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Viewing Blog: Chasing Ray, Most Recent at Top
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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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26. "Canada brooded in the air and haunted me," Jack wrote.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Bowes writes some wonderful short stories.

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

It is my favorite kind of fantasy.

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

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

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

Cats figure into this story. Remember that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one of the landays:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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32. Working men, circa 1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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34. On the upcoming Sally Ride biography - it's excellent

My [starred] review of the upcoming Sally Ride biography by Lynn Sherr has gone up at Booklist. This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it for anyone who came of age during the shuttle years. It's a great read for book clubs and also a solid title to recommend to teens looking for book reports. (Ride was only 27 when she became an astronaut!)

As much as I knew how impressive it was for Ride to become an astronaut, you don't realize how much of a struggle it was to go against NASA culture until you read her story. There is also how society viewed women for the entire history of the space program. Consider this quote from the book:

A 1958 editorial in the Los Angeles Times had welcomed women on interplanetary flights as mere "feminine companionship" for the "red-blooded space cadet," to "break up the boredom" and produce a "new generation of 'space children'." But, asked the writer, what if the "feminine passenger" (the concept of coworker was not yet on the radar) was incompatible? "Imagine hurtling tens of millions of miles accompanied by a nagging back-seat rocket pilot." Look magazine, Life's popular, photocentric competitor, framed the debate more soberly in 1962 with a cover story entitled, "Should a Girl Be First in Space?" Answer: "[W]omen will follow men into space."

And then there's this one:

In 1965, newspaper columnist Dorothy Roe declared, "Girls who are clamoring for equal rights as astronettes [I swear, she wrote "astronettes"] should consider all the problems of space travel. How, for instance, would they like to wear the same space suit without a bath or change of clothes for six weeks?....How will a girl keep her hair curled in outer space?"


Sally Ride was one in a million; I wish she had more years with us; I'm sure she would have changed the world even more if given the time.

[Photo courtesy of NASA]

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35. Sally Ride by Lynn Sherr

When her unexpected death from cancer was announced in 2012, the national outpouring of grief over the loss of Sally Ride was swift and genuine. The subsequent obituary revelation that Ride was a lesbian in a committed relationship for more than a quarter-century was proof of how successfully the icon had guarded her personal life. With the full cooperation of Ride's family and friends, both inside and outside of NASA (including ex-husband and fellow astronaut Steve Hawley), author Sherr pores over Ride's life, from her tennis-star childhood to her college years in the male-dominated field of physics and meteoric rise as America's first woman in space. As familiar as readers believe themselves to be with Ride's story, Sherr has done an impressive job of uncovering the pressures (and sometimes comical missteps) of NASA's macho culture and its approach to the first class of women astronauts, the unparalleled commitment Ride brought to her job, and the zeal with which she embraced her later challenge to broaden science opportunities for girls. This is an intimate and enormously appealing biography of a fascinating woman, a triumph of research and sensitivity that lives up to its subject and will likely move readers to tears in its final, poignant pages.

YA/General Interest: Ride will always be first, famous, and fascinating. With much of the book dwelling on her youth (she was an astronaut at 27), this is an excellent choice for teens.

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36. On words at a young age and John Muir

In nineteenth-century America and Europe, a time before television, telephones and the Internet, people read real books. They drank literature like water. The literacy rate was not high in some places, but in southern Scotland, along the Firth of Forth, from Dunbar to Edinburgh, where Muir spent his first eleven years, it was higher than 80 percent.

Among those who could read, books were prized possessions. Words on paper were powerful magic, seductive as music, sharp as a knife at times, or gentle as a kiss. Friendships and love affairs blossomed as men and women read to each other in summer meadows and winter kitchens. Pages were ambrosia in their hands. A new novel or collection of poems was something everybody talked about. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen, Dickens, Keats, Emerson, Cooper, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Twain. To read these authors was to go on a grand adventure and see things as you never had before, see yourself as you never had before.

From John Muir and the Ice that Started the Fire by Kim Heacox. See my full review over at Alaska Dispatch.

[Photo from Nat Park Service of Glacier Nat Park.]

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37. At the park, 1922

My grandmother, age 3, and her older brother Robie, age 6. I have a series of photos taken this day, with their two older brothers, parents and some sadly unidentified friends or family members.

