Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Cocoa Guide to Discovering Sparkling Novels

Photo by Sara-Elizabeth Myers - my new favorite book!

There's no specific section in the library for books bubbling with lyrical prose and mythical stories, yet our hearts are still stuck onto these kinds of tales - so how, we ask, do we discover new and exciting reads? How do we find these tiny novellas and towering epics that make our heads spin and our hearts fly out of our chests? There are only so many tried-and-true authors we have under our belt and what happens when no one else is around to give recommendations and we, quite simply, get that insatiable itch to read?

Where to Hunt for Fabulous Reads
+ Dig through the young adult section of your local bookstore or library - I find that some of the most dreamlike and enchanted books somehow always end up categorized there.
+ Used book stores usually have a "vintage" section filled with old kids books and ten cent paperbacks with the most curious and outrageous story-lines. Take a day and explore all of these stores in your area - you might just find some really great deals while you're at it!
+ Hit the nearest comic book store! Crazy as it sounds, most comic book stores carry the best in science-fiction and fantasy, not to mention the fact that you're more than likely to find a thrilling read at a discounted price!
+ Garage sales, garage sales, garage sales! There's no better place for thrilling novels that you won't find anywhere else.

Before you begin your hunt, here are some absolutely amazing, all-around thrilling, super sparkling books to keep your eye out for...

White Oleander by Janet Fitch
If Francesca Lia Block were to write harrowing, epic tragedies, White Oleander would be her first novel. Set in Los Angeles against a hazy, blooming landscape, a mother-daughter relationship is shattered after poetess Ingrid Magnussen poisons her backstabbing boyfriend with the blossoms of oleanders. Consequently her fifteen year old daughter, Astrid, is faced with the all-too harsh realities of foster homes and adoption agencies, bouncing between dilapidated houses and all too unfit guardians for the remainder of the novel. The tear-jerking story and lyrical prose are both beautiful, but nothing short of heart-wrenching - just when Astrid seems to get a break, some terrible tragedy occurs and she's forced to start all over again. Nevertheless, White Oleander is an absolutely gorgeous work of fiction that deserves every piece of praise that it gets - if you're looking for something especially lovely to read, give this doorstop of a book a glance.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
When I first picked up this tiny little gem, I expected something strictly fairy-tale-esque - something dreamy and hazy, a fantastic world that evoked Alice in Wonderland and the eccentricity and wonder of being young again. Instead, The Book Of Lost Things presented the Brother Grimm world with a fiercely woozy twist, one that's mature and real rather than mild and childlike. It evokes a slightly less gothic yet similar nonetheless feel to that of American McGee's Alice at parts, and at others it shines brightly in the same manner as the original fairy tales themselves. In black and white, it tells the haunting story of a young boy, isolated in life and driven to a state of childish jealousy when his father remarries and has a second child. The only place he can seem to find solace is in the pages of his books, dusty old things that speak to him in the middle of the night, whispering secrets and stories and tales of their lives. It is only when one night, during the all-out bedlam of a World War II air raid, that he gets sucked into their paperback world and everything truly changes, and he finds himself in charge of a life-changing decision - is it better to face the modern horrors of growing up or those shadowy ones of childhood?

After Dark by Haruki Murakami
As a preface, I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that this is one of the most interesting, well-rounded, and comprehensively thrilling reads that I’ve ever gotten my hands on in my history of literacy. It’s an eccentrically simple story, following a strange brood of characters through the electric world that is Tokyo at night and mapping out their connections to each other - a Chinese girl is robbed and abandoned in a "love hotel", a quirky trombonist meets the sister of the girl of his dreams in a Denny's, a group of women with oddly unfitting names find themselves in the grungiest of districts at night, and a young woman who is trapped in a Sleeping Beauty-esque sleep gets transported into a strange and mysterious world inside of her television. After Dark is storytelling at its best, comprehensively capturing what its like to be a night owl in an electric city, from the cast of characters to the script-like narrative. Pick it up now and experience it for yourself!

