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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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26. The Giant Squid, its first photographer & a writer's obsession

Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank is without a doubt one of the more unusual books I have read in a long time. Described as "an essay concerning the giant squid and it's first photographer" it is, in my mind, first and foremost a writer's book. (Not that the natural history isn't fascinating.) It's about a writer (Frank) obsessed with a Victorian era naturalist and photographer (Harvey Moses) who was obsessed with the Giant Squid which he famously photographed in Newfoundland in 1874. There is also much here about humanity's obsession with the Giant Squid and the vast amount of mythology, literature and more that has developed around this still mysterious creature.

One of the most successful aspects of Preparing the Ghost is Frank's authorial voice--he is a key component to this surprisingly personal story and as much as it is about the life of a man in Newfoundland from more than a century ago, it is also, deeply, about Matthew Gavin Frank. On more than one occasion he veers into his own past trying to mine it perhaps for reasons why he has succumbed to this obsession. Standing in front of Moses's home, (privately owned) knocking on the door yet again and hoping for a glimpse of the bathroom where the squid was draped and photographed, Frank can't explain why he is very desperate to get inside. He keeps knocking, he keeps returning, he keeps hoping for a glimpse of where history was made and he knows enough to know that this stubborn persistence is part of the story he is telling and, written well, it is as compelling as every other aspect of the tale.

Preparing the Ghost reminded me a bit of Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. Very famously, that book is about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence and in some significant ways Preparing the Ghost is about not writing a book about the Giant Squid. Just as Dyer does write somewhat about Lawrence, so does Frank write about the squid. But there is also much more here about Newfoundland and houses and marriage and family and leaving home and traveling far and fishing and telling stories and lying while taking stories, (like confusion over who the fishermen were who caught the squid), and, of course, it is about how something like a squid could spawn stories that grew into myths and even now, has sparked a book about all of that.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book due in no small matter, I'm sure, to the fact that I've long been fascinated by the Giant Squid. I loved how Frank wrote around and about his subject and thoroughly enjoyed his appreciation of history. It's an odd little book in some respects--the narrative truly jumps all over the place--but Dyer's book is odd as well and what lifts both of these titles is the enormous curiosity and smarts of the authors. They are candid about their obsessions and frustrations and persevered to create something unique to literature. I learned a lot about the Giant Squid while reading Preparing the Ghost but even more so, I learned about writing. Highly recommended.

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27. "But this summer is different."

The graphic novel This One Summer by cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki is one of those books that really requires a teen sensibility to fully appreciate. Adults can certainly read it (and enjoy it) but I think if you are a 12 or 14 year old (girl especially) then This One Summer would have special appeal.

The set-up echoes the plots of many other summer novels from the past: Rose and her parents arrive at their cabin in Awago Beach for their annual vacation. Windy and her mother and grandmother are nearby, just as they are every year. Rose and Windy are set for some familiar hijinks: hanging out at the beach, bonfires and picnics, bike rides and, this year, renting some classic horror movies from the local store and getting the crap scared out of them them while their parents are none-the-wiser.

There are some serious undercurrents however--Rose's parents are in a troubled marriage and the source of their conflict, which plays out in dozens of little tense-filled moments throughout the book, is an ongoing object of concern for Rose. Also, she develops a small crush on the high school boy who works at the store and his turbulent relationship with a local girl becomes something she and Windy study with great interest. How couples work, or don't work--the whole concept of romantic love--is the mystery that unfolds for Rose as the summer continues. Windy is a little younger and for her it is mostly a game to watch but for Rose, there is a wistfulness that anyone who survived middle school will recognize. She pines for something that she is not yet old enough to understand. (This is pretty much everything you need to know about middle school.)

This One Summer isn't a sweet story though. The girls are pretty typical girls. They sling a few bad words around, testing them out for effect, and they are all about noticing the older teens, what they have, what they do, how they interact. The girls listen for everything and gather information on sex and flirting, pondering it like miniature Jane Goodalls in the wild. This is where reviewers really and truly must channel their inner teen to appreciate the book and understand how important and common these interactions are and how brilliantly the author and illustrator nail the essence of teenage girl.

[Momentary aside--I can still tell you the names of the first girl and boy in my 6th grade class to make out. I can't tell you much else I learned that year but Gary & Leighann, those two, (and the drama their kissing brought to a hundred lunchtime conversations when I was 12), I will never forget.]

I will be very surprised if This One Summer is not challenged at some point. There are parents who will not be happy to see the language or the sexual suggestions that Rose & Windy spy on. And I'm also sure there are reviewers who will say that not enough happens in this story or that the events are too melodramatic. For me though, it all rang as spectacularly authentic. Teenagers sit around and talk about each A LOT. They flirt, they fall in and out of relationships and sometimes things move far too quickly. Younger teens study the big kids, they follow, they stare, they spend hours talking about what they see. Not a lot happens in This One Summer but it is about as true to real life for most kids that you could hope to find.

That's why it's going to get challenged, and also, why so many teenagers, (again, girls especially), are going to read it again and again.

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28. Longmire + some Charles de Lint-like fantasy = Deborah Coates' "Strange County"

Hallie Michaels first appeared in Deep Down as an Afghanistan vet who returned home to South Dakota after the unexplained death of her sister. Hallie was unusual not in that she had been injured while serving in the US Army but because she actually died--for 7 minutes--and came back. In South Dakota she found her father, a childhood friend and an attractive man in the person of Deputy Boyd Davies. She also found out that her sister shouldn't be dead, that there were mysterious forces at work in her hometown and magic was in the air.

Oh, and Hallie was in the middle of everything.

In Wide Open the story continued with the character of Death and the thin line between here and there and Hallie's precarious position as someone once dead putting her at extreme risk. There was also a lot about the weather (really) and Boyd's ex-wife, and plain old murder.

Now, in the final book in the trilogy, Strange Country, a very old mystery surfaces and Hallie and Boyd (and the sheriff's office) must investigate. There are still lingering remnants of magic, especially around Hallie's ranch, and the couple is entirely comfortable with the fallout from Wide Open. (This is where I tell you that you really have to read these books in order.)

But initially, with a murder by bullet, it seems like Strange Country won't be as much rural fantasy as police procedural (albeit with a few supernatural twists). But then Boyd starts following clues and making discoveries and before you know it there is a discussion about going to see Death, threats from the other side and lots of bad feelings (as in "I've got a bad feeling about this").

By Strange Country readers know Hallie well and they trust her. We like her because she is smart and thoughtful and not afraid to say she is sick and tired of the crazy that her life has become but still determined to do what she has to do to get stuff sorted out. Her relationship with Boyd has matured as has her friendship with gal pal Brett. Her father is only a whisper of a character in this outing (which is a shame) but there are appearances by several residents from town and the sheriff's department never disappoints. in fact we have so much invested in Hallie and Boyd and crew that the stakes seem much higher now--we really don't want anything to happen to anybody.

Yeah. We're going to get hurt. (Although I will say that it's okay to love all the horses and the dogs as none of them die.)

