed to shadow Ugalde as he worked with the idea for the lake. On our way, we crossed the Salar Salt Desert and the Red Lake and only two years later I decided to come back and work on projects at these amazing sites.


 

How did you decide upon the specific materials you gathered from the local neighborhoods you were visiting?

I like to work within a framework of the possibilities that are already on the site. This simultaneously defines and limits the work. With these limitations, you have to find solutions and improvise, based on what materials are available. I always visit the local markets to see which products are typically from the region. This way there is a stronger connection with the environment and it is nice to be able to experiment with new and different materials. Furthermore, it is more practical to work with the materials at the site since I already have to bring a backpack with my camera equipment to the on-site locations, leaving little space for other materials.

Sometimes, there are materials that I chance upon, such as dynamite, that are a pleasant surprise to work with. Because of the intensive mining industry in Bolivia and the shocking, old-fashioned way in which the production is performed in these mines, people sell dynamite for low prices just on the streets. I thought it would be an interesting material to use for my piece, My White Knight, in order to blow up a load of salt on top of the truck, to work with the idea of the transition from a heavy load into a lighter one.

Another material I liked to work with in Bolivia was the so-called ‘aji’, colored spice. In my piece, ‘Blue Truck’, there is a pile of yellow ‘aji’ on the truck. These spices are very common in the Altiplano region, easily accessible in the local markets, and I like the way these bright colors work so powerfully in the salty landscape.

For the piece, Carpet, I used several of these spices to fill out the patterns that are shaped by the wind on the salt flats. The natural design that fills in these shapes almost looks like a man-made design. Coloring in these shapes with the spaces required delicacy. We would begin our work very early in the morning when there was almost no wind, and once the wind picked up later in the day, the carpet began to disappear.


Is there an allusion to environmental effects in your images? How did you decide the manner in which you would portray this issue?

Definitely, I am very much aware of the environment. I like to portray the beauty of nature as well as its vulnerability. I believe that we have to be aware of our surroundings and be careful with what we have.


Do you have a preferred medium or technique?

I prefer photography since it is a medium that is associated with the representation of truth, and in my case, I utilize it to represent the fantastic and the irrational.

I shoot my photos with an analogue medium format camera and print directly from the negative. I prefer this old way of producing images since the colors of the C-prints have such an intense quality. In addition, I like the straight forwardness of the medium—essentially, ‘what you see is what you get’. This ensures that the images are not manipulated digitally and retains the purity and delicacy of the natural moment.


Many of your images adhere to a specific color scheme. Was this premeditated or a result of the natural environment?

I am very attracted to intense color schemes. To find these places we would sometimes have to drive through these locations for days. For example to reach the Laguna Colorada, the Red Lake, or the White Salt Plains, we drove for hours over dirt roads, and chanced upon the landscape with the vivid color schemes that we were pursuing.


What was the motivating factor that inspired you to pay homage to Robert Smithson for your piece, “Vanishing Traces,” and what inclined you towards using floating balloons?

When I was in art school and first saw an image of the, Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson, I was amazed by its power. The sculptural gesture that he created in the salt lake and the way in which he embraced the beauty of nature always stayed with me in the back of my mind.

Years later, while visiting the Laguna Colorada, I was reminded of Smithson’s work.

I wanted to pay homage to his work, by placing white balloons in the lake, floating on the red water, as a reference to the Spiral Jetty. However, I wanted my piece, Vanishing Traces, to capture ephemerality. The balloons that we used were intended to be a very light gesture that we would remove after a very short period of time, without leaving any traces. Ironically, once I returned home, I referenced a book about Smithson and his work and learned that he originally intended to create his Spiral Jetty in the same Bolivian lake, but in the early seventies when he was working, the site was too hard to access so he relocated his piece to Utah instead.


 

Some images that I found to be particularly intriguing were, “Blue Truck,” “My White Knight,” and “White Pyramid,” primarily because of the juxtaposition between the blatant similarities between the materials in the three, yet the subtle, aesthetic distinctions between them. What was your inspiration behind this, and what do you feel each image illustrates uniquely?

It was not my original intention to make so many pieces that utilized the trucks. I started with White Pyramid with the sole idea to use salt as a building material—to utilize it to make shapes with white vastness. By modeling the salt on the top of the truck, it became a sculpture in itself, and took the outlines of a pyramid. The mirroring of the image of the pyramid on the thin layer of water helped to echo the shape.