Mondo Barbie
I'm consistently shocked when I reference this book in everyday life and others have no idea what I'm talking about. Mondo Barbie is an eccentric, flirtatious, and sometimes dirty compilation of short stories and poems all about America's favorite pink plastic sweetheart - that go-go girl herself, Miss Barbara Millicent Roberts. The book turns a modern bubblegum twist on the doll that almost all baby girls grew up with, exposing her stunningly deep impact on twentieth century life, culture, sexuality, and everything else through sweetly short valley girl novellas printed on petunia pink paper. Because really, who doesn't want to be a Barbie girl?

The Gift Moves by Steve Lyon
In a Hayao Miyazaki-esque world where buses are living, breathing creatures that pad across the country side and whole families tattoo their names and stories across their bodies, a girl leaves home with dreams of apprenticing in the city and learning the art of weaving. As she is taught how to dye fabric the most brilliant of colors and work a loom so large that it takes up a whole room by a mild old woman named Heron, secrets begin to unfold and her path in life criss-crosses in the most unexpected of places. The Gift Moves is a mystifying novel about soul-searching and the things that bind us to life, no matter how everyday they may seem, and is one of those rare electrified books that leaves you transfixed with the dreamworld contained inside of its pages.

The Every Boy by Dana Adam Shapiro
There's no more cheery an example of death and rebirth than that contained inside of this upbeat recollection of fifteen year old Henry Every's life. After washing ashore with no clues to his death, Henry's parents discover a meticulously organized ledger recalling every melancholy and rapturous moment of his short yet quirky life, from his obsessive love for a teenaged New Yorker named Benna to comically illegal episodes performed with his partner in crime, Jorden. A charmingly sweet yet tragic novel, it's heartwarming in a curious sort of way that will leave you wishing for more of its kind. I promise you that as soon as you've turned the last page you'll ask why your childhood couldn't have been this interesting.

Green Angel by Alice Hoffman
To all of those searching for magic in novels, for quiet tales with modern day mysticism, for daydream-esque worlds painted through sticky-sweet words, for some tiny piece of fiction that can never be categorized, never be shelved properly, something that belongs to more than just children or young adults or quiet pre-teens, Green Angel may just be exactly what you've been searching for. It's a hauntingly lean novel, telling the story of shadowy and shy Green who, after an apocalyptic fire rages in large scale, is left empty and alone. With nothing but the house she grew up in and a garden soaked in ashes, she morphs through her teenaged years into a leather-clad warrior, a negative of her former self, blind from the ash and tattooed with her sorrow. Through chance encounters and the help of other survivors, though, she rediscovers herself and finds that sometimes disaster can lead to true inner-happiness.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
I can’t say enough about this book. Neil Gaiman brings fairy tales back from the depths of history and revives them with a newfound vigor in this incredible, imaginative novel. If you’ve seen the movie and thought it was just a little too cheeky for you, then this book is absolutely a must-read – the novel version is just a little bit darker while still retaining that wide-eyed charm that most fairy-tales have. It’s so nice to see a revival of this genre since no truly good fairy-tales have been written since the 18th century, and I definitely think that Neil Gaiman is just the man to tackle its Renaissance.

Penelope ♥

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Weekly Wishes

I wish... for a bite-sized brownstone in Park Slope, nestled between French bakeries overflowing with roller-skate sized eclairs and huge bone white mugs of cafe au lait and super-hero supply stores boasting capes and goggles and Batmobiles disguised as bikes. I wish for gardening stores within walking distance named after old black and white movies and cafes painted lipstick red that serve coffee and tea to artists and poets and everymen alike - for San Francisco-esque streets that dip down so sharp that they make bike rides turn into roller-coasters and a roadmap of the world's cuisines nestled in one single block. I wish for lazy days and hazy nights spent in this glorious whipped cream-topped slice of Brooklyn and I want to live, eat, and breathe within its boundary lines.

I wish... whistling was mandatory for anyone in a particularly good mood. Something about coming upon someone whistling just cheers me up automatically, especially when they seem so enthralled with doing it. Plus, almost all upbeat songs include whistling - take Perry Como's Magic Moments, for example. I'm telling you, whistling should be a sport!

