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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. Update on the Book Fair for Ballou High School


The books have started to arrive, the kids are clearly delighted and we are thrilled to pieces to see over 150 books on the way to DC. The wishlist is still active — please give it a look and buy a book for this high school library.

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2. A book fair because books are magic

Over at Guys Lit Wire, the group book review site for teens I co-founded several years ago, we are again hosting the annual Book Fair for Ballou High School in Washington DC. Every year I build wishlist with Melissa Jackson, Ballou’s librarian, and we put it up online (at Amazon this year) and spend a couple of weeks blitzing the internet and asking for folks to buy a book for Ballou. This year we started with just under 400 books on the list and we hope that over the next 2 weeks 100 books will be bought.

This used to be a lot easier. When we first organized a book fair for Ballou in 2011, over 800 books were bought for the school. Since then, it has steadily become more difficult to generate excitement, to get folks to make their own blog posts or mention it on tumblr or facebook. The tweets have slowed down, the RTs are harder to come by. This book fair, like everything else, is just lost in all the clamor that lives in social media these days.

Another problem, is that so many school libraries need help these days. On Monday I was in a discussion on twitter where I heard about one parent whose daughter goes to school in a district where four elementary schools are depending on fundraisers to get books. Another teacher told me that his high school has not had a librarian for two years and the local public library is struggling to get new books as well. In the midst of this conversation it was easy to understand how yet another school library in need could get lost in the shuffle.

For me, Ballou is special. Melissa and I have talked and exchanged many emails over the years and I am continuously impressed by her enthusiasm for her job and dedication to her students. And when her students send a list of books they want, all I want to go is get them all. I want them to walk into a library every day that has thousands of books they want to read. I want to give them something magical because I know that books themselves are the biggest magic in the world.

So, I spread the word on the book fair and I beg everyone else to spread the word. About 30 books have been bought so far and so the odds of us making it to 100 in the next 2 weeks are pretty good. Of course I wish it was like the first year and we would sell out, but I get that times have changed (even on the internet). The books are still magic, no matter how many we get headed their way.

[Post pic of the kids from Ballou on Monday holding up signs thanking us for starting the book fair.]

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3. Assessing October on the Resolution Scale

October was….interesting. I got some things done which was important but even more so I had some pretty substantial conversations that got me thinking about how to get even more things done. What I have to do in November and December is a wee bit daunting but not really. I just have to keep my eye on the prize and I’m going to be just fine. This is a pretty exciting time for me, and I hope that I keep feeling this way well into 2016.

1. Reviews submitted to Booklist for lots of books: Fast Into the Night (memoir by woman dog musher in AK), We Are All Stardust (collection of interviews with scientists around the world), Last Volcano (biography of one of the first volcanologists), Lust & Wonder (new memoir by Augusten Burroughs) and Drawing Blood (memoir by Molly Crabapple).

2. Reviewed An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet for Locus.

3. Had one article run in ADN, submitted two others that will hopefully run this month.

4. Attended the Pacific NW Booksellers Association tradeshow for four days in Portland. Spent a ton of time with good friends from AK, talked about books with all kinds of folks. Picked up a couple of ARCs I’m very excited about from Matt Ruff (Lovecraft Country) and Samantha Hunt (Mr. Splitfoot). Also delighted to see Jim Lynch’s new book (Before the Wind) is due next spring and look forward to reading that as well.

5. Reviewed final edits (and thus finished this one up!) on an essay in the upcoming Alaskan book Ed Ricketts From Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska.

6. Sent out several emails to archives across the country on the mountain book. Still waiting to hear back from Columbia University, Princeton and Washington University in MO, but so far what I’ve gotten back is quite heartening. So many people are helping me pull information together on this book; it’s so much appreciated.

7. Drafted pitch letter to go out to national magazines for an article on Alaska aviation and the dangerous power of myth. I would have had this done but there is one last statistic I need to get and with Halloween, I set it aside. It was finished up last night though, so will go out today/tomorrow to Men’s Journal, Outside, etc.

