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Book club: New stories from Pico Iyer, Maggie Shipstead, Ibram X. Kendi

Side-by-side photos of two books.
What’s next? “Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us,” edited by Colleen Kinder, and “How to Raise an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi.
(Algonquin Books / One World)
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Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

Colleen Kinder had invited one of her literary heroes, travel author Pico Iyer, to her Yale writing class to discuss a Reykjavík story and other essays she assigned to students. Instead, her guest author “went rogue” and shared for the first time a tale of wandering Iceland’s summer streets for hours in the company of a magnetic stranger with piercing blue eyes.

Years later, the blue-eyed woman still dominated Iyer’s memories of Iceland’s largest city. And the classroom discussion struck a chord with Kinder. She began asking other writers: Who haunts you? The responses poured in.

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That’s the genesis of our May book club selection, “Letter to a Stranger,” a new collection that features 65 writers exploring fleeting encounters that changed their lives forever.

On May 26, Kinder and Iyer, along with Los Angeles authors Maggie Shipstead and Michelle Tea, will discuss their stories in “Letter to a Stranger” with Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds.

The letters are all short, often surprising, and will evoke strangers from your own past. Kinder, the book’s editor, organized the collection around such themes as gratitude, wonder, chemistry, remorse and farewell. She says the experience taught her that “nagging ghosts make for glorious muses.”

“Yes, our families and institutions raise us, grow us up,” Kinder writes in the introduction, “but so does serendipity, the cast of characters who are randomly assembled in our path.”

Iyer writes his letter “To My Lost Trishaw Driver” in Mandalay, Myanmar. Shipstead reaches out “To the Woman We Met Before the Flood” in Pai, Thailand. Tea writes “To the Girl in the Tattoo Parlor” in Dallas.

Other essays recount brushes with a first responder after a storm, a gambler encountered on jury duty, a waiter in Istanbul, a taxi driver in Paris, a roomful of travelers watching reality TV in La Paz and a traveling magician in Nicaragua.

Join us: The “Letter to a Stranger” book club will be live-streaming beginning at 6 p.m. PT on May 26. Invite a friend to watch this one with you. Get tickets.

June preview

Mark your calendar: On June 22, bestselling author and historian Ibram X. Kendi will join book club readers in Los Angeles to discuss his upcoming book, “How to Raise an Antiracist.”

Kendi is the author of five books for adults and three books for children, including “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016, and “How to Be an Antiracist,” a bestselling 2019 memoir and social commentary.

His latest book, “How to Raise an Antiracist,” will be published June 14 and is geared toward parents, teachers and other caregivers. Kendi addresses such questions as: How do we talk to our children about racism? How do we teach children to be antiracist? How are kids at different ages experiencing race? How are racist structures affecting children?

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Kendi is a humanities professor at Boston University and founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. He is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and a CBS News racial justice contributor. In 2021 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a genius grant.

Get tickets for the June 22 book club event.

A young woman in an leopard-print blouse  speaks at a lectern.
Poet Amanda Gorman on stage at the L.A. Times Festival of Books.
(Los Angeles Times)

Meet Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman talked poetry, the pandemic and 405 traffic Saturday as the Festival of Books returned to the the USC campus.

Gorman’s book club conversation with Orange County poet laureate Natalie J. Graham was the 24-year-old poet’s first public performance since President Biden’s inauguration.

Gorman delighted a crowd of more than 1,200 when she read “Fugue,” a poem from her new collection, “Call Us What We Carry.” Watch here.

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One of my favorite festival moments came after the book talk when Gorman stopped to sign a copy of her children’s book, “Change Sings,” for 3-year-old Amelia, an Anaheim Hills girl wearing a bright yellow blazer.

A woman and a man kneel over a book alongside a child wearing white knee socks and a butterfly hair clip.
Poet Amanda Gorman signs her book for 3-year-old Amelia, who came to the festival with dad Josh Harrold.
(Donna Wares / Los Angeles Times)

‘’We’ve read Amanda’s poems to Amelia ever since we first saw her at the inauguration,” said Josh Harrold, Amelia’s dad. “Amelia was excited to dress up as her for Halloween!