From the way they are dressed it seems it must have been a special day and with no snow on the ground I'm inclined to think it is Easter. We always received new clothes for Easter and I'm sure the tradition was true for them as it was for us. (Even when Catholic families have little money, at the very least a new bow or gloves turn up in Easter photos.)

These two ended up bickering as the years went by - too close in age probably. Robie went on a motorcycle trip across country to California as a young man - pictures from that period will make you positively swoon.

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38. Wherein I am utterly beguiled by "The People in the Photo"

Hélène Gerstern's upcoming novel, The People in the Photo, is absolutely sublime. Translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz, this epistolary tale is a family mystery, a sweet romance and a serious page-turner. It snuck up on me, plain and simple and I couldn't put it down.

The story is, on the surface, pretty simple. The main character (also named Hélène) lives in Paris where she works as an archivist. Her mother died when she was 4 and her father has also recently passed away. Her stepmother has Alzheimer's and is in longterm care. While going through her parents' apartment, she finds a picture of her mother with two men she does not recognize. She runs the photo in some French and Swiss newspapers as an advertisement asking if anyone recognizes the men or the sporting event (tennis) they participated in. Stéphane Crüsten responds that one of the men is his deceased father and the other his best friend.

In the letters that follow Hélène and Stéphane try to uncover how their parents came to know each other. More pictures are found and Stéphane visits the family friend in search of more clues. Bit by bit the two learn how their families were connected and the numerous secrets that are buried in the past. Also, bit by bit, they surprise themselves by falling in love thus providing a light romantic tension to the mystery.

Everything about The People in the Photo works. The pacing is fantastic - the buildup of the romance is subtle and true to the characters' restrained emotions. But even without that element (which I enjoyed very much), it is the slow unfolding of the past that keeps the pages turning. Finding out who these people in the photo were and what their level of involvement was and why on earth it has all been kept quiet (Hélène's mother died in a very prosaic way after all - a car crash), are questions that I really wanted answered. I also liked very much that Gerstern doesn't back away from ugly moments and gives readers the kind of emotional payoff that the story promises from the very beginning. The ending is powerful stuff and serves all the characters (past and present) well. There's just not a single disappointment to this novel; it's really a wonderful book.

And for me, of course, The People in the Photo brought to mind all the secrets hidden in my own family photos; all of the faces I look at now that hide so much from decades ago. I know many of these secrets, others I am still hoping to uncover. I identified a great deal with Hélène and Stéphane and their search for the truth and I can tell you, all of it rings powerfully true.

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39. Not knowing "where I was from"

I have just reread Joan Didion's Where I Was From - giving it a "deep" read this time. It is a collection of related essays about Didion's personal history and the history of California, where she grew up. Reading it has made me realize how confusing my own answer would be to the question, if asked, of "Where are you from?"

I grew up, from age 3, in Florida.

We lived in Jacksonville (in a haunted house) and then Orlando and then, from my 5th birthday, in Melbourne. Very nearly all my childhood memories are of the beach and palm trees and flat roads and hot sun and ceiling fans and sweet ice tea and hush puppies and rocket ships. (They call it the Space Coast for a reason.)

Yet this is not really, truly, where I am from.

My father was born and raised in a solidly Catholic and most assuredly French Canadian town in Rhode Island and although he left at 17 he was so much a part of his home that he received the local newspaper for the rest of his life. When we go back to Woonsocket it is to hear his voice in the speech of everyone around us, to be surrounded by my father's people. To be surrounded by our people.

I have a maple leaf tattooed on my right wrist for my French Canadian heart which still, even with him 15 years gone, beats for my father.

My mother was raised in an air force family and she would tell you she was from everywhere and nowhere as most military families would say. But both of her parents were from the Bronx and their roots go back years there in Irish American households and families, in song and dance and laughter and a thousand kitchen conversations.

The shamrock on my left wrist is for my Irish soul; it's something you are born with and stays with you no matter where you live.

I have never been to the Bronx and only once to New York City. But most of my grandmother's family is still in New York State (all over including the city), and all of my genealogy research has involved NYC. My future may not be there but a large swath of my past most certainly is and it continues to be the center of learning who we are as a family and how we came to be Americans.