8. Spoke for over an hour to my agent on the first chapter of the book. I need to change the narrative voice a bit and put myself more into it, but this is all manageable and honestly, I was pretty pleased with her critique. It was helpful advice and I’m set now for what to do on the Introduction and second chapter as well. The next two months are all writing — SO MUCH WRITING – but writing that I am very excited about and capable of doing.

2015 is just the year that keeps on surprising me in the most delightful ways. :)

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4. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

One hundred years ago this week the ship Endurance was destroyed by the ice and had to be abandoned by South Pole explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew. It seems the perfect time to celebrate Shackleton and share one of my favorite quotes of all time, which has been attributed to his fellow explorer, Sir Raymond Priestly:

“For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

A very similar version of the quote appears in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book The Worst Journey of the World (which is an outstanding book on exploration that I highly recommend):

For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time … ”

Bottom line: if the devil is determined to get you than it is the strength of Shackleton you pray to have at your back; Shackleton, Shackleton, Shackleton.

[Post title from Shackleton, of course.]

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5. In the Appalachian Mountain Club Bulletin….

AMCI have been deep in research for my book on a 1930s expedition on Denali and while all the conventional sources (newspaper articles, family letters, etc.) have given me a lot of information, I’ve been struck more than once by how dumb luck can come through. This journal from 1933 came my way after I did a random search on amazon and found it listed. The seller had fortunately listed all of the article authors in the title and so it came up when I typed in one of my mountain climber’s names. I have not found any other reference to this article by him anywhere else and it has provided a wealth of information.

That luck thing can really come through sometimes!

(I can’t begin to tell you how impressive the condition is on this journal – it’s hard to believe it is 80+ years old.)

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6. On writing about where we are from

Joni Tevis has an article in the Sept/Oct Poets & Writers (not online I’m afraid) about how she finally broke through the flatness of an essay she had been working on about her hometown. She was specifically writing about the textile mills in South Carolina, which she knew very well. As I have been working on an essay about a particular town and its history for several years, I found this piece extremely appealing (and ordered a copy of her recent essay collection because of it). From her article:

Then one day, as I was driving around town, Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” came on the radio. That summer had been unusually rainy; at one point, Greenville’s rainfall totals were higher than those of Seattle. Creeks flooded, bridges washed out, mountainsides bucked. The strange weather unnerved people, and we started joking about rain lasting forty days and forty nights, animals boarding two by two. It hit me then that the essay I’d been toiling over might be about something more than just the mills. In part, it might be about rebuilding after a crisis—one that people outside the region had forgotten, if they ever noticed it at all.

I love Led Zeppelin and I love “When the Levee Breaks” and the place I have tried to write about, my father’s hometown, suffered a massively destructive flood at one point. The song is not the spark I need to break through the flatness of my writing however (as much as I wish that listening to it over and over would do it for me), but this article has made me think a bit deeper about what I’ve been trying to write about. On the surface, it has always been the ethnicity of this particular New England town and why the immigrants came there and the somewhat amazing work ethic they created and adhered to.

But there’s more than that to it and now I am understanding better where I have not dug deep enough. The last line of that excerpt is what really got to me: “…it might be about rebuilding after a crisis—one that people outside the region had forgotten, if they ever noticed it at all.”

The “crisis” was not a flood in my case, but the less obviously dramatic and long drawn-out crisis that made it necessary for my family and many other people to come to a town in the US and leave their country (Canada) behind. I wish I had a song to play along to that but I haven’t found it yet. This article is a good substitute though; an unexpected perspective that is making me reconsider some writing I had very nearly given up on.

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7. Assessing September on the Resolution Scale

Last weekend I was in Portland, OR at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association annual tradeshow and then under a wicked essay deadline for an upcoming project, sooooo I fell way behind here. But I’m back now with a look at September and how things came together in a big way for my 2015 resolutions.

1. Three book reviews submitted to Booklist: The Girl in the Red Coat (a novel), the memoir Chick in the Cockpit and City of Thorns about the largest refugee camp in the world.

2. Submitted a review of the new Cinderella story Ash & Bramble to Locus. (Whatever you think this book might be, you’re wrong. Really looking forward to spreading the word when my review runs.)