Working forward from here, I decided to work with some contrasting colors. So, I bought buckets full of yellow spices from the local market in Uyuni. This subtly adds to the surrealism of the image—picture this old, dinky toy truck with the strong yellow pyramid in the back.

After that, I thought that it would be beautiful to search for the opposite—a truck with a very light load, exploding in the air, which comes to life in my piece, My White Knight.


A lot of your works have taken place in Bolivia. What do you feel is the impetus that motivates you to return to these landscapes?

I am attracted to remote places, far away from the Western world, where the local people are not influenced too much by the western civilization. I traveled all over the world and worked on extensive projects in Madagascar, Vanuatu, the Yemenitic Island, Socotra and the Inuit settlement, Igloolik in Northern Canada.

I am attracted to Bolivia in particular because of the incredible landscapes, where the indigenous Aymara people seem to live in balance with nature in these remote locations. Being in these areas, you feel a strong sense of pride for their land, for their culture. Bolivia is the only country on earth where there is a law that defines Mother Earth as “a collective subject of public interest,” and declares both Mother Earth and life-systems (which combine human communities and ecosystems) as titleholders of inherent rights specified in the law.

I think it is just a very special spirit to work in!


Experience Graafland’s artwork for yourself and check out her site!

Scarlett Hooft Graafland (1973) received a BFA at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, the Netherlands, and a MFA in Sculpture at Parsons School of Design, New York. Her work has been shown at various international exhibitions and photo festivals such as the Hyères festival, the Rencontres d’Arles, the World Expo in Shanghai, the MOCCA Museum in Toronto, the Huis Marseille Museum of Photography in Amsterdam, the MAC museum in Peru, the Museum of Photography in Korea and most recently,was featured at the Landskrona Museum in Sweden.

Tl;DR: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

This week’s TL;DR is on Renee Ahdieh’s debut novel The Wrath and the Dawn. Published in May of 2015, the book is the first in an intended duology. Its sequel, The Rose and the Dagger, will be released May 2016.

wrath and the dawn
“I will live to see tomorrow’s sunset. Make no mistake. I swear. I will live to see as many sunsets as it takes. And I will kill you. With my bare hands.”

[The Hoedown Throwdown Lowdown]

The Wrath and the Dawn is a reimagining of The Arabian Nights, a collection of stories, myths, legends, and folktales from the Middle East and South Asia. In Ahdieh’s version, the main character Shahrzad takes the place of Scheherazade, who in the original Arabian Nights puts off her execution for a thousand and one nights by telling like “Aladdin,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

Each night, the Caliph Khalid marries a virgin and puts her to death the next morning. Sixteen-year-old Shahrzad – like the Scheherazade upon whom she is based – volunteers to be the prince’s next bride. Her plan? She will spin a thousand tales of adventure, love, lust, treachery to beguile the prince – and then Shahrzad will kill him.

Yet from here The Wrath and the Dawn begins to diverge from its predecessor, for it is the prince who beguiles her in turn. Shahrzad is torn between hating a murderer and falling a little more in love with him each day.

wrath and the dawn
“She was a dangerous, dangerous girl. A plague. A Mountain of Adamant who tore the iron from ships, sinking them to their watery graves without a second thought. With a mere smile and a wrinkle of her nose.”

[Why You Should Read This Book]

The Wrath and the Dawn is a beautiful book in all senses of the word. The story itself is thoughtful, charming, and ultimately enjoyable. Even though the first half of the novel is essentially a retelling, the storytelling remains inventive and energetic. Ahdieh’s prose is lyrical. Each word is chosen with loving care, in a style reminiscent of Islamic poetry. Her pensive, contemplative tone is inviting – intoxicating – romantic – sensual without being sexual.

The world Ahdieh creates is unforgettable. In a genre – indeed in an industry – that pays little attention to ethnic, religious, or racial minorities, The Wrath and the Dawn serves as an excellent representation of Middle Eastern and South Asian peoples. This novel deftly weaves together elements of Persian, Arab, Indian, and Pakistani culture, including food, clothing, art, religion, architecture, and poetry.

wrath and the dawn
“So you would have me throw Shazi to the wolves?”
“Shazi?” Jalal’s grin widened. “Honestly, I pity the wolves.”

