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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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This week has been a rush of many different things, all converging at once in a mix of deadlines and To Do lists. In an attempt to take stock of the situation, here is where I am at:
1. Various sundry personal banking issues concerning the changing of banks have been dealt with. Partly complicated by auto deposit to the old bank which must be cleared prior to closing of that account. So tiresome to have monies in two different places (three if you count the business accounts).
2. Business cards ordered. This was terribly overdue as I missed them sorely at ALA and don't want to make the same mistake at PNBA and the AK History Conference. They are due in the week before I leave.
3. Flight arrangements made to Juneau; ferry arrangements to Haines set; hotel in order, registration paid for the conference; PNBA arrangements sorted as well. I am in Haines the end of the month, Portland the beginning of the next. My husband will be holding down the fort and dealing with boy and dogs and various sundry madness without me.
4. The boy's birthday is the week after PNBA. I realized yesterday that everything for that needs to be worked out posthaste.
5. Articles loaded for the Bush Pilot blog at Alaska Dispatch -- four articles in the queue now, one more I have all the notes for and needs to be written in the next couple of days. Follow-up email sent on another that has been long neglected. I have several stories here to work on and I need to get them done and in before Haines.
6. I'm doing a presentation in Haines. Don't ask me if I'm ready to go with that yet.
7. There is a September 15th due date for submissions to a site that I'm prepping an essay for. I think it's going to be good and i want to get it in. September 15th is really really soon.
8. I've got editing due for a Shorefast Editions project. Other people are waiting on me. Need to get that cranking. Now. (This the priority for tomorrow. I wanted it in last night.)
9. I'm reading WOKEN GODS by Gwenda Bond for my December column (great) and COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black for my October column maybe (also great but if I can't get it read & reviewed in time I'll bump it to the December column). AMONG WOLVES for Booklist (turning this one in next week) and OWNING THE EARTH due by the 17th. (After that just one Booklist review due and that is not until early October so I'll likely bring it on the plane and write the review then.)
10. I've got to get my November column sorted out. Only one review is written for it and it's no easy cake column. It's all nonfiction, serious works (amazing works!) and I want to do them justice. I have to turn it in by October 25th. This one concerns me a lot right now.
11. Man -- this list is not making me feel better.
12. Appointments for the boy next week (doctor) and the week after (dentist). Haircuts need to happen in there for everybody in this house. I missed a nephew's birthday - that gift needs to be packaged tomorrow. (Fortunately he is only 1, so he won't notice.)
13. I did laundry today. That's something.
14. I renewed the domain name for our company (Moro Aircraft Leasing), I scanned and sent an article I promised a month ago. Done and done. Paid bills, refilled prescriptions.
15. Organization is key, but it also shows you how much more you need to do then you thought you had to do. Once it's all listed out there -- boy howdy, that's a lot.
16. New issue of Bookslut is up, with a column by me that includes some very good books. Check them out.
17. More later. Plus a Alaska-y tweets from @shorefastbooks by me. I can tweet from two places at once. It's my superpower. *grin*
The title of Jesmyn Ward's upcoming memoir is drawn from a quote by Harriet Tubman:
We saw the lightening and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.
From the outstanding interview with Ward in the new issue of Poets & Writers that I highly recommend reading. (The article is not available online I'm afraid.) Men We Reaped was already on my holiday wishlist but now I'm damn near desperate for it. She has to be one of the bravest writers at work today and this story, of too much sorrow in her Mississippi hometown, sounds unbearably perfect.
Also, I'm extremely jealous of the perfect title for this book. Titles are so hard.
[Post title from the article, post pic of Southern Cemetery in Manchester, England.]
I somehow missed that Bill Bryson had a new book on the horizon (due October). From the Booklist starred review:
Bryson's inimitable wit and exuberance are on full display in this wide-ranging look at the major events in an exciting summer in America. Bryson makes fascinating interconnections: a quirky Chicago judge and Prohibition defender leaves the bench to become baseball commissioner following the White Sox scandal, likely leaving Chicago open for gangster Al Capone; the thrill-hungry tabloids and a growing cult of celebrity watchers dog Lindbergh's every move and chronicle Ruth's every peccadillo. Among the other events in a frenzied summer: record flooding of the Mississippi River and the ominous beginnings of the Great Depression. Bryson offers delicious detail and breathtaking suspense about events whose outcomes are already known. A glorious look at one summer in America.
I'm not an automatic Bryson reader but I'm mightily intrigued by the notion of his writing directed toward a wide view/one summer sort of book. Plus, everything about 1927 history appeals to me: The lingering Black Sox scandal, Capone, Lindbergh, the Mississippi flood, etc. I predict this will be a huge book this holiday season and I am adding it to my wishlist right this very moment.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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'Commander,' she said, 'this is a very important story to get out. The world really needs to know what's happening here in Syria. We can't just sit by and watch murder take place. The world desperately needs to see what's happening inside Baba Amr. Please, if you don't take us in, then this carnage will slip past into history. Assad can crush you right now. You need people to see this. People will listen to me and they will see Paul's pictures. We can help: we can show the world; we can bear witness.'
From Under the Wire: Marie Colvin's Last Assignment by Paul Conroy (The "Paul" referenced in the quote.)
This was Marie making her argument to a rebel commander to be smuggled into Baba Amr, near Homs, in February 2012. She & Paul Conroy got in. Ten days later, after retreating from the town and returning yet again, she was killed with French photographer Remi Ochlik while under intense shelling from the Syrian Army. The official government death certificate claimed she was killed by an IED placed by the Syrian rebels. Conroy was there and grievously injured in the same attack. His book is about what really happened.
What I'm Reading:
It's all about Booklist right now--I have two more books to read and review by September 3rd: Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art by Harry Greene and Under the Wire: Marie Colvin's Last Assignment by Paul Conroy.
What I'm Reviewing:
My September column is turned in and my October column is pretty much written. (I could fit another book in if I read one that fits in the next couple of weeks, but it's good to go right now.) I still have one book for Booklist to send in (I'll do that the next day or two) and my "Cool Read" for November (Imperial Dreams) and Eruption! for my December feature on NF titles. (Good volcano books never go out of style.) And Souvenir Nation for my November column.
All of these are read and good to go, and they are on the "To Do" list this week for sure.
What I'm Writing:
Four articles for Alaska Dispatch on accident reports and hunting season (from a pilot perspective) and the aviation alphabet and lots of other stuff. It's sort of never-ending over there (the news is like that), so I just try to stay in front of it as best I can.
BUT.....I also want to get an essay on my next book into an online venue that is soliciting right now. Nothing on this until if/when it ever runs. But it must be done in the next two weeks and I'm working very hard to not shove it aside for the sure things on the table.
Where You Can Find Me Right Now:
The Back Page of ALASKA magazine has a short piece by me about flying over the Yukon River and Brooks Range and Edward Hoagland and "dangerous beauty". It's not online alas, but if you see it in the grocery store you could read it in two minutes!
What I'm Working On Other Than Writing:
A powerpoint presentation about The Flying North and Jean Potter and how we came to reissue her book because I'm standing up in front of historians in one month to talk all about it. This would be the part where I knuckle down. SERIOUSLY.
It has been a long time since a book kept me up all night and then gave me nightmares to boot. I read The Waking Dark for my October column Wednesday night and it is going to be a perfect for that time of year -- a classic autumn title that is horrific less for the fantastic nature of its tale and more for the very believable horrors it reveals.
You really could see this one happening.
Lots of folks have compared it to Stephen King and it certainly is reminiscent of his multiple point-of-view novels with smart characters standing up to a vast conspiracy that includes lots of people behaving very badly and some crazy and some blood and some good guys who die as well as a lot of bad ones. BUT...that comparison does nothing to diminish what a great big fun read this is. The characters are all fantastic and the teen protagonists especially are well-rounded, three-dimensional and even those who only appear for a page are two are memorable and cut to the bone.
The plot, from the opening pages of unexplained murder, moves at a breakneck speed and even when you find out what is going on it doesn't slow down until the last pages. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Wasserman is that she reminds readers what a big good entertaining read can be when it's not relying on fangs, fur or undead, which frankly have become crutches lately for far too many lazy writers.
A more thorough review will follow in my column but in case you were wondering about this one, have no doubt that The Waking Dark is worth every penny. I loved it, from start to finish.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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So I have been busy the past few months.
I've dropped a few hints here about my new publishing venture but the website is now live and the first book is over in printing-land (with a pub date of Nov 1st) and I can finally, finally, finally tell you the whole story.
It has been killing me to keep this quiet.
A year ago I was complaining to my old and dear friend Katrina (who did a great job publicizing my book in Alaska) about all the ways in which the publishing world drives me crazy. (Every author I know will understand this conversation.) In particular we discussed great Alaskan books that were relatively unknown or had fallen out of print and The Flying North, the classic title of Alaska's golden age of aviation, came up.
We both love that book and I especially adore it. The Flying North had a huge impact on my graduate thesis and as anyone who read my book and saw it quoted there will know, it certainly affected my own writing. It's a well written, funny, interesting and important book about a time and group of men of who still affect how the world sees Alaska. (They were the ones who created the bush pilot myth.) Originally published in 1945, The Flying North has been out of print for the past couple of decades and we thought that was a crime so, crazy as it seems, we decided to bring it back.