The Hallie Michaels series is not terrifying nor edge-of-the-seat-thrilling and I feel like I'm underselling it by simply saying that it is solidly entertaining. But these are good books--enjoyable books. I like the characters, I like the setting and I like watching the plots unfold. Hallie became a friend very quickly and that is cemented by the time we get to the end of book 3. We rarely see urban fantasy in the west, let alone South Dakota (thus the rural fantasy tag here) and I welcome it. I hope Coates returns to West Prairie City at some point in the future and gives us more of Hallie and Boyd (and Maker and the rest). She has created something that hits all the marks with these books and I'm sorry to have turned the last page.

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29. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

Oh, this is such a bleak book.

It feels small to write that because I don't think bleakness is truly appreciated anymore. We get our heartstrings tugged so frequently, so casually by many authors. What David Connerley Nahm does with Ancient Oceans of Kentucky is much more than convenient sadness as a plot point though. He takes sorrow to a whole other level and infuses this novel with so many careful layers of emotion that you feel drained by the end.

This is bleakness of the Scottish moors in a 19th century novel kind of sadness and the fact that it takes place today in Kentucky is just another layer of heartbreak.

The plot hinges on the childhood disappearance of Jacob, the little brother of protagonist Leah. There is no mystery here though--the missing boy is deep in Leah's past and there are no police to swoop in now and uncover clues and find him (living or dead). Jacob's disappearance is just the first of many haunts in Leah's life, the ghost that she revisits as the narrative wanders back and forth in time and Jacob disappears again and again in her memory.

It is not surprising that Leah has not gotten over the loss of her brother or wishes still for that thing we call (so casually) "closure". But Namh doesn't just give readers a character with an eye on the past; he gives us overworked Leah at her non-profit job helping desperate families in desperate situations and failing again and again at giving them what they need. (And not even trying for what they might want.) Leah can't save these people--there is no money to save them, no resources, no places to take them in or programs to give them assistance. All she can do is try and as anyone who reads the news these days knows, all the trying in the world isn't enough for all the need.

Leah is overworked and underpaid (of course). She's lonely and sad and can't forget her brother (of course). She feels guilty for what she said and did and didn't do when they were kids (of course). Her family was never the same after Jacob disappeared and now, she doesn't seem to remember what a family is anymore or why it matters. And she watches all the families come in her door and their disappointments break her heart even more. And then, maybe, Jacob comes back.

In some ways Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky seemed almost too much for me to bear as a reader. But for all that this book includes a child abduction (a very unusual event), it is primarily a story of the most mundane aspects of life. It is about getting by, about hanging on, about the falling apart that happens when a family doesn't pull together. There are a thousand familiar stories in Leah's days and as Nahm uses her to anchor his novel, he touches on many of them. His fiction thus forces us to open our own eyes a bit more, to look a little deeper, to recognize the bleakness that fills our world.

The back cover copy says that "Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is a wrecking ball of a novel..." This is incredibly true; it reminds us just how horrific a wrecking ball truly is.

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30. A must buy picture book!

Clotilde Perrin uses a smart idea to show how similarly people live around the world in this stunning (stunning!!!) picture book. Starting at 6AM in Dakar, Senegal, she takes young readers into the lives of children on six continents as they eat, drink, go to school, play and sleep all at the same hour of the day. So, while a child is waking up in Senegal, another is sound asleep in Brazil. This helps get the notion of time zones into the heads of early readers (and Perrin's informational notes at the end help as well.)

Mostly though, while At the Same Moment Around the World is an educational book it is also a beautiful one and a chance to learn some geography (includes a map at the end) and see how much alike children and families are around the world.

Perrin takes readers from Keita in Senegal to Benedict in Paris then Mitko in Sofia, Bulgaria, Yasmine in Baghdad, Nadia in Dubai, Ravshan and Yuliya in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Lilu near Mount Everest, Khanh in Hanoi, Vietnam, Chen in Shanghai, Keiko in Tokyo, Kate traveling between Ayers Rock and Sidney, Matea and Joany in New Caledonia, Ivan in Anadyr Russia, Abby in Samoa, Allen and Kiana in Honolulu, William in Anchorage, AK, Sharon and Peter in San Francisco, Samantha in Phoenix, Pablo in Mexico City, Diego (just born!) in Lima, Peru, Ana in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, Lexi in Nuuk, Greenland, Antonio on the island of Fernando de Noronha and finally to Chloe onboard a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.

They are all living different lives and yet doing similar things. They are different colors, in different clothes in different landscapes (and different beds) but still, they are all the same and they are all living in the same moment. Perrin thus gives her readers not only something to learn from and think about but also a great lesson in the diverse face of humanity.

I call this a win on every possible level and a book that will be appreciated by adults and children alike.

For another look, Jules reviewed At the Same Moment Around the World for Kirkus in her column there and then followed up at her blog with some more interior spreads from the book.

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31. Unmentionables by Laurie Loewenstein

This was a surprise!

Unmentionables begins with a bit of a bang as main character Marian Adams presents a speech to the fine Midwestern folk of Emporia on the impossibility of women's undergarments. In 1917 this is indeed an "unmentionable" topic and yet as Marian speaks, it makes perfect sense--women are literally being dragged down to the ground by the clothing society requires them to wear. How can they ever succeed? How they can achieve anything when it takes so much simply to move around?

Marian's comments are received differently by those in attendance, although as part of the weeklong traveling Chatautauqua assembly, they are accustomed to being challenged now and again by a few outrageous (to them) ideas. The idea is that someone like Marian will drop into their lives, share her opinions and then move on to the next town. Marian stumbles while climbing off the stage however and severely sprains her ankle. She ends up spending several days in Emporia and lives, including her own, are upended by this intrusion.

In many ways, Unmentionables is a standard smalltown drama. There is the newspaper editor, a widower, and his difficult relationship with his wealthy father-in-law. His grown stepdaughter is desperate to break out on her own but her grandfather insists on keeping her under his thumb. The next door neighbors (brother and sister) are tangled up in their issues; she has an unrequited love for the newspaperman and he is a rather fickle businessman who owes a debt that he does a poor job of paying attention to.

The rest of the town is filled with people good and bad, there is generosity and pettiness and, in this time of war, some startling cruelty. Page by page, Loewenstein tosses out much of the difficult times, truly immersing her readers in the cares of 1917. She also shows deep affection for her characters, especially Marian, "Deuce" and Helen, who dreams of joining the suffragist cause.

This is a period that begs for great sweeping novels and I was especially happy to lose myself in the lives of these interesting people. The whole notion of Chautauqua and the "adult improvement" period appeals to me (traveling speakers under huge tents!). There were so many ideas, good and bad, swirling about the world in that time, questions that had to be considered and great strides about to be taken. Just think of the layers of clothing women wore in 1917 and then how much of that changed by 1927. The world was spinning so fast in the teens - women about to vote!!! Yet Lowenstein brings it all down to a level that makes the issues sharply personal. And then Marian goes to France to make her mark and that is some daring stuff as well.

(I especially liked that she carried Emporia with her even to France and the letters exchanged between the two places are a lovely touch.)

I found a certain amount of "earthiness" to this novel--a perspective on life that reads very much about people most readers know and will recognize. There are heroes and villains (plus a dog that dies to prove just how dastardly one villain truly is which, as you know, I hate to find any novel), and some hard won victories. I think I especially liked the history here though, how Lowenstein so effectively weaves bits about milk inspection and disease and racism and education into the overall story. This is how we live, after all, with so much big and small going on around us.