I wish... for horror flicks and swingin' chicks.

In a week of hand-holding, heart-shaped confetti, and teenaged boys riding their bikes through the street with whole bouquets of roses balanced on the handlebars, what do you wish for, sugarplum bunnies?

Penelope ♥

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How to Give the Perfect Valentines Day Gift

Photo by anhsangtim

How do you say "I love you" in French? Italian? Japanese? For that matter, how do you say it in English? How do you say "I think you're pretty cool" or "I really wish we could hang out more" - how do you say "I would throw away everything just to be with you?" in a way that truly conveys it? Valentines Day seems to be the absolute best day to say these things, whether we say them in French, Italian, Japanese, or English, but the question is always what do we give to convey all these swirling, spinning, mixed-up emotions? What tiny, red-wrapped package could ever say all these things? Take a deep breathe, forget the bouquet of red roses, and go for a little more personal approach - quite simply, here's the Cocoa guide for finding those perfect gifts that say exactly the right words. 

"I'd like to get to know you better"
Have you happened upon someone thoroughly intriguing mere days before February 14th, either wandering the street or sitting next to you on a plane or in that itsy-bitsy coffee shop you religiously frequent? You're in luck! Now is the perfect time to further your friendship with a charming little trinket or a small excursion out with this newfound friend! Keep in mind that Valentines Day isn't all about over-the-top romanticism, so keep your gift simple and fun, especially at this stage of the relationship - track down a CD to a funky little band they might enjoy or pick up a book that they mentioned they've been meaning to read. Humorous gifts are great for Valentines like these, too, so feel free to find a parody of something they said they did or didn't like and present it with great extravagance. Despite standard V-Day traditions, though, avoid jewelry at all costs! You've just met the person and don't want to give the wrong impression!
For Last Minute Gift Givers: Put your skills to the test and make them something using Origami, whether it be a paper crane, an ice cream cone, or a slice of pizza.

"Thank you for being there"
It's important to remember that V-Day is not just about lovers in love, but it's a day of appreciation for everyone that you've cultivated a relationship with - that means mothers who have stood by your side during the good times and the bad, fathers who have always held your hand when checking for monsters under the bed, friends who have never let you down and were always there to cheer you up when the hard times came - don't forget that these are the most important people in your life and they deserve to be celebrated too! Try making hand-made paper lace valentines for these incredible folks, complete with personal letters and maybe even a few pieces of candy. If you're looking for something a little more modern, too, track down a gift card to their favorite coffee shop or movie theatre or restaurant and tuck it inside.
For Last Minute Gift Givers: Compose a poem and perform it with eccentric theatrics, professing your appreciation for them and everything they do in highs and lows.

"I think I'm falling in love with you"
"Valentine's day is in less than a week and I have someone really special in my life that I would like to make a gift for. He's my best friend, confidante, and the reason why I'm almost always happy...He's not my boyfriend, but I have feelings for him, and I was hoping that this Valentine's day, I could finally tell him."

This has to be the most difficult gift of all, especially to those on pins and needles wondering whether or not their Valentine will say those three simple words in return. If there's an opportunity for romanticism and extravagance, this is it - find something truly meaningful to the person in question, whether it be hard-to-get concert tickets or a little slice of nostalgia from their childhood, and make a whole day of the gift-giving ceremony. Take them out to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, taking a tour of the city you live in whilst doing so, or just visit meaningful places to the both of you. For those like the lovely bunny above who want to go the handmade route, do so with intimacy! Knit a big warm scarf for your Valentine to wear on those especially cold days, cut little hearts out of paper or fabric or whatever else you can find and string them together in a six-foot-long daisy chain, cross-stich "Be mine?" with little checkboxes underneath reading "Yes" and "No". Whatever you make, be sure that it comes from the heart and be especially sure to have lots of fun whilst making it!
For Last Minute Gift Givers: Don't be afraid to be cliche! If you've got a guitar and a little bit of musical talent, stand outside your Valentine's window and play their favorite song (or at least one of the songs you know how to play!)