“For Halloween, we had braids in her hair, along with the red headband to match the inauguration outfit! We drove out to Palm Springs where there is an Amanda Gorman mural for photos. We couldn’t get very close to the mural, but it was still cool to see. “

Harrold said he likes to take Amelia on an adventure every Saturday while his wife takes time to relax on her own. “This Dadurday at the Festival of Books may have been the best one yet,” he said. “Someday Amelia will grasp the magnitude of the moment, but since that moment she keeps saying things like, ‘Amanda Gorman was so nice, Daddy.’”

A young woman in a yellow coat gestures as she speaks at a podium.
Amanda Gorman reads “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Book Festival returns

The 27th Los Angeles Times Festival of Books returned in person April 23 and 24, with more than 550 authors, poets, artists, chefs, journalists, celebrities and musicians. A few highlights:

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The photos. Check out this amazing portrait gallery of participants who stopped by The Times’ studio to be entertained, cajoled and photographed by Jay L. Clendenin.

A man in a cowboy hat, jeans and jacket with tie smiles as he leans back in a chair with his feet propped on a table.
Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire mystery novels, joined a Sunday panel with Los Angeles author Attica Locke and book club editor Donna Wares.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The book talks: Here are some stories from a lively weekend that featured Luis J. Rodriguez, Janelle Monáe, Carl Bernstein, Amor Towles, Don Winslow and many others.

Two women sit on a stage, holding microphones.
Times columnist Erika D. Smith interviewed Janelle Monáe during the Ideas Exchange at the Festival of Books.
(Nick Agro / For The Times )

The live journalism: Times journalists such as Kevin Merida, Bill Plaschke, Robin Abcarian, Steve Padilla, Christopher Reynolds, Jenn Harris and Nani Sahra Walker shared their work and fielded reader questions on the festival’s Ask a Reporter stage. On Saturday, Gustavo Arellano hosted a live podcast discussion with Julia Wick, Erika D. Smith and Alene Tchekmedyian that took readers inside the L.A. mayor, council and sheriff races.

A man speaks at a podium
Executive Editor Kevin Merida at the the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The book prizes: Rep. Adam Schiff, Véronique Tadjo and Paul Auster were among the winners of the annual L.A. Times Book Prizes.

“I’m so grateful to everyone who came out and supported our return,” says festival organizer Ann Binney, The Times’ associate director of events. “I loved the excitement of the authors heading out to their panels, some maybe not exactly certain of how things would go, and then coming back and reporting: ‘The event was packed’; ‘the audience questions were so good’; and ‘we could have kept going for two hours!’”

A man holding a cloth book bag writes with a pen on a large poster.
Brad Ratliff signs the “What are you reading?” banner at the Festival of Books.
(Dorany Pineda)
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If you enjoy our community events

Please subscribe to the Los Angeles Times if you don’t already. Here’s a great deal: Get unlimited digital access for six months for just $1.

And please consider signing on as an individual or business sponsor of the new Los Angeles Times Community Fund, which supports our book club and annual book prizes. We depend on your help to keep growing our signature literary programs and live journalism events.

Finally, thank you to all the book clubbers who turned out for the Festival of Books. It was amazing to see so many readers and writers again or for the very first time — and to finally connect with previous guest authors in person. The response exceeded anything we could have imagined after two years of reading at home and talking about books from the couch.

Perhaps Woodland Hills reader Brad Ratliff summed it up best.

“I have been waiting for years for this event to come back,” Ratliff told reporter Dorany Pineda. “I’m just ecstatic by how big and wonderful it is. I just can’t stop smiling.”

Los Angeles Times Community Fund logo
(Parisa Hajizadeh-Amini/ Los Angeles Times )
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