[Post pic of Chautauqua Assembly in Clarinda, Indiana circa 1908. Courtesy Library of Congress.]

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32. Wherein my family story is upended by a new truth

nanafamily.jpgOne of the foundational stories in my mother's family is that of my great grandmother Julia's immigration from eastern Europe. Growing up, I was told many many times of the miracle of her survival as a small baby while traveling from Hungary (or Austria or the Hungarian Empire--we were a little fuzzy on that), to New York City. Her mother Maria Falk was a teenager, her father was unknown and Julia was only a few months old. They arrived in either late 1890 or early 1891.

There were many things about this story that I found fascinating, from how Maria paid for their passage to the identity of the man who got her pregnant and abandoned her. (My mother and I wistfully decided she must have been taken advantage of by royalty of some kind.) Julia never expanded much on the story; if she knew anything else it was not revealed to my grandmother or her siblings. Everyone knew she was illegitimate and an immigrant and that was the end of that. I honestly never expected to learn anymore about the start of Julia's life and haven't spent much time looking.

After Maria and Julia arrived there was a gap of 5 years before we know anything concrete. In 1895 Maria married* Rudolph Pressl, a naturalized American citizen who emigrated as a child with his family from Vienna. Later that year the first of their 3 daughters was born. Rudolph died sometime between the 1900 and 1910 censuses. I have many pictures of Julia and her sisters, Ernestine, Marie & Carol who worked in the garment industry before they were married.

Although I have researched my family tree quite a bit over the years, most of my focus has been on Julia's husband Tom, my great grandfather, and his family. I do have a copy of Maria & Rudolph's marriage certificate from NYC however and a little while ago I came across it and noticed that Maria had signed the back and her maiden name was not Falk as we thought. She signed the form Maria Filak. This was different from the maiden name listed for her mother on Julia's marriage certificate in 1910. (My grandmother repeated the error when providing info for Julia's death certificate in 1972.) Looking at Maria's signature, I wondered if a clerk's error on Julia's marriage certificate had given us bad information for all these years and we just never paid attention to it. I decided to look a bit for Maria Filak.

I went to the immigration records on ancestry.com. (I sound like a commercial for the site, but it's true.) There was only one Maria Filak listed on a ship's manifest but she didn't fit what I knew of the family history so I didn't get too excited. I went back and searched every census record (federal and state) for Maria Pressl from her 1895 marriage to Rudolph until her death in 1934. (Maria does not appear in a census prior to that under Filak or Falk.) In every one I noted her age at the time and saw that she shifted her year of arrival in the US on every form from 1890 to 1893 to 1894. Her birth was consistently in October 1872 however. (This also matches the age on her marriage certificate to Rudolph.) Then I went back to the immigration records with this date and there was no longer any denying what I found there.

Maria Filak, age 15, arrived in NYC on the SS Eider from Bremen, Germany via Southhampton, England on April 24, 1886. Her country of origin was Hungary. She was 15 years old and alone. My great great grandmother was in America 4 years before we thought and more importantly, 4 years before my great grandmother was born.

Julia, apparently, was born in New York City.

I don't know why Maria told the family the story she did. I don't know why it was so important that Julia be presented as an immigrant baby. Maria never hid the fact that she was an unwed mother--she lists herself as "single" on her marriage certificate to Rudolph--but apparently there was something to the immigration story that needed to be altered to fit her life. Now I have Maria here four years earlier than we knew, Julia born in the city and the wedding still 5 years later. How Maria survived all those extra years and how Julia came to be born is a total mystery. I don't know if I will find out more about those years or ever get the name of my great great grandfather, but this is still something.

Julia Filak Pressl was American-born, which plants our feet even deeper in the American story. That alone, is really pretty damn cool.

*Maria & Rudolph were married in January; their first daughter Ernestine was born in June.

[Post pics: Maria & Rudolph Pressl with daughter Julia (standing) and new baby Ernestine, taken late summer/fall 1895. Julia was almost or just turned 5-her birthday was September 14. I think this is the baby's baptismal photo. The ship is the SS Eider, which brought my great great grandmother to America. More info on it here.]

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33. "Be invested in the idea of ordinary life."

When I attended Claire Dederer's session on language and memoir at the Chuckanut Writer's Conference, I greatly enjoyed the many ways in which she used basic words to show us how we could create beautiful sentences. It was a very funny and thoughtful session, with lots of audience participation which was great. I'm sure she is an excellent teacher as she taught us quite a bit in a very short period.

From my notes I have the importance of "story, scene, honesty and language". We were urged never to use general past tense "we used to" or "we would" and to take the general and make it specific. (Don't write that "we would go to the park" but rather, "I got on my bike on long sunny days and rode on cracked sidewalks everyday that summer with my best friend Susie to the park....")

See the difference?

I thought about language as Claire talked and also about honesty in writing (the importance of emotional honesty was a big topic of discussion). Lots of folks asked questions and batted around ideas, feeding off of each others answers. It was all quite unexpectedly exhilarating and I walked out the door and promptly placed myself at the nearby bookstore table and bought a copy of her book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.

I do not practice yoga. I am impressed by folks who can do it well but I've always been more partial to other forms of exercise. So I wouldn't normally want to read a book that is framed around yoga. But Claire was interesting and that made me want to read the language she chose for her book. I flew through it and now have a much better understanding of what yoga requires. More importantly, I have a grasp on the power of personal stories.

One of the things we talked about in the session was the power of an ordinary life and Poser, like many memoirs, is about just that. In the book, Claire writes of how she and her husband are freelance writers in Seattle and both have roots in western Washington. They had a daughter and Claire dove headfirst into West Seattle's idea of what the good mother must do. (It's all very organic.) There were financial pressures which drove her husband into depression, the trauma of their daughter's difficult birth, friends and family who dropped in and out and the endless confusion over her parent's who had been separate for more than 20 years but resisted divorce. It's all very ordinary and yet wildly compelling.

The yoga framework carries readers along in an orderly manner as Claire reaches back to her confused and sometimes frustrating childhood and then steps into the present and the ever-growing chaos there. Slowly she works through many questions about her life and as I read the book I realized how common her experience truly was, even with a decidedly non-yoga practicing reader. I did not share her path in mothering, nor was I a freelance writer but still....I got this book in a big way. There's one line of many that caught me as she pondered how much of her time was going into her infant daughter's care. She writes:

"But I could feel my worth as a worker slipping away, month by month and year by year."

It's okay to feel that way; I have certainly felt that way and it is a bit of the essence of the book. It's about women and family and being a child of a loving but broken home (which is broken even when both parents remain 100% in your life) and about figuring out what kind of parent is the kind of parent you want to be and what kind of spouse and what kind of worker and what kind of creative and even what kind of yoga practitioner.

It's coming-of-age for grown-ups which I think, more and more, is a large bit of what most memoirs really are.

Poser is written with lovely language and it made me think. I still have no interest in attending a yoga class but I got something out of these words that is staying with me. It's the emotional honesty I think--when it's present in a text you don't forget it.

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34. So, this whole writing conference thing worked for me

Last weekend I attended the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, WA. I went into this with absolutely no expectations--no search for connections, no networking, no intention to attend a pitch session with a publisher or agent. All I wanted to was to listen to the faculty (all of whom sounded interesting) and maybe through the sessions and presentations find my way around some issues with my current projects.

