My first book vlog is up!
What better way to familiarize yourself with a new neighborhood than to explore its coffee shops? I actually grew up in the Highland Park/South Pasadena/Eagle Rock area, but things have changed in the past decade. Now that I’m back, I’ve come to realize that what was once a network of churches, rinky-dink shops and little else, is now turning into yet another L.A. hipster mecca. So I set out with my laptop to rediscover the neighborhoods of my yesteryear; to find a corner in it where I could sit quietly and do what I do.
Cafe de Leche–Highland Park
You know what? I was ready to write this place off as a 2 out of 5. The original first sentence of my Cafe de Leche review was, “Meh.” This is why it’s important to give a bad experience a second chance, because Cafe de Leche isn’t meh. Let me explain.
I first arrived at the shop high on three cups of Highland Cafe’s Handsome Coffee. I wasn’t feeling too hot. Stomach acid may have been leaking into my system and my laptop battery was in the red. I ordered a fourth coffee because I didn’t want to sit down without buying something like a chump, but I wasn’t hungry. A regular stood in line in front of me. He happily chatted away with the baristo. But when I was up, I got the customer service cold front. I got text wrap around my irises–the man was repelled by my very gaze. Was this real or a product of my coffee bean high? I’m pretty sure it was real. The place was packed and the outlets here are sparse–that is one real drawback to writing in the shop. If you’re a presser of keys who needs a charge, you’ll have to hope for a seat at the high table near the front door where you’ll find an outlet.
I cursed under my breath. I could only stay for 25 minutes, after which time my laptop would flip me off. I slapped my MacBook open to log on to the Wifi and saw this:
It was like the universe was telling me to GTFO. So I did.
I typed out my angry rant wherein I would have told you all to stay away, but I ruminated on it… I’ve had bad days, haven’t I? Maybe coffee shops have bad days too.
So I showed up on another Saturday around the same time, but only after half a cup at Highland Cafe. Both baristas greeted me sweetly and cheerfully. A cute design was rendered in my cappuccino foam (they serve Stumptown Coffee Roasters here if that means anything to you). It wasn’t as crowded that day, so I got a better look at the place and found myself charmed by its quaintness: the cruiser bike mounted high on the wall, the grass-green patio chairs, the exposed ceiling beams and general airiness of the cafe. I took a deep breath and sat at that high table (though I showed up fully charged like a pro).
I re-read my review as the barista/os laughed and joked around behind me. A warm flood of shame washed across my face. What a jerk.
Cafe de Leche isn’t my Highland Cafe–the seating is a bit claustrophobic for the paranoid writer who thinks everyone is checking for typos over her shoulder–but it’s not the place I’d been ready to paint it as. Moral of the story.
I’m glad I gave Leche a second chance. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Viscosity: 3.5 out of 5
Buster’s Coffee–South Pasadena
I’m going to admit straightaway that I’m biased about Buster’s. I used to go to the double-decker coffee shop for shakes and Italian sodas with my dad all the time as a kid, so this retro establishment resides in the warm, fuzzy area of my memories. I wore a Gaussian blur veil stepping into the place which, by the way, hasn’t changed since I first started going.
Okay, a couple of things have changed. The shopkeepers maintain a few funny, somewhat boggling, rules about technology. No cell phones while placing your order: 100% understandable and it’s sad they need a sign for that. Only use laptops at non-yellow tables upstairs? Oooookay. They’re also strict about how long you use their Wifi. I guess they don’t want you occupying their tables for an inordinate length of time. I get it. I’ve seen people walk in and then immediately out of shops with unrestricted Wifi because every seat was occupied, including large tables taken up by a single occupant chained to his or her laptop. That’s business lost. Which is why I always either order food with my coffee or buy two drinks when I stay at any cafe for a long stretch, and I try to take up the least amount of space possible since I’m usually alone or with one other person. If I’m at a cafe that long, it usually means I like the place, which means I want it to stay in business.