[Please Do Not Read This Book if…]

  • You don’t read fantasy. The Wrath and the Dawn is set in a world roughly based on Persia during the Islamic Golden Age (roughly AD 700-1500). Yet I wouldn’t call this a work of historical fiction because some characters do have magical powers. If you prefer contemporary or realistic fiction, this might not be your cup of tea.
  • You don’t read young adult novels. While Wrath and the Dawn doesn’t fall prey to most of the common pitfalls associated with YA, it lacks thematic maturity. Don’t search for much philosophical or intellectual meaning in this book; it’s essentially a colorful, charming love story. I recommend The Wrath and the Dawn for those looking for a light, fun read.
wrath and the dawn
“I could see her daring a cobra to strike, swearing her venom would kill first.”

[Where to Read This Book]

My clearest memory of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art some summers ago was their exhibition on weapons – hallways upon hallways of deadly-sharp blades, gleaming shields, and armor polished to a mirror shine. There, the meditative silence, dark-paneled walls, and neatly penned exhibit descriptions all contributed to an atmosphere of quiet contemplation and scholasticism.

I found myself wishing I was back at the Met while I read Wrath and the Dawn; it’s the ideal book to read at a museum. It doesn’t have to be the Art Institute of Chicago or the Smithsonian; if you’re in the Bay Area, head down to Golden Gate Park and try the de Young Museum or the California Academy of Sciences. If you prefer reading outdoors, there’s always the Japanese Tea Garden or the Botanical Garden.

If you’re not up for going all the way to SF for a single book, a coffee shop is the perfect place to savor this novel. Try Sack’s Coffee House or Elmwood Café, both down College. There’s also Nefeli Caffe on Northside, and the outdoor seating at Café Clem downtown is charming.

wrath and the dawn
“This dangerous girl. This captivating beauty. This destroyer of worlds and creator of wonder.”

[When to Read This Book]

The Wrath and the Dawn feels like a summer book to me. Without the dry heat of a California summer, how can you really experience the Khorasan desert? How can you immerse yourself in the noisy, spice-scented bazaars, or feel the sweat pouring down Khalid’s face as he practices his swordplay?

If waiting seven months to read The Wrath and the Dawn is unappealing (totally understandable), at least put off reading this book until a warm morning. Step out onto your balcony at 10am on a Saturday. Stretch your arms, your legs, your back. Do you feel the warm, gold-tinted sunlight coursing through your bones? Are birds chirping? Perfect.

wrath and the dawn
In her ear, he whispered, “Do better than this, Shazi. My queen is without limitations. Boundless in all that she does. Show them.”

[If you liked The Wrath and the Dawn, you might also like…]

Art À La Carte: Art Night SF

The music livening up Union plaza greeted us as we exited Civic Center Bart and guided us to our destination—Art Night in the city. Fairy lights enveloped this makeshift gallery that was centered directly across city hall, en plein air, sectioning off the space reserved exclusively for creative expression for the next four hours.

Gallery

The night’s event was a collaboration between the city’s major contributors to the arts, including local galleries, museums, nonprofits and independent artists. It was an amalgamation of artists of all strata and collections of all kinds, ranging from performance pieces, to ready-made sculptures and paintings.

Performance Art

This pop-up art gallery is a part of San Francisco’s new, outdoor series that utilizes public space for installations of contemporary art. The entire night is solely dedicated to allowing the community to engage with emerging contemporary artists in the Central Market Arts District to promote cultural awareness.

Displays

As a space meant to welcome artists and audiences of all kinds, the atmosphere rightfully mirrored the candor central to the event’s purpose. Every piece encouraged open dialogue regarding political, social and cultural issues revolving around the Bay Area. Several pieces even relied upon impromptu comments from spectators to add to the authenticity of shared opinions, and allowed audiences to witness the pieces growing directly as a result of their interactions with the artists.

 

TL;DR: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

This week’s TL;DR is on The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Her debut novel, published in 2011, is a retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.

song of achilles
“He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”

[The Hoedown Throwdown Lowdown]

From the title, it’s clear that the novel retells the story of handsome, golden-haired Achilles, a prince – a hero – a demigod. Prophecies say that he will be the greatest warrior Greece has ever seen. But The Song of Achilles is equally the story of Patroclus, whom Homer depicts as Achilles’ best friend, and whom Miller reimagines as Achilles’ lover. Patroclus is no fighter, but he’s a skilled healer and trusted counselor. The novel, which is written in Patroclus’ point of view, follows the two from their first meeting, through their boyhood and burgeoning friendship, to their youth spent training with the centaur Chiron and eventually falling in love.