I can't stress that crazy part enough.
Long story short, we tracked down the author's children, researched the old publishing agreements to make sure it was free and clear contractually, typed in the entire text (it nearly killed me), combed the state's digital archives to obtain some fabulous photographs, enticed a great Alaskan artist to do the cover, enlisted the assistance of a wonderful designer (folks familiar with the trade paperbacks from Tin House will recognize our overall design with french flaps, etc.) and copy edited. A LOT.
The amount of proofing and copy editing, especially of the index, deserves it's own entry.
But now we have it in the printing process and soon we will have real hard copies and it will be out and about (and available to purchase online, promise!) and the whole wide world will have The Flying North again.
And we did it. We talked about something we thought was wrong, something we thought should be fixed and we did it. We brought a book back from the dead. My friend Katrina and I....well, it's a small thing and it won't bring peace to the world or cure dreadful diseases or stop climate change or convince Congress to grow up (please!) but still we did something.
Next month I will be speaking on The Flying North and how we came to "find" it again at the Alaska Historical Society conference. And in October I will be at PNBA letting all the wonderful Pacific NW booksellers know about it (and the other book we will have out by Xmas - more on that soon).
The other day I heard from a publicist who referred to me as someone who covers the "birding beat" and I was delighted by the reference. (She was talking about books I've reviewed at Bookslut and it was a pretty apt description.) I'm not the best sort of birdwatcher; I don't count and I'm lousy at identifying plumage or song. But I do love a good field guide and in fact we have several of them around the windows and we are constantly looking outside and using the binoculars. (The bird feeders bring them in by the tons in our backyard.)
Some of my favorite field guides are from Peterson's (I am a bit of a Roger Tory Peterson fangirl, thus the pic for this blog post). They have a new one coming out, Bird Homes and Habitats, that is kind of an anti-guide. It's not about identification of birds but rather of habitat and how to build homes to attract them. The editors visit with a ton of bird lovers who share their backyards. It's kind of an indepth guide version of a decor magazine, if that makes any sense. Not a how-to, not a crafty book, rather a very pretty, full color more informative backyard version of House & Garden.
Am I explaining this well?
The publisher refers to it as an inspiration guide and I think that's the ticket but it's not glossy, impossible, unattainable inspiration (not that there's anything wrong with that). This is inspiration for the rest of us, kind of like field guides make bird watching or rock hunting, informed star gazing possible for everyone.
Dare I say it - this is an empowering outdoor design book (!).
We should all have a stack of field guides in our houses and we should refer to them everyday. Maybe if we cared more about what was all around us, then we would work harder at taking care of it.
Consider that your public service message of the day. :)
Several folks tweeted about this PW interview with novelist Lois Duncan and the upcoming reissue of her classic Debutante Hill. (I found the link from Leila, of course, as she is always on everything cool.)
Duncan's book is returning to the world via the efforts of Lizzie Skurnick and her imprint with IG Publishing. I am very impressed with the Fall 2013 List which includes reissues by Ernest Gaines, M.E. Kerr and Ellen Conford (that's the one I requested). I was even more delighted though to see that there is a reader subscription available that sounds like about the most fun kind of gift any teenage girl (or former teenage girl) could want.
(I realize that nostalgia is the big draw for many of these books and thus a lot of adults will be buying them but the stories are so good that I'm sure today's teens will find them very affecting as well.)
I will be including mention of the subscription service in my December column, (if this doesn't have holiday gift giving written all over it then I don't know what does), but couldn't sit on the news of it until then. Also, this was the perfect excuse to share the upcoming Spring 2014 list:
WRITTEN IN THE STARS, a collection of Lois Duncan's short stories; Ellen Conford's teenage psychic novel AND THIS IS LAURA; Sydney Taylor's MORE ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY and ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY UPTOWN; Norma Klein's DOMESTIC ARRANGEMENTS; Erich Kastner's LISA AND LOTTIE; and Brenda Wilkinson's LUDELL, the first of the LUDELL trilogy
(I'm trying really hard not to go all fifteen-year old screamy over this.)
Oh - and that book cover up top - the one for I'll Love You When You're More Like Me? Give that girl some longer redder hair and she is me circa summer 1983 (fourteen going on fifteen). I read a lot of M.E. Kerr back then; I needed her more than you can imagine.
Look at me - being all nostalgic. Surprise.
There was company over the past couple of weeks and many planned events and planning of events and a trip and meals (so many meals!) and, well, company stuff. It always upsets the careful apple cart when there are people to-ing and fro-ing about and in the midst of it there were articles to turn in, a project with terrifyingly close deadlines and the mechanics of the business my husband and I run which involves a lot of reading and editing contracts these days.
In all of this I have a felt a bit like I am losing my grip.
That is not a suggestions that I'm losing my mind, but my grip. I have a careful list of professional commitments on a daily basis --write for this, research that, review this, submit that--and when I fall behind on any of it the whole list starts starts to spin out of control. Today I began to write a new list and then quickly shook my head as it kept going and going and going.
I started doing laundry just so I could get some feeling of accomplishment. (The laundry needed doing anyway, so it wasn't a waste of time!)
The quickest thing was to review The Rocket Man by David Darling for Booklist so that was done. I have another book to finish reading and reviewing by the 20th (The XX Factor by Alison Wolf) and four (!) on deck by the 3rd. (I'm pretty much all about reading for Booklist over the next two weeks for obvious reasons.)
I also finished my September column (which has turned out to be historical fiction) and then set aside for the next day or so the books I'm ready to review for October. These two are In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters (a surprise on so many levels, both creepy and smart and powerfully places readers in an overlooked period of history) and Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (LOVED it - so many great stories here to write about!)
I'm currently reading two books for October - The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman (barely started and it's already creepy as hell) and The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason (a couple of chapters in and enjoying the characters very much). This column must be written by September 20th. I would actually prefer it be done sooner so I can focus on November (nonfiction) and there is some major busy-ness at the end of the month that will slow me down so I know I can't dither now.
I will be at the Alaska Historical Society conference in Haines the last weekend in September to present on Jean Potter (author of the AK aviation classic The Flying North, originally published in 1945). (SOOO much to share on this!) (Soon, promise!) And then it is on to PNBA in Portland in early October because I am a small press publisher now and shall be letting the many wonderful Pacific NW Booksellers know all about that. (More soon, more soon....)
So yeah, no dithering over the next six weeks.
The other two books I hope to review this fall are Play Pretty Blues by Snowden Wright and Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield. Harper might be sending me another book on houses and living that is a potential fit for a dual review with the Mansfield - we'll see. But I'm aiming for November and December for submittals for these two, both to Bookslut. (These are very different books - a novel on Robert Johnson and a meditation on the concept of home and "the soul of shelter" but I'm loving them both - great books.)
So where was I?
Oh yes, losing my grip. I have four articles to write for Alaska Dispatch over the next couple of days (totally doable) and a couple of emails to get out on others as well as some research to do. I'm also waiting on a Probable Cause report from a 2011 crash for an article and a Preliminary Report for a second that I want to write about as well. I'm still finding my way at Dispatch - I feel sometimes like I need to write strictly as a journalist, others as a columnist or blogger and only a few times does the finished piece feel sincerely like "me". I have to remember how long it took for my Bookslut column to come together and be patient; nothing about good writing is ever easy.
And yeah, my writing. A scientist/mountaineer who died in 1932 and an aviator who died in 1929. Both of them mapped portions of Alaska, both of them live forever as names on modern maps. Neither of them has a grave as each was lost in the purest sense of the word. They are the framework for the mountain book; everything else comes from them. So I plug away at who they were and what they did. I just wish I had more time to be with them these days.
More than anything, those guys are why I really need to get a grip. I don't want to lose sight of them as I try to catch up with everything else.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Oh, Emily Dickinson. Canonized as a literary saint, she is one of the first American poets we learn about in school. With a personal life shrouded in mystery, Dickinson is endlessly interesting in the way of so many other famous women writers, but without the horrifying end of, say, a Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. When I was young, the story of Dickinson in her quiet room in Amherst raised dozens of questions; she was always described as ill in that vaguely puzzling nineteenth-century sort of way that seemed perfectly acceptable but explained nothing. Of course Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns has pretty much dismantled most of those old interpretations of her life, but for me she it's the saintly image that stuck.
Two recent books for teens tackle Dickinson's legacy in new and fresh ways. Kathryn Burak's Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things and Nobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl make the poet come alive to readers, something I believe is quite important and transfers well to what is learned in the classroom. These are two good books, enjoyable books, but they also build curiosity about Dickinson and will hopefully bring more readers to her work.
Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things is set in the present day with high school senior Claire, who is dealing with some intense personal issues. Her mother was successful in her third suicide attempt the previous year, and not too long after, Claire's best friend disappeared. Her father, who loves her dearly but has no idea how to help her, has moved them from Providence to Amherst in the hopes that with a clean slate Claire can get past her tragic past. Of course life is never as easy as getting a new zip code, and much of the book is about Claire figuring out how to do live with the way things are. Her affinity with Dickinson's story is made clear, and the many poetry excerpts included in the text, which Claire considers as she does her school assignments and works on her own writing, only bring Dickinson more alive. Considering what has happened to Claire, you can't read these lines and not feel a chill:
The last Night that She Lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying --
Later, while reading through some of her mother's old books, Claire writes a poem of her own which includes these lines:
And the way her notes in the margins, like stitches,
show you all the places where she felt
the insistent and jagged
little cuts of each new day.
In Amherst, Claire's papers receive the concerned attention of her English teacher and a college intern, Tate, who is assigned to her classroom. Her friendship with Tate becomes more and more tangled as the novel progresses, culminating in a wild confluence of circumstances that finds the two of them stealing Emily Dickinson's dress from the museum. After that they are bound together by a circumstance that requires careful fixing and it all gets more complicated when the cold missing person case involving Claire's old friend suddenly warms up.
Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things is eloquent and elegantly written. There is so much care placed in every single word, so much weight to this language while still managing to read as effortless. This is quietly beautiful about friendship and romance, about grief and family, about how you repair yourself when touched by tragedy. Claire is no freakishly smart pixie girl, she is angry and confused. But for as much as she needs saving, the brilliance of Kathryn Burak is to let this character actively take part in her own rescue. I loved this kid, and Tate, and her father and her new best friend and everyone else who takes part in this story. It's a thing of wonder Burak has created here; a story of how Emily Dickinson's words can reach across time and space and still inspire and still save.
Dickinson herself moves into the position of protagonist in Michaela MacColl's middle-grade historical mystery Nobody's Secret. A suspicious death plays a significant role in the novel, but this is still an exceedingly gentle story reminiscent of another time when the romantic plot is nothing more than a teenage girl's momentary crush and nefarious acts are hinted at rather than presented in blood-drenched pages.
As the book opens, fifteen-year-old Emily is a dreamy nineteenth-century girl detective, who sets off in search of clues when a good-looking stranger is found floating in her family's pond. She and the unnamed "Nobody" had enjoyed an innocent flirtation during a brief meeting a few days earlier and she feels compelled to uncover his secrets now, even though everyone else seems happy to regard the death as an accident. Aided by her sister "Vinnie" (stalwart Mary to her precocious Laura Ingalls), Emily is determined to establish the young man's identity and discover who in sedate Amherst would want him dead. Step by step, they follow clues that lead to a society scandal while trying to keep their mother in the dark and maintaining their own positions in society as "good girls."
MacColl is in comfortable territory here; she has written previously about young Queen Victoria and aviatrix Beryl Markham, and she infuses Nobody's Secret with many period details. In particular, the author places into sharp focus the sheer amount of physical work daily domestic life required of young women in 1846. These aspects of the story bring Nobody's Secret into Wilder and Alcott territory as Emily and Vinnie constantly find themselves stymied in their investigation by the drudgery of chores and their mother's watchful eye. Their discoveries are all the more impressive for the tricky path they must navigate to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Again, this is not a seat-of-your-pants adventure, and even with the moments of excitement the shocks are small and the threats light. (Emily, of course, will not die.) But MacColl's goal here is twofold: not only to give eight-to-twelve-year-olds a mystery but also to show the everyday life of this very famous poet when she was young. On that score in particular she succeeds quite well, giving us a curious Emily forever taking notes and always asking questions; clearly a writer in the making.
If ever there was a poet designed for teen girl appeal, Plath is the one. In Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, author Elizabeth Winder focuses on the period of Plath's life most applicable to the YA audience. Detailing the experiences of Plath and her fellow interns as they spent one month at Mademoiselle ("the intellectual fashion magazine"), Pain, Parties, Work shows the writer first exhibiting her trademark determination and vulnerability. Mademoiselle was where she caught a long look at the writer's life as well as the dazzle of literary society. There was dating drama, dashed expectations, and professional and personal accomplishments and disappointments. As Winder illustrates through many interviews with those with her that summer and Plath's own journal excerpts, the Mademoiselle experience held as many negatives as positives, and the summer culminated in her much-documented suicide attempt once she returned home.
Winder is well aware of how much has been written about Plath, but by narrowing her focus so tightly she provides keen insight into the effect of this summer on Plath's life. June 1953 found Sylvia Plath taking a chance on the career she dreamed of and embracing the hopes of its success. The pressures put upon her and the other interns were not something she was prepared for, however, and the entire internship, like a mashup of The Devil Wears Prada and The Donna Reed Show, would prove to be extremely difficult for many of them. Coupled with all of this, of course, was the cultural clash between past and future that all young women were facing in the 1950s, as these interview excerpts from fellow interns show:
Neva Nelson: One of the last assignments that we competing girls had to complete was a survey on "our ideal man." It was assumed then that most girls went to college to husband-hunt, and Mademoiselle wanted to join in on the assumption that although we were all looking for careers, we still expected to find the right man and get married.
Gloria Kirshner: In the movie Mona Lisa Smile, Kirsten Dunst flings open the door to show her friends the new laundry room -- with her own new washer and dryer. It's hard to believe as a woman of these days -- but that was the tenor of the times.
Carole Levarn: I was told I would have won the Ernie Pyle Award -- but they'd never give it to a woman. I didn't even think twice about that statement or question it. Later I won the award in the 1970s. I've always loved reading the Sweetbriar alumni magazine. "Peaches Lilliard's husband Biff has just been promoted..." But what about Peaches?
Winder does an excellent job here of reminding readers that the much-lauded Plath was once a young woman like them (and consequently making The Bell Jar that much more relatable as well). In 1953, Plath was in New York and at her hopeful, shining best, and knowing what would come, even just a few months later, makes this brief glimpse into her life that much more stirring. Using the words of Plath herself and the young women who were with her gives Pain, Parties, Work considerably more power for teens as well. From Plath's journal:
Exhilarated. Can't stop thinking I am just beginning. In ten years I will be 30 and not ancient and maybe good. Hope. Prospects. Work though and I love it... I will work. All the boys, all the longing, then this perfection. Perfect love, whole living.
We are all so often on the edge of something more at twenty-one; a peek at the early route Plath and her friends took is a reminder of how tough it was simply to be an ambitious girl, and how easily such girls, still, can become lost.
Oh, holy hell -- Abraham Lincoln, Joshua Chamberlain, Winfield Hancock, Robert E. Lee and everyone -- every-fucking-one who was at Gettysburg. Happy sesquicentennial and have we revisited your actions those days in July 1863 enough? Can we revisit them enough? (The answers are "No" and "No.") If ever there was a group of men needing the alt-history treatment it is you, and thank the gods that Jack Campbell has been the one to do it.
The Last Full Measure is a novella of the war that didn't happen but is so dangerously close to our own Civil War that it serves to illuminate all the many ways in which we as a nation have come, time and again, perilously close to losing our way. Campbell has written a warning and wrapped it up in a new look at the bloodiest battle in American history. The men are all, heartbreakingly, just who they were. The only difference is what they are fighting for, and which side each of them have chosen.
Just picture it -- Lee is on the government side and Lincoln is the hope of revolutionaries determined to free the country from military control. Chamberlain has been sentenced to prison for daring to reveal the truth about George Washington -- that he "became president as a result of open, fair and free elections." Those are fighting words in this 1863, and soon enough Chamberlain, the college professor who really was a hero on the battlefield, finds himself confronting Lee as the "rebels" break Lincoln out of a military stockade. Consider this passage between Lee and Chamberlain to help sort things out:
Lee's face reddened. "I took an oath, sir. An oath to obey all lawful orders. Every action being ordered of me is in compliance with laws passed by the Congress, signed by the President and upheld by the Supreme Court. Can you say the same?"
"The congress is owned, the president installed by the army and the Supreme Court packed with those who would agree to any expansion of the power of the few at the expense of the many."
"They are the laws of this land," Lee insisted.
Chamberlain shook his head. "This republic was founded by men who argued that unjust laws must be opposed."
If you know your Civil War history, then you know who lives and dies at Gettysburg, and Campbell presents no surprises on that front. (Poor Winfield Hancock!) But the reasons behind the fighting, the deep conflicts each man must face are all turned inside out just enough to make readers reconsider what we fought for then and also, one hopes, what we stand for today. I love a good alternate history and The Last Full Measure is an excellent one, but more importantly, it's exciting and provocative and more than once deeply profound. Teenagers bored with American History class will find new inspiration here -- it's not to be missed.
Finally, I have been sorely conflicted over Steven Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen's graphic novel Genius. The story itself is fascinating -- intense, unusual, and certainly thoughtful. But at its heart it is the story of a man trying to figure out how to be a better husband, better father and most importantly, a better man. Even though it was published for young adults (by the always impressive First Second), I just wasn't sold on how well it really fits that audience. I'm still not sure, but if Ted's story makes anyone think about being the best sort of person he or she can be, then it succeeds, and that's all really matters.
