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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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1. Historian for hire

Every now and again I come across an article that makes me long to be 17 years old again so I have the information to provide a kick ass answer to people who ask me what I think I can do with a degree in history. (I was told over and over the only option for historians was to become a teacher and as I did not want to teach, I could not major in history.) (Of course I later went back to school and got a second degree in history just because I wanted to and ended up teaching history for 5 years to soldiers but none of that was planned.)

In the last issue of Frankie there is a piece on two Australian “history detectives” who own a company called Born & Bred. Primarily, they are genealogists but listen to their job descriptions:

Lee Hooper has a love of old creepy houses, unlocking mysteries found within Victorian public records and writing fiction and non-fiction that expresses her love for a good spun yarn and the articulate telling of true tales.

Phoebe Wilkens’ passion is genealogy, discovering a love for researching families, their origins and finding skeletons in the closet. Phoebe also loves to write about historical events and delights in discovering treasures in the archives.

Also, apparently you can get a degree in “Local, Family and Applied History”. I would have killed for that one. It has all worked out (history, aviation, northern research!), but studying family history for credit would have been awesome.

Or I could have been an exploration historian which is so cool, I don’t even know where to begin. (Take that annoying family member! I shall study great explorers and write about them!) (And yes, that is what I am doing right now.) (So it did work out but it took bloody long to get here!) (Love Polar World’s books by the way.)

I wish I was bold enough at 17 to simply announce “I shall be a historian and that is enough” but I needed some guide as to what “historian” meant beyond the obvious classroom definition. I needed to see all the places out there where history could matter – where it could be an actual career. “Historian” just sounded like too much for me to hope for back then. Silly, isn’t it? But that was who I was then…..it seems so very long ago.

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2. Let’s all meet at Luke’s, shall we? (And bring along your notebook.)

1. I am trying to understand how my life has been complete without the “Gilmore Guys” podcast in it. I can not explain why I love The Gilmore Girls so much (I’m sure many people would go on about the writing or acting which is true); I just know that I do. I have written many things while this tv show in playing in the background. Now I must listen to the podcast and embrace the love in a whole new way.

2. I just added Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl to my wishlist based on this bit from the School Library Journal review:

This edgy, smart, and challenging title combines mythology, punk rock, science, a quest, feminism, art, dreams, and the power of stories and storytelling with unforgettable results. The well-developed cast of characters is racially and sexually diverse. The emphasis on the importance of female relationships—as family, as lovers, and as friends—is a welcome exploration of the many levels of intimacy.

3. My article just ran on the investigation into the June multiple fatality plane crash in the Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan. It’s going to be a long involved investigation which is likely not a surprise to anyone but in light of all the breathless demands for what went wrong that so many news reports ran, I felt like I needed to write this. Partly based on my own thoughts about this crash, I’m putting together a series of articles about different types of pressure on pilots that I hope to have run next month.

4. I think you can understand that why my day job involves writing about plane crashes, watching The Gilmore Girls becomes all the more critical to my well being.

5. I just finished reading The Lost City of Z and I’m very glad I am not an obsessed explorer.

6. On yesterday’s agenda was contacting Columbia University to inquire about a possible graduate from the 1920s. Of these small research questions, a whole book is created.

7. I wish I could convey the degree to which Field Notes have become integral to my writing life. I have a general “To Do” notebook for everything in my life. I have a “Research Notes” book for the work-in-progress. I have a “Genealogy Notes” book for mysteries to follow-up on associated with my long-running family history project. I’ve got one for random notes/things I’ve heard that interest me/things I’ve seen I don’t want to forget/things that might be something but I’m not sure what just yet. I’ve got one for Shorefast Editions. I’ve got one for Resolutions to improve my life. And I’ve got the pocket calendar to tell me where I need to be and when and what I’ve accomplished.

I love them all.

8. Now reading The River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt in South America, plus the second in the Twinmaker series by Sean Williams as I prepare for the upcoming release of the 3rd book and my review of them all for Locus and….a book for Booklist. Also a lot of stuff about mountain climbing in Alaska. I am writing so hard on this book. I am really trying to make something great.

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3. Assessing June on the resolution scale

I don’t know how to convey how monumental June has been for me professionally. It is the first month where I felt like I had myself organized and that the things I have been working on came to fruition. Most significantly, I have an immense amount of momentum on all fronts and I have a plan for all my writing projects. None of this came easily or quickly and I think the biggest lesson I learned last month is that if you do the work, the success will come. This seems obvious (and even a little sappy) but I really needed the kind of results that June brought me.

Here is what I got done last month:

1. Review submitted to Locus for Beastly Bones by William Ritter.

2. Reviews submitted to Booklist for the biography Ecology or Conservation and the environmental title A River Runs Again.

3. A query I sent to Bitch was turned down, which is a bummer of course but on the positive side, I sent the query and I got a response and that is all good. I also sent out follow-ups for two other queries I sent in April and did not hear anything back from either of those, so I’m now done with those folks and moving those two pieces on to someplace else. (As both of them are written, I’ll be sending out queries on them this month.)

4. I sent a query to Alaska Airlines magazine for a short piece about an interesting Alaskan.

5. Sent a query to Narratively on a missing Alaskan pilot from 1929 which was accepted.

6. Only one piece ran in AK Dispatch this month, but I had a long substantive talk with the executive editor about moving me to a different editor who had more time and what the paper wants for Bush Pilot moving forward. There have just been a lot of growing pains as the news site and the newspaper came together and now I have a new editor and everything should be a lot more regular and I’ll get more articles up. Plus we are talking about some stuff to run over the next couple of months that I’ve really wanted to do, so I’m quite excited about how my work with them will continue.