"I'm definitely in love with you"

If you've been with someone for a while and have already been through all the tiny, romantic instances of Valentines Day, then just have fun on February 14th! Don't stress out over getting a meaningful gift or tons of chocolates or the biggest bouquet of flowers you can possibly find - instead just enjoy the time spent with your Valentine! In this case, your gift can be something as simple as a tiny little diary, for those Valentines who love to write, or a vintage apron for the epicurean connoisseur. Be simple in your gift and instead make the day spent together spectacular!
For Last Minute Gift Givers: Make paper dolls that look just like you and your sweetie and trade them so you can both carry each other around all the time.

Stay beautiful, angels, and have the most beautiful, love-soaked day possible.

Penelope ♥

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Currently Digging

Japanese Lolita style

Upon purchasing, receiving, and falling in love with this incredibly dazzling Baby, The Stars Shine Bright skirt, I've realized that there is truly no fashion subculture so comprehensively unique than that of Japanese Lolita style. Sure, anyone who's hung around this tiny little wonderland that is Cocoa for longer than a few days will already know that I'm constantly digging Lolita style, but as of right now I feel the need to reiterate it with a little more oomph - no other genre of clothing has redefined fashion and the lifestyle that comes with it as creatively and eloquently as this tiny little craze has. Lolita style consists of making little kid clothes for big kids, it's a silky whipped-cream and pink cherry topped slice of pie to tide over your inner child, and wearing its clothes give you the kind of thrill that only frilly dresses and big pink headbows could provide.

Doorstop novels
For those who don't already know, I'm an obsessively avid reader who practically lives in the library, but recently the novels I've been throwing myself into have been more like long-term relationships than two-day flings. Usually I read about three or four 300-page novellas at once, but as of late I've been falling in love with gigantic, 800-page epics so thick that they could be used as doorstops. From Steinbeck's East of Eden to Dantec's Babylon Babies, these gargantuan life stories stretch through whole generations, capturing every tiny moment in a different time, a different place, a different world. There's something so comforting about toting around a book that thick - it's almost like carrying an infant in the womb, protecting it and nurturing it, accepting it as a distant yet forever part of your world when you finally do turn that last page and set it free. Everyone should read at least a hundred books like these, or at least use them to prop open doors and steady wobbly tables!

 Vegetarian burritos
I'm constantly in search of really spectacular vegetarian burritos and I have to say that my two absolute favorites as of late hail from unlikely places. Whole Foods, the all-organic grocery store of national fame, makes an abnormally delicious black bean and cheese burrito on a spinach tortilla, one which can usually be found in the pre-prepared food section, but a little-known burrito chain called California Tortilla can also hold their own. Since CalTort has recently closed their one and only Florida store and, for now, don't have any locations in New York, I've settled into an uncomfortably jittery burrito withdrawal, but if you live in northern-most part of the U.S. South you're in luck - there are locations abound in towns near you so check them out!

Foreign films
Why do the French and Japanese tend to make the weirdest, strangest, and absolute best movies? After watching Luc Besson's Angel-A, a charmingly twisted love story featuring Jamel Debbouze from Amelie, I've realized that I could probably spend my whole life watching nothing but foreign films, picking up new languages, new references, new tales to tell. As for those forespoken crazy Japanese flicks that I love oh-so-much? Two words for you: Battle Royale.

Penelope ♥

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Style Essentials for the Unconventional Girl

Photo by Trixie Bedlam

Let's face it, fashion isn't the same for everyone. While some girls run their fingers over glossy magazines, slipping into teeny weeny slips of haute couture and super-slick Manolo heels, others burrow into vintage floral wraps found at rummage sales and electric yellow go-go boots. Yet whatever your personal style may be, some things are simple style essentials that look good on almost everyone - so for the front-page fashionista, thrift store starlet, and everyone else in-between, here are those certain items that every well-dressed girl should keep stocked in her wardrobe at all times!