Buster’s epitomizes kitsch. If your story is set in the 50s or 60s, you have to try writing here. I promise you’ll be inspired. And if you’re not completely satisfied, get yourself a chocolate malt and all regrets will slip away. Magic. The cafe is full of teal, brick red, orange. The tables and chairs are rustic, painted things; everything has a haphazard, grandma’s attic appeal.
Oh and there’s a door to nowhere. If you opened it and stepped out, you’d fall through space and land on the Metro Rail tracks. I’m pretty sure the staff push technology rule-breakers out of this door.
The coffee here is always good. It’s mellow and unobtrusive. It might be Chock Full o’Nuts–nobody here is swishing coffee around their mouths to identify the notes in their beans. The “technology area” upstairs is nice and quiet. It’s an enclave with a nice view of the similarly old-timey strip of Mission Street it sits on.
One thing to note is that Buster’s gets intense on hot days. The sun brings in ice cream addicts because their shakes and malts are menu highlights. It crowds fast. Ice cream also draws kids, so you might be swarmed by half-pints. But on a weekday during work hours or on an off weekend, the place is a slice of vintage heaven.
Viscosity: 3.75 out of 5
Highland Cafe–Highland Park
I had to hold off on telling you about this place for a while because I had to pee on it first. Okay, I didn’t really pee on it, but I did have to establish my presence here before putting it on blast.
You know when you find a place that you want so badly to be your Cheers? That’s how I feel about Highland Cafe. It’s right down the street from me, it has just the right ambience, super writer-friendly layout, Wifi, nice staff, great food and, importantly, strong coffee. Although, they serve Handsome Coffee, which leans toward acidic in its plain, hot state. I’d recommend the cappuccino, which is my favorite form of coffee anyway. But they don’t stop at coffee. Highland offers a delicious and (mostly) nutritious breakfast and lunch menu. I recommend the huevos rancheros.
This is the coffee shop I’ve been looking for and the reason I can never move.
I even considered not talking about this place at all. My Gollum-desire to keep the precious battled it out with my moral duty to report on amazing writing spaces for the good of the collective. Guess who won? One day I’m going to crush you under my boot, Jiminy Cricket.
Highland Cafe is one of a few new shops that opened up on Figueroa, a Highland Park street that has been crawling toward gentrification for about six years. It’s starting to look a lot like Silverlake. I don’t mean that in a wholly bad way. Sure, the Wifi networks around these parts are now riddled with outraged contempt, but I kinda like what the old neighborhood is becoming. I’m not restricted to hanging out at Jack in the Box on Eagle Rock Blvd anymore.
I certainly can’t find anything despicable about Highland Cafe. This is the kind of place where the waiters dance with each other behind the counter and croon along with Morrisey, albeit tunelessly. This is the kind of place where they enthusiastically shout their goodbyes as you scurry out the door. This is where I want to be when I write.
Viscosity: 5 out of 5 (!!)
When I was a young girl still full of wonder, I dabbed chrysanthemum water on my eyes to see if it would give me that long-awaited ability to see fairies. I laughed even as I did it, but I felt a glimmer of hope. I experienced a moment of, “This might actually work.” Which led to complete and utter disappointment when I saw nothing but the white walls of my dorm room and the smirk on my roommate’s face.
Did I say I was a young girl? I meant 19 year-old college student in possession of too many Wicca books.
Ray Bradbury’s The Homecoming reminded me of that day. Of wanting to be special and part of something magical. The very same strain of feeling that still draws me to speculative fiction.
Who wouldn’t want to shout expelliarmus and blast the laser pointer out of her chemistry professor’s hand because otherwise she’ll die of boredom?
The Homecoming is the haunting story of the only normal boy in an Addams Family of sorts, and his desperate attempt to become like them during a thrilling reunion. It’s a sweet tale. Bittersweet in all the right ways. You will want to hug the little boy.
I get the feeling Bradbury didn’t care how anyone else was writing when he spun a tale. He did his own thing and oh is it effective. Much respect.