When the boys turn sixteen, the fabled Helen is kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris and war breaks out. Achilles is warned that if he goes to war, he will die, but if he stays behind, he will lose his chance at fame and glory, and his godhood will wither and disappear.

Miller follows Patroclus as the two sail for Troy and settle into daily life in a war camp. She details the tension growing between Achilles and the Greeks’ leader, Agamemnon. As the two kings let their pride get the better of themselves, Patroclus and the rest of the Greeks are caught in the crossfire. Achilles makes rash decisions, and Patroclus is killed by the Trojan prince Hector. Achilles kills Hector in vengeance, and is in turn killed by Paris.

[Why You Should Read This Book]

At once darkly atmospheric and lushly imaginative, The Song of Achilles is notable for its prose. Miller, a high school English teacher and classics scholar, has a uniquely evocative writing style. It’s sometimes plain, sometimes stilted, sometimes uncomfortably too formal – it never really flows or casually. On the other hand, her words are emotive, creative, and richly detailed, producing deep feeling in her readers. Her writing is not casual, but she somehow makes it feel natural.

Moral ambiguity is ever-present in The Song of Achilles. No one, except Patroclus, Chiron, and Briseis (and maybe Odysseus if you squint), can actually be called a good person. Achilles is gentle, loving, and caring with Patroclus, but coldly prideful to almost all other figures. His extreme hubris and thirst for vengeance make him more and more unsympathetic as the book continues. Agamemnon is jealous, greedy, and power-hungry. He slits his thirteen-year-old daughter’s throat as a human sacrifice to the goddess Athena. Peleus raped the nymph Thetis to produce Achilles, yet he’s considered a pious man and a loving father. Miller never apologizes for, excuses, or talks around a character’s actions. She simply states facts and leaves us to interpret and understand these characters as we will.

song of achilles
“Name one hero who was happy.”
I considered.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
“I can’t.”
“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.
“I’m going to be the first.”

[Please Do Not Read This Book if…]

  • You’re offended by same-sex relationships.
  • You’re not into main character death. This is a love story of sorts, but it’s also a tragedy.
  • You’re not sure you can tolerate violent descriptions of rape, slavery, and sexual abuse. Ancient Greek women had almost no status in their society. Women were not citizens; they were legally considered, and in practice treated as, chattel. Miller doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of Greek culture, faithfully depicting the horrifying abuse and violence women faced at that time and place. And it’s not just marginal male characters that are portrayed as misogynistic; in addition to the way he treats his wife Deidamia, Achilles plots for his slave Briseis to be raped by Agamemnon in order to set in motion his personal plans for vengeance.

[Where to Read This Book]

Go to the beach. Is it a cloudy day? It has to be overcast day. That’s very important. The sea should be same grey color as the clouds above. Maybe there’s a bit of fog. Can you hear the rushing white noise of the waves? Make sure it’s cool outside and maybe a bit windy. Not too much, of course; just enough so that you can feel little chills running up and down your spine and the breeze kind of tosses around your hair. Bring a big, warm sweater and a soft, thick blanket and don’t worry about the sand everywhere. You’ll want a thermos full of hot chocolate or coffee, but perhaps not tea. If you’re in the Bay Area, try Half Moon Bay. Or go down to Monterey or Santa Cruz; Capitola Beach at sunset is beautiful beyond words. There’s also the truly stunning Bodega Bay a couple hours to the north.

[When to Read This Book]

The Song of Achilles is first and foremost a tragedy. Plan to be emotionally devastated after reading it, and keep in mind that the end will offer you no closure. Read this only when you think you can bear excruciating levels of angst, sorrow, and pain. November is a good time.

[What to Listen to When Reading this Book]