Here's the thing--I have not been writing like I should. It's very hard to juggle creative writing and job-writing. I have spent a lot of time reviewing and working as a journalist over the past few years since The Map of My Dead Pilots went through its final edits & was published. I wrote a lot of short things since then, some essays and a short story, but the next book has been a problem. I've been floundering for no good reason, so I decided to attend Chuckanut and see if I could gain some much needed perspective (and possibly direction).

In addition to attending all the presentations, which were alternately funny, thoughtful and endearing, I also attended sessions at each appointed time. I attended novelist (and magazine editor) Brian Doyle's session on finding ideas even though I already know what I want to write about. I attended memoirist Claire Dederer's session on language in memoir even though I have already written a memoir. I attended a panel discussion with novelist Jim Lynch, nonfiction writer Bruce Barcott, historian David Laskin and science writer Thor Hanson about research even though I have spent years in archives and libraries. I attended Laskin's session on writing personal narratives on family history even though I was not certain this was something I wanted to write and, finally, I attended Barcott's session on writing Op-eds even though I had never thought about writing one.

And here's the thing--I got a lot out of this conference. I got some very useful tips, some points to ponder, some ideas to follow-up on. I spent some serious time thinking about what was said around me, chatted with some interesting people and came to grips with all the questions that have been mucking up my work.

I got myself centered if that makes any sense. I figured out what I am supposed to be doing and, just as important, what I am supposed to be writing.

My only complaint about the conference is a common one for such events--some of the faculty was less available than others. It was clear to me early on that if I wanted to speak to any of them, even just to extend a compliment, I was going to have to approach them whenever I saw them and not wait around as they could be gone. So I did just that and ended up having some great conversations and, very surprisingly, getting an amazing offer of assistance on a short project (I asked for advice, I got a lot more). Everyone was nice, it's just that some of them weren't there too much. Keep than in mind when you attend a conference.

I'm going to write a bit more specifically about some of these writers and their work in the coming weeks because I want to recommend their books and articles and share some notes I took. Bottom line though, this was sort of life-changing for me and one of the more valuable experiences of my writing career.

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35. "Before he died Klatsassin famously said, 'We meant war, not murder.'"

A pretty amazing ruling from the Canadian Supreme Court yesterday concerning Aboriginal territory in British Columbia that you might have missed. I found this whole article explaining it to be fascinating but in particular it was the history (150 years worth) that really caught my attention.

In 1864 a toll road for wagons was planned through Tsilhqot'in territory in BC to better facilitate the movement of goods to the gold fields. Many of the Tsilhqot'in protested the roadway, especially as they had an uneasy relationship with the Europeans due to the spread of smallpox from blankets. (Really.) Here's a bit on it from the article I read at Aboriginal People's Television Network:

Then, in the spring of 1864, four bags of flour were stolen from a road crew's base camp. The crew's foreman threatened the Tsilhqot'in with smallpox for stealing.

Journalist Melvin Rothenburger, who wrote a book called the The Chilcotin War, believes this threat may have helped spark the war.

"That could have been an important factor because of the fear of smallpox and it had been rampant," said Rothenburger, whose great-great grandfather Donald McLean was killed in the ensuing battles with the Tsilhqot'in.

News of the smallpox threat and rapes stirred a group of Tsilhqot'in to launch what turned into a guerilla war against the settlers. Of this group, a war chief known as Klatsassin or Lhatasassine, meaning "We do not know his name," came to embody the Chilcotin War.

They fired their first shot on the morning of April 28, 1864. It killed a ferryman who refused Klatsassin and his party passage.

After several deaths and fighting on both sides, Katassin and three other chiefs went to a proposed meeting with the BC governor. While asleep they were shackled, then summarily tried and hung on Oct. 26, 1864.

Before he died Klatsassin famously said, "We meant war, not murder."

There is much talk in Canadian media about the long fight for Aboriginal rights in BC (this latest court battle started in the early 1980s concerning timber sales on Aboriginal land). I am struck though by how the fight simmered in so many different ways and the powerful reach of history. It never fades away, no matter how long you ignore it.

History always insists on being heard.

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36. Am I Serious Enough For You or, More Importantly, Myself?

From a conversation posted yesterday at Tinhouse between authors Lidia Yuknavitch and Kate Zambreno:

LY: Can contemporary women writers achieve literary or artistic legitimacy? On whose terms? Toward what end? This is a question that troubles me, or a question I think should be endlessly troubled...

KZ: It troubles me too. Although I can't speak for all contemporary women writers, just myself. This new idée fixe of mine--to be taken seriously as a writer--also, to someday write a truly great work, and then I will be taken seriously. But--I don't know if I will know if a work is great, perhaps that's not something I can decide or know as the writer, and perhaps these ideas of greatness or genius are oppressive terms anyway, about approaching perfection or success, when I've always been more interested in failure.

And what does that even mean--a serious work? Sometimes I feel exquisitely that if I never wrote about femininity or feminism, about emotions, especially depression and anger, never wrote from the first-person, I would be taken seriously as a literary writer, but I keep on returning to these themes in the work. I mean, there are certainly some contemporary women writers that achieve a great deal of literary legitimacy and recognition, and occasionally in the mainstream, and I think many are incredibly deserving. But I have absolutely no misconceptions that American trade publishing is a meritocracy, and in my opinion most of the important work being written in the United States today is happening in the small press, sometimes at a very micro level, and this is because the demands of the market, especially for the massive audience of women readers, are not the best recipe for prickly and urgent literature.

The question of "what is serious work" is what really captured my attention in this exchange as it is something that I think about quite frequently with my own work. In writing about aviation I am generally always serious--it's a serious topic--and yet I do not think as a literary writer of aviation I am taken very seriously. I don't mean that people dismiss my research on this subject but rather that when writing about something perceived as technical, it is easy to dismiss an author as other than literary.

Basically, writing about aviation is considered by some as more the nuts and bolts of writing and not the MFA-type of indepth analysis that literary writers appreciate. (And I won't even get into the issue of being a woman who writes about a male-dominated field.)

As a reviewer, I am granted far more respect as serious when reviewing nonfiction for adults then writing anything about YAs or children. This does not surprise me, although I wish it did.

I have felt in the past few months, that aspects of my writing (as a reviewer) have been deemed worthy of easy dismissal by others. This has left me disappointed in those who passed such casual judgements. I do not agree with their definitions of "serious" or how one must write to be deemed worthy of the title "serious writer".

It's a term that is best expressed in the eye of the beholder, I think. Just as so many other subjective terms are.

(And for the record, how anyone could deem Zambreno or Yuknavitch as anything less than serious is impossible for me to believe.)

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37. Best Summer Song Ever.

I have seen this movie roughly a zillion times (I think it was the only thing on HBO for years). It never gets old and yes, I still know all the words.


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38. Writing Process Blog Tour

I was tagged a couple of times for this tour and had to turn down the invites, but my pal Sarah Stevenson emailed me recently & the timing was perfect. Here is Sarah's post all about her young adult writing which I highly recommend. She also helps me wrangle the crew at Guys Lit Wire, keeps this site in ship-shape condition and basically is a truly lovely person & good friend. Now onto the questions!


