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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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When I attended Claire Dederer's session on language and memoir at the Chuckanut Writer's Conference, I greatly enjoyed the many ways in which she used basic words to show us how we could create beautiful sentences. It was a very funny and thoughtful session, with lots of audience participation which was great. I'm sure she is an excellent teacher as she taught us quite a bit in a very short period.
From my notes I have the importance of "story, scene, honesty and language". We were urged never to use general past tense "we used to" or "we would" and to take the general and make it specific. (Don't write that "we would go to the park" but rather, "I got on my bike on long sunny days and rode on cracked sidewalks everyday that summer with my best friend Susie to the park....")
See the difference?
I thought about language as Claire talked and also about honesty in writing (the importance of emotional honesty was a big topic of discussion). Lots of folks asked questions and batted around ideas, feeding off of each others answers. It was all quite unexpectedly exhilarating and I walked out the door and promptly placed myself at the nearby bookstore table and bought a copy of her book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.
I do not practice yoga. I am impressed by folks who can do it well but I've always been more partial to other forms of exercise. So I wouldn't normally want to read a book that is framed around yoga. But Claire was interesting and that made me want to read the language she chose for her book. I flew through it and now have a much better understanding of what yoga requires. More importantly, I have a grasp on the power of personal stories.
One of the things we talked about in the session was the power of an ordinary life and Poser, like many memoirs, is about just that. In the book, Claire writes of how she and her husband are freelance writers in Seattle and both have roots in western Washington. They had a daughter and Claire dove headfirst into West Seattle's idea of what the good mother must do. (It's all very organic.) There were financial pressures which drove her husband into depression, the trauma of their daughter's difficult birth, friends and family who dropped in and out and the endless confusion over her parent's who had been separate for more than 20 years but resisted divorce. It's all very ordinary and yet wildly compelling.
The yoga framework carries readers along in an orderly manner as Claire reaches back to her confused and sometimes frustrating childhood and then steps into the present and the ever-growing chaos there. Slowly she works through many questions about her life and as I read the book I realized how common her experience truly was, even with a decidedly non-yoga practicing reader. I did not share her path in mothering, nor was I a freelance writer but still....I got this book in a big way. There's one line of many that caught me as she pondered how much of her time was going into her infant daughter's care. She writes:
"But I could feel my worth as a worker slipping away, month by month and year by year."
It's okay to feel that way; I have certainly felt that way and it is a bit of the essence of the book. It's about women and family and being a child of a loving but broken home (which is broken even when both parents remain 100% in your life) and about figuring out what kind of parent is the kind of parent you want to be and what kind of spouse and what kind of worker and what kind of creative and even what kind of yoga practitioner.
It's coming-of-age for grown-ups which I think, more and more, is a large bit of what most memoirs really are.
Poser is written with lovely language and it made me think. I still have no interest in attending a yoga class but I got something out of these words that is staying with me. It's the emotional honesty I think--when it's present in a text you don't forget it.
Last weekend I attended the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, WA. I went into this with absolutely no expectations--no search for connections, no networking, no intention to attend a pitch session with a publisher or agent. All I wanted to was to listen to the faculty (all of whom sounded interesting) and maybe through the sessions and presentations find my way around some issues with my current projects.
Here's the thing--I have not been writing like I should. It's very hard to juggle creative writing and job-writing. I have spent a lot of time reviewing and working as a journalist over the past few years since The Map of My Dead Pilots went through its final edits & was published. I wrote a lot of short things since then, some essays and a short story, but the next book has been a problem. I've been floundering for no good reason, so I decided to attend Chuckanut and see if I could gain some much needed perspective (and possibly direction).