In the opening pages, with Kristiansen's spare, moody art to guide us (an excellent match for the book), we learn that Ted was a boy genius, became a physicist, and is now married with two children and holding onto his position at Pasadena Technical Institute by his fingertips. Ted has not been brilliant for a while, and he is surrounded by geniuses who are kicking it far better than he. Ted needs a break or he's going to lose his job, and because this is all he has ever done -- hired while still a student himself -- there's not much on the horizon for him to do with his life if he loses his career.
At home, his thirteen-year-old son is thinking way too much about sex and possibly drifting away from him, though Ted is a pretty good dad and doing his best to keep the boy at his side. Their relationship is really quite lovely. His daughter might just be the same kind of brilliant as he was, which is both wonderful and terrifying, his wife is sick and getting sicker, and his father-in-law, who lives with them, apparently has a secret given to him decades before by Albert Einstein. As Einstein is "god" to Ted, the revelation that this secret, which may or may not exist, is locked in the older man's slightly demented head, rapidly becomes Ted's obsession. The secret could be the thing to make him brilliant again, it could save his job, and if he has his job than that might save everything. Now if only his father-in-law could remember and if only he would tell Ted and if only his wife's run-of-the-mill illness wasn't rapidly becoming far more terrifying than everything else.
Slowly, with Einstein filling his thoughts and becoming the sounding board Ted needs to navigate his increasingly turbulent days, real life forces changes that cannot be ignored. This is when Ted must decide what matters most both in his life and the lives of the people he cares about. He must decide the best way to live as a genius.
Genius is very quietly about very serious things, and what has stood out for me more than anything after turning the last pages is just how quiet the story is. For all that many powerful things occur in the plot, the tone is subtle, the language understated, and the characters wary of sudden moves. There is not a lot of screaming, which is a relief, because in most parts of life, screaming doesn't happen much. Genius is simply a peek at how complicated adulthood can be, even if you're smarter than the rest. It's going to be a significant read for some teens, and I hope they find it and embrace the humanity of Albert Einstein, and all the wonder that his secrets likely possess.
COOL READ: Jill Corcoran has edited a new poetry collection for children that is a nice introduction to several largely unknown great people (with a few famous ones tossed in). Dare to Dream... Change the World, with illustrations by J. Beth Jepson, includes poems from such well-known children's and teen book authors as Jane Yolen, Lee Bennett Hopkins, J. Patrick Lewis, Stephanie Hempill, Ellen Hopkins, and Curtis Crisler. Using a multitude of poetic forms, the contributors write about adults and children who made a difference while also illuminating those acts with other nonspecific poems that build off the acts of their subjects.
Standouts include Curtis Crisler on Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jacqui Robbins on playing ball (even when you aren't good), and Alan Katz on Steven Spielberg. Brief biographies of the subjects accompany each two-page spread, providing just enough information to answer obvious questions and spur further research for the very curious. With big, colorful illustrations that jump off the page, Dare to Dream... Change the World is a nice addition to any child's nightstand.
I had heard rumors earlier this year at ALA Midwinter about Sara Ryan's upcoming graphic novel from Dark Horse but I didn't press for more information because I didn't want to seem too fangirl scary. (It happens when dealing with a favorite author.) Imagine my delight then, when my stack of Previews arrived and I found Bad Houses scheduled for an October 30th release. Here's the description:
Lives intersect in the most unexpected ways when teenagers Anne and Lewis cross paths at an estate sale in sleepy Failin, Oregon. Failin was once a thriving logging community. Now the town's businesses are crumbling, its citizens bitter and disaffected. Anne and Lewis refuse to succumb to the fate of the older generation as they discover--together--the secrets of their hometown and their own families.
On her website, Sara describes it as: "My first graphic novel, Bad Houses, with art by Carla Speed McNeil, is about love, trust, hoarding, and dead people's stuff."
If you are familiar with Sara's previous work then you will be very excited about this one. If you aren't, then get over to her site, read about all her previous books and mini-comics and then you will be very excited about Bad Houses too.
Basically, Sara is one of the best there is at creating very human (as in no vampires), very believable (no "trying to get vampire to notice you" or "falling in love with vampire" or creating a "vampire/werewolf love triangle" plots), very smart (but not eye-rolling-this-is-what-an-adult-author-wishes-they-had-sounded-like-when-they-were-a-teenager fake kind of smart) and, most importantly, very compelling characters.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I am reading an amazing book - Play Pretty Blues by Snowden Wright. It's a novel about Blues great Robert Johnson told from the perspective of his primary wives/girlfriends who serve as a Greek Chorus of sorts and view his life from afar.
Johnson's life is as much myth and legend as fact (he was the musician who met the Devil at the Crossroads), and Wright works in and out of fact and fiction in this novel in a way that can only be considered musical in the best sort of the way. This is great writing, inventive and smart and incredibly engaging. I've been a Johnson fan forever so I'm the perfect audience for it, but anyone interested in southern writing or a novel steeped in music history will fall hard for it. I'll be reviewing this one down the line; I'll keep ya posted on that and my continued reading of it.
Here's a bit though to give you an idea of the language:
We have lived in the shadow of a ghost. In the first few years after his demise, some of us migrated north to St. Louis and Chicago, some of us west to Texas and Oklahoma, all in trace of the path taken by his posthumous musical influence. Claudette collected a dossier of evidence of his life and death, including fingerprints, oral accounts, facial sketches, Mason jars of sampled soil, photographs and lithographs and phonographs, vials, beakers, bottles, locks of hair hermetically sealed in Tupperware and Glad-Lock. Mary Sue, the oldest of us, seduced every headliner she heard cover a Robert Johnson song. Tabitha, the youngest, spent years harassing his murderer's family with coins glued to their porch's floorboards, caps twisted loose on their salt shakers, and staples removed from their Swingline. Betty sought solace in the bottle. Helena, who never forgave herself not not bearing our mutual husband an heir, eventually married a writer of crossword puzzles and gave birth to three boys named various anagrams of "Robert Johnson."
[For another amazing book on Johnson, look to Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje.] [YES - Michael Ondaatje!!!!]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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What I'm Reading:
Still digging into Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield. In the current chapter he is writing about the destruction of dwellings during WWII - the dropping of massive bombs in Germany and England in an effort by each to uproot the others' civilization. "Dehousing", as we know, did not work - the civilians on both sides only dug in deeper. What's so fascinating (in the darkest way), is that they knew it wasn't working against themselves but thought they would be successful doing it against the enemy. If this isn't an example of war's insanity, I don't know what is.
I'm loving this book - from clutter to bombing, he is making me think so much.
What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir of Jerusalem by David Harris-Gershon. This is for Booklist, written by an American who was in Jerusalem as a grad student with his wife when she was the victim of terrorism. It is as much about writing as survival; an unexpected book.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters. This one deals with WWI, the flu epidemic and spirit photography. It's for the October column and appropriately spooky although far deeper and more thoughtful than I expected and a lot more about the impact of war and plague then romance (though there is a love story here). I'm always happy to be surprised while reading.
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy ed by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Also for the October column, I'm a few stories in and already overwhelmed by the sheer joy of this collection. Holy cow - it's fantastic. Contributors include Elizabeth Bear, Jeffrey Ford, Delia Sherman, Kathe Koja, Gregory Maguire...you get the idea. This one is pure reading candy.
What I'm Reviewing:
Edward Lear's Nonsense Birds & Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain in two darling new reprints from the Bodleian Library and Enchanted Lion Books. Consider them picture books for hipsters - but in a good way. I'm liking different these days; I'm longing for different. These are different and good and that is a good thing.
What I'm Writing:
An article about the recovery of a B25 from a sandbar in the Alaskan Interior. This is an update; they got the wreckage last month and shipped it out to Michigan. Eventually it will be rebuilt and serve as the cornerstone of an aviation museum there.
Also, I'm waiting on the release of a Probable Cause report from the NTSB for an accident that occurred two years ago (that's how long these things can take). It's due any day now and I want to write something up on that. And a destination piece about flying to one of the most remote national parks in the country. (Because if you can, shouldn't you?)
For my book, it is men you've never heard of and places you've never been. I feel like I'm in the deepest dark heart of outer space on this one. I don't know if anyone will care about it, but I just keep plugging along.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I recently finished Whitney Otto's Eight Girls Taking Pictures and found it a very interesting read. Some of the characters were more compelling to me than others but that's just personal preference; overall I thought it was really quite good and if you like quiet historical fiction about women then I recommend it. There were several passages that especially stayed with me.
From the first chapter, detailing the life of a woman in the early 20th century:
Cymbeline had learned from an early age that money buys things that people with money never even realize they've bought, like time and freedom. Because their privilege came to them so naturally, it was unimaginable that others didn't have it too; that is to say, if others didn't have it, perhaps that was because it would be wasted on them, the rich always seeming to believe themselves meant for better things.
That one really made me think a lot about my great grandmother who was a factory girl in 1910 and no matter how hard she (and her husband) worked, getting out of poverty was never more than a dream for the next generation; it could not happen for her.
I have often wondered about the women who wore the clothes she and her friends worked so hard to make and if those women thought of her (and those like her) at all. It makes the factory workers of Bangladesh that much more real to me.