song of achilles
“I feel like I could eat the world raw.”
  • Lord, “Glory and Gore” You could try and take us/But we’re the gladiators/Glory and gore go hand in hand/That’s why we’re making headlines
  • Halsey, “Young God” Oh, baby girl, you know we’re gonna be legends/I’m the king and you’re the queen and we will stumble through heaven/But do you feel like a young god?/You know the two of us are just young gods/He says “Oh, baby girl, don’t get cut on my edges/I’m the king of everything and oh, my tongue is a weapon
  • Bastille, “Bad Blood” And you said you always had my back/Oh but how were we to know/That these are the days that bind you together, forever/And these little things define you forever, forever/All this bad blood here, won’t you let it dry?
  • Gabrielle Aplin, “Start of Time” Today I’m just a drop of water/And I’m running down a mountainside/Come tomorrow I’ll be in the ocean/I’ll be rising with the morning tide/I’m an atom in a sea of nothing/Looking for another to combine/Maybe we could be the start of something/Be together at the start of time
  • Gabrielle Aplin, “Salvation” You are the avalanche/One world away/My make believing/While I’m wide awake/You are the snowstorm/I’m purified/The darkest fairytale/In the dead of night
  • Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Follow You into the Dark” Love of mine, some day you will die/But I’ll be close behind/I’ll follow you into the dark/If Heaven and Hell decide/That they both are satisfied/Illuminate the No’s on their vacancy signs/If there’s no one beside you/When your soul embarks/Then I’ll follow you into the dark
  • Hozier, “In a Week” We lay here for years or for hours/Your hand in my hand/So still and discreet/So long we become the flowers/We’d feed well the land/And worry the sheep/And they’d find us in a week/When the cattle show fear/After the insects have made their claim/After the foxes have known our taste/I’d be home with you
  • Alexandre Desplat (composer), “Lily’s Theme” and “19 Years Later.” Instrumentals from the Harry Potter soundtrack.
song of achilles
There are no bargains between lions and men.

[If you liked The Song of Achilles, you might also like…]

  • The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer: You know, the OGs.
  • Mythology by Edith Hamilton: If The Song of Achilles got you interested in ancient Greek religion, Edith Hamilton’s classic anthology has been standard issue for Greek mythology enthusiasts since its publication in 1942.
  • Troy by Adele Geras: I wouldn’t say Troy was a good book, exactly. Nevertheless it remains perhaps the only other recently written retelling of The Iliad. Troy focuses more on the women who live within the walled city, including Helen, Hecuba, and Cassandra, among others.
  • Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente: Deathless is on my to-read list. I include it here because, as a retelling of a classic myth, it has a similar concept to The Song of Achilles. From the blurb: “Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, etc. etc.” Watch out for a future review.
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt: The only thing The Secret History really has in common with Miller’s novel is a thematic focus on the classics, but I’ve found that people who like one strongly tend to like the other. Taking place at a private New England liberal arts college in the 1980s, The Secret History is essentially the story of a group of Greek mythology nerds, but with lots of angst and aesthetic. Check back for a review in a few weeks.

Chromatalk: Heathers

Spoilers lie ahead. Beware. 

Bare (ha) with me while I state the painfully obvious: all movies have color – unless it’s in black and white, of course, and even then there’s something to be said about shades and lighting. In any case, color is an inherent aspect of film and television, and one I feel deserves to be talked about. Color is a valuable tool for setting the mood, it can define the aesthetic for an entire work, it can even serve to develop character.

If we’re going to talk color in film, we have to talk Heathers. I can think of few films that are as heavy handed in their color symbolism. That isn’t to say the use of color in Heathers isn’t visually stunning or interesting; it only emphasizes how significant color is as a narrative device to this movie.

In the world of Heathers, only four colors might as well exist: red, blue, yellow, and green. These dominate the movie’s palette and each is associated with a different character.

Heathers_RED2

Red is Heather Chandler’s color, the leader of the clique. Historically associated with power, the transfer of the color red via Heather C.’s scrunchie (which is the most 80’s thing ever) after her death indicates the transfer of her power.

Heathers_YELLOW2

Yellow, traditionally the color of friendship, is Heather McNamara’s color, and she’s generally considered the nicest of the Heathers.

Heathers_GREEN

Heather Duke is green, since she spends essentially the first half of the movie being “green with envy” (Heathers, subtlety is not thy name).

Heathers_BLUE

Veronica’s color is blue, a cool contrast to Heather C.’s controlling red. The intensity of blues in Veronica’s scenes increases as she further breaks out of Heather C.’s regime.

Heathers_MIX

Color in this film works in an incredibly straightforward way, and I love it. Heathers is unashamed in its use of huge blocks of bold color. Entire scenes are abrasively lit in red or blue, often with no real natural explanation as to where this light comes from. Heathers doesn’t care if it’s obvious, it wants you to get the point, it wants you to be able to identify characters (and what they stand for) at a glance. Because each color is so clearly designated, you take note when Veronica is lit in red rather than blue, when Heather C. stands in an entirely blue bathroom. You know what it means when Heather D. starts wearing red, when the drain cleaner JD pours is bright blue.

