While doing research on Lithuanian culture for Love Songs of the Revolution, I came upon a YouTube video that changed everything for me. Fuzzy images from a massive demonstration in 1989 are overlaid with a rock anthem whose words I couldn't understand, but whose meaning couldn't be more clear.
The Baltic Way was a major milestone in the Singing Revolution that swept the three Baltic nations in the late 1980s and ultimately led to their independence. No one knows exactly how many people showed up in the streets that day, but estimates run between one and two million people across the three countries.
Music and especially mass singing festivals have long played a major role in Baltic political movements. The rock anthem being sung in 1989 is "The Baltics are Waking Up," written especially for the Singing Revolution, in all three languages. The recording is sung by leading singers from each country:
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Baltic Way.
It's an amazing story and a historic moment in European history. We in the West know about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in China, both of which happened the same year, but have never heard about the Baltic Way. Once I learned about it, I knew it would have an important place in my novel. There on he streets of Vilnius in 1989, the crowds holding hands around them and singing for their freedom, the lives of Martynas and Indre are irrevocably changed.
My senior year in high school, my friends and I rented a beach house for spring break. We did the usual: listened to music too loud and too late, consumed a lot of unhealthy crap, and built a miniature model of Stonehenge on the beach out of driftwood. During the down time, I read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. My friends laughed when they saw what I'd brought along for spring break reading. Some of them still laugh about it today. That's how I learned you're supposed to read light, mindless drivel on the beach.
I've still never learned that lesson. Sure, I read all sort of things, not all of them Edifying or Improving, but I don't think of reading as topographical. My reading is mostly needs-based, and little opportunistic.
As spring comes to a close I've just finished reading HHhH, the acclaimed novel by Laurent Binet that tells the story of an act of great resistance during World War II while also exploring the challenges of writing historical fiction. Very readable, and very recommended. I'm following that up with The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad, set in the no-longer-faraway corner of the world where Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet. I'm about halfway in and it's completely captured my imagination.
Also on my to-read list for this summer:
Yes, I'll probably pick up the latest Inspector Lynley mystery from Elizabeth George too, since I've read all the others, though I may not admit it on Goodreads. I'm always on the lookout for more stuff to read. If you have any summer reading suggestions, do let me know.
Happy Birthday to my novel
Monday was Publication Day, when my novel, Love Songs of the Revolution, officially hit the virtual bookshelves. Soon to be literal bookshelves.
I really hit the jackpot with this beautiful cover designed by Ryan W. Bradley. He tells me he used covers from 1960s Graham Greene books as his inspiration. What a coincidence - I love Graham Greene.
The big announcement from the publisher, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), describes my novel as an "unusually intelligent spy thriller." I sent out my own announcement of the book and the upcoming launch party on June 28 (yes, you are invited too!) to my legions of friends, family and fans.
Even in the run-up to the publication date, the book has already started getting a bit of attention like this review, a notice and this reader's list that places me near Kathleen Rooney's O, Democracy, which is also on my to-read list.
Love Songs of the Revolution is now available as an e-book, in paperback and in a deluxe, handmade hardback edition (can't wait to get my hands on that version!). You can order it online right now. Or if you're in the LA area, come pick it up at my launch party at Skylight Books. Buy it there and your purchase will also support one of the best independent bookstores in all of Southern California. Heck, it's one of the best in the U.S.
I thought about posting a picture of a cigar with this blog, symbolizing the birth of my book. Then I decided that was a little too obvious. Anyway, when is a cigar just a cigar? So instead I'll close this blog with a bit of graffiti wisdom I ran across on the drive through beautiful Wadi Mujib in Jordan. Happy reading!
This year's Bike Week LA was marked by crazy hot, dry weather, an explosion of wildfires and a bursting crude oil pipeline near a residential neighborhood that left a lot of us wondering if there are any others close to where we live. Turns out Los Angeles is home to thousands of oil pipelines.
They promise none of the 10,000 gallons of spilled oil made it into the LA River, at least none that they noticed. My bike to work path takes me down a lovely patch of the river where it isn't entirely cemented in at the bottom. I've seen ducks, geese, seagulls, cormorants, pelicans, grebes, kingfishers, red-wing blackbirds and so many other birds on the river. In the spring, mother ducks tour their clutches of chicks along the water, and for a moment you might not notice the roar of the I-5 freeway just a few feet away from the bike path.
Thursday was Bike to Work Day in LA. Mayor Garcetti did his bit to set a good example early in the week by biking to the office, hashtags and all. It hit the low hundreds temp-wise on Thursday, but I definitely saw more bike commuters on the streets than usual. I stopped in at a pit stop early on my route, where they told me they were counting record numbers of cyclists. That's good news for all LA commuters - every bike is one less car blocking your way to work.