From a chapter set during WWI:
No one really survived the Great War. No person, no place. It was too far-reaching, too catastrophic, too unimaginable. Those who made it home weren't the same, and those who waited at home were also changed. Everyone became a stranger of the most dislocating sort because everyone became, once again, unknown. Unknown yet looking familiar, everyone resembling someone he or she used to know. Sweethearts, young marrieds, parents and children, children and parents all had to relearn each other. This didn't even take into account those who returned yet never seemed to come back at all. Gertrude Stein coined the the expression "a lost generation," but isn't every generation following any war a little lost?
See the War/Photography exhibit for how little that post-war "lost generation" has changed in the last century.
And then there is this for a chapter set in Germany during the lead-up to WWII:
They knew that even the most neutral neighbors would be tempted to take what they had not even thought to covet until recent events had made them understand that possession was nine-tenths of a law that favored them. It was not uncommon for someone to show interest in your jewelry , your home, your job, your painting, maybe even your wife - it was as if the temptation was too much, the possibilities of possession too great to pass up. If you were Jewish, you began to spend all your time trying to go unnoticed. Or making your winter coat go unnoticed. Or your car, your garden. It was nearly impossible to have things and hide them at the same time. How could anyone fight was a Jew now represented to many Germans? It was if they were walking catalogs of splendid goods and real estate and business and career openings.
That passage makes what was happening to Jews before the war all the more terrifying to me. That your neighbors - people who had known you for years - could just so easily decide that they could go "shopping" in your life, your home. That they felt entitled and empowered to do so. Well, it makes you wonder just what humanity is, really, and why on earth it is always so easy for us to be cruel to each other.
[Post pic of Lee Miller, one of the inspirations for Otto's characters.]
What I'm Reading:
Women of the Four Winds by Elizabeth Fagg Olds. I'm up to the fourth woman discussed in the book, Greenland explorer and American heiress, Louise Arner Boyd. Overall I've enjoyed reading about these women - I'd never heard of any of them before - and Boyd is a real character.
Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto. I'm conflicted on this one. Some of the chapters I've enjoyed a great deal whereas others really drag (to me anyway). But I'm still reading so that's something! ha!
Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield. Just started to read it for review - it's due out in September so I'll be writing about it formally this fall. The short reaction is that I love it. Mansfield is one America's most thoughtful writers (check out his stuff in Yankee Magazine) and I have looked forward to and enjoyed his books for years. In Dwelling he is writing about home, how we think about it, how it has changed over the years and what we want from the idea of "home". I'll post more on this as I read through the book but it's really wonderful so far and I can't recommend it enough.
What I'm Reviewing:
Boxers & Saints (2 volumes) by Gene Luen Yang. A two volume novel set during the Boxer Rebellion told from the Christian and "Boxer" positions (as portrayed by two young people) is....well it's pretty freaking amazing! I can't believe Yang decided to do this or that First Second embraced it. So much Chinese history is utterly unknown to westerners and the Boxer Rebellion is huge in how modern China developed so wow - delighted to see these books!
But....well, hardly anyone knows anything about the Boxer Rebellion and that makes these two books a bit difficult to follow. Joan of Arc appears to the young Christian but unless you are familiar with her story (and how it ends), you will likely be confused a bit. Ditto the figures from Chinese history who appear for the young Boxer and even more so, the whole history of western involvement in Chinese affairs which came to a boiling point in this period. The books really really needed an author's note, probably more than any book I've read in a while. While there is a brief list of books for more reading, it's not enough. I taught history and I had questions; I can't help but think most teenagers will as well.
(See more here on the destruction of countless rare books at the Siege of Peking.)
The Silence Of Our Friends by Mark Long & Jim Demonakos. Also for the September column, this gn is about racism in Houston in the 1960s and the protagonist's father who is a white reporter assigned to cover the Civil Rights Movement. From the Afterword it is heavily based on author Mark Long's childhood and he explains the real court case that lies at the climax of the novel.
I thought it was a good book and really appreciated that explanatory note (as it makes clear that the court case was based in truth), but it seemed like in order to fit in everything he wanted that the story jumped around a bit and small events are brought in and not developed. It's just seemed a bit uneven but I still think a very worthwhile read.
And Then There's This:
This is as infuriating as it is fascinating: The New Yorker on obsessive collectors of rare and endangered bird eggs. Idiots.
Author Bennett Madison talks to "The Rejectionist" about not writing one book and turning instead to another. Plus mermaids, sex from a teenage boy's perspective, the Melendy Quartet, his parents concern that he was having a moment from "The Shining" (uh oh) and lots of other writerly goodness that should not be missed.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Not to be outdone by all the Consortium Books wonderfulness I've been spreading the word on, the Coffee House Press catalog arrived last week and several titles there jumped out at me. Here they are, with publisher descriptions:
An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky by Dan Beachy-Quick. Daniel is pursued by stories. his father, in thrall to a myth, has disappeared; his mother and sister, too; and Lydia, his lover, leaves him and the novel he cannot finish for quantum mechanics, the place where theory tells tales about the real. And then there is Pearl, the girl beneath the floorboards, whose adventures hum alongside Daniel's own.
In this contemporary, contemplative fairy tale, the autobiographical novel takes on the cast of legend, and the uncertainty of memory leaves reality on shaky ground. Can parallel universes exist? Can a preoccupation with Moby Dick overwhelm the story unfolding before you? Where do you stand in relation to the metaphysics of your own life?
Dan Beachy-Quick has a fascination for whales and whaling (he wrote The Whaler's Dictionary) and while I am not a huge fan of Moby Dick, I am fascinated by the topic and intrigued by his blending of folk lore here. This new book almost sounds a bit like Ekaterina Sedia (who blended fairy tale and horseshoe crabs in The House of Discarded Dreams). Certainly worth a look.....
Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow (essays) by Andy Sturdevant. Keepsake, guidebook, and wunderkammer of enthusiasms, Sturdevant's essays offer a new ay of thinking about urban spaces and the contemporary Midwest. Craigslist ads, homemade signs at Target Field and alleyways all open up with possibilities for measuring cultural time and the resonance, not provincialism, of spaces closely observed. Published to coincide with Sturdevant's solo show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow reveals the essayist as pied piper and artist, whose canvas is the city.
Just so much of this sounds excellent - the potluck suppers, the look at the contemporary Midwest (so often referred to as "flyover country" and i hate that); just the notion of an "investigation" of modern life in the midst of the country that is not about politics but culture, about how people live. I can't get enough of understanding who we are and how we come to be ourselves.
Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery by M. Evelina Galang. Angel has just lost her father, and her mother's grief means she might as well be gone too. She's got a sister and a grandmother to look out for, and a burgeoning consciousness of the unfairness of the world-in her family, her community and her country.
Set against the backdrop of the 1986 Philippine People Power Revolution, the struggles of surviving Filipina "Comfort Women" of WWII in the early 1990s, and a cold winter's season in the city of Chicago, Angel de la Luna is the story of a daughter coming of age, coming to forgiveness, and learning to move past the chaos of grief to survive.
WWII Filipina Comfort Women in a novel for teens - I can't imagine passing this one by.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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After covering the titles for adults in the fall/winter Consortium catalog for small presses, I wanted to also share some titles for teens and kids that caught my eye. Here they are, along with some catalog copy descriptions:
Wild Ocean, Ed by Matt Dembicki (he also edited Trickster: Native American Tales) (Fulcrum Publishing). In this graphic collection, Matt Dembicki....explores the adventures of twelve iconic endangered sea animals: hawkbill turtle, bluefin tuna, hammerhead shark, giant clam, manatee....Produced in cooperation with the nonprofit PangeaSeed, these gripping stories instill a passion to conserve our magnificent sea creatures.
For ages 8 and up this is a format and topic I never get tired of. I liked Trickster and I'm eager to see what Dembicki does here.
Breath of Wilderness: The Life of Sigurd Olson by Kristin Eggerling. (Fulcrum Publishing) ...the story of Sigurd Olson's love for wild places and how that love transformed his life. It inspired him to play a key role in the movement to preserve wilderness throughout North America, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the largest lakefront wilderness in the country. Olson's successful writing career, born from his devotion, spread his fervor worldwide. This is a story of one man finding his passion and standing up for what he believed even in the face of tremendous adversity.
Secret Lives by Berthe Amoss (from the Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint at IG Publishing). The Lizzie Skurnick imprint is about bringing back into print YA lit from the 30s and 40s through the 70s and 80s. Although much of the appeal will likely be to adults filled with nostalgia for long out-of-print titles from their childhood, I think Secret Lives in particular should be received well by today's MG & young teen readers of historical fiction as well. Here's a bit:
Set against the backdrop of 1930s New Orleans, Berthe Amoss's 1979 young adult mystery follows twelve-year-old Addie Agnew as she struggles to uncover the secret of her mother's death. Living with her spinster aunts in a house that's practically haunted, Addie was always told her mother was perfect and was swept off to sea with Addie's father in a Honduran tidal wave. But Addie suspects there's something her aunts aren't telling her, and it has something to do with the locked trunk in the attic. What's in the trunk? And what really happened to Addie's parents? In this classic story about family secrets and growing up, Addie will stop at nothing to discover truth about her mother, even if learning the truth will change everything forever.