This particular edition is made even better by Dave McKean’s perfect illustrations (I didn’t link to his site because it’s not live). The words and images work so incredibly well together that visual art becomes story and story becomes visual art. That art and those words stole reality from me for a time, and I wasn’t bothered.
By the way, I hope you’ve seen MirrorMask.
I’ve decided to continue the Best Place to Write in Los Angeles thread indefinitely rather than ending it here at Part 3, as originally planned. I’ll be taking my adventures in writing beyond coffee shops, exploring some other–perhaps offbeat–spots, and also on the road because I’m a vagabond rockstar and wanderlusting jet-setter…
The Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa — Culver City
Guest Post by Victoria Farrow
I’ve gone to The Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa about three times by now. The first time I wasn’t impressed at all. The place is awkwardly designed and feels cramped. It isn’t the biggest coffee shop ever but the seating area is so tight. The chairs and tables are not comfortable or inviting, just patio furniture it seems.
The place was kind of dirty; there are huge burlap sacks of coffee beans on a platform right when you walk in and rogue beans have not been swept from underneath it in forever. They do offer loose leaf teas to taste and buy, but the area to do so is as large as a hallway and difficult to access if more than one person is in that area as well.
Anyway, let’s get on to the important stuff…Their selection is the basic/essential coffee/espresso offerings but it seems they specialize in having various types of beans and roasts available. I’ve had a few different things here and maybe my palette is not fine enough, but it just tastes like coffee or espresso. It doesn’t blow my socks off. Their pastries look good, but don’t get their sandwich croissants; it was made with so much butter it felt like a slippery fish in my hands. Their muffins and scones are better.
Overall, this place is average.
Yikes! I thanked Victoria for saving me from a bad cup of coffee. I didn’t rate this one since I haven’t actually been there, but I doubt I’ll be visiting after that review.
Kaldi Coffee — Atwater Village
Justi suggested this place called Kaldi Coffee & Tea in Atwater Village and I was game to go based on her recommendation, but I was more excited about finally visiting my old java hole adjacent to the South Pasadena Public Library. Although the South Pas cafe is my favorite in all the land, I could never remember its name. It was such a nondescript, tucked-away place. For the longest time I didn’t know it had a name. The mystery was part of its charm.
You can imagine my confusion when Justi told me the name of her recommended coffee shop in Atwater and the very same name came up for my coffee shop in South Pas. The website didn’t mention two locations, so I assume it moved. I can’t confirm because we didn’t go to South Pas. Honestly, I was afraid to find my little coffee shop full of memories abandoned.
The Atwater Kaldi bore no resemblance to my Kaldi, but, inside, a fat leather armchair waited for me in a puddle of sun, so I couldn’t hold a grudge. Justi and I sprawled out like the cold-blooded lizards we are and enjoyed a cup. The shop brews its coffee on site. Could I tell the difference? Not really. It was nice and strong though; after so many weak coffees, I’ve come to appreciate that detail. They also have a large selection of teas.
Atwater is thoroughly gentrified so I was surprised by the lack of crowding inside. I guess hipsters don’t wake up earlier than noon (I swear I don’t dislike hipsters even though I keep insulting them…oh wait, yes I do). Only two or three others occupied the airy, white-walled space. Some uncomfortable-looking patio furniture hedged the street just outside the shop, but it wasn’t warm enough for that. Besides–fat leather armchair!
At Kaldi, I finally finished writing Part 2 of the Places to Write thread so I’d call it a successful writing environment. It was just quiet enough. Perhaps not having a plate of breakfast in front of me helped. Don’t come here on an empty stomach unless fruit and cold pastries satisfies you. It would not do for us, so Justi and I vacated to find food.
Viscosity: 4 out of 5
Novel Cafe — Pasadena
Justi and I learned an important lesson: never coffee hunt on an empty stomach, especially when you don’t have a plan. I thought we could wing it. We had the infallible Yelp on our side. All we had to do was find a coffee shop that served food. As we frowned at the sparse menu board in a dingy Glendale coffee shop-cum-greasy spoon that Yelp assured us was a-okay, I began to regret my bad planning. We wandered past the fancy shops and “experience” restaurants at the Americana–an outdoor shopping center–and knew we had to get right back in the car and head elsewhere before the day escaped us.