7. I had a strategic consultation with Lauren Cerand that helped me map out my writing future and also best handle the biggest development this month (see #8). Speaking with Lauren was a financial investment I felt that I needed to do if I wanted to take my writing seriously and I’m really glad I did. We all need perspective and guidance sometimes; we need to have someone outside of our own little world who can help us figure out how to tackle the writing projects we are considering and planning. If you want people to take you and your work seriously, then you need to take it seriously. Even though I have been a working writer for some time, I feel like this consultation was one of the more professional things I’ve ever done.

8. And the big news – I signed with agent Stephanie Koven with Janklow & Nesbit! Readers of this blog will know that my former agent left the business a couple of years ago and so, while The Map of My Dead Pilots remains with Writers House, I no longer had an agent with Writers House. There are few things in life more dispiriting for a writer than losing their agent and even though this was not my fault, it still left me back at square one. I’m quite pleased to be with Stephanie and to have her so excited about the book I’m working on.

9. Which brings me to the book! I can’t say much right now, but the plan is to have a draft chapter to my agent by the end of the month and then move forward from there to get three chapters done and a book proposal. I have had an enormous amount of success with my research & interviews thus far and am really really excited. It’s narrative nonfiction on a historical subject and….that’s all I’m going to say.

His name is Tesla, we rescued him from an animal shelter in Central Washington (he and his litter mate were found on the side of the road) and he is a Catahoula Leopard. It’s okay to fall a little bit in love with him. :)

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4. Greetings from Hollywood High, 1944

postcard 1
During World War II my maternal grandfather, Pete Hurley, received Seabee training in Port, Hueneme, California and apparently (from this postcard anyway) had a bit of time to take in the sights.

Read about the Seabees and the naval base here. My grandfather worked in a shipyard in NYC before the war so was a perfect fit for the “Construction Battalion”.
postcard 2
He sent this to his mother-in-law, my Nana, who not only kept the three photo albums I have been sorting through but also all of the postcards ever sent to her (plus some she picked up on her own and wrote “I was here” on the back of along with the date of her visit). I’ve sent the postcards out to family members they belong to but for obvious reasons kept this one for myself.

You can see a great WWII pic of my grandfather here. He served in the South Pacific for more than a year, until the war ended.

Oh – the “girls girls girls” bit was not a worry for my grandmother. My grandfather never cheated on her and was actually fanatically paranoid about the whole idea of cheating. (He had a friend who suffered from syphilis and it was pretty awful from the stories I’ve heard.) However, GrandDads did love to flirt! :)

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5. The NYC girls in the picture, circa 1915

Julia's friend circa 1915In the very back of one of the three photo albums that belonged to my great grandmother Julia, my mother and I found an unexpected surprise. Most of the photos were family (of course) but on these three pages were multiple rows of Julia’s girlfriends in small 2×2 or 2×3 inch photos.

I have no idea who most of these women are. A few have names penciled on the back and a couple are of Julia’s younger sisters, Carol and Tina. They were taken by professional photographers in studios and cut down as they were placed in the album. Together, they form a record of working women in New York City shortly after the turn of twentieth century.

What is most surprising to me is how impeccably they are all dressed. Julia came from people who took in boarders and changed jobs and apartments constantly in search of higher wages and cheaper rent. These young women are her friends and yet all of them look amazing — you would never think they are factory girls.
Julia's friend circa 1915
According to the 1910 census, Julia worked at a textile factory as did her younger sister Tina, who was 15 years old at the time. Julia was married in February 1910 and along with her husband and three younger sisters, she lived with her mother who served as head-of-household in an apartment. Two years later, her first child, James, was born.

From Jimmy’s birth forward there are few friends in the pictures. Mostly the album is occupied with the children, who arrived with clockwork regularity about every two years, until a five year gap between 1926 & 1931 (when her last child was born). Julia’s became a widow in 1933.

Julia's friend circa 1915 I assume that these young women were all busy with their own families in that same period; married off, having babies, occupied with their lives at home. They didn’t have money or time for visiting studios anymore and exchanging photos with friends.

I have a book on order, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the Century New York which I hope will give me some insight into what Julia’s life was like before she was married. It will hopefully provide some information on places to look for more details about her life, although these photos alone provide me with much more than I expected. My grandmother (who was born in 1919 and the oldest daughter), had no memory of her mother’s friends. Julia was known to her children as a very strict, no-nonsense person; a woman who had precious little time for herself. Yet she carefully preserved evidence of all of these friendships, decades after any of them would have seen each other.
Julia's friend circa 1915
There is not much known about female friendships among the working classes in the early 20th century. My grandmother had several close friends whose images are present throughout the photos from the 1930s. Like her mother, these relationships vanished after she married and were replaced with children. I find something rather poignant in all this although, looking at my own photos from high school and college, it is not unexpected. We all become separated by marriage, family and geography as we grow up. At least modern technology helps us to stay closer now then our ancestors could.

These women are just images in a scrapbook now, but once upon a time, they were everything for Julia Lennon. They are evidence of who my great grandmother truly was, when she was young and anything was possible.
Julia (far right) with friends circa 1915
Julia (far right) with friends circa 1915

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6. On taking to another world with Neil Waldman

Paging through Neil Waldman’s Al and Teddy is an immersive experience; the deep rich images are quite impressive:

Waldman’s story is about two brothers, one of whom creates an imaginary world that he shares with his sibling. It’s simple and straightforward, with a sweet ending but the images really take it up a notch. It’s pretty hard to tear yourself away from something like this:

Al and Teddy was published by Dream Yard Press. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the purchase of art supplies (and pizza!) for children of the Bronx who participate in the Dream Yard Project.