I've been struggling for a bit on my next big creative project. I write a lot for my day job, all of it on Alaskan aviation topics. I have been concerned both about writing on this too much for another book and not leaving the topic as it is what I know so well. In some ways, I've been stuck. (Not blocked.) To break out of this, I'm working on essay length pieces, all of them circling around the topic of the Alaska bush pilot myth. I hope when I am done that they will fit together well, but I've decided not to worry about the whole so much anymore and focus on the parts. This has freed me up quite a bit.


As I"m a nonfiction writer mostly, I don't really fit into the "genre" issue as such. Comparing my work to other aviation writers, I think that I'm more personal--I can't help but make aviation a personal subject. I am also less interested in what happened (although I think that's important) than in why. I am endlessly intrigued by why people make the choices they do, whether they live in the present or are part of history. I hope by unpacking the bush pilot myth I can separate myself even more from other aviation writers by looking at the darker side of a long held aviation (and adventure) myth.


It's what I know.

I am pretty much only happy when, to some degree or another, I am writing about what I know or what personally matters to me. This is not only Alaska aviation, nor do I want it to be only Alaska aviation. I am also deeply interested in my family history and slowly moving forward on some projects in that area as well. Again though, it is what I know.


Process is a big problem for me. My husband and I have our own business (aircraft leasing) and we work from home. We are always around each other, always working on many different things. Then I have my freelance journalism job for Alaska Dispatch and I'm always working on a couple of things for that, either by writing or interviewing or researching. My creative work gets bounced aside ALL THE DAMN TIME.

I hate that.

One of the biggest struggles I have is to make creative work a priority. When it happens, it happens at night (I've always been a night person) and with familiar television in the background (all seasons of Gilmore Girls currently). I have a notebook (Field Notes) with me for notes all the time and I believe strongly in taking notes. I have a composition notebook where I keep bigger research notes and images that strike a chord. All of this, in bits and pieces that make little sense to others, is part of my process. Mostly, I just keep trying to move forward.


I don't get enough done. I get scared. I get tired. I give up too easily. All the things that writers say about not getting the job done, are true for me. I believe very strongly that writing is not hard work; I come from people who knew hard work their whole lives. I've loaded airplanes at 20 below zero and I know that is hard work. But writing is very frustrating work and I let it frustrate me far too often.


I completely forgot about this bit. Partly inspired by Kelly Fineman's downsizing posts, I have been on a tear recently going through the house for a massive neighborhood garage sale. We are having it tomorrow and this week in particular has been about scouring closets, pouring over bookshelves and pricing like a madwoman. I put this post together but completely forgot the asking others to participate bit. I point you to Sarah's recent post again and also, delightfully, to Kelly's many writing posts. My friend Gwenda Bond has also done the Writing Process Post thing and it is good reading.They will inspire you I'm sure.

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39. "A Letter to Fairbanks" on NPR's State of the Re-Union

Impressive episode on the Interior including sound and silence in Denali, the saga of "the Fairbanks Four" and life at Crazy Dog Kennels. You can hear my "Letter to Fairbanks" at the 47 minute mark. For the record, I have never been a bush pilot, I am a former aircraft dispatcher who worked for a bush commuter (and wrote about it) based in Fairbanks. I suppose "bush pilot" sounds a lot sexier though.

You can read my full letter (it got edited just a bit) here. I now cover Alaska aviation for Alaska Dispatch.

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40. Pippi + Dr. Doolittle + Howl's Moving Castle in a sweet picture book. Really.

I have a deep appreciation for a well crafted picture book and feel compelled to tell the world just how lovely a recent arrival at my doorstep is. Julia's House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke (author/illustrator of the Zita the Spacegirl graphic novels) has everything young readers/pre-readers could want: a great back story, admirable protagonist and creatures great and small that fill the pages (but not in a scary way). The setting is also about as good as it gets combining multiple levels of wish-fulfillment for adult and child alike. Frankly, I think Hatke has hit this one about as far out of the ballpark as you can go.

Julia arrives at her new location a bit magically: "Julia's house came to town and settled by the sea." (This is where I saw shades of Howl's Moving Castle.) With her pink high tops and saucy kerchief, she quickly gets down to the business of filling her quiet and fabulous looking home (fireplace! globe! grandfather clock! books! gramophone! ships in bottles!) with friends. Julia finds these friends by posting a sign outside: "Julia's House for Lost Creatures". All sorts of creatures show up: Patched Up Kitty, a very sad troll, a dragon, a mermaid, goblins, folletti & more. Shades of Dr. Doolittle, yes?

Julia is overwhelmed by all the sudden roommate chaos but finds a way to sort it all out, (the mermaid of course will do the dishes, the ghost is in charge of dusting, etc.), gets everyone to chip in and they all live happily ever after having grand adventures, I'm sure. (Pippi Pippi Pippi!)

Hatke accomplishes the holy grail of picture book writing I think: gentle lesson, glorious illustrations, easy text and sure-fire read aloud pleasure. That he does this with a dash of magic and spunk is nothing less than I would expect from him (see those Zita books for more). This is an author who makes it look easy, which might be the biggest achievement of all when it comes to this tricky medium.

Highly Recommended!

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41. Remembering Alaskan icon Roberta Reeve Sheldon

Roberta Bille Reeve Sheldon lived a life that spanned both the globe and significant periods of Alaska's history as a territory and then a state, but had perhaps its most profound impact in the community she made her home for five decades.

"I feel as if I've just come home," she told her mother the first day she stepped foot in Talkeetna. That feeling stayed with her for 50 years, until her death last week at home in that tight-knit Alaska community about 115 miles north of Anchorage.

From a childhood as part of a storied Alaskan family, to a flight attendant career where she visited cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Roberta embraced a wide view of the world that found her nevertheless returning to Alaska as a young woman.

In Alaska's aviation community, Roberta Sheldon's story always begins with mention of her parentage. Born in Seward in 1940, she was the eldest daughter of Bob Reeve, who pioneered the use of skis on mudflats and revitalized Valdez's mining industry with his flights to the claims surrounding the town. Popularly known as "the glacier pilot," Reeve would go on to be the only bush pilot under exclusive military contract during World War II. He then established Reeve Aleutian Airways in 1947, which dominated air routes along the Aleutian Islands for decades.

For the climbing community, Roberta Sheldon is part of the larger story of Denali, and Talkeetna's relationship with that mountain. In articles and books on that subject she is always mentioned in tandem with husband Don Sheldon, arguably the most famous pilot to ever fly on Denali. Don Sheldon was widely known and respected for owning and operating Talkeetna Air Service.

In his book "Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings," climber David Roberts recalls the positive impact Roberta had on the company: "We met Roberta that summer [1965]. She was strikingly pretty, a slender woman with dark black hair. Somewhat shy, she had a sharp intelligence that she had put to work acting as Don's radio operator and bookkeeper. She also devised a chart to keep track of pick-up dates and parties; no longer would Sheldon file the whereabouts and needs of his myriad clients only in his head."