We tried our luck near Pasadena City College, where Justi had to be dropped off later, and found Novel Cafe. With a name like that, we couldn’t go wrong. This discovery turned out to be worthy of celebration in the form of mimosas. Their menu was thoughtful, they had coffee, and we could sit outside, away from the crowd, and set up our laptops. Although this place was a godsend for hungry people with writing and studying to do, I wouldn’t write here unless I could sit in the outdoor area. Indoors, Novel Cafe is very much a restaurant. I suspect working on a laptop in the low lit social atmosphere would have proved awkward.
This is one of those entries where the place is great, but maybe not so much for the task at hand.
Viscosity: 2.5 out of 5
I used to think I’d have to root for at least one character in a story in order to enjoy a work of fiction. The character could be an anti-hero, even a truly evil person who makes a turn for the better around the story’s mid-point. Just give me a scrap of likeability and I’ll lap it up if the writing is good.
But Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections gave me an entire family of persistently miserable creatures. These people aren’t just flawed—they’re morally depraved, shallow, greedy, weak-willed, manipulative. Sometimes what makes reading about and despising characters like the Lamberts so jarring and titillating is simultaneously recognizing glimmers of yourself in their despicability. And that’s what makes this book such a great read. Its honesty is naked and raw. The lack of a true hero and the bluntness of the family’s prejudices and meanness may be unpleasant, but it’s also real. When I read the thoughts of the characters I sometimes wondered if the author had tapped into the undercurrent of my thoughts–the unfortunate things I whisper in my mind when I think I’m not listening. Franzen taps into the modern American consciousness and, with his seemingly effortless way with words, puts its bad face to pen and paper.
The Corrections broaches so many topics: consumerism, sexual repression and expression, the decline of rural America. At the base of it all is the family struggle—the clash between eras, the rejection of childhood and disgust with aging. I felt like a therapist puzzling together the pieces of my patients’ lifetimes to find the root of the evil possessing them. Their personal problems and relationships were so compelling, I couldn’t put the book down even as I ground my teeth to a fine dust.
I think you should read this book. Yes, I think you should brace yourself for discomfort, big laughs, seething sessions, frustration and the kind of deep satisfaction that comes with clarity.
Have you ever felt like you were suddenly left homeless after finishing a book? Like you really lived in the setting and experienced it, only to have that home and the promise of future experiences snatched away by The End?
When I finished Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, I felt like Bailey looking out over the hill to see Le Cirque des Rêves only to find an empty field.
Books like The Night Circus remind me that words are truly magical. They have the ability to transport the reader and convince her that the impossible is possible.
At Le Cirque des Rêves, a haunting and fantastic circus that arrives as suddenly as it disappears, visitors gain access to the inexplicable and breathtaking wonders housed within each black and white tent. But they are not privy to the mechanics behind each tent…the workings of magicians Celia and Marco. And they do not know that the circus is actually a battleground where the pair must participate in a competition they’ve been trained for since childhood. As Celia and Marco fall in love, the wonders within the circus increase, as do the stakes.
This book was almost everything I’d hoped to find sandwiched between the covers of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (which I still haven’t convinced myself to finish). Magic, love, interesting settings and characters…basically, “the works” for a lover of fantasy and magic. I really cared about the fate of Le Cirque des Rêves and its performers. I turned each page to visit the circus and to learn more about those involved. There’s both poetry and clarity to Morgenstern’s descriptions of the circus, and you can’t help but feel like you’re there, experiencing it for yourself.
I enjoyed the pace of the novel, with its short chapters and juicy little tidbits expanding upon the mood and various tents in Le Cirque des Rêves. It was a pretty quick read, and I didn’t feel like the story dragged.