Heathers is the best evidence I can offer you that color serves a purpose. That purpose may not always be so obvious, but it’s always there because color is always there. Directors can easily rely on color to make a point because of all the pre-existing associations we have towards certain colors in our collective psyche. We have an emotional response to color, whether or not we can explain how or why.

TL;DR: The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

This week’s TL;DR is on The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, and Blue Lily, Lily Blue. They are three of the four books that make up The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater. The fourth and final book in the cycle, The Raven King, will be released on February 23, 2016.

[The Hoedown Throwdown Lowdown]

“[Blue] wasn’t interested in telling other people’s futures. She was interested in going out and finding her own.”
Image courtesy of Yomi. Used with permission.
Blue Sargent has been told all her life that if she kisses her one true love, he will die. She’s been raised in the sleepy town of Henrietta, Virginia by her loving mother Maura, Maura’s eccentric friends, and various aunts and cousins, all of whom are psychic – except Blue herself.

Blue has a firm policy of staying away from the Raven Boys, students at the nearby all-boy’s private boarding school. The boys from Aglionby Academy are rich, rude troublemakers. They come from Virginia’s Old Money stock, get into Ivy Leagues, and go on to become investment bankers, hedge fund managers, stockbrokers, and senators.

Then she meets Richard Gansey, an Aglionby student on a quest to find the centuries-dead Welsh king Glendower. Gansey recruits Blue, along with fellow Raven Boys Ronan Lynch, Adam Parrish, and Noah Czerny, to help him find the ley line (a mysterious energy source) and awaken Glendower.

[Why You Should Read This Series]

The Raven Cycle has a very clear magical focus: a mystical ley line, an enchanted forest that appears and disappears, dreams that come to life, the various psychic hijinks going on at 300 Fox Way, a very obvious raven motif, and heavy doses of Welsh mythology. Ronan is a master of arcane Latin who can also sing Irish ballads, dance jigs, and play the bagpipes; Blue fashion sense can only be described as ‘artsy hobo’; the aunts brew odd teas; Noah is actually a ghost; later a hit man shows up.

“While I'm gone," Gansey said, pausing, "dream me the world. Something new for every night.”
“While I’m gone,” Gansey said, pausing, “dream me the world. Something new for every night.”
Image courtesy of Yomi. Used with permission.

Stiefvater combines her odd choices of subject with an electric, eccentric atmosphere. Her writing style is lyrical – even musical – yet somehow sensible and utilitarian. Each character is lovingly detailed, fully realized, and has his or her own distinct dreams, aspirations, and motivations.

The Raven Cycle is also notable for the socio-economic diversity of its characters. Adam lives in a trailer; Blue’s family makes its income mostly from a psychic hotline and the occasional palm and tarot readings. Adam works three jobs; Blue juggles even more. Gansey and Ronan, on the other hand, are used to having fast cars and more disposable income that they know what to do with. Stiefvater uses their respective situations to sketch out an aching, meaningful portrait of the psychology of poverty. She pays careful attention to the conflicts that arise in a group where not all members are economically equal.

Some other remarkable elements: Blue is very clearly a feminist. Her no-nonsense personality and her massive presence as a character stand out in a genre where the main character’s purpose is usually to fall in love with a hot guy.

Family is never marginalized in this series. In many novels, the main character is either an orphan, or she’s adopted, or she goes to boarding school, or she’s not close to her parents, or her father is an evil mastermind, or her mother is in a coma, or some combination of the above. Authors love to find inventive ways to separate a character from parental or authority figures.

And Stiefvater does this, to some extent: Ronan’s father is dead, and his mother is in a coma. Gansey goes to school away from his family. Adam’s father is abusive. But their complicated relationships with their respective families are fully explored throughout the series. Ronan begins to cope with his father’s death; Adam faces his father in court; Gansey’s sister Helen occasionally appears, and Gansey visits home. And Blue is surrounded by loving and supportive family members who generally give her free reign to run wild. Even better, her mother and aunts are critical characters who are actively involved in the story’s plot.

"Being Adam Parrish was a complicated thing, a wonder of muscles and organs, synapses and nerves. He was a miracle of moving parts, a study in survival." Image courtesy of Yomi. Used with permission.
“Being Adam Parrish was a complicated thing, a wonder of muscles and organs, synapses and nerves. He was a miracle of moving parts, a study in survival.”
Image courtesy of Yomi. Used with permission.