In addition to attending all the presentations, which were alternately funny, thoughtful and endearing, I also attended sessions at each appointed time. I attended novelist (and magazine editor) Brian Doyle's session on finding ideas even though I already know what I want to write about. I attended memoirist Claire Dederer's session on language in memoir even though I have already written a memoir. I attended a panel discussion with novelist Jim Lynch, nonfiction writer Bruce Barcott, historian David Laskin and science writer Thor Hanson about research even though I have spent years in archives and libraries. I attended Laskin's session on writing personal narratives on family history even though I was not certain this was something I wanted to write and, finally, I attended Barcott's session on writing Op-eds even though I had never thought about writing one.
And here's the thing--I got a lot out of this conference. I got some very useful tips, some points to ponder, some ideas to follow-up on. I spent some serious time thinking about what was said around me, chatted with some interesting people and came to grips with all the questions that have been mucking up my work.
I got myself centered if that makes any sense. I figured out what I am supposed to be doing and, just as important, what I am supposed to be writing.
My only complaint about the conference is a common one for such events--some of the faculty was less available than others. It was clear to me early on that if I wanted to speak to any of them, even just to extend a compliment, I was going to have to approach them whenever I saw them and not wait around as they could be gone. So I did just that and ended up having some great conversations and, very surprisingly, getting an amazing offer of assistance on a short project (I asked for advice, I got a lot more). Everyone was nice, it's just that some of them weren't there too much. Keep than in mind when you attend a conference.
I'm going to write a bit more specifically about some of these writers and their work in the coming weeks because I want to recommend their books and articles and share some notes I took. Bottom line though, this was sort of life-changing for me and one of the more valuable experiences of my writing career.
A pretty amazing ruling from the Canadian Supreme Court yesterday concerning Aboriginal territory in British Columbia that you might have missed. I found this whole article explaining it to be fascinating but in particular it was the history (150 years worth) that really caught my attention.
In 1864 a toll road for wagons was planned through Tsilhqot'in territory in BC to better facilitate the movement of goods to the gold fields. Many of the Tsilhqot'in protested the roadway, especially as they had an uneasy relationship with the Europeans due to the spread of smallpox from blankets. (Really.) Here's a bit on it from the article I read at Aboriginal People's Television Network:
Then, in the spring of 1864, four bags of flour were stolen from a road crew's base camp. The crew's foreman threatened the Tsilhqot'in with smallpox for stealing.
Journalist Melvin Rothenburger, who wrote a book called the The Chilcotin War, believes this threat may have helped spark the war.
"That could have been an important factor because of the fear of smallpox and it had been rampant," said Rothenburger, whose great-great grandfather Donald McLean was killed in the ensuing battles with the Tsilhqot'in.
News of the smallpox threat and rapes stirred a group of Tsilhqot'in to launch what turned into a guerilla war against the settlers. Of this group, a war chief known as Klatsassin or Lhatasassine, meaning "We do not know his name," came to embody the Chilcotin War.
They fired their first shot on the morning of April 28, 1864. It killed a ferryman who refused Klatsassin and his party passage.
After several deaths and fighting on both sides, Katassin and three other chiefs went to a proposed meeting with the BC governor. While asleep they were shackled, then summarily tried and hung on Oct. 26, 1864.
Before he died Klatsassin famously said, "We meant war, not murder."
There is much talk in Canadian media about the long fight for Aboriginal rights in BC (this latest court battle started in the early 1980s concerning timber sales on Aboriginal land). I am struck though by how the fight simmered in so many different ways and the powerful reach of history. It never fades away, no matter how long you ignore it.
History always insists on being heard.
From a conversation posted yesterday at Tinhouse between authors Lidia Yuknavitch and Kate Zambreno:
LY: Can contemporary women writers achieve literary or artistic legitimacy? On whose terms? Toward what end? This is a question that troubles me, or a question I think should be endlessly troubled...
KZ: It troubles me too. Although I can't speak for all contemporary women writers, just myself. This new idée fixe of mine--to be taken seriously as a writer--also, to someday write a truly great work, and then I will be taken seriously. But--I don't know if I will know if a work is great, perhaps that's not something I can decide or know as the writer, and perhaps these ideas of greatness or genius are oppressive terms anyway, about approaching perfection or success, when I've always been more interested in failure.