3. Two pieces in AK Dispatch News including one I am quite proud of on the de Havilland Otter. (It garnered some excellent emails and comments, all most welcome.)

4. My first review on Alaska books, Find the Good by Heather Lende, ran in the Seattle Review of Books. This is a new venue for me and there will be more there – next up is a piece on books for MG & YA readers (beyond AK) for December. (Holiday shoppers take note – I’m going to try and fit as much in this one as possible.)

5. An essay on pilot Russ Merrill, who went missing in 1929, ran in Narratively. (An accompanying illustration by Marc Pearson is above.)

I now have three paying venues for book reviews: Booklist, Locus and the Seattle Review of Books. There is no high pressure with any of these; no commitment to a column, etc. But I have regular gigs for books that I love reading and writing about and it’s all good. The Seattle Review is especially huge for me as it will be a chance to share Alaska books with an audience Outside, something I’m always trying to do. We’ll see how this develops in 2016.

I have a phone call scheduled with my agent this month (she is out of town for a few weeks) and some comments on the first chapter which she has had a chance to read. I’m still doing massive amounts of research for it, but there is plenty to be done writing-wise as well. And there is a query letter I am working on for a magazine that I think I have a shot at. Last month was lost to me for a few life reasons (I was sick, my husband had to go out of town suddenly for a family illness, there was some logistical planning for PNBA where I manned a table for Shorefast Editions, etc.)

But all in all, September = very good month for me. Now…I can’t wait to tell you about October!

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8. Barry Moser writing about brotherly love

I love Barry Moser’s art – he conveys so much emotion with his work that whether human or animal, I am always deeply moved by it. I love his picture books especially as I think his illustrations carry a level of gravitas that gives his story so much power. Look at this stunner from Blessing of the Beasts:

Moser’s latest book is very unusual – a collection of essays that together make up a memoir about the nearly lifelong dysfunctional relationship between him and his older brother. It was only in the last eight years of his brother’s life, when both were in their 50s/60s that they were able to enjoy each other as siblings and friends. He doesn’t know how it got so bad – even his brother didn’t know how it got that bad – but they were stuck in a level of bulllying, fighting, and emotional anger that showed no signs of letting up. We Were Brothers is an attempt by Moser to understand who they were from the beginning and figure out what might have gone wrong along the way.

We Were Brothers is a beautiful book — Moser’s illustrations of his family members are as impressive as you would expect — but it’s not a book to love or even enjoy. That sounds like I’m making a complaint, which is not true. This is a book to think about, it’s a book that can not help but stir an emotional response. It’s about history and culture, about growing up in the South and what that used to mean. It’s about good family relationships and bad ones, about the terrors that boys will commit against each other as classmates and friends. It’s about a lot of pain and a lot of sadness and a lot of regret. This is a cautionary tale about how time will get away from you if you are not careful and everything you lose when that happens.

I don’t think there is anything that Barry Moser could have done growing up that would have changed his life; he was just trying to hang in there with the cards that he was dealt. But I’m glad that he and his brother found a way to come together later in life; that Tommy Moser did not die angry.

I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.

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9. The End of the Rainy Season – an old family story meets the truth

It should come as no surprise that I have been obsessed of late with books that have a genealogical/family mystery sort of theme. I’ve found them in both fiction and nonfiction and they have provided me with a lot of directions to pursue in my own family research. (More importantly, they have been all been quite compelling!)

Marian Lindberg’s The End of the Rainy Season is a memoir about her father and the bizarre circumstances surrounding his stepfather’s disappearance. The older man apparently went to Brazil (from NYC) around 1929/1930 to search for treasure and was eaten by cannibals.

You can see why Marian really wanted to get to the bottom of this!

After her father’s death she starts trying to separate fact from fiction in the story of her step-grandfather. The cannibal bit is only part of what is interesting here, there is also a shipwreck, the collision of civilization and Native tribes, a bunch of German immigrants and many many other intriguing aspects of Brazilian history. It all makes for great reading but what really sold me on the story was much closer to Marian’s life and how understanding this distant relative made her understand her father that much more.