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7. Assessing April & May on the Resolution Scale

And here we go!

1. Reviews of Bone Gap, Magonia and Shadowshaper submitted to Locus. I also read Archivist Wasp and will be submitting that review this week.

2. For Booklist I reviewed Modern Love by Aziz Ansari, Rhythm of the Wild by Kim Heacox and 81 Days Below Zero by Brian Murphy.

3. In April I completed two pieces, one a Q&A with author Leigh Newman about growing up between Alaska and Maryland and the other about the Scientist in the Field series of books for tweens/teens. I submitted queries on these to a couple of publications, waited six weeks with no reply and then sent follow-ups to both. I also submitted the Q&A to another publication in May.

4. I also pitched a possible aviation pieces to a couple of magazines. I heard back from one – nice personal letter from the editor but he didn’t ask to see anything just thanked me for getting in touch. So, I’ll follow-up with that in a couple of weeks as I will hopefully have more published at Dispatch on the subject I wrote him about. Perhaps a second short article will make him see that it is worthy of a longer piece in his publication.

5. Not a lot overall in Alaska Dispatch the past couple of months – the editors are busy and my stuff is back burner as it is not “news”. But I did continue to publish several pieces there including a book review of Denali Justice about a 1981 plane crash that I thought was fascinating. I also have three most pieces pending.

6. There were several good books read, several of which I have reviewed at Guys Lit Wire (or will be reviewed this month). I advise, as always, that you check out things over there.

I also just finished a nice bit of light reading: The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo. It’s a family story: adult daughter learns of an previously unknown grandmother’s death and slight inheritance so travels to her mother’s hometown where many secrets are uncovered and she comes to terms with her difficult relationship with her parent, who is also deceased. They drama was good (and unexpected), the characters complex and the small town Oklahoma setting pitch perfect. All in all a good one for this fall when the weather turns chilly. (It’s due out in September.)

There were also all the other things of life such as business and family and that was all good but busy. I am frustrated though with my slow progress on my writing; with the time it takes to put my thoughts together and transfer them to the page. It’s not a block – I have plenty to write – but it is a……struggle. That’s my challenge for June. Start a long piece. I will pitch a few more items and I have three more things to get in the queue for Dispatch. The long piece is what I need to contend with now. I’m floundering on that front and must get past this inaction.

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8. Lost ships, lost planes, lost pilots, lost climbers, lost stories……..

In college I wrote a senior paper on the USS Indianapolis which became famously sunk and lost in WWII resulting in the largest recorded shark attack in history. I exchanged letters and phone calls with over 60 of the ship’s survivors (the 47 letters I received are on file with the Indianapolis Historical Society). There were many elements of the Indianapolis story that intrigued me, not the least of which was that it was relatively unknown at the time I was researching it. I couldn’t believe the US Navy lost a ship only to be found by sheer luck or that our history would so effectively lose such a compelling story. (Really – largest recorded shark attack in HISTORY. How do we forget that?) The survivors were, every single one, rather surprised that I would write about them for a college project. It turned out to be a turning point for me and revealed that more than anything, I love to research and write about what is lost.

My grandmother used to pray to St. Anthony when she (or anyone she knew) lost something. (The joke in our family was that she prayed to him so much she called him “Tony”; as they were on a first name basis.) I think a lot about lost houses and lost beaches; the lost places of my childhood. I can’t even drive past the house I grew up in without seeing myself running to my grandmother’s house around the corner through a vacant lot that is a 7-11 now. Everything I knew when I was 10 is changed so much it is as if it never existed at all.

The past few days I have been going over an article on missing aircraft in Alaska. It’s kind of weird, but even when pieces of an aircraft are found, it can still be listed as missing. A certain percentage of the aircraft must be recovered for it to be listed officially as an accident. So small pieces of debris are just evidence of something gone; but not proof that it ever existed at all.

There’s probably something poetic in there somewhere….I’m still not sure how to say it that way though. (I’ll be writing about these airplanes a lot more than just this article. There’s more to tell than fits in 1,000 words.)

In the past couple of years I have spent my time with newly found family photographs, uncovered unbelievable family stories (and the hits keeping coming in that front), made contact with someone with information on a long lost mountain climber and paged through the NTSB reports on aircraft gone missing from decades ago.

And I tried twice to drive past the house I grew up in. Chickened out both times. (And I’m not sorry about that.)

There is an unexpected pattern to my interests these days and I’m very mindful of that. Patterns should not be taken lightly; even when you aren’t consciously creating them.

[Post pic from 2012 – 75B was, once upon a time, one of the aircraft we flew at the Company.]

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9. Elena Vanishing

Published in conjunction with Clare Dunkle’s Hope and Other Luxuries, Elena and Clare Dunkle’s Elena Vanishing is a memoir about battling anorexia. Told primarily from the perspective of Elena, starting when she was 17, it is a graphic depiction of the inner fight that occurs when suffering from the disorder. Reading this book is a visceral experience; but it presents a few challenges as well, most notably whether it is the voice of Elena or Clare that comes through on the page.

Hope and Other Luxuries presents a straightforward chronology of the events during Elena’s childhood, diagnosis and treatment. Elena Vanishing is more of a rush of emotions and includes the ever-present voice of anorexia that Elena hears in her head, constantly taunting and harassing her through every second of the day. Readers are given a ringside seat to the daily battle with body image that Elena faced, constantly checking her makeup, diligently recording any reference made to her physical beauty (and her weight when such comments were made).