So you can see how this whole "where are you from" question is sort of confusing.

I do not have five generations in any one place; I have Florida and Rhode Island and Quebec or Florida and the Bronx and Ireland. My parents, remarkably, met and married in Madrid, Spain (my father was in the air force, my mother was there with her family as that was their latest station). The deep roots that Didion writes of are totally foreign to me and yet so much of her emotion for California, for exploring how the land formed who she became, resonated with me.

After the death of her mother (In California) she writes of going through her things:

I had my grandmother's watercolor framed and sent it to the next oldest of her three granddaughters, my cousin Brenda, in Sacramento.

I closed the box and put it in a closet.

There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.

And that was it. My grandparents gave up the Bronx when they committed to a military life and my father left Woonsocket behind partly out of desperation to see some other part of the world. And I left Florida for Alaska because as much as I love the beach, I wanted to go away. (It's funny - I still don't know why I wanted to go away.) But when I consider who we are - who I am - the answers are all found in Rhode Island and New York. I am surrounded by pictures of those places, by accents, by the memories of food and traditions, by the locations of so many weddings and funerals, all in Woonsocket and the Bronx.

Everything about the family I have known and loved is in those two places. Dealing with what we left, with what we lost by leaving, means immersing myself in places where I actually never lived. Florida gives me no answers on that score and so I have to wonder, is that the place where I am from or somehow, some way, am I more from places where I never lived?

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40. Enduring Courage by

* Once upon a time, aviator Eddie Rickenbacker was the most famous man in America, the kind of hero that songs were written about and schoolchildren dreamed of emulating. In this entertaining biography, historian Ross (War on the Run, 2009) returns to the dawn of the twentieth century, when cars and aircraft burst onto the scene. Aviation aficionados and war buffs will expect Ross to focus on Rickenbacker's WWI flying-ace achievements; instead, he takes a long look at the aviator's early success in the automotive field as both a brilliant mechanic ("Put simply, engines have always talked to me," Rickenbacker explained) and a daring race-car driver. Drawing heavily on his subject's interviews and writings, while also noting areas of his personal life that Rickenbacker publicly fabricated (most notably his father's life and death), Ross peppers the text with quotes that place readers right alongside the ace through nearly every moment of his life. Obviously this is exciting material to work with--after all, Rickenbacker was a man who drove in the first Indy 500 and dueled with the Red Baron's flying circus--but Ross is never fawning in this thoroughly enjoyable and downright rollicking read.

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41. "He wanted her not to be known as 'the Mary Anning of legend, something of a village blue-stocking,'..."'

I just finished reading Judith Pascoe's The Hummingbird Cabinet
which is about several romantic collectors and the sorts of things they collected (like hummingbirds). Lord Byron is a big player here and lots of other people I had not heard of but found quite interesting. Pascoe does a good job of taking readers through the lives of people who lived a long time ago and explaining what motivated them and their compatriots.

I was most struck by the chapter on Mary Anning however. Anning, (1799-1847), was not a romantic collector as you think of one - she collected fossils for money to support herself and her mother (and younger brother). Anning is, in fact, one of the most famous fossil collectors in history. A lot of very powerful museum men (and collectors) bought fossils from her. What they did not do is invite her into the scientific field that depended upon her fossils. She was always the collector - someone who got her hands dirty and had an uncanny ability to find fossils but not an archaeologist. Not a scientist. Not a peer.

No chance of that.

Pascoe attended a symposium on Anning in 1999 where a lot of very learned people talked about her and a lot of Anning fans (authors, artists, amateur collectors) listened. Pascoe was struck by the different ways in which the Anning "people" mixed...or didn't. And she writes about the discussion of the diaries of Anna Marie Pinney who met Anning in 1831. Anna Marie Pinney was younger and though she became a good friend of Anning's over the years, she was certainly struck by Anning; deeply impressed by her. She was a fan and wrote about her sometimes in a fannish sort of way.

As I am a fan of Mary Anning's, I can totally appreciate that!

But the scientists at the symposium were not so impressed by Anna Marie's recollections; a "hysterical teenager" is how one refers to her. Anning is supposed to be dedicated, "plain, practical, honest, humble" and not a literary figure, not someone brave and exciting, not (to choose a 20th century comparison), a female Indiana Jones uncovering mysteries by the sea.