[Please Do Not Read This Series if…]

  • You are in any way opposed to paganism/witchiness or if you feel some type of way about spiritualism, fate, destiny, the paranormal, or psychic activities like tarot cards, palm readings, energy signatures, auras, astral projection, etc.
  • You tend to dislike the general category of Young Adult literature. While the series refreshingly diverges from many tropes and clichés of the genre, you’ll definitely find a couple of tedious YA standards here (ie no people of color, everyone is a teenager, no sex).

[Where to Read This Series]

Read these books in a quiet place. Instead of sitting in busy coffee shop or curling up in bed, maybe go out to a field, park, forest, or garden. Sit beneath some trees. Can you hear little insects buzzing around you head? Can you feel grass prickling every inch of your skin? Does the overwhelming heat oppress you, making it hard for you to breathe? That’s the spirit.

“[Ronan] was brother to a liar and brother to an angel, son of a dream and son of a dreamer… [He was] molten eyes and a smile made for war.” Image courtesy of Yomi. Used with permission.
“[Ronan] was brother to a liar and brother to an angel, son of a dream and son of a dreamer… [He was] molten eyes and a smile made for war.”
Image courtesy of Yomi. Used with permission.

[When to Read This Series]

Raven Boys and Dream Thieves are both set in the warm months from early spring to late summer, and in Stiefvater’s writing you can really feel the suffocating heat of a humid Virginia summer. There’s a rustic, slow, sleepy pace to these books that make them perfect for these last few weeks of September, the hottest month in the Bay Area.

But it’s not just timing that matters – it’s also your mental state. For the optimal experience, read this series when you’re feeling a little bit whimsical, a little bit mystical. If you’re feeling artsy, seeking adventure, or have discovered a newfound belief in the spiritual, now’s a good time.

Consider investing in a hard copy instead of reading these books on your iPad, e-reader, or laptop. I would normally judge “the feeling of paper pages between your fingers” as pretentious, sentimental asshole-speak, but there’s a certain imaginative quality to these books that makes reading them on an electronic device feel unholy.

[What to Listen to When Reading this Book]

Basically every song from Halsey’s 2015 album Badlands is in some way relevant to the series, but in particular “Gasoline” (perfect for Dream Thieves) and “Drive” (for Blue Lily, Lily Blue). Other good choices are The Neighborhood (the acoustic version of “Sweater Weather” and “RIP 2 My Youth,” among others) and Bastille’s “Dreams” ft. Gabrielle Aplin.

[If You Like The Raven Cycle, Also Consider…]

Los Angeles- more than just tans, juice cleanses and traffic

Having experienced Berkeley, Oakland, and even San Francisco for a year, my loyalty still lies with L.A.—it is more than just my home. I am not going to discredit how Berkeley has shaped my mentality, because it really has made me even more open-minded and driven than I already was. More importantly, Berkeley taught me to never take L.A. for granted.

I find it both really obnoxious and funny when I hear people who live in L.A. “talk shit” about it. I genuinely think people have no idea where to go for a good time. There is a reason why people move to “the city of flowers and sunshine.” Just one weekend in L.A. has the ability to make you fall in love all over again—like it happened to me.

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Chinatown Plaza main stage

So, it is a Friday night in L.A. and the streets of West Hollywood are packed because of the SCOTUS ruling for marriage equality (hell yeah!), but being the Berkeley student I am, I opted out and decided to stay home and review some LSAT practice tests. Berkeley cured me of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I would like to briefly add that I just got back from a girl’s trip to Miami last week and experienced the “partying until 5 A.M. and sleeping in until noon” lifestyle. Although I still think that it is dumb how last call at bars and clubs in L.A. is 2 AM, there are some things you just have to overlook when you realize just how good you really have it. We have amazing beaches, perfect weather all year round, fantastic restaurants, a fresh music and arts scene, and also, we are genuinely really friendly.

Before I start talking about what Angelenos did this weekend, one thing that all outsiders of L.A. have to get familiar with is KCRW–one of L.A.’s and Southern California’s gems. It is much more than a radio station. It is the voice of L.A.