The experiences Elena had with various treatment centers are vivid and searing and the people she met and became friends with are pretty hard to forget. As a group these young women provide so many insights into anorexia that it is hard to overstate how important Elena Vanishing will likely be to family and friends of those who are stricken with it or those who treat the disorder or to those who suffer from it. I want to make that clear that it is, in many significant ways, an important book.

But I’ve also got a pretty big problem with Elena Vanishing.

In Hope and Other Luxuries, Clare Dunkle writes about Elena asking her repeatedly to help her write a memoir. At first Clare is unwilling to do so; she is a fantasy writer and not at all familiar with nonfiction and combined with the subject matter being so close and painful, she does not want any part of it. But eventually, she determines this could be an important part of Elena’s recovery and so she talks to her daughter, records her thoughts, reads her journals, and puts together the memoir which became Elena Vanishing. After it was accepted by Chronicle Books she was asked to write a book from her own perspective and that became Hope and Other Luxuries.

So, if I read all of this correctly, Elena Vanishing is a memoir written from the perspective of Elena Dunkle but by the hands of Clare Dunkle. But it is not a book “as told to” or “edited by” Clare. It is fully credited to both of them. As I was immersed in it, I easily became convinced that I was experiencing everything as Elena did, that I was literally inside her head facing down the endless nagging degrading voice of anorexia. But afterward I wondered if that was really true — was it all directly from Elena or was it partly from what Clare thought happened to Elena or what Elena thought or felt? Are the already blurred lines of memoir going a degree further with this title? Where does the daughter’s voice end and the mother’s interpretation of it begin?

It’s all very puzzling and honestly, because I think this topic is so important and the book so well written, it’s also rather frustrating. I want to believe that this is Elena’s story but when reading the passages about writing the book from Hope and Other Luxuries, where Clare describes how difficult it was for her write Elena Vanishing….well, I can’t be sure. I wrote a memoir, I know how complicated memoir can be when it comes to questions of truth and memory but it seems that the Dunkles (and their editors) have gone one step further than most with their two books. They are not only viewing the same events from two different perspectives (which I think is a great idea) but one of those perspectives is derived from two different minds. I understand that this might have been the only way that Elena’s book could be written but I can’t shake how confused it left me. I want the truth of Elena’s story to be all that matters and I want that truth to be here, on the page, in the book she wrote.

But I don’t know if I am with the mother or the daughter on each of these pages. Maybe that doesn’t matter — heck, maybe it shouldn’t matter how the project came together just that it is now out in the world and doing some good. I think it is important to ask these questions though and think carefully about what the answers mean.

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10. Hope and Other Luxuries

Fantasy writer Clare Dunkle’s new nonfiction book gives everything away with it’s subtitle: Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother’s Life with A Daughter’s Anorexia. It is clear that this is a book that is going to put readers through the emotional wringer as Dunkle records every second from the period “before”, when her family was happy and healthy and into the long nearly interminable journey to “after” as first one daughter struggles with depression and then another nearly dies fighting anorexia. At more than 550 pages, this book is not for the faint at heart but man, is it ever gripping. I could not stop turning the pages; it’s really just an unbelievable read.

In a short prologue, Dunkle explains that her now 24-year old daughter Elena suffered a violent rape at age 13. She has been suffering from anorexia for years, a disorder that she will be dealing with for the rest of her life. The book is about how her family discovered Elena’s illness when she was in high school and the enormous effort that was necessary to save her life. It’s also about her sister Valerie, and her battle with depression which threw the family into chaos as well.

The book unfolds in chronological order, as Dunkle takes readers through stories about their family life, the changes in her daughters’ behavior and then, over the years, the different medical and psychological treatments that Elena received. For parents with children in a similar situation, Dunkle’s story will be a revelation and they will find an enormous amount of comfort in what she has to share. (Her experiences with the insurance companies alone will be worth the price of the book.) But even if you have no personal experience with anorexia, the relentlessness of the narrative, the page after page of family drama, are incredibly compelling.

Valerie begins a dangerous spiral into self harm in high school; her parents are confused and distraught and seek professional help. In a few years, after leaving home to go to college, she fully recovers. When younger sister Elena’s behavior becomes more and more unpredictable the Dunkles seek help for her as well but this time parental control is wrenched away and they find themselves playing endless games of catch-up as they try to figure out if the anorexia diagnosis is real when it seems so out of character and what it means. What becomes clear, as the months and years go by, is that understanding anorexia is no easy thing and understanding how to live with it is even less so. Dunkle makes a solid case for the necessity of having a long vision when tackling the disorder, and taking your victories, no matter how small, whenever you can.

There was one thing about Hope and Other Luxuries that struck me as a bit odd however. The book is billed as a memoir and Dunkle includes a line about the blur of fact and fiction in an author’s note. It reads as autobiography however; it follows the sort of strict order that is rare in memoir and for all that it is an emotional read, even that emotion seems to be firmly grounded around events as they occur as and are typically found in a biographical format. I wonder if labeling the book as memoir is a way to allow the fudging of memory that Dunkle alludes to in her note, or perhaps it is just because memoir is more prevalent today and tagging as autobiography might make the book less appealing to readers.

My issue with memoir/autobiography does not mitigate the value of the book and I certainly recommend it. It is just an odd choice to me and one that I don’t understand. There is a companion book to Hope and other Luxuries, written by Dunkle and her daughter Elena that has been released as well. More on that, and this issue of memoir vs autobiography vs author’s voice, tomorrow.