Anna Marie's stories about her are just too dang exciting.

No one denigrates Anning's finds or belittles her, they just want her to be a certain kind of fossil collector, the kind that doesn't fill the head of teenage girls with big excitement. And honestly, Mary Anning wasn't a wild and crazy woman - she seems to have been a pretty serious individual carving out a living the way she knew best. But what struck me after reading The Hummingbird Cabinet is that even with all her seriousness, she still wasn't serious enough for some people. More than a 100 years after she died, there are still those that wanted to keep the lid on Mary's [mildly] wild ways.

I like Anna Marie's vision a lot more than theirs though. Mary Anning was brave and tough - she was a little bit Indiana Jones out there, fighting the wind and the sea for her fossils. She deserves to be remembered the way the people who knew her best really knew her. Points to Judith Pascoe for making sure we all know this side of Mary now as well.

[Post pic via..]

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42. The story of pizza - really!

I have a deep appreciation for family food traditions. From my mother's side (Irish American) we don't have many. (The most enduring is easting Entenmann's Coffee Cake which I don't think really counts but we love it.) On my father's side (French Canadian) there are many because he was a great cook and my memere was as well (especially baking). But in terms of ethnic food, I don't know that anyone really sees something and yells "Oh, look! French Canadian food!" (If you can name any French Canadian food other than syrup right now, you deserve an award.)

About now you probably understand that I spent a large part of my childhood wishing I was Chinese, Mexican or Italian solely for the food.

All of this explains why when I received a copy of the picture book Pizza in Pienza by Susan Fillion, I was delighted by each and every page. It's a very simple story about a girl in Pienza, Italy, who takes readers through her day and across her town. Along the way she shares her love of pizza, ("Even while I'm eating spaghetti, I'm dreaming about the next pizza pie."), and her research into the history of pizza which, as we know it, comes from Naples, Italy. The story comes around to America, where the first pizzeria opened in NYC in 1905 and the final spreads show people enjoying pizza both in the U.S. and Italy which is all kinds of wonderful.

Everyone would like to be a member of the ethnic group that invented pizza, don't you think?

Fillion both wrote and illustrated Pizza in Pienza and the illustrations are large and colorful, with a folk art feel. The story reads as a picture book travel essay and the dual text, with a single line on each page in both English and Italian, fits well in this narrative design. In the final pages the author includes a pronunciation page, a history of pizza and a recipe for Pizza Margherita (including the dough).

This is a decidedly quiet book but it provides a nice lesson about a well known topic while introducing a foreign country in a very accessible way. (That's the part that will appeal to folks looking for educational reads.) For me, it was quite reminiscent of all those delightful Italian memoirs for adults (paging Frances Mayes). It's one of the better ways to bring Italy home to kids and it will likely also spur them to appreciate their pizza even more which is always a good thing. Call this one a nice delightful and tasty trip for younger readers. :)

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43. Circa 1915

tina& Carol.jpg

My great grandmother Julia's two sisters, Ernestine (Tina) on left and Carolina (Carol) on right. This was taken about 1915 when Carol was 15 and Tina 20.

The two girls (and a third sister, Marie) shared a mother with my great grandmother but she had a different (and unknown) father. By all accounts Julia was fairly close with her younger half siblings however, and my mother can recall visiting her great aunts in the 1950s.

I am still working on the lives of these women. I know that they married and had children but I believe Tina's daughter (and grandson) died of diphtheria in the early 1930s and I have seen allusions to Carol losing a child (a son) as well. There are still, so many things I do not know about my family.

But still - look at them here. This picture was made into a postcard and taken, from the stamp on the back, at Schaffers Studio on the Boardwalk in Midland Beach, Staten Island. These historic postcards from the beach really make it look quite charming; I'm glad the girls had such a good time.

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44. Never be ordinary....

The other night I watched the first season of The Bletchley Circle from PBS which I received on dvd last Christmas. Set in 1952, on one level it is a murder mystery where a group of four intrepid women set out to catch a serial killer of young women in London. But the bigger story is about the four main characters all of whom were code-breakers in Bletchley Park during WWII.