DJ Raul Campos
DJ Raul Campos

During the summertime, they host a variety of events—mostly free (yes free!) concerts at Grand Park, UCLA’s Hammer Museum, the Santa Monica Pier, Chinatown Plaza, and the Annenberg Space for Photography. Just a few artists include, Real Estate, Sister Nancy, Ariel Pink, Jagwar Ma, and KCRW DJs Jason Bentley (who was also at Coachella), Anthony Valadez, Garth Trinidad, Mario Cotto, and Raul Campos. If you have some money saved up, KCRW hosts a concert series at the Hollywood Bowl, with artists like Basement Jaxx, Underworld, Grace Jones, Empire of the Sun, St. Lucia, and Future Islands.

So, finally, it is Saturday night and all of L.A. (and much of the U.S.) just wants to celebrate. This weekend was a special one. Marriage equality is now a guaranteed right to everyone, whether you are in California or in Alabama. This weekend was a celebration of progress, freedom, and history being made.

So, naturally, I grabbed two of my best friends and hit Chinatown for a night of celebrating, dancing, and food trucks. It was the first KCRW Chinatown Summer Nights event of the summer hosted by Raul Campos and Anthony Valedez. To make things even better, on the other side of the Chinatown Plaza, L.A. Weekly was also hosting an event with five indie bands.

It was a night that consisted of dancing outdoors (in perfect 78* weather, might I add rather than inside a stuffy, sweaty club) surrounded by neon lights, confetti, and colorful lanterns. Also, did I mention it was free? There was no pretentiousness at all, which I know is a quality that a lot of people give to Angelenos (and only sometimes rightfully so). It was raw and real. To my right, there was a group of pre-teens dancing and to my left there was a couple salsa dancing. Damn, it was refreshing.

The "OG Wachos" from The Lobos Truck
The “OG Wachos” from The Lobos Truck

We made our way to the dance floor just as Campos dropped Calvin Harris’s 2007 single “Colours.” Perhaps, it was a nod to marriage equality…or was it just a song representing L.A.’s diversity and culture? Or both.

After about an hour of dancing, we went to check out the food trucks. Everyone knows that L.A. loves trends and since food trucks are still trending, (thanks to trucks like Kogi and Lobsta), it only makes sense that L.A. loves food trucks. I went for The Lobos Truck, which offers “wachos.” Substitute tortilla chips in nachos for waffle fries and you have the glorious wacho.

Chinatown Plaza
Chinatown Plaza

The best part of these events, and L.A. in general are the crowds. Attendees ranged from toddlers to seniors. Even though most of us have been on summer break for about a month now, the moment Campos played the 1980 disco track “Mandolay” by La Flavour, I knew that it was definitely summer.

It was the perfect representation of what L.A. is. We do not all have tans and surf. Some of us are Chinese, Mexican-American, African-American, young, old, fat, skinny, gay, straight, or undocumented. Some people who live in L.A. are just here to see what the city has to offer. Basically, L.A. is the party that everyone is invited to.

Then we called an Uber, aka one of the best things that has happened to L.A. other than our sunshine.

Sunday night was just as good. My parents and I went to hear funk legend Bootsy Collins and Grammy-winning electronic dance duo Basement Jaxx.

Their album “Remedy” was released in 1999, when I was just five years old. But, I still remember when I heard “Bingo Bango” and “Rendez-Vu,” and how it shaped the music I listen to. Basement Jaxx’s sound is a combination of reggae, pop, house, ambient techno and funk.

One of the many terraces at the Hollywood Bowl.
One of the many terraces at the Hollywood Bowl.

If you have never been to the Hollywood Bowl, you should when you get a chance. Personally, it is my favorite venue in Los Angeles. The set up of the stage is extraordinary and the sound is like no other. Concert goers have the option of having a picnic before show starts with an amazing view of the city or eating and drinking during the show.

5 minutes into the performance, the stage lit up in rainbow colors–another way of showing the world that we are progressive and accepting. L.A. understands you. As Basement Jaxx chanted, “We are one.”

Thousands of people began to dance to the tropicalia house song “Mermaid of Salinas.” It is not only the anthem of Ibiza this summer, but an anthem for unity and togetherness. It goes like, “The world comes alive as I dive into your eyes. Just you and me.”

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Hollywood Bowl

Having traveled to different cities in various countries, L.A. is still one of the most diverse and exciting places in the world where you feel at home no matter what color, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality you are.

And then we sat in traffic. I love you, Los Angeles, but I miss you too Berkeley. I can love NorCal and SoCal if I want.