Lindberg places herself exactly in the story, coloring it by what she thinks and feels and also sharing an enormous amount about her own life and the conflicts she had with her father over the years. (One of those is huge.) This is a serious choice for researchers — whether or not to place yourself in the narrative — and it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it wrestles the story away from what should be the point which is the lives of those you are researching. But I think Lindberg made the correct choice here as her step-grandfather is really only relevant in how he affected her father and everything about her relationship with her father is what drives the book forward.

The End of the Rainy Season has kind of flown under the radar but I highly recommend it. It’s about a man’s drive to reinvent himself and the lengths he will go to in order to accomplish that, as well as the fictions that are created in his wake. Families are notoriously messy and Lindberg’s is no exception but she sure makes readers want to learn more about it as they read and eager to see what she will share with us next.

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10. Finding family we lost 75 years ago….

Evelyn Gonzales Baranello (daughter of Marie Pressl Gonzalez) & her daughter Joan, August 4, 1935

I have written about my grandmother’s cousin Evelyn in two other posts. I wrote about her death, at almost 24, in November 1940 from diphtheria, about two weeks after her toddler son died from the same disease. I also wrote about my continued search for Evelyn’s two older daughters, Joan and Barbara, and for Evelyn’s final resting place. She has been, if not an obsession then certainly a serious preoccupation in my life for decades. I promised my grandmother nearly 30 years ago that I would find out what happened to the two little girls.

And now I know.

Last month Joan, who was six when her mother died, visited the east coast with her daughter and granddaughter; they stayed with Joan’s niece and her husband. That nephew-in-law, Ricardo, is a genealogist fiend and over the course of a conversation with Joan they discussed her mother and how the girls had lost track of their mother’s family. When he had a chance Ricardo plugged the information Joan gave him into ancestry.com and it matched my family tree. He then googled my name, found my website, looked through my Family History links and found the posts on Evelyn. He knew, of course, that this was Joan’s mother and sent me an email with his phone number. I called him within hours and we talked and talked and talked. It was amazing and honestly, it all felt a little unreal.

My grandmother and Evelyn were very close; they appear in many photos together in the 1930s, always having a wonderful time. The shock of losing her never faded away and even 45 years later my grandmother would tear up at the thought of her cousin. She knew they had moved away with their father and she just wanted to be sure that they were happy; she wanted them to be sure that they knew their mother was never forgotten.

As it turns out, the girls and their father ended up in Nicaragua. He married again, he built a new life, there were more children and marriages and grandchildren. Joan has four children; Barbara has five. I talked to Joan’s daughter, also named Evelyn, on a later phone call. They are wonderful people and it was such a grand thing to talk to them about our family; to share what I knew and listen to their stories.

This long separation was never due to any dark drama; it was probably just distance and poor communication. We are still working out when and how things happened in the 1940s but there was the war of course and they were all overwhelmed with what was going on in their lives. It was just very easy to miss each other back then; a simple thing to become lost for decades.

Moments like this, I miss my grandmother very much; she would have loved to talk to Evelyn’s family. But still we found each other and that is something special; really, it’s the kind of miracle that shines no matter how long it takes.

[Post pic of Evelyn and Joan at the beach, 1935.]

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11. Driven by Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong’s werewolf series is one of my favorite sources of comfort reading that I happily return to with each new release. The relationships are strong and complicated, the violence quick and effective and the politics of who gets along with who and how and why are endlessly fascinating. It’s light romance (the main characters are married with children at this point but they always get a chance for a little quick sex in the midst of solving the weekly crisis), light violence, (there are always bodies along the way although the descriptions are no more graphic than a Bones episode), and plenty of dramarama. I guess the biggest thing is that the pace is fast, the plots dynamic and there is lots of snarling and growling.

I guess basically, they relax my brain and I don’t think that can be overrated.

Driven is due out in January from Subterranean Press and finds out heroes, Elena Michaels (alpha wolf) and husband Clay Danvers (beta wolf) at odds with old enemy Malcolm Danvers (crazy pants werewolf who wants back in the pack) and also faced with what the mysterious murders of some werewolves who nobody liked but didn’t deserve to be strung up and skinned (yuck).