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11. Some really excellent food writing

I am certain that in a previous life I loved cooking. I’m certain that I was one of those people who threw ingredients into a pan with abandon and created great and wholesome dishes that were the envy and delight of many. (Cue image of Meryl Streep from “It’s Complicated”.) (Don’t mock me for liking this move. It’s Meryl-freaking-Streep. I get to love it without shame.)

I am certain that in some parallel dimension I am an excellent cook.

Enter Tod Davies and Jam Today, Too. Following up on Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got, this new foodie title includes more of the author’s wonderful recipes along with peeks into her life as a carnivore who is married to the “Beloved Vegetarian Husband”. This time Davies has some trouble on the homefront however, as a flood has seriously damaged their Oregon home forcing relocation into temporary digs. This includes some weeks in a RV which produce more than a few hilarious cooking anecdotes about a teeny tiny RV stove.

Here’s what I love about food writing: clearly written recipes that make me think I can cook the meal myself and some insight into the life & mind of the cook who crafted them. Davies has all of that and more going for her; the recipes ingredients range from basic to exotic (I don’t see myself eating oxtail anytime soon!) and none are overly complicated. What really sells the book though are her stories about how she comes to these recipes (like the oxtail), the friends she eats them with and the good times she has (even when eating alone).

And here’s the best thing about her, Davies celebrates just trying – that you shouldn’t worry every second that you are “doing it right”. Here’s a bit about that attitude from the book:

There are two questions that interest me mainly, and food is just a way of getting more answers for me, not an end in itself. Which is why it is endlessly fascinating. And not just that–endlessly productive. I don’t mean endlessly productive of meals (though there certainly is that benefit!), but rather, endlessly productive of insight. Insight that leads me to a firmer understanding of my likes and dislikes, and through that, to building my own autonomy. Autonomy, I truly believe, is what each person owes the world——because only an autonomous adult, who knows who she/he is, and knows what her/his duties and rights are, can participate in making our world better for everyone.

Some recipes, laughs and philosophy on food and life. What more could you want from a book? Highly recommended as just the sort of summer diversion we all are looking for.

You can read an interview with Tod here.

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12. Admiralty Islands, 1944

Pete Hurley, WWII, 1944

Pete Hurley, WWII, 1944

This is my grandfather, Pete Hurley, during WWII in the Pacific. He was a member of the SeaBees – the USN Construction Battalion who built and maintained airports, runways, etc. on the islands during the war. He’s about 28 in this picture.

My grandfather died a few days before my 5th birthday but I have some huge memories of him. He was not a big man, but had a very big personalty. More than anything, he embodied all the classic characteristics of the Irish Mick – fair skinned, fair haired, blue-eyed, a great dancer and storyteller, talented in a thousand different ways. He wasn’t perfect – he had the Irish demons as well – but he was unforgettable.

This is one of my favorite photos of him – if you follow me on twitter (@chasingray), my grandfather & grandmother are in my profile pic.

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13. Frustrated

Incredibly frustrated.

I am so tired of being contacted by freelancers hired to write about Alaska aviation for major publications even though they are not pilots, know little (or anything at all) about aviation and have no knowledge of aviation in Alaska. I answer their questions, I’m very polite, I’m indeed quite helpful but I’m tired of it. I’m tired of being good enough to serve as an information source for people who know practically nothing on this topic but not good enough to be hired to write for these publications myself.

Sometimes, I wish this was not my topic of interest. Frankly, sometimes I wish I did not write anything at all. Once upon a time I was on track for a career in airport management which came with the expected host of local and office politics. But still…I went to work, I did my job and I went home and didn’t think about it until the next time I went to work. There is something appealing in that, in just not thinking about your job for hours at a time. With writing it’s always with you, even when you dream.

I’ve got to find a way to deal with this frustration and focus on my writing. There’s got to be a better way to approach what I want to do with my time (with my life) then what I’m doing now.

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14. 2 gorgeous pictures books from Enchanted Lion

I am consistently impressed with the picture books published by Enchanted Lion Books. Most recently I received copies of Beastly Verse by Joohee Yoon and The World in a Second by Isabel Martin with illustrations by Bernard Carvalho.

The Yoon book is the more traditional—a poetry collection that includes works from Lewis Carroll, William Blake and Laura E. Richards. Here’s a bit of “The Yake” from Hilaire Belloc:

As a friend to the children commend me the Yak,
You will find it exactly the thing;
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.

As you can see, Yoon’s illustrations are dynamic and colorful, making the book a joy to page through. The poems all fit well (some better than others), and combined it’s a good way to introduce pre-readers to poems.

The World in a Second is based on the question of what is going on around the world at the same moment. Martin provides the simple story, taking readers through a variety of single sentence scenarios: “…An elevator gets stuck between two floors in a New York City skyscraper”; “…A boy balances himself on his bicycle for the first time”; “…The dogs (and only the dogs) feel a tiny tremor in a Venezuelan city” and “…A wave reaches the shore.”

Carvalho’s illustrations, (also big and bold and in his city scenes appropriately busy), are diverse in color, ethnicity and location. In some cases Martin specifies the place, like Venezuela, Morocco and Portugal, but often it is Carvalho’s pictures which give the reader geographic clues. (On the final page is a world map with the page numbers pinned to specific cities with the time when each spread occurred.)

World gives readers a clear way to understand the concept of time and time zones which is all very good and by showing people enjoying similar moments (driving, biking, playing ball or resting on a bench), it also makes the world that much smaller, a message I strongly support.

Two beautiful books with dynamic designs and structures; this is Enchanted Lion, hitting it out of the park yet again.