And what does that even mean--a serious work? Sometimes I feel exquisitely that if I never wrote about femininity or feminism, about emotions, especially depression and anger, never wrote from the first-person, I would be taken seriously as a literary writer, but I keep on returning to these themes in the work. I mean, there are certainly some contemporary women writers that achieve a great deal of literary legitimacy and recognition, and occasionally in the mainstream, and I think many are incredibly deserving. But I have absolutely no misconceptions that American trade publishing is a meritocracy, and in my opinion most of the important work being written in the United States today is happening in the small press, sometimes at a very micro level, and this is because the demands of the market, especially for the massive audience of women readers, are not the best recipe for prickly and urgent literature.
The question of "what is serious work" is what really captured my attention in this exchange as it is something that I think about quite frequently with my own work. In writing about aviation I am generally always serious--it's a serious topic--and yet I do not think as a literary writer of aviation I am taken very seriously. I don't mean that people dismiss my research on this subject but rather that when writing about something perceived as technical, it is easy to dismiss an author as other than literary.
Basically, writing about aviation is considered by some as more the nuts and bolts of writing and not the MFA-type of indepth analysis that literary writers appreciate. (And I won't even get into the issue of being a woman who writes about a male-dominated field.)
As a reviewer, I am granted far more respect as serious when reviewing nonfiction for adults then writing anything about YAs or children. This does not surprise me, although I wish it did.
I have felt in the past few months, that aspects of my writing (as a reviewer) have been deemed worthy of easy dismissal by others. This has left me disappointed in those who passed such casual judgements. I do not agree with their definitions of "serious" or how one must write to be deemed worthy of the title "serious writer".
It's a term that is best expressed in the eye of the beholder, I think. Just as so many other subjective terms are.
(And for the record, how anyone could deem Zambreno or Yuknavitch as anything less than serious is impossible for me to believe.)
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I have seen this movie roughly a zillion times (I think it was the only thing on HBO for years). It never gets old and yes, I still know all the words.
I was tagged a couple of times for this tour and had to turn down the invites, but my pal Sarah Stevenson emailed me recently & the timing was perfect. Here is Sarah's post all about her young adult writing which I highly recommend. She also helps me wrangle the crew at Guys Lit Wire, keeps this site in ship-shape condition and basically is a truly lovely person & good friend. Now onto the questions!
1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON?
I've been struggling for a bit on my next big creative project. I write a lot for my day job, all of it on Alaskan aviation topics. I have been concerned both about writing on this too much for another book and not leaving the topic as it is what I know so well. In some ways, I've been stuck. (Not blocked.) To break out of this, I'm working on essay length pieces, all of them circling around the topic of the Alaska bush pilot myth. I hope when I am done that they will fit together well, but I've decided not to worry about the whole so much anymore and focus on the parts. This has freed me up quite a bit.
2. HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
As I"m a nonfiction writer mostly, I don't really fit into the "genre" issue as such. Comparing my work to other aviation writers, I think that I'm more personal--I can't help but make aviation a personal subject. I am also less interested in what happened (although I think that's important) than in why. I am endlessly intrigued by why people make the choices they do, whether they live in the present or are part of history. I hope by unpacking the bush pilot myth I can separate myself even more from other aviation writers by looking at the darker side of a long held aviation (and adventure) myth.
3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
It's what I know.
I am pretty much only happy when, to some degree or another, I am writing about what I know or what personally matters to me. This is not only Alaska aviation, nor do I want it to be only Alaska aviation. I am also deeply interested in my family history and slowly moving forward on some projects in that area as well. Again though, it is what I know.
4. HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?
Process is a big problem for me. My husband and I have our own business (aircraft leasing) and we work from home. We are always around each other, always working on many different things. Then I have my freelance journalism job for Alaska Dispatch and I'm always working on a couple of things for that, either by writing or interviewing or researching. My creative work gets bounced aside ALL THE DAMN TIME.