The couple were often presented as an Alaskan ideal to Outside readers, perhaps no more so than in a Life magazine article from 1964 -- the year they were married -- which described the couple thus:

This year Sheldon married Roberta Reeve, the pretty young daughter of Bob Reeve, one of the great pioneer bush pilots of the 1930s. Of course they took a flying honeymoon, and on it Sheldon made one of his rare miscalculations. Somewhat bedazzled by the presence of his bride as he landed on a frozen lake, he taxied too close to the outlet and the plane plunged through the thin ice. Bride and groom took an icy dunking and the embarrassed Sheldon had to send a sheepish Mayday call to get some pilot buddies to fly up and help get his plane out. But the wedding night drenching didn't seem to bother Roberta, and she has no intention of trying to change her husband's ways.

"I wouldn't try to keep him grounded if I could," she says. "Besides I know he can take care of himself." She says it firmly, as if she means it. Yet every night when Sheldon's plane bounces down on his abbreviated airstrip, Roberta comes running out to greet him with a great bear hug, as if, well, that's one more day he has come home.

After Don Sheldon's death from cancer in 1975, Roberta sold Talkeetna Air Service and became office manager of Genet Expeditions. Ray Genet was famous as a pioneer of the West Buttress route on Mount McKinley and member of the three-man team who made the first successful winter ascent of the mountain in 1967. Sheldon worked for Genet until his death in 1979 on a return climb after summiting Everest.

In the '80s and '90s Roberta Sheldon's focus on Talkeetna became razor sharp. And while she never wholly distanced herself from flying or mountaineering -- she even soloed on Ruth Glacier for her 40th birthday -- the love she had for the area propelled her into a more activist role. It was a calling she articulated well to author Joe McGinniss in "Going to Extremes", published in 1980: "I can't imagine living anyplace else. I feel my destiny is right here....I'm thinking of writing. I would like to try to get what this town is down on paper. I'd like to capture the humor of the town, the independence, the way the land has shaped the people and just the fine values of living here."

Determined to provide, as her son Robert Sheldon explained in a recent phone call, "a comprehensive overview of Talkeetna back to the Native history," she wrote "The Heritage of Talkeetna" which delves into the origins of the settlement. She followed this up with "The Mystery of the Cache Creek Murders," a deep look into a string of mining-related killings in 1939.

"She chose that event to research," explained Robert Sheldon, "because it marked a turning point for Talkeetna. After those crimes people came to understand that the worst could happen, that the old rules and codes no longer applied. Then land use plans happened, the community plans were formed, the Talkeetna region changed."

Roberta was not content, however, just to study the past. She became heavily involved in community matters, serving 11 years on the Talkeetna Community Council, nine of them as chairwoman. She was on the Board of Directors for the Talkeetna Historical Society for 13 years and the Talkeetna Comprehensive Land Use Committee for six. Governor Jay Hammond appointed her to the Denali Subsistence Resource Committee and Governor Tony Knowles appointed her to the Consultation Committee for Southside Denali Development. The list of accomplishments goes on and on.

According to daughter Kate Sheldon, Roberta "...was extremely proud that Talkeetna turned out to be The Model for commercial land-use in the State of Alaska," something of particular value to the large touring companies so prevalent in the area during the tourist season.

Further, according to son Robert Sheldon, "Pretty much any environmental project south of the Brooks Range my mother has been involved in on some level."

This was especially true of the proposed Susitna Dam project which Roberta was instrumental in fighting for years. As recently as 2012 she was on record against the dam, writing in The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman: "Some might think that a dynamite river with Alaska-caliber fish runs, together with a small, entrepreneurial town with a strong work ethic and economy, are worth sacrificing for an exorbitantly priced dam. Or, that the health of almost countless named and un-named tributaries and side-sloughs that harbor spawning salmon from the mouth of Cook Inlet to the proposed dam site doesn't count. Don't bet on it."

Coupled with her activism, Roberta's dedication to preserving Talkeetna's past and future extended to the purchase of historic buildings and making sure that history was visibly shared with the many visitors who come to the community every year. According to the State of Alaska Historic Preservation Office, she worked to get the Talkeetna Historic District established and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 and the historic Talkeetna Village Airstrip listed, which happened on August 2, 2002. She also worked with the Denali Arts Council to acquire the old Talkeetna Air Service hangar and lot, which is now the home of the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar.

Perhaps most famous among the climbing community is Roberta's steadfast preservation of the Mountain House, a shelter constructed by Don Sheldon and friends in 1966 on the South Face of Denali. Located on a 5-acre rock and ice outcrop at the 6,000-foot level, in the middle of what is now known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheater of the Ruth Gorge, the Mountain House is managed by Alaska Mountaineering School but firmly owned by the Sheldon family. Aerial tours of the Mountain House are available through several Talkeetna air taxis including Sheldon Air Service, owned and operated by Don and Roberta's daughter Holly and her husband.

"My mother lived her life with discipline and dignity," said Robert Sheldon. Her legacy, found from Ruth Glacier to the banks of the Susitna and along the streets of Talkeetna, is certainly one that many Alaskans can aspire to. "She taught us if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right," says her son. Roberta's entire life is a testament to this credo and the mark she has made on Alaska's history is one that should not soon be forgotten.

A celebration of life for Roberta Sheldon is planned for June 22 at 4 p.m. in the Sheldon Arts Community Hangar in Talkeetna. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be mailed to the Talkeetna Defense Fund at P.O. Box 292, Talkeetna, AK 99676. Both of Sheldon's books can be purchased at bookstores across Alaska or direct from the Talkeetna Historical Society.

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42. Their mission is to profoundly inspire my writing life. That's pretty cool.

I'm going to attend the Chuckanut Writers Conference later this month seeking some inspiration & general writerly thoughts as I ponder several pieces I'm working on right now.

I think this will be a good thing. There are no plans for "networking" or "making connections". (Don't need to pitch anything, don't want marketing advice, don't want an agent talk.) I just want to listen to some authors and gain some new perspective.

I'm glad those are the only reason I'm attending. Sometimes (most times) thinking about the business of writing really sucks all the happy out of the creative bits (at least to me). But the writing part, that I'm really looking forward to.

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43. "Canada brooded in the air and haunted me," Jack wrote.

From The Voice is All, a biography of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson:

They clustered in the mill towns where the trains brought them and created enclaves where no English needed to be spoken--self-contained "petits Canadas" like certain neighborhoods in Lowell, where they had their own churches, parish schools, shops, social clubs and funeral parlors. Every Franco-American community had its own newspapers. It was only the virulent prejudice against them that made them choose to be walled off, it was their cultural pride, which they called "la survivance." In Canada they had held out against the English foreigners who had taken their country from them in the eighteenth century. It was now their duty to endure, surrounded by the foreigners of America. In the words of the inspiring voice that reminded Maria Chapdelaine* of her solemn duty, "many centuries hence the world will look upon us and say:--These people are of a race that knows not how to perish....We are a testimony."

La survivance depended upon the stubborn preservation, at all costs, of famille, foi, et langue (family, faith and language), all of which were under threat in the mill towns of the United States."

My father's family emigrated from Quebec in 1929 when their youngest child, my great uncle Ben, was 3. I have long been interested by how the French Canadians fought assimilation so hard--it's particularly amusing to me when people use failing to assimilate as a reason to distrust an immigrant group as I know firsthand how complicated this issue truly is.

My father was American-born, in a Rhode Island mill town in 1939. He left home at age 17 for the USAF and resolutely never looked back but, just like Kerouac, he could not truly leave New England or his family or his faith (or his French-Canadian-ness) behind. For this reason, Kerouac is an endless fascination for me.