Required by the Official Secrets Act to never tell anyone what they really did during the war - even spouses - thousands of women all claimed to have performed "clerical duties" when really they were much much more. Now, married or working mundane jobs, they are quietly losing their minds. The chance to stop a killer brings these four old friends together again and their dormant code-breaking skills come to the forefront of their everyday lives causing unintended problems. They also have to deal with the police who don't think they know what they're talking about and the killer who is way smarter than they initially realize.

So what did I think? LOVED IT. Smart women, wicked cool largely unknown history, very evocative setting and a solidly suspenseful mystery. I can not recommend this wonderful miniseries enough and keep an eye out for Season 2 that will be broadcast in a couple of weeks.

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45. Flicks that caught my eye....

I caught these two [very different] film trailers the other day and both appealed to me for different reasons. First, Redwood Highway starring Shirley Knight and Tom Skerritt is about retaking control of your life after everyone else has, apparently, decided you should be put out to pasture. Take a look:

I have been a fan of Knight & Skerritt's forever so the chance to see them together makes this one I will seek out. (Likely not in the theater around here, but I'll get it one way or another.) (Remember Pickett Fences? Skerritt was sublime in that series!)

And then we have one of those always fun "return to summer camp" films: Camp Takota. I don't know why I find these so appealing; my only summer camp experience was a very dismal Christian day camp when I was around 9 or 10 years old where the crafts were dull, the lifeguards criminally negligent (how dozens of us didn't drown I'll never know) and the bathrooms...well, you can guess. Maybe it's wish fulfillment, but this just looks like right sort of sarcastic rip on young adulthood that will ring as extremely familiar to many of us. Take a peek:

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46. Baseball season...finally

My favorite time of year, when all the wins are still possible, when all the games hold promise. My heart is always with the Red Sox but I have a serious soft spot for the Cubs and especially for Wrigley Field. Eddie Vedder wrote "All the Way" at the request of Cubs great Ernie Banks which is just...so perfect. I hope it gets you ready for the Boys of Summer...

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47. Meeting Darwin's Ghosts

I believe the first time I learned about Charles Darwin was in the 7th grade, during Earth Science class. (A very dismal course with a teacher who was annoyed from the first day of school until the last.) What I never could figure out, even after reading about the finches and barnacles, was how he put together the Theory of Evolution. It was always presented as a bit of a thunderbolt - he sat back, he watched, he studied and he figured it out. What I wanted to know was why no one else had.

Flash forward many years and I came across an article about Alfred Russell Wallace and learned that someone else did figure out evolution - at the same time as Darwin. But still, why them and why then? Was no one else curious before these two men? Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott is the answer to my questions, by an author who wondered the same thing.

What I liked most about this forthright, very accessible collection of mini biographies, is that Stott is so straightforward about what she wanted to know. She looked into the men (and yes, they are all men) that Darwin acknowledged as treading a bit on evolutionary ground and fleshed out their stories, looking for clues into their natural history passions. She gives us men from all over the world who indulged in their curiosity to varying degrees and became famous or forgotten. She answered all of my questions about evolution and how it came to be a theory that explains....everything. And, she made Darwin more of a man I could understand. He wasn't the first, he was just the most patient and was also lucky enough to be born at a time where he had a chance to indulge his ideas with less fear (though he still took chances).

I still have a soft spot for Wallace, with his wild adventures and crazy dreams, but Darwin is becoming someone I can understand as are all the men who came before him.

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48. The writer is bereft

This is my dog Hondo who died on Friday.

If you have ever been through it then you know what it's like to sit in the vet's office as your pet is diagnosed with an incurable disease. You start with the pain medication and you watch him limp and first he is just the same except for the limp but then he is slower to stand, slower to sit. He eats a little less and then sometimes, doesn't want to eat at all. He used to follow you everywhere you go and now he only does part of the time. He sleeps more but does not sleep well; he is restless. And you increase the pain medication and you entice with food that he loves and you lavish all the love in the world upon him and then you realize it's over; it's time.

He's telling you it is time.

And so you make the appointment and you go to the vet and they are all so sad because they love him too and you sit and you hold his head and he looks at you and he trusts you and he knows you will never ever do him wrong and you tell the vet to do it and just like that, in a moment, he is gone.

And eight years was really far too short.

