Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.
Last summer while watching the discord of the Democratic presidential debates, Los Angeles writer Heather Johns Fogarty realized she had become a stranger in her own country. “It occurred to me how little I knew of a person’s lived experience in Ohio or Montana, or even Arizona some 200 miles away.”
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Instead of throwing up her hands or arguing with strangers on social media, she decided to start reading more deeply. That’s how the 52 weeks, 52 books project was born.
“In the year leading up to the 2020 election,” she writes, “I would read (at least) one book from each state, as well as from Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., prioritizing contemporary fiction and memoir, with the hope of exploring shared experiences, such as family, identity and a sense of home.”
So far, she has read her way through Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado and Connecticut and shares this essay on the adventure.
What books would you suggest to continue this journey, and why?
Novel in the form of a letter
The Los Angeles Times Book Club is reading “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by bestselling author Ocean Vuong. The novel, which takes its title from one of Vuong’s poems, meditates on themes of whiteness, masculinity, violence and America’s tortured relationship with Vietnam. It is told as a letter from a young man to his mother who cannot read.
“Many critics would say this is an immigrant story and a gay story, maybe something about working class,” he says in an interview with The Times. “But a writer is so much more than that.”
On Jan. 2, Vuong joins the book club for a conversation with Times writer Carolina A. Miranda at the Montalbán Theatre. Get tickets.
In advance of his visit, Vuong shared some of his favorite reads and current interests:
— On your nightstand: “High Lonesome,” stories by Joyce Carol Oates; “Tell Me,” stories by Mary Robison; “Red Cavalry” by Isaac Babel.
— The book you most enjoy rereading: I admit, a tad shamefully, that I’m not much of a rereader. My memory is pretty good (for better and worse) and I’m often haunted by scenes from books I read over a decade ago. I still get the creeps thinking about Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (the toes!) and still feel the overwhelming peace and sadness toward the end of Morrison’s “Sula.”
— A poem everyone should read: “These Hands, If Not Gods” by Natalie Diaz.
— Biggest challenge of recording your own audiobook: I found out I can’t pronounce “Earth” or “clothes.”
— Next project: Trying to be a better friend.
— Favorite music right now: Pinegrove, Perfume Genius, Thomston, Frank Ocean, Mitski, Gus Dapperton, Lil Peep, Lontalius, Cairo, Phum Viphurit, Joji, Whitney, Alec Benjamin, Scruffpuppi, Tyler, the Creator.
— Must-watch TV show: “The End of the ... World”
— Next adventure: Wisconsin
— Craziest thing you did to tell a story: Got trapped under a pool table at 3 a.m. while two people had sex on it.
— The thing that keeps you up at night: My mother’s voice
You’ve heard of the “Green Book,” the travel guide for black travelers launched in 1936. Candacy Taylor has meticulously retraced its history in “Overground Railroad.” Reviewer Lynell George writes: “Taylor’s new book revisits the nesting stories behind the ‘Green Book,’ which helped black tourists navigate racial minefields implicit in a road trip — whether across counties or cross-country.”
“Uncanny Valley” is Anna Wiener’s “biting and funny memoir of her days in San Francisco’s start-up salt mines during the aughts,” says reviewer Mark Athitakis.
“Prozac Nation” author Elizabeth Wurtzel, who chronicled the world’s woes and her own with style, died this week at 52. “I love to argue,” she wrote in 2018. “I am in it for the headache.” Read Virginia Heffernan’s appreciation.
Finally, this week’s L.A. book talks include hidden histories, jungle adventures and more.
After reading Ocean Vuong in January, the book club’s February selection is “From Our Land to Our Land” by Los Angeles author and former poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez. It’s a new collection of stories and essays about race, culture, identity and belonging. Rodriguez joins book club readers on Feb. 15.
On March 11, we’ll welcome Jeanine Cummins, author of “American Dirt.” Her upcoming south-of-the-border thriller is the story of an Acapulco bookstore owner who races to the U.S. border with her young son after a drug cartel guns down her family. Here’s an excerpt.
Ticket details are coming soon.
Stay tuned for more events and conversations, and stay in touch. Tell us: What stories do you want to share? What authors would you most like to meet?