They have to deal with Malcolm, who nobody trusts but would rather have close enough to watch then out roaming around plotting against them, and they have to take to the road in pursuit of the murderers. There’s tracking and almost getting caught and figuring out who are good guys and who are bad and, delightfully, there is catching the bad guys and getting them. (I love those bits.) It’s really the most satisfactory of reading experiences and Elena and Clay are so much fun – they banter with the best of them which is probably 90% of what I love about this series.

(I so wanted the television version to be good but found the chemistry between the two actors to be utterly flat. It’s been renewed again so maybe it’s gotten better.)

If you are a fan of Armstrong’s books you will want the Subterranean titles as they are really lovely and include some fun color illustrations to boot. They are especially grand reading this time of year – at least to me, fall seems particularly made for werewolves!

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12. Assessing July & August on the resolution scale (Special Denali Edition)

denaliFirst let’s, bask in the restoration of the mountain’s original name of Denali, shall we? So happy about this – so so so so happy!!!!! (I took this picture from the window of an Alaska Airlines flight that was captained by an old friend; he gave us the “Denali tour”. It was awesome – perfect day to see forever.)

Now, moving on to what was accomplished this summer on a personal level, here’s what I did in July & August:

1. For Booklist, I reviewed Boundless, Jimmy Bluefeather, Jewel (memoir by author of the same name), White Eskimo, Howl, Greening Death and What We’re Fighting For Now is Each Other. (Whew! That was a lot!)

2. For Locus, I reviewed the Twinmaker series by Sean Williams, Hollow Boy (the new Lockwood & Co book) by Jonathan Stroud and The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey.

3. I have several articles pending with ADN, (lots of things are delayed due to coverage of the President’s visit), but the biggest one that ran was a piece on the four companies who operate on Denali. It was in the Sunday supplement for the paper, “We Alaskans”, which is the first time I’ve made it in there.

4. An essay was accepted and edited for Narratively – it should run sometime this month.

5. Editing on our upcoming book from Shorefast Editions: From Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska.

6. And a lot of conversations and emails for my current work-in-progress. The biggest accomplishment there was that I completed the first draft chapter and turned it in to my agent early in August. There is still a lot of research I need to do but I’ve been getting a lot of leads and pretty amazing results so far. This month I’m working on the second chapter which includes some geography/history of Denali and I’m able to do that without the kind of archival access I will need for later chapters. The biggest thing for me on this project is momentum; I can’t lose sight of the goal which is a very good book about a small but significant and interesting and tragic piece of history.

All in all, this summer has been one of the most significant for me writing-wise in a long long time. I have to stay on top of it all and keep my priorities in order but I’m sure I’m not the only writer with this issue. I also have to stay off the damn internet – I think one of the things I will do this month is sign up for Freedom and just accept that I don’t have the willpower otherwise.


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13. Savage Harvest – on the death of Michael Rockefeller & the art of the Asmat people

The story of Michael Rockefeller is really interesting to me. It includes a member of one of America’s wealthiest and most iconic families, the pursuit of art and a mysterious disappearance/death in one of the most remote regions of the world. Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest, which looks into what happened to Michael in 1961, also delves deeply into the primitive art he was pursuing and the Asmat people in New Guinea who were the object of his fascination.

Hoffman did a ton of research on the Asmat, on their complex culture and its heavy dependence upon ideas of violence and retribution and how Michael likely fell into a classic situation of not entirely understanding where he was or their history. Hoffman is fairly certain that he was killed as part of a revenge for some earlier deaths of the Asmat by other white visitors (especially government workers). But there is a lot more to it than that, includes politics that no one on the ground knew anything about.

But what really made me think was what he writes about the art that Michael bought which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in special wing in his name. He bought this art largely in barter for things like tobacco and fish hooks and never with much money. Here is what Hoffman writes:

In 2012 the Met hosted six million visitors, with a recommended voluntary entry of $25; if the average visitor paid $15, the Met brought in $90 million in entry fees along, while the grandson of the man Michael regarded as one of the best artists in all of Asmat, Chinasapitch, the man who carved the lovely canoe that holds prominence in the Met, sweeps the floor of the Asmat Museum in Agats in bare feet. Until I told him, he had no idea what had happened to that canoe. Had priceless land or millions of dollars of mineral rights been acquired from illiterate villagers via few lumps of brown weed and bent wire, cries of injustice might have rung out, with demands that people unable to understand the deal they’d agreed to be fairly compensated.