Hondo had bone cancer. There was little we could do although we did as much as we could. I have been to the vet for a visit like this before, for Jake, (my Florida-born husky/shepherd/doberman mix who went north with me), who died in 2003 and for Tucker, (my Fairbanks-born Black Lab who came south with me), who died in 2007. Hondo was from an animal shelter in Washington State, a mix of German Shepherd, Black Lab and Rottweiler (we think) who was found on the side of the road with his mother and litter mates. He was the kindest dog I have ever known, a good dog in the purest sense of the world.

Of course, like every dog I have ever loved, he was special.

What I realized last night though, is that more than anything Hondo is the dog that I have written with. Late at night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Hondo sat with me while I put The Map of My Dead Pilots together. He was at my feet (always at my feet), with his paws wrapped around the chair legs, as I worked the rewrites my agent requested, then worked the rewrites my editor requested and then, finally, finished my book.

At the dining room table, writing essays and articles, Hondo was at my feet. If I got up and moved, downstairs to get a book I needed, into my office in search of a stray paper, he came with me. All the words that I produced that matter in the past 7+ years were with Hondo and now his loss to every aspect of my life is nearly overwhelming.

Writers always have rituals: you have the cup of tea in that mug, the plate of snacks arranged just so, the special writing desk or chair or notebook. You write in your office or the corner of your bedroom or out on the deck or in a backyard writing hut. You listen to certain music; you have an old movie that plays in the background. There are things that you do every time you write, habits that are part and parcel of the process. For me, Hondo was my writing companion, the one who heard the words before they were smooth, the one who stood up to urge a break, the one who patiently listened as I whined and complained my way through a stubborn paragraph. The words came with Hondo, they made sense with Hondo, they worked with Hondo and now I have no one to hear my words.

He was my dog, and I loved him. He was my friend and I mourn him. He was my heart and I can not imagine a world, or a word, without him.

My dog Hondo died on Friday, and I miss him very much.

SCAN0341.JPGHondo at about 3 months old, the day we brought him home, July 2006.

bereft: adj. sad because a family member or friend has died

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49. "In other words, Marie was not lauded. "

I read Soundings by Hali Felt and learned that Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen (scientist and co-worker and partner in every sense of the word with Marie) literally mapped the ocean floor. I had never heard of either one of them before this. Had no idea that Maria took the soundings gathered by Heezen and others at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and drew the map - drew the map!!! - of the ocean floor.

She was a cartographer of the ocean floor.

There is so much about Marie's career that blows my mind (here's a good overview in her obituary from Columbia University), but a couple of things stand out. First, is that she took data that had been sitting around for years and said "why don't we actually create a map from it?" (Basically.) And second that she looked at those maps and realized they were proving continental drift with the maps. Now, it seems obvious but then - the 1950s - it was heresy. (Even Heezen fought her initially.) But Marie hung in there and let the maps speak for themselves. Her work was irrefutable and could not be denied (though plenty of folks denied it for way too long.) She proved what poor Alfred Wegener had asserted in 1912 and she changed the field of oceanography.

I bet you have never heard of Marie Tharp though.

Hali Felt has a great blog post about Marie and what she would have thought about her work largely being undiscovered during her lifetime (and the struggle of her professional life).

It makes me both sad and happy that the record has finally be set straight. Marie is not here to enjoy Soundings; she doesn't know she has been discovered. There are likely so many other stories like hers out there, lost and waiting to be found by a curious reader. We fill our heads with so much that doesn't matter; and we forget people like Marie who really did change the world.

[Post pic of Marie Tharp - the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory]

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50. "I still see her standing by the water"

From Billboard magazine, yesterday:

Glen Campbell has been moved into a care facility three years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, People.com reports.

"He was moved to an Alzheimer's facility last week," a family friend told the title. "I'm not sure what the permanent plan is for him yet. We'll know more next week."

The singer, whose "Rhinestone Cowboy" topped the charts in 1975, had been suffering from short-term memory loss in recent years. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in early 2011.

His voice, and the songs he made famous, are as much a part of America to me as the documents we hold so dear and the land we love so much. I never get tired of hearing him sing. I hope he has peace in his life in times ahead.

[Video from 2001 - it provides not only Glen singing "Galveston" but the brief story of the song, which was significantly linked to the Vietnam War. "Galveston" was written by Jimmy Webb.]

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