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15. The worlds of Lori Nix

Be warned- Lori Nix’s dioramas are very appealing. Once you catch a glimpse of her world-making you won’t want to leave. From Womankind:

Lori Nix constructs hand-made worlds from her living room, complex dioramas sculpted out of foam board, paint, plaster and wood. She lives with power tools scattered throughout her apartment, and a chop saw under her kitchen table. Her worlds, as small as 50 centimetres and as large as 182 centimetres in diameter, take time; nine years to build The City, a series of deserted architectural interiors, which she calls a “safe space to think about larger ideas”, a “meditative space that’s full of possibilities.”

In Lori’s world, ceilings fold in to reveal the sky, creeping vines haunt walls, and shelves of books – lined up with an alert expectancy symbolic of our quest to seek, to learn, to make sense of it all – quietly transition towards dust.

See much more at Nix’s website or watch her create a diorama on the episode of “How Its Made” below. The diorama section starts at the 10 minute mark.

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16. Assessing March on the resolution scale

March was a really weird month. I had a plan for what I wanted to get done and then everything was tossed out the window when I heard from the State of Alaska Library, Archives and Museum. I worked with them last year to develop the new aviation exhibit and early last month they contacted me with the outline and request for labels. As the labels are very specific, and very specific word counts, and the whole thing had to be done by the end of the month, it ate up a lot of my time. I’m thrilled to be co-curating this project so I was happy to do whatever was necessary (and the paycheck is nice too). But it pushed everything else I was planning right off the table.

1. I did submit reviews for Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us and Edward Hogan’s The Messengers to Locus. Look for those in a couple of months.

2. I had several pieces run in AK Dispatch News – most notably an article on the dangerous history of commercial use of aircraft for spotting in the herring fishing industry.

3. One review turned into Booklist and two books read (though I didn’t get to the reviews on those until this month).

4. I spent several days exchanging emails with an online longform journalism site discussing a pitch I submitted about Alaska. It went back and forth, the editor was very cool, but eventually it was clear that it was impossible for me to accomplish what they wanted. (Especially the suggestion of travel to the bush which is crazy expensive.) The time and energy this ate up made me reevaluate what I should be pitching and where, which is an ongoing process. I think I’ve finally got it figured out….here’s hoping.

And that was it. Not much accomplished on the genealogy front which is frustrating. I did send a couple of emails to family members asking them questions but I need to sit down and figure out a few things so I can get some letters in the mail. I also need to find a map of New York City for the late 1800s/early 1900s as I have some addresses but don’t have context for where those neighborhoods were.

A lot more has happened in April, but more on that in a few weeks!

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17. The Modern Ark project

From Audubon a look at photographer Joel Sartore’s plan to capture close-up images of every captive species on Earth:

Sartore finds comfort in the species that have thus far been rescued from the brink: giant pandas, black-footed ferrets, California Condors, Whooping Cranes. Those animals’ populations remain alarmingly low—in the mere hundreds—but they might have disappeared altogether if not for publicity, their natural charisma, and determined efforts to save them. “It’s tough to get people to pay attention, because it just doesn’t affect their daily lives. They figure, Why should I care if a rabbit or a frog goes extinct? Is it going to affect what I make at work? Or is it going to affect my love life? Not in the short term. But I tell you, it’s really folly to think that you can doom everything else to extinction and not have it come back to bite us hard.”

Go the main website and see the pictures – they are truly stunning.

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18. The library’s Hell section

From a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine on the rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade and a visit with his modern descendant, Count Hugues de Sade:

The family’s embrace of their ancestor is such that Hugues named his eldest son, now 39, Donatien, a first in generations. “We’re proud of the marquis,” Hugues said. “And why not? Today, he is considered a great philosopher. His works are published by the most prestigious publishing house in France, Gallimard. There are conferences about him at the Sorbonne. He is the subject of university theses, and is studied by high-school students in the baccalauréat.”

As we spoke, Hugues pulled down from his bookshelf an array of distinctive heirlooms passed down from the attic trove—the marquis’ church prayer book, original plays (with notes in the margins), his annotated copy of Petrarch (the 14th-century Italian poet’s great love, Laura, may have been a member of the ancient Sade clan)—as well as an enormous rare volume of erotic Salvador Dali drawings inspired by Sade’s novels. As a parting gesture, he produced a bottle of Sade red wine named after one of the marquis’ most famous heroines, Justine, who suffers bloodcurdling abuse as she travels the world. Sade’s novel Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue, goes far beyond Voltaire’s Candide in its desire to show humanity’s inherently evil nature.

“Some of his writing is too extreme even for me,” Hugues said. “It is work of total delusion.”

I will confess I am one of those people who did not realize that de Sade was a historical figure – he seemed like someone created in fiction to symbolize all the depravity in the world. I have never read any of his works but was really intrigued by the fact that they have been held in the so-called Hell section of the National Library in Paris.

As interesting as the changing attitude about de Sade is, I find something like a forbidden library more appealing. I imagine in the very modern looking library it is more of a temperature controlled storeroom than the sort of cave it ought to be.

In The Allure of the Archives, historian Arlette Farge unexpectedly discovered de Sade in her usual haunt, the judicial records from the Archives of the Bastille. Apparently, after a slight altercation between two carriages, de Sade stepped out of his and stabbed one of the opposing horses (it lived). Farge writes:

In this situation the marquis acted in the way that made his reputation: gratuitous violence, a sword sunk into the belly of a defenseless horse. This insignificant account confirms so well what we have heard about the vile character of this man that I find myself almost doubting this surprising coincidence; the find is almost too perfect.