The Asmat need a lot of help today with the most basic of things; modern sewage systems would have a huge positive impact on their lives. I wonder how the Met Board of Trustees can sleep at night knowing how they continue to celebrate & make a ton of money off of primitive art, while the artists’ families struggle on.

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14. 3 mysteries to watch for – including 1 that is true

I am on a bit of a ridiculous mystery kick lately but not so much of a thriller nature, more of small towns, small mysteries, family connections. Here are three books that caught my eye in the Consortium Books catalog that run along those lines, one in the U.S., one in Turkey and one nonfiction set in Poland & Australia. Here’s a peek with some catalog copy:

The Spy on the Tennessee Walkerby Linda Lee Peterson. Maggie Fiori, San Francisco magazine editor and amateur sleuth, gets a package that leads her to investigate a family scandal going back to the Civil War. Why was her great-great-great grandmother imprisoned for bigamy and espionage? Was she a criminal or a hero? Did she support the Confederates or the Union? Maggie’s husband, Michael, joins her on the trip to Oxford, Mississippi, to dig deep and solve the mystery.

Combining an engaging contemporary mystery with a carefully researched Civil War setting and nineteenth-century characters, The Spy on the Tennessee Walker will appeal to Civil War and American history buffs as well as fans of modern mysteries and historical fiction.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol. Kati owns Istanbul’s only mystery book store and, as usual, gets involved in a case that is none of her business. Every day, a beautiful woman lunches alone in the restaurant next to the bookstore. When the woman is found dead in her apartment, Kati immediately recognizes the stranger from the restaurant in images in the newspaper photos. Although the police believe it was an accident, Kati suspects something more sinister has happened.

Sani Ankaraligil was an attractive young woman and a politically active ecologist in the middle of a divorce from her wealthy husband. So who would benefit from her death? The industrial companies Sani had accused of polluting the rivers of western Turkey, or her jealous husband seeking revenge through an honor killing, or a Thracian separatist group? The investigation pulls Kati into murkier waters: the marriage may have been a sham, designed to cover up Sani’s husband’s homosexuality . . . the role of her mother-in-law goes from distasteful to outright criminal.

Bloodhound: Searching for My Father by Ramona Koval.Ramona Koval’s parents fled Poland and settled in Melbourne. As a child, Koval learned little about their lives—only snippets from traumatic tales of destruction and escape. But she always suspected that the man who raised her was not her biological father.

One day in the 1990s, long after her mother’s death, she decided she must know the truth. A phone call led to a photograph in the mail, then tea with strangers. Before long Koval was interrogating a nursing-home patient, meeting a horse whisperer in tropical Queensland, journeying to rural Poland, learning other languages, and dealing with Kafkaesque bureaucracy, all in the hope of finding an answer.

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15. Ladies of the ’50s & what they wore

Marie Pressl & her niece, Ernestine "Ernie" Gonzales, Nov 1959
I have been reading Women in Clothes, a fascinating book the includes the thoughts of literally hundreds of different women about what they wear, why, how it makes them feel, the clothes they remember, the clothes they have longed for and on and on. It’s really quite the piece of cultural history and I highly recommend it.

It was fortuitous that while I have been reading this book, I uploaded another round of family photos including the one above. The older woman was my great grandmother’s sister Marie who moved away from NYC with her husband and owned and operated a motel in California. The other woman is her daughter Ernestine, known as Ernie. She shows up in several photos over the years, a class picture with my grandmother, at the beach, etc. However, although she and my grandmother were only a year apart, they were not close. In fact my grandmother rarely spoke of her. She was much closer with Ernie’s older sister Evelyn, who I’ve written about before. (She died tragically young of diphtheria with her little boy after sleeping on an infected mattress.) My family also knew Ernie’s brother Arthur quite well, until his death in the 1990s. I can remember he & his wife visiting us in FL when I was a kid.