Lone Wolves by John Smelcer (Leapfrog Press). Deneena Yazzie's love of the woods and trail come from her grandfather, who teaches her their all-but-vanished Native Alaskan language. While her peers lose hope, trapped between the old and the modern cultures, and turn to destructive behaviors, Denny and her mysterious lead dog, a blue-eyed wolf, train for the Great Race - giving her town a new pride and hope.
This one is a no-brainer for me, the Alaska setting, suggestion of dying language, Iditarod and struggle between old and new is all very familiar to me. Smelcer is an Alaskan Native who is the last surviving reader of the Ahtna language. Looking forward to it.
Nine Open Arms by Benny Lindelauf (Enchanted Lion). Oh how I love Enchanted Lion! What a great publisher - their books are STUNNING. This one is for MG readers - here's a bit:
A ghost story, a fantasy, a historical novel, and literary fiction all wrapped into one, this highly awarded novel for young readers begins with the Boon family's move to an isolated, dilapidated house. Is it the site of a haunting tragedy, as one of the daughters believes, or an end to all their worries, as their father hopes? The novel's gripping language, enriched by Yiddish, German, and Dutch dialect, plunges the reader into the world of a large, colorful motherless family.
[To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie is another great book from Lizzie Skurnick Books. Find out more here.]
Last weekend we took part in a community garage sale that was massive - 200+ houses with maps handed out and hamburgers and hotdogs sold and people walking from house to house pulling along wagons to load up at each stop. In preparation I went through every last inch of the house. Every.Last.Inch. You would not believe the little weird crap we found around here. (Or maybe you would!)
The biggest pile - the most difficult to pull together - was the books. I was pretty ruthless, not because I had to be but because I wanted to be. My son had aged out of a lot of his books so we had a ton there to sell but I had plenty that I have moved from house to house to house and while they are good books and I did enjoy reading them, I just got tired of trying to make the space.
So I sold them. I sold a freaking ton of books.
What's left are books I use as research or have deep sentimental attachment to (belonged to my father, gifts from my Great Uncle Ben, childhood books like Little Women that I have had forever), and also some great big coffee table books that I never tire of. It was interesting to pick and choose the novels I couldn't part with, some obvious (Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials which my son will love soon enough), some as lessons in how to write well (Glaciers by Alexis Smith, nearly everything by Andrea Barrett) and some that just always make me happy (Tam Lin by Pamela Dean - never gets old).
Plus Ray Bradbury. Of course.
There are still hundreds of books in my office but it's a lot more open, a lot easier to navigate and a lot more.....significant. These are books that matter, not just books I have. They probably only matter to me, but that's okay. For the first time in ages I don't feel overwhelmed when I walk into that space which is a very good thing.
Plus, now I've got all that room on the shelves to fill........... *grin*.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Matt Kindt shows that the graphic novel is a primo format for unorthodox mysteries with his utterly beguiling Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes. Framed around the career of a famous police detective named Gould, Red Handed gives readers several seemingly random mysteries about all sorts of crimes ranging from art theft to chair theft to pickpocketing to illegal fur trading to the taking of unseemly photos of unknowing women (legs and feet, occasional arms, but nothing R-rated). Gould unravels every crime, tracks the perpetrators and carts them off to jail except there seems to be a pattern forming in all these random acts of criminality and Gould smells a plot. Just who is behind it and why is a mystery he cannot ignore, and as the story continues, it becomes clear that solving that larger mystery is a case of life and death.
This is a carefully plotted novel, the sort of plotting that belongs in a class on how to do it. Kindt does not waste a word or picture. He knows what he is doing and why every step of the way, and the care he takes to pull every one of these threads together is masterful. But as elegant as the plot is, it's the larger mystery that keeps the pages turning. Readers will not be able to stop asking questions, stop trying to figure out why certain characters do certain things and how, even though they don't know each other, they're being manipulated by someone else. (The artist who writes her novel with stolen words is a personal favorite of mine.) Interspersed throughout the novel are black and white text-only scenes in which future Gould and the mastermind exchange barbs in an interrogation setting. Clearly he solves the mystery, but the why of it all is left to the final pages, and it packs a wallop.
First Second Books is consistently one of the finest imprints out there for teens, and I cannot recommend their graphic novels enough. Red Handed is another first-class example of a wonderfully written story with beautiful, unique illustrations that perfectly complement the unusual mood of the narrative. Published for teens, adults would be fools to pass this one up; it's about as good as it gets and a mystery not to be missed.
Soho Press inaugurated a new YA imprint this spring, and I am delighted to say that this venerable mystery press is giving us exactly what I have wanted for so very long: straight-up mysteries for teens! There are girl detectives, conspiracies, family secrets, school hallways fraught with serious drama, and some hard-core thrillers. Basically, every kind of mystery a teenager could want and nary a vampire in sight.
The first Soho title I cracked open was Helen FitzGerald's Deviant. The author quickly introduces Scottish street kid Abigail, whose long-lost mother has died and unexpectedly left a small package for her daughter. Notified by the counselors at the teen group home where she lives, Abigail discovers her inheritance includes a cryptic letter, a revelation about her previously unknown father, a plane ticket to California, and a pile of cash. Because she is no fool, she gets a passport pronto and blows out of Edinburgh without a backward glance. What she doesn't know is the trouble that awaits her in the Golden State.
In L.A. the changes come fast and furious: her father is wealthy, she has a perfect, if somewhat Stepfordish, stepmother, and her older sister (who never knew their mother) alternates between being an undercover rabble rouser and a stoner rich kid. Before she has a chance to get her bearings, Abigail is caught up in her sister's illegal escapades, and then there is a death -- a serious, very upsetting death. Abigail uncovers a most nefarious plot and ends up running for her life and then -- and then -- well, bad things happen, and you think it's all over (but it's not of course).
In many ways Deviant fits solidly in classic contemporary thriller territory, and with older characters, some sex, and more graphic violence, it would easily read as an adult title. The pacing is great, the plot flows right along and even though the author knows she is doing a bit of a homage to a classic, it is one we never get tired of, and there are plenty of original bits added in to make Deviant stand on its own. What truly makes the novel shine, though, is Abigail. She's tough and smart but more than once acknowledges her position in L.A. as a fish out of water and acts pretty much as any teen in her position would. She's no dumb bunny, but she's not a superpowered Buffy either. Abigail is canny and bold and determined, a lost girl who has to fight if she wants to get out of this mess alive. I loved this kid and hope -- as the final pages suggest -- that there will be more from her in the future.
Margaux Froley's contribution to the Soho Teen line, Escape Theory, is a complex murder mystery set at a boarding school. Filled with some of what you expect (prescription drug abuse, town versus school tension, class issues, teen pregnancy), this psychological thriller manages to keep increasing the tension. The short take: Jason "Hutch" Hutchins, one of the most charismatic students on campus, is dead of an apparently intentional overdose. Classmate Devon, a scholarship student, had a unique friendship with Hutch and is having a lot of trouble believing he would kill himself.
As part of a new peer-counseling program, Devon is supposed to talk to Hutch's closest friends and provide them with some student-student therapy. (I'm not sure how believable this scenario is, but as plot devices go it's okay.) Everyone has an idea about what really happened, and bit by bit Devon figures out that not only is there something suspect about Hutch's death, but a whole lot of other nefarious activity is happening on campus too. They might be rich and look pretty, but, of course, there's a seamy underbelly. Devon makes alliances, uncovers clues, gets a boyfriend (maybe), bonds with an unlikely gal pal, and solves the crime.
There are many things that work well with Escape Theory, starting with Devon and the Keaton School setting. Our protagonist is the typical bookish-introspective-outsider teen heroine, but she's also pretty mouthy and spunky in all the right ways. Very Veronica Mars. As her classmates shuffle through her "office," she asks the questions she wants answered, and she doesn't let go as they push back against the intrusion. She's not afraid to stand up for herself with the administration, but she's also a bit flawed and that's nice to see. The only truly false note is her over-the-top conversations with friend Presley, which read more as an adult's idea of how teen girls interact then how they actually, um, interact. Absent that easily ignored misstep, Escape Theory is a nice little page-turner that opens up all sorts of future possibilities set at Keaton School. There are a wealth of personalities and scenarios introduced here the beg for future exploration; here's hoping Ms. Froley will dive back into the ugly side of high school again and take us another adventure with Devon and her band of merry pranksters.
Sarah Rees Brennan introduces some paranormal elements (no vampires! no werewolves!) in her enormously fun spin on the girl detective, Unspoken, the first book of The Lynburn Legacy. (The second book, Untold, is due in September.) Teen Kami Glass has lived in a very sleepy British town, Sorry-in-the-Vale, her whole life. As editor of the school newspaper, she is eager to get into all of the town's secrets, most notably those surrounding one of the founding families, the Lynburns, who have recently returned. Her life is a bit complicated by the one thing she cannot control, the existence of Jared, an imaginary/invisible friend who has communicated telepathically with her since childhood. They don't know how they do it or why they do it, only that they are bound together and always, always, a part of each other's lives.