All of us engaged in research dream of an unexpected archive discovery although most will be about people and places far less dramatic as de Sade. I’m hoping to find something personal about someone who most of the world knows nothing about, although I hope to write something rather dramatic about him. I don’t plan to look in any “hell” sections for my long overlooked historical figure but I wouldn’t pass up the chance to stroll through one if I could.

Wouldn’t we all like to say we went to hell by visiting the local library? Talk about a middle school dream come true…..

[Post pic via reuters of Guatemala police archives.]

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19. The Center of Things

From Jenny McPhee's novel about a tabloid reporter (Marie) who is given the assignment of a lifetime--to prepare the obituary for dying film star Nora Mars, someone Marie has idolized her entire life:

Marie's excitement, however, was accompanied by an equally charged sense of dread. If she wrote the article, using a story that might well not be true, she would effectively transform a national female icon into a megalomaniacal baby killer. She imagined Brewster winking a Morse code message: "How bad do you want it, Marie?" What was "it"? she asked herself. Fame, fortune, immortality, or simply a decent raise and a promotion after ten years on the job?

As Marie tracks the mysteries behind Nora's tangled life, she is forced time and again to decide what matters in a life story, what is the right story to tell, and whose story is the one that is true. At the same time she is deeply involved in mysteries about her own life and missing her long estranged brother and completing a philosophy of science paper she has been working on for fifteen years, ever since she left graduate school.

Basically, Marie is a bit of a hot mess in several ways, but a very smart mess who realizes she is at a personal fork in the road that Nora Mars has just happened to drop down into through virtue of her impending death.

None of this sounds like a lot to make a book around and yet again (this is the second time I've read it), I really enjoyed the heck out of The Center of Things. There is a lot of old movie trivia (which I love) and a lot of general science talk (also love) and time spent in a library, natural history museum, Impala convertible, and at a desk, writing furiously. There is also a family mystery which never gets old, some investigative reporting (shades of Lois Lane!) and the brainiest romance I have ever come across in fiction.

Find a copy if you can, this one is a treat.

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20. Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings

There are few things in life as delightful as a perfect picture book. Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings is especially delightful, a perfect combination of subject and illustration that includes a design that works with the playful nature of the poet’s words.

There is a lot going on here, (with plenty of shout outs to interesting people and places), as author Matthew Burgess covers his subject’s life. He focuses a lot on Cummings’ childhood, education and lifelong love of words while illustrator Kris Di Giacomo presents those words as leaping off the page along with subtle washed backgrounds that keep E.E. (Edward Estlin) and his words as the center of the action.

All in all it’s a lovely thing to see and quite inviting. Take a peek at this inside spread:

There are a couple of particularly interesting points from Cummings’s life presented here such as the fact that his most influential teacher was also the first African-American principal in New England and he was mistaken for a spy while working as an ambulance driver during WW1. (He later wrote about this in The Enormous Room.)

But mostly the author focuses on how much Cummings loved words from the earliest age (dictating his first poem at age 3) and how he liked to play with words on the page so their appearance could make them sound (or read) differently. As Burgess explains this, Di Giacomo shows it, bringing the poet’s method home to even young readers.

Enormous Smallness is a truly lovely book and one that I think is going to find its way onto several award lists. It’s due out next month; be sure to get it on your radars.

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21. A stunning documentary: “New Year Baby”

The other night I downloaded and watched New Year Baby, Socheata Poeuv’s documentary about uncovering her family’s story in Cambodia. This movie…..this movie is something amazing.

Poeuv was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. She was called the “lucky one” as her parents, two sisters and brother were all subjected to life under the genocidal government and lived in labor camps until the country was liberated by the Vietnamese. Eventually, they all emigrated to the US and settled in Texas.

As she explains in the movie’s opening minutes, when she was twenty-five Poeuv went home for Christmas and her mother gathered the family together to reveal to their youngest child the big secret about how they were all really related. Her parents then decided to travel to Cambodia for a visit and Poeuv and her brother joined them with camera crew in tow. The trip became a way for Poeuv to learn about what happened to extended family members in the four years under the regime, how many relatives they lost* and how they were all able to get out of the country.

This is all incredibly emotional and inspiring (you will cry, trust me), but equally fascinating is the story of how Cambodians have buried their history in an almost national attempt to forget what happened. None of them can forget though (of course) so the official Cambodia versus the personal one are locked in a quiet and continuous battle of “let’s just not talk about it.” This is made brutally clear in the film when Poeuv’s local guide unexpectedly comes face to face with the former member of the Khmer Rouge who ran the hospital where his mother and sister died. He can not stop himself from asking what happened and his face as her utter incompetence comes through….well, his face is pretty unforgettable.

After making the movie, Socheata Poeuv founded an organization called Khmer Legacies which collects testimonies, stored at Yale University, from survivors of the Khmer Rouge. The project is set up to help preserve Cambodian history, a critical need. From the website:

…there has been no collective outlet to remember and heal for ordinary Cambodians. In fact, in Cambodia today, the history is often not taught in schools and some in the younger generation grow up believing that the genocide did not happen at all.

New Year’s Baby
is family history at its best; not only did the film maker learn her family’s own true story but she is now working to preserve an entire nation’s. We all should accomplish so much in our lifetimes. I can’t recommend this film enough.

*Approximately two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge.

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22. Fish spotting for Alaska’s commercial herring fleet

I have an article up at ADN about the history of fish spotting for commercial fishermen in Alaska. It has been, and continues to be to a certain extent, extremely dangerous. Here’s a bit:

In 1984, at the opening of herring season, there was a fatal crash over Togiak, a mid-air collision under a low overcast cloud layer that killed the occupants of both aircraft. According to the NTSB report, witnesses described the flight activity as “frantic,” “chaotic” and “insane.”