Once again I organized a couple of bike trains in to my office. On one side of town I met up with Clare and Brandon at Cafe Tropical in Silver Lake. Unfortunately we didn't have time to stop in for one of their amazing guava pastries. We pedaled down through Historic Filipinotown and Westlake neighborhoods to meet up with PK at MacArthur Park. On the other side of town, Tom rode into downtown LA where he met up with Jen, and picked up swag at all the hottest hipster pit stops in the city.
Sure, the ride home was hot-hot-hot: 94 degrees at 5 pm when we pedaled out the door. But with plenty of sunblock, cold water and a leisurely pace, we all made it home just fine.
Whether you bike to work every day or once a year, it's great to see the world at a pedaling pace. You'll see details of people and places you never noticed before. I'd never been on the LA River before I rode it on my bike. You'll learn the topography of your city, and may even discover some wonderful, unexpected, crazy treasures.
If Bike to Work Day LA ever gets its own theme song, I hope it goes something like this:
In February, Lithuanian prosecutors reopened an investigation into whether the CIA ran one of its notorious "black sites" on the outskirts of Vilnius in the early 2000s.
Evidence has been growing since 2009 that, alongside its secret prisons in Poland, Romania, Thailand, Afghanistan and Morocco, the CIA also ran a Lithuanian site in 2004-05 where they may have tortured "high-value" terror suspects including Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Abu Zubaydah. Both men are currently being held at Guantanamo.
The prison likely closed in 2005 or 2006, after news about potential secret CIA prisons in Macedonia, Poland and Romania were reported in the press. Cargo planes with markings associated with Richmor Aviation, an airline now known to have conducted CIA rendition flights, were seen coming and going from Vilnius. Other reports say that when the facility was being renovated, local people who stopped by looking for work were turned away by English-speaking guards.
In 2009, when the story about the Vilnius black site was first reported, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė was quoted as saying, "If this is true, Lithuania has to clean up, accept responsibility, apologize, and promise that it will never happen again." If proven, this would make Lithuania one of only four European countries to permit the Americans to commit torture on their territory.
If you're wondering what the Lithuanians got in return for that, one unnamed CIA official had said they didn't ask for anything at all. Abu Zubaydah eventually sued Lithuania in the European court for human rights for their role in his torture.
After it was brought to light, Lithuanian officials opened a probe into whether or not the CIA had in fact opened a black site on the edge of town. Strangely, prosecutors found that the CIA had built the prison with the support of the local security service, the SSD, but said there was no evidence that prisoners were ever held there. The investigation was closed in 2011. In 2013, British human rights group Redress and the Human Rights Monitoring Institute in Vilnius lodged a complaint with the country's Prosecutor General, asking him to investigate further.
At first the prosecutors refused to reopen the case. Less than a month later, in February of this year, they changed their minds. The investigation will focus on whether Al-Hawsawi was in fact held in Vilnius.
Love Songs of the Revolution gets its official launch on Saturday, June 28 at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. It's a bit of a dream come true to see my face on their website.
Skylight is absolutely one of the best places in LA to find your next book. You can wander the aisles and see what the universe offers, or ask one of their smart staff people to give you suggestions. I'd say every literary person in LA has a soft spot in their heart for the store. A guy named Graham S. loves Skylight so much he wrote a haiku review on Yelp.
Skylight's calendar is filled with night after night of readings and talks by authors from Patti Smith to a local girl whose first book was published by an indie press you might never have heard of before. If you miss a reading, don't fret. Just click over and listen to the podcast on iTunes or Podbean.
In the Department of You Probably Didn't Know: actor Jeffrey Tambor (aka George Bluth Sr. on Arrested Development) is a part owner of the store. If that doesn't raise the cool factor, I don't know what does.
My book launch and reading start at 5 p.m. on June 28. There will be wine and snacks. Possibly live music too. Please join me to celebrate my book and this amazing bookstore.
I'll let Skylight's official bookstore cat, Franny, have the last word:
Franny and Bob from Whitney Blank on Vimeo.
You are invited!
Love Songs of the Revolution book launch party
Saturday, June 28 at 5 pm
1818 N. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
See you there
I had to do a presentation at a staff meeting yesterday about the semicolon. Yes, we discuss grammar and punctuation at work. To be honest, I enjoy it. I was the kid in elementary school who went home and eagerly asked my dad to write really complicated sentences so I could diagram them. That was a good time!
If your response to the thought of a semicolon is angst or disquiet, herewith, the guide I created to help you use them with confidence. Punctuate responsibly.
Looking for your next book to read? I can recommend all these great indie press books.