It is pretty much impossible to discuss the plot of Unspoken without dropping a dozen different spoilers, so I'm going to stay purposely general in this review. While lots of readers are going to enjoy the paranormal elements, it was actually the characters that made this one succeed hugely for me. Kami is Nancy Drew in all of her nosy best, and also channels some Rory Gilmore circa the "Life and Death Brigade" episodes as she stays hot on the trail of the Lynburns. Brennan wisely gives her several friends to solve crime with and all of the teens are well rounded, funny, and smart. (My only complaint would be that they are also gorgeous -- there is so much gorgeousness in Sorry-in-the-Vale that one wonders if average-looking teens are allowed to live there.)
Along with the Scooby gang bits, there is also Kami's family, a delightfully normal and nice supporting cast, which is actually a solid component to the narrative. As for the Lynburns, they are the great big soap opera mess that the plot deserves and oh, how I wish I could say more but I swear, I can't. I'll just add that cute emotionally-tortured boys are always a good thing, and although I'm not fond of love triangles, I'll take this one because it's all tied up in the fight at the end.
Brennan has done a great job here of writing a cracker-jack mystery that doesn't insult the intelligence of its readers. Kami and her friends are enormously likable and watching them navigate the secrets that permeate their town (and turn deadly) makes for a real page-turner. I found Unspoken to be the best sort of diversionary read, and while the tweets have flown fast and furious over the cliffhanger ending, I was quite pleased with Brennan's choice there. She is making her characters work for their story, and as she has crafted so many wonderful personalities here, their drama (and trauma) is not something to overly worry about. Kami is no dumb bunny; she's going to figure things out and with her pals will be saving the day, I just know it. Of course I have to get Untold to figure out how that will happen, but I'm confident Brennan won't let me down. This is an author at the top of her game, and Unspoken is the start of a series that I have fallen hard for.
Finally, Doyce Testerman has crafted a noir urban fantasy that while published for adults is an affecting crossovers for teen readers. It has monsters of an insidious Sam Spade-ish kind, sinister and creepy and deviously intelligent, and it has a sorely conflicted and appealing heroine who is a private detective/former singer and lover of rock and roll (which has plot relevance). But mostly, surprisingly, the root of Hidden Things is all about family and how you can never ever, no matter how hard you might want to, get away from that place you call home. You carry it with you, even in the midst of a trip through an alternate world on the trail of a murderer and in the hopes of finding one of your dearest friends.
Hidden Things opens with a bang as Calliope Jenkins receives a late-night phone call from friend and business partner Josh, who is away investigating a case. The call is strange, but it's nothing compared to the shock of discovering the next morning that Josh is dead and that he died before the phone call was placed. The police are investigating, Josh's wife is freaking out, and a very peculiar guy who appears to be homeless keeps trying to insert himself into Calliope's life. He seems to know a lot about her and Josh, and he won't go away. In rapid succession, Calliope realizes that all is not as it seems, that she needs to follow Josh's trail if she wants to get any answers and that guy just might have the answers she needs, if he doesn't drive her crazy first. Also, there appear to be people out to kill her, so none of this is going to be easy.
What we end with here is a great road novel, a solid mystery, a trip into a parallel world, a glutton, a reason never to trust men in suits, and a dragon -- a really really cool dragon. Here is Testerman's lovely statement on dragons, which pretty much are words to live by:
Dragons are true. It doesn't matter if they fly and breathe fire and can eat a town full of people, if they're messengers for god or a symbol of everything lost that you wish you still had. They might be any of those things or all of 'em, and it still doesn't matter how they are. They are.
It is on the road that the book's coming-of-age plot breaks through, as Calliope finds herself returning to Iowa, where Josh apparently died and, nearly as devastating, where Calliope grew up. The route to answers about her lost friend lie through her home, through her past, through the reckoning about who she was and who she is. It is where everything comes together and is the scene of a confrontation between Calliope and her sister about leaving home and staying and why some of us make one choice and some make the other. And that is where Testerman really sells Hidden Things as a book about growing up. Yes, this is a mystery, and it has a wonderful noir sensibility. But also, as Calliope accepts all that Iowa means for her and Josh and all that it can never be again for either of them, Hidden Things is about leaving home. That's what makes it a killer YA novel, even though it wasn't written for teens. Excellent.
COOL READ: DK's excellent new entry in the "Big Ideas Simply Explained" series is The Politics Book, and it is really something special. With the publisher's classic design style (liberal use of color and sidebars, multiple fonts, dynamic presentation), this is a book that is both highly informative and pleasing to page through. The multiple contributors provide chronological history that dates back to "Ancient Political Thought" beginning in 800 BCE and moves forward through medieval times, the Enlightenment, "Revolutionary Thoughts," and "The Rise of the Masses" and more contemporary discussions. A ton of famous names are packed in here and I loved how the title moves around the world and in and out of big and small ideas. It is as comprehensive as it gets, but more importantly very readable. There is not a dull page here and the examples make the most complex issues clear and easy to understand. (And some of the quotations are really amazing, like Mao Zedong's "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.")
I get great nonfiction to review all the time, and I work hard to bring the best, most unusual, most useful, and interesting of those titles to this column. The Politics Book stands out as one of the most important I've read in a long time. I wish I could put it in the hands of every teenager and adult I know. Pair this with the graphic novel Economix by Michael Goodwin and you could radically transform the population into a smarter, savvier group of individuals. Learning is good, folks -- don't be afraid to read these books and find out more on such worthy subjects.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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"Finally, to the northwest, some two hundred miles off, a conical peak soared up....apparently of even greater height than the other two [Lucania and Bear]. This was christened the Bona, after a racing yacht then belonging to H.R.H."
(Excerpt from the The Ascent of Mount St. Elias by H.R.H. Prince Luigi Amedeo Di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi, 1900, p.160. by Filippo de Filippi)
And that my friends is how a mountain in Alaska ends up with the name of an Italian prince's yacht. At least the Duke of Abruzzi was a real mountaineer and not just some prominent guy who never climbed a mountain in his life but got a permanent memorial (I'm looking at you William McKinley).
I learned about the history of Mt. Bona's name from The American Alpine Journal Vol. XI, Number 2, 1959 which contained the delightful article "Naming Alaska's Mountains" by Francis Farquhar. I have fallen madly in love with the AAJ which is primarily comprised of first hand accounts of climbing and other mountaineering topics that are delightfully not about posing but being prepared. There is also a lot of science which makes me especially happy.
I found this volume while sitting on the floor of a great used bookstore with a massive selection of mountaineering and Alaska books. It was less than $10 which from wandering around the web is apparently a killer deal on old volumes of the AAJ. (Score!!) I wandered through a couple of dozen old issues looking for Alaska articles but never thought I would find one this cool. It fit so perfectly into something I wanted to write about but didn't even think I could properly research. Call it kismet.
This is why I love bookstores - you never know what you might find.
[Post pic of a title held in The American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall library collection of the 469-year-old book called 'On the Appreciation of Mountains'. OH HOW I COVET THIS.)
From Kathy Eldon's upcoming In the Heart of Life (Kathy is Dan's mother):
...I wrote a proposal for a book based on his journals-a book that I hoped would inspire other young people to follow their dreams. Stuffing four volumes into a carry-on case, I flew to New York to discuss the project with various publishing companies.
"Beautiful," the first editor commented, thumbing through the pages of one of them. "But if the artist is dead, how could we promote the book?" Closing it, she turned to me with a frown. "I'm afraid it isn't for us," she said, "but we'll keep the proposal on file in case something changes."
I got the same response wherever I went. The work was good, but a collection of images created by a dead twenty-two year old wasn't commercially viable. Sadly, I hid the journals away in my bedroom closet. It was far too painful to have them in sight.
Everyone who has seen Dan's journals or been consumed by The Journey is the Destination* is (1) shaking their heads right now in disbelief and (2) thanking God for Chronicle Books who saw that this work had to be shared with the world. (100,000+ copies in print, in case you're wondering.)
I have been working for the past year on a somewhat super secret project. It involves forming a small press with a good friend and ushering a couple of books into the world. (Yes, I'm really doing this.) One of them is a reissue of an out-of-print Alaskan classic and the author died several years ago. Never once did we think that her death would affect the marketing and sale of the book-I read books by dead people all the time.
This is crazycakes.
I understand that editors must think of marketing but I also know (boy, do I know) that most publishers do not work very effectively at marketing books. They get scared too easily, I think and this is a perfect example of fear outweighing brilliance. Thank heavens the stars aligned and Kathy Eldon was still able to bring her son's work out into the world. The world is much better with Dan still a part of it.
*On sale now at Powells for $12.98 in tpb. BUY A COPY.
[Images from Dan Eldon's site. If you aren't aware of his amazing and tragic story then be sure to check it out. He was really something special.]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Alaska bush pilots have romanced the Alaskan landscape some 90 years, since the days that Ben Eielson, Russ Merrill and Joe Crosson -- legends of early Alaska aviation -- captured hearts and headlines across the country. Flying wild into the wilderness motivates scores of young men and women to earn their pilot licensure and look North.