Initially I found this picture interesting mostly because of Ernie, who has remained a fairly absent family member in my research. But after posting it to facebook yesterday, I had a bit of a shock. This picture was taken in 1959 and Ernie was born in 1918. So, she was 41 in this photo which is 5 years younger than I am right now. Look at her again – she’s only 41!

I was wearing a pair of torn jean shorts and a Pawtucket Red Sox t-shirt as I loaded this picture. I wear an ankle bracelet made of fishing hardware, (and have since my father died 16 years ago), and I have tattoos on both of my wrists. Basically, I was sitting here looking more like my 20-year old self than the mature woman in this photo and it got me thinking about what my clothes say about me, and what Ernie’s say about her.

Granted, I’m at my dining room table dealing with a stack of family photos and it is summer and hot and I’m not seeking to impress anyone. Maybe Marie & Ernie had just gotten home from dinner out somewhere when they posed for this picture. Maybe they were just about to go out somewhere – maybe they were going to church. I have no idea of the context of this picture other than the note on the back with the date: “Marie and Ernie at my house”. Marie sent this to my great grandmother along with some other photos of other relatives from the same visit; maybe she only sent the ones where they looked really nice.

Ernie just looks so mature – so old. I thought she was in her 50s when I saw this snapshot; I could hardly believe she was the same girl from the beach so long ago. Of course I might have the same shock if I look back at my own beach pictures right now. We all grow up; our style changes. She’s the girl on the right below – picture taken in 1935 when she was 26. I have no idea if she ended up with Walter, the fellow who is has his arm around her. (Pretty racy pose for 1935!)

Honestly, after not thinking much about Ernie at all over the years, now I am dying to know more – I also wish I could peek in her closet and see if she ever got wild again of if the dress shoes and chunky necklace were the new her.

I don’t know what happened to Ernie, when she passed away (I don’t think she had any children). I’ll find out though – I can’t resist her now.
Friends: "Jo, Johnny, Walter, Ernie" August 4, 1935 - The "Ernie" is Ernestine Gonzales, daughter of Marie Pressl Gonzales and niece of Julia Lennon

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16. Upcoming titles that have caught my eye

All of these books are at the very top of my wishlist – can’t wait for them to appear! (The descriptions are from the publishers unless otherwise noted.)

1. The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty.

“Daugherty . . . offers a monumental, novelistic examination of Joan Didion’s life and career. The book’s impressively detailed attention to place, beginning with Didion’s California origins, grounds Didion’s development as both a fiction writer and journalist who served as ‘our keenest observer of the chaos’ of the 1960s and beyond . . . settl[ing] into confident, engrossing prose when focusing on Didion’s literary achievements . . . Daugherty crafts a complex, intricately shaded portrait of a woman also known for her inner toughness and intellectual rigor. This landmark work renders a nuanced analysis of a literary life, lauds Didion’s indelible contributions to American literature and journalism (especially New Journalism) and documents a ‘style [that] has become the music of our time.’” [Publisher’s Weekly]

2. M Train by Patti Smith. (Who isn’t waiting for this one?!)

M Train begins in the tiny Greenwich Village café where Smith goes every morning for black coffee, ruminates on the world as it is and the world as it was, and writes in her notebook. Through prose that shifts fluidly between dreams and reality, past and present, and across a landscape of creative aspirations and inspirations, we travel to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico; to a meeting of an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin; to a ramshackle seaside bungalow in New York’s Far Rockaway that Smith acquires just before Hurricane Sandy hits; and to the graves of Genet, Plath, Rimbaud, and Mishima.

3. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell.

In this crash course on the fledgling nation’s teenaged French general, undoubtedly the only American Revolution narrative to offhandedly drop a Ferris Bueller reference, Vowell (Unfamiliar Fishes) retains her familiar casual tone and displays her crow-like ability to find the shiny, nearly forgotten historical details. Unimpressed by Lafayette’s nobility, she instead admires his cheekiness and rebellious nature—traits well-suited to involvement in both American and French revolutions. Lafayette’s loyalty to George Washington and the U.S. came back to him during his triumphant 1824 visit, when cheering American crowds celebrated his return in numbers that easily dwarfed the Beatles’ invasion 140 years later. Jocularity and cheerful irreverence permeate the story….her combination of well-researched, obscure details with personal, family-filled anecdotes and references to recent events, such as the 2013 federal government shutdown, add plenty of sparkle to an old tale. The Vowell formula once again guarantees an entertaining, nontraditional look at American history and a fast, enjoyable read. [PW]

4. Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt.