[Post title from Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940--1956.]

*The main character from a novel of the same name by Louis Hemon, published in 1913.

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44. Working men, circa 1910

Standing in the center of the photo, with the large brimmed hat, is my great grandfather Thomas Lennon. I believe that those are blocks of ice they are lifting. I know that Thomas worked for a beer wagon at one point (I have a photo of him with the wagon) and this ice might be associated with that job. I also know that he worked at some point as a painter and, according to the 1910 census, as a "laborer".

This seems to be the same crew as the top photo - several of the men are in both pictures. Tom is seated in the front, center, with the pot in hand; his hat is off here.

My grandmother told me that her father worked many jobs, wherever he could get work actually. At one point in the 1920s they earned money storing liquor in their apartment for a speakeasy downstairs. They lowered the bottles through a dumbwaiter and she remembered helping her father load it. (Every time she told this story it made her laugh)

Tomsr.jpgTom was an Irish American through and through, born in New York as were all of his brothers and sisters. He is about 22 in these photos; they were likely taken right about the time he married my great grandmother, Julia.

Tom Lennon remains one of the more compelling and confounding parts of my family history. He is the hero and the disappointment in so many stories. In these photos he is simply a man on the job; in some intrinsic way a central part of what it has always meant to be American.

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45. John Muir and the Ice That Started the Fire by Kim Heacox

Gustavus author Kim Heacox dove deep into the life of an American icon to craft his stirring new title, "John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire." Heacox, whose highly regarded memoir "The Only Kayak" is a modern Alaska classic, takes readers along with Muir on his late 19th century journeys among the glaciers of the state's southeast region. It was there that he became, as his friend naturalist John Burroughs dubbed him, "Cold Storage Muir," and a nationally acclaimed authority on glaciers who inspired countless others to follow in his studies of the ice.

As Heacox recounts through references to Muir's own works and the works of his biographers and contemporaries, the naturalist first visited Alaska in 1879. Arriving in Fort Wrangell, he set out by canoe with Tlingit guides and missionary Samuel Hall Young to visit the country and "to seek knowledge," as Young explained. What he found was something he did not know existed, a place of mystery and grace that defied all reason. The lure of the glaciers brought him back to Alaska two more times in the years that followed and heavily influenced his writings and activism. The glaciers were a powerful inspiration. Heacox writes:

Muir wanted to inspect every glacier, as if each were a book like the others, similar in general characteristics yet distinctive in its specifics. Some were a deep, compelling blue, others pale and white. Some were heavy with burden, others clean and gleaming. Some were steep and twisted and tortured by crevasses as they spilled down tight mountain valleys; others ran straight and on a gentle gradient that enabled them to wear few wrinkles, as if they'd had an easier life.

In his sketches and notes, Muir made it clear that Alaska's glaciers were simply unforgettable.

After a second trip in 1888, which gave him the adventure with a small dog that inspired the book "Stickeen," Muir returned to the Southeast again in 1899 as a member of the famous Harriman Expedition. It was this journey, in the company of men such as paleontologist William Dall, Forest and Stream editor George Bird Grinnell, photographer Edward Curtis, geologist G.K. Gilbert of the US Geological Survey and naturalist Burroughs -- among many other eminent scientists -- that Muir took special note of the retreat of Muir Glacier. As the group traveled throughout what became Glacier Bay National Park, Muir was reminded of what he had see decades before and how the terrain had changed. Most significantly, sharing his experiences inspired the future work of Gilbert whose landmark title "Glaciers and Glaciation" was published after the group returned from Alaska and included his thorough analysis of how climate, topography and motion affected glaciers. What Muir was imparting was the big picture that glaciers provided about the climate, and the stories their geology held about the Earth's past.

Heacox weaves Muir's journeys around stories about his life back in California, his marriage and fatherhood, the years spent cultivating a successful orchard and the growth of his conservationist career which culminated in meeting President Theodore Roosevelt and establishing Yosemite National Park. Alaska, though, always infused his writings and speeches and as the Last Frontier invaded the American imagination, Muir continued to stress its natural beauty over the more obvious draw of material wealth. In his final years, Heacox writes that Muir was driven to complete a manuscript that would capture what his Alaskan journeys had meant to him.

It was hard work, as always. How to capture Alaska without hyperbole and syrupy language [Robert Underwood] Johnson had criticized him for years before? He didn't have to say Alaska was magnificent; just say Alaska. The name itself was another language, another time, when risk was daily bread and he remembered drinking the cool air like water, and the glaciers--always the glaciers--grand rivers of ice that textured his mind with their crevasses and seracs. How frisky and rambunctious he'd been back then, forty-one going on fourteen, still boyish, a tramp, curious about everything, imaginative, free.

"Travels in Alaska" was completed just before Muir's death in 1914.

There are many layers to Muir's Alaskan experiences and Heacox is careful to consider all of them, from the inspiration it provided his future conservation work, to the struggle he felt between his love of the northern spaces and his wife and children back home. The author manages to take a highly revered figure and place him in the realm of wide-eyed tourist, show how he was as filled with wonder as any visitor upon first sighting the walls of ice. But as much as Heacox's eloquent words and poetic phrases carry readers along on historic adventures, he is also careful to emphasize the science at the root of Muir's travels. Nothing the naturalist did was casual and the author's attention to detail is equally filled with care. Alaskans will likely be particularly struck by the final chapter where Heacox recalls the work to federally protect Alaska's landscape in the years after Muir's death especially in Glacier Bay ("A Monstrous Proposition," according to the Juneau Daily Empire). The story comes full circle, not only for Muir but Heacox as well.

How then to save Alaska? Let it be, said many disciples of John Muir, a growing legion of young, environmentally aware Americans. Slow down. Go softly with an open heart. Stop calling it a frontier. The last frontier is not Alaska, outer space, the oceans, or the wonders of technology. It's open-mindedness. Honor the land and its first nation peoples, and their ability to acquire wisdom, sustenance, and happiness from the wild plants and animals around them. Learn through story. Sleep on the ground. Listen.

Supplemented with stunning archival photographs and a thorough set of endnotes, "John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire" is the best guide for such a trip and Heacox a literary companion that Muir would certainly endorse.

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46. "Because my love's American/blisters blossom on my heart."

The May issue of Outside has an impressive, gut-wrenching piece by Eliza Griswold on the poetry of Afghanistan and Pakistan's Pashtun women. (It's all online.)

These are words that will stay with you long after you finish reading. Frankly, they are life-changing words that are all the more amazing because most of us would wonder just how capable of poetry these women would be. (When you struggle so much for survival, it is startling to see that you still write poems along the way.) Here's a bit from Griswold:

Women make up roughly half of the 42 million Pashtun people in the borderland. The kind of hardship they know is rare. Some are bought and sold, others killed for perceived slights against family honor. But this doesn't render them passive. Most of the Pashtun women I know possess a rebellious and caustic humor beneath their cerulean burkas, which have become symbols of submission. This finds expression in an ancient form of folk poetry called landay. Two lines and 22 syllables long, they can be rather startling to the uninitiated. War, drones, sex, a husband's manhood--these poems are short and dangerous, like the poisonous snake for which they're named.

And one of the landays:

When sisters sit together, they're always praising their brothers
When brothers sit together, they're selling their sisters to others.