But who is a bush pilot? What does bush pilot flying involve? There's not a lot of consensus about what a bush pilot does, except that he or she navigates Alaska's wild and roadless geography. A cover story in last month's Flight Training magazine continues the tradition of romancing the bush and even acknowledges some of the hard truths of flying off the grid.
In "ALASKA: The Ultimate Flight Training Environment," Kathy Dondzila writes of "flying with Bush Pilots above the Arctic Circle" with Kingdom Air Corps, at the Brooks Range Bible Camp 37 miles north of Bettles. Kingdom Air Corps is not a flight school but offers aviation-themed summer Bible camps to children and training for pilot-certified missionaries on how to operate in a "Bush environment." Kingdom isn't alone; Alaska Cub Training Specialists in Wasilla offers pilots a "bush checkout" along with formation flight opportunities through a variety of Bush Alaska-themed trips. Each company emphasizes off-airport landing, mountainous terrain and operating outside more familiar aviation environments.
Dondzila on the barebones nature of such flying:
The splendor of the wilderness is matched with challenges. Weather information is scarce, aircraft need to be maintained with minimal equipment, fuel is carefully monitored, and mountain flying knowledge is crucial. The nearest source for weather information was Bettles. However, at our remote location we had no satellite phone and no cell service, so we could not call them for a briefing. While Alaska has 179 weather cams around the state, including one at Anaktuvuk Pass (an hour north, to which we flew several times), we could not access them, as we had no Internet. So, when weather was marginal, the chief pilot would take off in one of the smaller airplanes to take a look at the conditions. He would fly toward Bettles, if conditions allowed, contact Bettles 10 miles out for a briefing, and bring us back the report.
Bettles, population 15, is considered the entry point for Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range. It is about 150 miles from Fairbanks, the nearest paved airport, and while it does offer many of the comforts of home (Dondzila gleefully mentions the welcome availability of Klondike Bars), it also is a place from another time. Flying here requires thinking beyond the obvious despite access to flight service and telephones. Bush pilots in Bettles and elsewhere, today, may also be mechanics, too.
The best bush pilots are also airframe and powerplant mechanics, able to fix squawks wherever they occur. Our Cessna 206, which had been working perfectly on arrival at camp, showed no manifold pressure on the second day. Fortunately, we had Dan Swenson, our chief mechanic, with us. Swenson saw that the copper tube had broken where the B-nut slides over the feral (a small metal ring placed on the end of the tube). In minutes, he was able to cut and reconnect the tubing with the tools available at camp. Sometimes it's not that easy, and another aircraft has to fly out to pick up or deliver a part. But in all cases, an A&P needs to be able to work in the location, weather, and circumstances where the airplane has landed -- and get the aircraft flying again.
While the days of carrying along a spare propeller are long gone, pilots in adverse and remote environments are indeed smart to become licensed mechanics. A true hallmark of today's bush pilot may then be do-it-yourself repair, regardless of location or circumstance. Search and rescue tech have come along way in Alaska and are getting better all the time, but the terrain and remoteness demand a command of the machine.
Bush pilots, regulation, frontier
When Harmon Helmericks wrote "The Last of the Bush Pilots," in 1969, he wasn't lamenting the death of any single individual, but rather the end of an era. Federal aviation regulations and safety standards have shifted the modern expectations for bush flying.
"For many pilots," writes Dondzila, "their dream job is that of a bush pilot -- the airborne cowboy who must land on gravel bars and slip through mountain passes."
In truth, no pilot, even in Alaska, must do these things, and even those who fly for lodges and operate in more remote locations, including gravel bars, make their decisions based on the use of 21st-century technology and real-time weather information. The days of risking your life to deliver vaccines are over.
But cowboys are to Alaskan pilots as the frontier is to Alaska; steadfastly evocative comparisons that show no signs of abating.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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The big fat Consortium Books catalog arrived last week and there were several books that caught my eye. Here is the quick & dirty catalog copy on them along with a comment or two from me on what made them jump off the page:
Unmentionables by Laurie Loewenstein (Akashic Books) Marian Elliott Adams, an outspoken advocate for sensible undergarments for women, sweeps onto the Chautauqua stage under a brown canvas tent on a sweltering August night in 1917, and shocks the gathered town of Caledonia with her speech: how can women compete with men in the workplace and in life if they are confined by their undergarments?
It's not due out until January so be sure to check out the full description (which is a little confusing) at the pub site. I love the time period and the topic (women's suffrage) and I've got high hopes.
I wrote about Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard (Bellevue Literary Press) a little while ago and I'm still looking forward to this fictional look at the real life of Violet Paget, the "brilliant gender-bending, lesbian polymath known for her chilling supernatural stories". (Due in January.)
Also from Bellevue, I think this would be a good choice for my column: Then They Started Shooting by Lynne Jones. The author interviewed over forty Serb and Muslim children who "came of age during the Bosnian War and now returns, twenty years after the war began, to discover the adults they have become." (Due in October.)
The River Detroit by Paul Vasey (Biblioasis): What is the Detroit River? It's dumps, dogpatches, ships, steamers, storms. It's month-long salvage operations. It's the Zug Island stacks, belching clouds of purple and yellow....It's the reflection of a city in riot. And it's the singing motormen, the agitators and the autoworkers who look into its waves every day and see something of their future.
I am endlessly fascinated by Americana, especially of unexpected angles to see features of this country and how they inform who we are. This sounds wicked cool. (Oct)
Baghdad Central by Elliot Colla (Bitter Lemon Press). I love Bitter Lemon mysteries - they are very similar to SoHo Press in that they share foreign locales, a hardboiled sensibility and a lack of "coziness". (Not that there's anything wrong with that - I enjoy a cozy every now and again as well.) Here's the gist of Baghdad Central:
"...a noir debut novel set in Baghdad in September 2003. The US occupation of Iraq is a swamp of incompetence and self-delusion. The CPA has disbanded the Iraqi army and police as a consequence of its paranoid policy of de-Baathification of Iraqi society. Tales of hubris and reality-denial abound, culminating in Washington hailing the glorious mess as "mission accomplished."
Into all this walks Inspector Mushin al-Khafaji, forced into a deal with the Americans and investigating the disappearance of young women translators working for the US Army. I love the setting - I've been waiting for a Baghdad series from this period. Check out more Bitter Lemon titles at the website. (Oooh - a new Leonardo Padura is on the way - great Cuban author whose Mario Conde series I really enjoy.)
A Commonplace Book of Pie by Kate Lebo w/art by Jessica Lynn Bonin (Chin Music Press). Here's all you need to know: "a collection of facts, both real and imagined about pie." No, wait - here's more: "Lebo explores the tension between the container and the contained while also busting cliches and creating new myths around strawberry rhubarb, vanilla cream, mincemeat and many other pies."
Just go see more at Lebo's website - the book started as a zine and now it is a book! Huzzah! (October)
Afghan Box Camera by Lukas Birk and Sean Foley (Dewi lewis Publishing). This is the most unique title I've heard of in ages: ...Afghanistan is one of the last places on earth where the box camera continues to be used as a way of making a living. Handmade out of wood - a camera and darkroom in one - generations of Afghans have had their portraits taken with it. Spanning decades, from peacetime to war, box camera photography exists within a more sophisticated photographic history....the story is told through a rich mixture of contemporary and archive photography, ephemera, illustrations, interviews and storytelling. (October)
Check out the Dewi Lewis site - some really interesting books over there.
Play Pretty Blues by Snowden Wright (Engine Books): The mysteries of blues legend Robert Johnson's life and death long ago became myth. Part researched reconstruction, part vivid imagination, this lyrical novel brings Johnson alive through the voices of his six wives, revealing the husband and son inside the legend. (November)
More here - Robert Johnson never gets old to me; I'd love to see what Wright does with his legend.
Next week, the YA titles from Consortium that caught my eye.....
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When her son Tommy, then seventy-two, was interviewed in his Baltimore home, he reflected on his lifelong awe of his mother's talents. "She could do anything she attempted," he said. "She was a fine pianist, she spoke five languages fluently, could pick up the rudiments of a new one swiftly. She made the most beautiful clothes, embroidered, did wood carving, was a gourmet cook and a great gardener. She was a marvelous bridge player, always in demand. And when she lectured there was a rare quality of naturalness that carried the audience along with her every word."*
Tommy's mother, Marguerite Harrison, spontaneously applied for a job at the Baltimore Sun even though she had no experience as a journalist. As a 36 year old widow with a young son, her situation was precarious and she needed work. So off she went and started writing and soon enough had her own column and soon after that, as the war drive picked up, she was out in the streets, joining women on the job, writing about how they contributed to the war effort. And then she decided to become a spy and with references in hand from her former father-in-law, went to the head of Military Intelligence Division and became a spy. A very very good spy!
In the years that followed, Marguerite uncovered secrets from Europe and sent them home, found her way into post-war Soviet Union where she was eventually imprisoned not once but twice, and then, after her spying years ended, she started making movies in Central Asia and sending dispatches back to various news outlets on what she found there. Marguerite Harrison lived large - she made her life.
I think I might be madly in love with her.
* Quote taken from Women of the Four Winds which I happen to be reading right this very minute.