 Pashmina Scarves
If you're from New York then you should have absolutely no trouble finding one of these beauties - they're sold on street corners all across the city for as little as $5 and they come in the most dizzyingly beautiful colors and styles. The pashmina scarf is one of the most versatile pieces of clothing for the sole reason that it can be worn so many different ways - from a full body wrap to a simple winter shawl to a sari-esque skirt to just a plain old scarf. It's a must-have for anyone who braves brisk winters (or for those who just want to look like they do!) Having trouble figuring out how to wear yours? Here are nine basic tying techniques!


Crazy as it seems, tutus really are absolute must haves for any modern girl who loves bringing funkiness and fun into everyday life. It may seem a little too wild at first, but tutus and petticoats can easily be paired with seemingly simple fashion staples and make you look effortlessly charming and chic. Try wearing them with oxford button-ups, long sleeved shirts layered with tank tops, and knee-high socks. For an everyday look, avoid high heels and instead opt for simple sneakers or flats.

♥ Black, Ankle-High Skinny Pants
I reference it constantly on this site, but there's one particular scene from my favorite movie, Funny Face, that cemented my love of skinny pants. In it, Audrey Hepburn's character Jo performs an interpretive dance in a smoky French club to thoroughly explain the concept of dancing as a form of release to Fred Astaire. She prances around the club in a black turtleneck and black skinny pants, swinging and swaying and throwing herself left and right, dancing with French poets and beatniks amidst the club's hazy lights. It's a classic scene that created a classic staple, and even today I still see the most amazing women pull a similar look off with so much flair. Pair them with a horizontally-striped shirt for a Paris-a-go-go look or a button-up shirt with flats - anyway you choose to wear them, these pants will never let you down!

Thigh-High Socks
Thicker than tights for cold winter days and very schoolgirl-esque, long thigh-high socks can really do wonders for an outfit. I suggest going with darker colors like an eggplant or navy, but whites and creams can look just as good when worn correctly. Wear them with mini-skirts, dresses, or even shorts and a good pair of heels!

Wide-Brimmed Hats
Although in modern days the big, classically simple sun-bathing hat has become more and more rare, it will always hold it's rightful place in a well-stocked closet. Audrey Hepburn pulled it off effortlessly in Breakfast At Tiffany's, pairing it with a little black dress, a pair of sunglasses, and a string of pearls, and I firmly believe that anyone can give it just as much character and charm as she did. Go with a tan one for casual summer days, wearing it with a white tank top, a filmy button up, and a rolled up pair of jeans, or for those more formal occasions wear it the Audrey way, black dress and all!

Ballet Flats
For quiet, casual engagements or those days when you simply don't feel like wearing heels, a good pair of ballet flats are the next best thing - they're stylish and simple, making you look professional and chic without being too dressy. A good black pair is always in style, but it's worth it to invest in as many colors as you possibly can. Mix and match and see what comes of it!

♥ Faux-Fur Coats
Fur coats create such a wonderful silhouette and add a great finishing touch to any outfit, but faux-fur is the way to go both ethically and practically. Fur coats have been associated with women of luxury for a good reason, for a real one will cost you a fortune, not to mention the fact that you'd be perpetuating the practice of killing for fashion with bona fide fur. Faux-fur is cheaper and just as stunning when worn, so try topping off any outfit with one, from silky buttercream dresses to denim jeans and turtlenecks.

♥ A Great Pair of Jeans
This goes without saying, but every girl absolutely has to have that one perfect pair of jeans to complete her  wardrobe. Jeans are so versatile and can be dressed up for semi-formal engagements and dressed down for runs to the supermarket. The possibilities are endless when it comes to what to wear with them, so get yourself a pair and experiment!

The Good Old Fashioned Little Black Dress
What would a girl be without the incredible little black dress? Think about how many classic outfits have been perpetuated by that one plain and simple idea of a perfect black dress? Discovering your dress is one of those classic moments of womanhood, like tumbling down the rabbit hole and into this strange and wonderful new world of style, so when you discover it don't let it slip away. A flattering dress never goes out of style!

Penelope ♥