In 1991, a mid-air collision near Tatitlek resulted in the death of one of the pilots, while the other was able to land. At the time of the accident, witnesses told the NTSB there were about 50 aircraft circling Boulder Bay waiting for herring season to open.

In 1995 near Naknek a Piper Super Cub and Cessna 172 collided while fish-spotting at about 400 feet over the water and both pilots were killed.

In 1997 the surviving pilot from the Tatitlek accident was involved in another mid-air while flying a Cessna 185 on floats near Galena Bay, along with a spotter, while waiting for the opening of herring season. That plane collided with another pilot and spotter in a Bellanca, which then crashed in the bay, killing both aboard. No one was injured in the Cessna.

In each of these accidents and many others that occurred in the 1980s and ‘90s, the probable cause was determined to be inadequate visual lookout, diverted attention or failure to see and avoid.

[Post pic by Scott Dickerson – see several more fish spotting pics with my article.]

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23. The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

The Year of Reading Dangerously is the sort of smart indulgent reading that is very nearly impossible for me to resist. Andy Miller, who works for a publisher in London, decides to improve his reading habits and tackle a list of books that he has long claimed to have read but actually didn’t. His impetus for the project is a harsh look at what he is reading now and it’s not pretty. As he put it, “an audit of my current week’s reading would look something like this”:

200 emails (approx.)
Discarded copies of Metro
The NME and month music magazines
Excel spreadsheets
The review pages of Sunday newspapers
Business proposals
Bills, banks statements, junk mail, etc.
CD liner notes
Crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, etc.
Ready-meal heating guidelines
The occasional postcard
And a lot of piddling about on the Internet

He pretty much had me at “emails” but he nailed it with “bills” and that bit about “piddling about on the Internet.” (I’m not proud, I’m just honest!)

First he decides to read a dozen books and then does so well he goes onto tackle a full list of 50. He loves some, has a love/hate relationship with others and actually loathes a few. But mostly Miller is just funny and honest and a totally enjoyable narrator. He’s doesn’t talk to readers, or suggest ever that just because he is reading a lot of big hefty classics and we are reading about someone reading those classics, that he is better than us. More than once he considers that he might be a little crazy for doing this but quitting would be even worse. So he hangs in there and as readers, we all get to cheer him on.

I have not read many of the books on Miller’s list. I can not find enough sympathy to sustain me through Anna Karenina, I only got through the graphic novel adaptations of Moby Dick and Lord of the Flies and Jane Eyre….well, I’ve given up trying to make it to the end of Jane Eyre. (I have tried and tried and tried!!!)

But it’s okay – you don’t need to have read every book on the list to enjoy reading about Miller tackling the list. And he has Margaret Atwood and Dodie Smith and Henry James and Kerouac as well; it’s actually a very eclectic set of books to consider. So sit back and let Miller guide you through his year. Readers should all be so determined to dive into challenging titles and get beyond the inanity that most of us fill our days with!

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24. Hobby Buddies

From Mental Floss:

It’s only appropriate that “Hobby Buddies,” an amusing and innovative photography series that captures various quirky clubs and strange societies in traditional portrait format, was created by its very own pair of so-called “hobby buddies,” the professional duo of Ursula Sprecher and Andi Cortellini. From kites to chess, plants to poodles, the Swiss photographers lovingly render their “buddies” and their interests into creative and smart tableaus, proving that partnership and collaboration are sometimes the very best part of even the most offbeat endeavor.

The magazine has six other photos from the book but when I looked online, I found the Star Wars one, it just made me smile. But then I kept looking and loved this one:

We should all embrace opportunities to wear hats!

The movie “Contact” made me want to become a ham radio enthusiast. I have, alas, never followed up on that dream but love that these folks have.

Children’s Theater Club – stunning!

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25. Needing to know where I come from

Catherine, Jimmy, Agnes & Jackie Lennon circa 1925Sometimes I feel like my need to know more about my ancestors is impossible to explain. I am sure that while much of my extended family enjoys reading the revelations about our previous generations, they are somewhat mystified by my dogged determination to learn more.

I am currently writing an essay about my father for a contest and struggling against the urge to dive into his French Canadian past of which little is known beyond the most basic of names and dates. But I know I’ll go crazy if I don’t stay focused my mother’s family which is already proving to be more mysterious than I ever imagined. (This is what keeps me going back for more, I think. My inner teen detective can’t let all these mysteries go.)

But there is also the need to know about all of them so I can know more about myself. In that type of search, I am not alone. From Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder on her struggle as an adoptee to find her true story:

Genealogy allows us to construct our identities from our own myths and legends, to know who we are, and where we have come from. Or we can use the stories as a starting point for where we might like to go, a legacy to be built on or rebelled against. Sara Maitland describes the tradition of storytelling as a ‘very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats “narrative loss”—the inability to construct the story of one’s own life—as a loss of identity or personhood.’ The stories I had inherited were fascinating, but they weren’t mine. I had never met anyone who shared my blood, or who looked like me. There was no genetic starting point from which I could begin my narrative. I didn’t even know my nationality.

My narrative begins with these people who I still know so little about. In finding their stories, I am able to write more about my own. It’s an obsession perhaps, but I think a worthy one.

[Post pics: Top picture – my grandmother on left, her sister Agnes & brothers Jimmy & Jackie, circa 1925. Bottom pic is 1935 – my grandmother on the far right, great grandmother standing center. The boys are all her brothers, the girls include my great aunt Irma and some friends.]

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