Ruth and Nat are orphans, packed into a house full of abandoned children run by a religious fanatic. To entertain their siblings, they channel the dead. Decades later, Ruth’s niece, Cora, finds herself accidentally pregnant. After years of absence, Aunt Ruth appears, mute and full of intention. She is on a mysterious mission, leading Cora on an odyssey across the entire state of New York on foot. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who — or what — has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road?

In an ingeniously structured dual narrative, two separate timelines move toward the same point of crisis. Their merging will upend and reinvent the whole. A subversive ghost story that is carefully plotted and elegantly constructed, Mr. Splitfoot will set your heart racing and your brain churning. Mysteries abound, criminals roam free, utopian communities show their age, the mundane world intrudes on the supernatural and vice versa.

5. There is also a rumor that Anne Fadiman is writing a memoir about life with her father, the great writer Clifton Fadiman, called The Oenophile’s Daughter. Hopefully we will see that one in FSG catalogs for 2016.

My son is going crazy waiting for the new Rick Riordan title: Magnus Chase & the Gods of Asgard Bk 1: The Sword of Summer. (If you read the Percy Jackson series you have a good idea what is going on in this book – I’m sure it will be just as satisfying as all of his others.)

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17. Russian history that you must read

I rarely say this, but you have to read this book. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the kind of history writing that teachers dream about it. It’s factually accurate, for westerners covers a little known period of history, is passionately written and filled with riveting prose. Simply put, this is the book you have to read if you want to understand modern Russia.

Have I persuaded you yet?

I was fairly surprised that Anderson would be the one to write a book like Symphony as it is straight-up history and built around an adult protagonist (composer Dmitri Shostakovich). Anderson is a great writer, but still, for all that he has written historical fiction in the past,  this title does not give him the room to manufacture drama. He had to follow the story exactly where it took him and let it tell itself as events occurred. As a Russian story set first in the time of the last tsar and then under Lenin and Stalin, there is a lot of politics and some of the pages are far less gripping than others. But Anderson is patient and smart and so exceedingly skilled that he makes the machinations of the Soviet state in the Russian breadbasket during the 1920s read as incredibly exciting.

I don’t know how he does it, I just know that he does and you have got to read this book.

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of Russia’s great twentieth century composers and his symphony for Leningrad, written when the city was under siege from Germany during WWII, had a powerful impact on the world. (The Siege of Leningrad lasted two and half years and was the longest siege in history.) But Anderson goes far beyond the story of Shostakovich and that particular symphony; he gives readers an indepth look at Russian history from the February and October revolutions of 1917, to the rise to power of Vladimir Lenin, the later rise to power of Josef Stalin and the devastation of the dreadful policies of the 1920s and ’30s which caused the deaths of millions of Russians, the destruction of the Russian economy and almost the end of the Russian military.

It’s everything you ever wanted – and needed – to know about modern Russian history through the lens of one amazing Russian man.

The text is peppered with photos and quotes from the diaries and letters of various Russian citizens, from activists to poets, writers and Shostakovich’s fellow composers and musicians. Everyone contributes something to telling this story and they give it the sort of gravitas and power that the subject demands. Readers will walk away from Symphony not only know vastly more about Russia, but more importantly, about the Russian people themselves.

M.T. Anderson has created a modern masterpiece with Symphony for the City of the Dead. It should be read by anyone over the age of 13 who has an interest in Russia, WWII or history in general. Adults will get as much from this book as teenagers and really everyone – everyone – should read it. This is a life changing book and I can not stress enough how really and truly good it is. Bravo, Mr. Anderson, Bravo!

Crossposted from Guys Lit Wire.

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18. 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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19. 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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20. 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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21. 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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22. 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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23. 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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24. 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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25. 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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