Morgenstern’s use of magic was unique. I expected Harry Potter style battles with wands drawn and spells shouted, but got something refreshing and unexpected instead.
The characters were a bit iffy. This was one of those rare stories where I found myself more interested in the supporting characters (namely, Poppet and Widget) than the main characters. Celia and Marco were interesting at times, but I didn’t find myself truly invested in their love story. They lacked the depth I need from main characters. I was more concerned about the fate of the circus, Poppet, Widget and Bailey. Also, Prospero seemed like a bit of an afterthought by the end (maybe to match his physical state).
As for the rest of the conclusion, it didn’t give me an “Aha!” moment–I wouldn’t call it a strong finish–but I was satisfied and it didn’t change my mind about the novel as a whole.
The Night Circus is a lovely fairy tale that offers its reader a brief life in an unforgettable circus. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good circus story; this book was certainly crafted for rêveurs. If you’re instead seeking a love story for the ages or an impeccable plot, this book might not be your cup o’ tea.
What I Learned
I predict I’ll often turn to this book when I need good examples of descriptive voice, especially when describing settings. For me, The Night Circus solidified the concept of writing to provide an experience. Morgenstern’s prose took all five of my senses on a wild ride.
I sort of feel like a moron reviewing a book that came out in 1993, especially since I realized I’d already read it in high school about three pages in, but I’m trying to read any books–old and new–that promise insight on amazing and successful writing. And this is one book I kept hearing about and couldn’t believe I’d never read before. So it makes sense that the memory of reading Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride simply slipped out of my mind with everything else I learned and experienced in high school.
Tony, Roz and Charis are three starkly different women pulled together by one destructive constant: Zenia. The cunning and deceptive Zenia who hurtled into their lives like a bomb. When Zenia comes back from the dead the memory of their destructive relationship with her also resurfaces. Though each woman has an intricate past so completely distinct from the others’, the three lives intersect and climax with Zenia.
I remember loving the imagery in this book, but not so much the book itself. I’m pretty sure I skimmed it instead of reading through, which would explain my memory loss. I’ll get to the reason I didn’t initially like it in the “What I Learned” section.
Reading it as an adult, I loved everything about this book. The imagery is impeccable. I love it as much as I did before. See my favorite quote further down for a sample. Atwood is a seamless and insightful storyteller. I never experienced any of those “huh?” moments I sometimes get when I read something doesn’t sound right, or sounds like it’s trying too hard. And it’s magical when a writer can make the reader feel as if she’s reading a true life story, even when the book has elements of fantasy.
This is the kind of story that makes me jealous in a good way. It makes me want to try harder, to consider each sentence, and to always keep my reader in mind. It makes me want to be an honest writer, never shying from what is gritty but human. And that brings me to…
What I Learned
Main characters don’t have to be perfect.
I knew this before, but I’ve long worried over how to execute the flawed character without convincing my reader to hate him or her. I grew up with this Disney Princess mentality, believing that a main character had to be a blameless victim. Whenever I happened upon a story where the hero had what I considered a serious character flaw–if I felt that the main character brought suffering on himself in some way–I got frustrated and dismissed the book and author as annoying.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t enjoy this book in high school because the three main characters all share a needy submissiveness for their significant others that bothered me even as I read it this time around. There were some moments where I grunted angrily and said “you stupid idiot,” about Charis in particular, a number of times. But I got angry because I’ve seen these character flaws before in real life in myself and others. This isn’t some obviously fictional character being outrageously stupid or weak–this is someone being human. And the mistakes she made may have annoyed me, but they made sense–they fit with who she was, what she’d been through and what was to come.
The things that bothered me were things that made me love the story. If that makes any sense. It made the story honest. And, in the end, I didn’t hate the main characters, but appreciated that their flaws were integral to a quality story.
As for the rooster, with his eye of an insane prophet and his fanatic’s air of outrage and his comb and wattles flaunted like genitals, he’s an overbearing autocrat, and attacks her rubber boots when he thinks she’s not looking.