And another by a woman whose brother was taken away to the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison:

In Pul-e-Charkhi, I've nothing of my own
Except my heart's heart lives within its walls of stone.

"To ask a woman to sing a landay is to ask what has happened to her," writes Griswold, and it is clear that the things that have happened to the Pashtun women are incredibly difficult. These poems bring new definition to the term "hard life" and they are, in their way, revolutionary.

Griswold has a book out now: I am a Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan. It includes photographs by Seamus Murphy, whose photos are also used in the Outside article. I'm really looking forward to reading this book. Poetry was not taught well to me in school - it was a language from centuries ago and never real to me. These landays are reality screaming - I think they would be an unforgettable addition to the classroom.

M.P. Ritger's review of I am a Beggar of the World at the LA Review of Books is a must read as well.

[Post title is a landay from I am a Beggar of the World.]

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47. "The House That Ate the World" (which is not the name of a short story)

Richard Bowes writes some wonderful short stories.

"The Margay's Children" is the sort of Bowe's story that especially appeals to me - it brushes up against his love of New York City, his development of realistic complicated characters in a seemingly mundane setting and his drop-in of sudden and unexpected fantasy. We can call it urban fantasy and if you are familiar with Charles de Lint, for example, then you will know what I'm talking about. This is out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye kind of fantasy, subtle and careful.

It is my favorite kind of fantasy.

In many ways, "Margay" is a typical multi-generational family saga. There is much here of mothers and daughters and some of what that entails. Writing in the first person, the narrator, Richie, identifies himself as the godfather of Selesta, daughter of his old and dear friend Joan Malta. Selesta likes cats which is the thread of the larger story about the Malta family that the narrator slowly unravels.

There are Richie and Joan, who knew each other in their youth as "hippies" and Selesta who is young as the story opens but then it college as it continues. There is Ruth, Joan's mother, and her mysterious first husband (Joan's father) who went missing. Ruth is a pistol - she lives in "The House That Ate the World" (Joan's name for it.)

There is a bit of a falling out and a coming together, as mothers and daughters do. There is sitting on porches and children playing in the water and the announcement of a pregnancy which brings excitement and also some trepidation.

Cats figure into this story. Remember that.

What Bowes does so well in "The Margay's Children", as he does in so many other stories though, is lull you into the scenes on city streets and country porches, in places that would be utterly at home in any realistic novel or story. He lets you see just how easily lives can be different or more than you might expect; how the fantastic hides so easily within the mundane. He is revisiting a fairy tale here but you can read it without knowing that and enjoy it just the same.

Richie and Joan have been friends a long time, he is Selesta's godfather, and yet there is much he does not know. Secrets full everything in our lives and in our world; always there are the secrets.

Finally, what I love the most about "The Margay's Children" is that it is not horror. It is a warm family story at the end as it is at the beginning, which is exactly what I wanted it to be. Bowes would have ruined it by bringing in a true monster; nice to see he didn't take the easy way out.

[You can find "The Margay's Children" in The Queen, the Cambion and Seven Others.]

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48. "The answer was short and dismissive. Girls could not be pages."

From Ilene Cooper's interview with Booklist in March, here is a bit about her YA nonfiction title A Woman in the House (and the Senate):

By the 1970s though, when women were demanding their rights instead of asking for them, many congressmen were growing hostile. When Patricia Schroeder was appointed to the Armed Services Committee, the chair made her and an African American, Ron Dellums, share a chair because, he said, "women and blacks were worth only half a member."

(Dellums was the first African American member of the committee.)

Cooper continues with this bit of her personal story about social security which BLEW ME AWAY:

The week before I graduated from high school, my mother died of a heart attack. The salary she earned as a saleswoman was intended to cover my college tuition--thankfully much less in those days. Still, after she died, it seemed college might not be in the cards for me.

Then my family learned that we were entitled to her Social Security benefits. A few years earlier, this would not have been the case. A husband's Social Security benefits went to his family; a wife's were simply put back into the general fund.

It took a dedicated congresswoman, Martha Griffiths of Michigan, to push for a bill that would reverse this injustice.

All rather startling, don't you think? You can see a short video of Congressman Dellums talking about sharing that seat by scrolling down on this Congressional history page.

[Post title taken from the response Cooper received when, as a teenager, she wrote to her Congressman asking about the Congressional page program.]

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49. "Yes, the jihadi warriors had thoughtlessly burned their own sacred book--multiple copies were destroyed in the fire, Bouya noted."

Excellent article up at Outside on the lengths the people of Timbuktu were willing to go to last year to save their long protected (and centures old) books and manuscripts from an invading jihad. Here's a bit on what books have always meant to the people of Mali who dwell on the Niger River:

The skies had been smudged with Saharan sands all day, but this blew out at night, leaving an enormous Milky Way overhead. When Scottish explorer Mungo Park first came down this river in 1795, he was astonished by what people requested: they wanted paper. In the 1840s, the explorer Heinrich Barth gave away reams of the stuff and described traders wandering the desert with nothing but books to sell. Illiterate Africa was a myth. Words--books--had always been necessary.

And this is just a taste of what the people of Timbuktu did to save their books:

"Then, in August, we found the solution," Traore said. Late at night, they began to pack up manuscripts, stuffing them into old rice sacks. Just the packing took a full month and involved dozens of men from several book-owning families. Traore hired five donkey drivers to carry the thousands of manuscripts--no one could count them all--out of the dispensary around midnight, every night for a week. They loaded the donkeys, and then Traore's 72-year-old grandfather, the retired guardian, walked point, scouting for jihadi patrols. Each night, they distributed books to a different house, joining the small number of high-priority works smuggled out of the main library by underwear.

Go. Read the whole article. It will make you believe in the goodness of the world again.

[Post pic: Malian calligrapher Boubacar Sadeck consults an ancient manuscript at his home in Bamako, Mali. Photo: Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images.]

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50. "I wanted the authenticity of actual awkward teenagers...."

I missed A Birder's Guide to Everything when it came out on the festival circuit last year--did any of you see it? I get so frustrated when the "loud" movies eat up all marketing oxygen and a film like this one disappears quickly. Here's a bit on the movie from the current issue of Audubon Magazine:

The plot of A Birder's Guide to Everything centers on four kids trying to confirm a possible sighting of a Labrador duck, considered extinct since 1875. I'd been asked to check over a draft screenplay to vet its bird content. The movie's premise--chasing a long-gone duck--might seem preposterous. But I was happy to oblige: It isn't every day that someone decides to film a drama built around teenaged birders.

When I first picked up the screenplay, I feared that birding teens would be treated as a bad joke. Fortunately, it was soon obvious that director and co-writer Rob Meyer had tremendous respect and affection for his characters.

That same feeling was apparent later, when I visited the Birder's Guide set. Everyone working on the film, onscreen and off, believed in the project. That belief shines through in the finished film, where the main characters and their personal struggles come across as glowingly genuine.

The duck "discovery" may be the least authentic thing in the picture, but by the time it shows up, that hardly matters. By then, A Birder's Guide has already worked its magic, which you'll be able to see for yourself when it hits the big screen in March.

And, from last year, a bit about how making the movie turned filmmaker Rob Meyer into a birder.

[Post title from the article about Rob Meyer. Note also the diversity of the teen cast.]

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