I hate that.
One of the biggest struggles I have is to make creative work a priority. When it happens, it happens at night (I've always been a night person) and with familiar television in the background (all seasons of Gilmore Girls currently). I have a notebook (Field Notes) with me for notes all the time and I believe strongly in taking notes. I have a composition notebook where I keep bigger research notes and images that strike a chord. All of this, in bits and pieces that make little sense to others, is part of my process. Mostly, I just keep trying to move forward.
5. AND THE OTHER PART OF THIS QUESTION, HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS NOT WORK?
I don't get enough done. I get scared. I get tired. I give up too easily. All the things that writers say about not getting the job done, are true for me. I believe very strongly that writing is not hard work; I come from people who knew hard work their whole lives. I've loaded airplanes at 20 below zero and I know that is hard work. But writing is very frustrating work and I let it frustrate me far too often.
PASSING THE TORCH, OR WHO'S NEXT:
I completely forgot about this bit. Partly inspired by Kelly Fineman's downsizing posts, I have been on a tear recently going through the house for a massive neighborhood garage sale. We are having it tomorrow and this week in particular has been about scouring closets, pouring over bookshelves and pricing like a madwoman. I put this post together but completely forgot the asking others to participate bit. I point you to Sarah's recent post again and also, delightfully, to Kelly's many writing posts. My friend Gwenda Bond has also done the Writing Process Post thing and it is good reading.They will inspire you I'm sure.
Impressive episode on the Interior including sound and silence in Denali, the saga of "the Fairbanks Four" and life at Crazy Dog Kennels. You can hear my "Letter to Fairbanks" at the 47 minute mark. For the record, I have never been a bush pilot, I am a former aircraft dispatcher who worked for a bush commuter (and wrote about it) based in Fairbanks. I suppose "bush pilot" sounds a lot sexier though.
You can read my full letter (it got edited just a bit) here. I now cover Alaska aviation for Alaska Dispatch.
I have a deep appreciation for a well crafted picture book and feel compelled to tell the world just how lovely a recent arrival at my doorstep is. Julia's House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke (author/illustrator of the Zita the Spacegirl graphic novels) has everything young readers/pre-readers could want: a great back story, admirable protagonist and creatures great and small that fill the pages (but not in a scary way). The setting is also about as good as it gets combining multiple levels of wish-fulfillment for adult and child alike. Frankly, I think Hatke has hit this one about as far out of the ballpark as you can go.
Julia arrives at her new location a bit magically: "Julia's house came to town and settled by the sea." (This is where I saw shades of Howl's Moving Castle.) With her pink high tops and saucy kerchief, she quickly gets down to the business of filling her quiet and fabulous looking home (fireplace! globe! grandfather clock! books! gramophone! ships in bottles!) with friends. Julia finds these friends by posting a sign outside: "Julia's House for Lost Creatures". All sorts of creatures show up: Patched Up Kitty, a very sad troll, a dragon, a mermaid, goblins, folletti & more. Shades of Dr. Doolittle, yes?
Julia is overwhelmed by all the sudden roommate chaos but finds a way to sort it all out, (the mermaid of course will do the dishes, the ghost is in charge of dusting, etc.), gets everyone to chip in and they all live happily ever after having grand adventures, I'm sure. (Pippi Pippi Pippi!)
Hatke accomplishes the holy grail of picture book writing I think: gentle lesson, glorious illustrations, easy text and sure-fire read aloud pleasure. That he does this with a dash of magic and spunk is nothing less than I would expect from him (see those Zita books for more). This is an author who makes it look easy, which might be the biggest achievement of all when it comes to this tricky medium.
Roberta Bille Reeve Sheldon lived a life that spanned both the globe and significant periods of Alaska's history as a territory and then a state, but had perhaps its most profound impact in the community she made her home for five decades.
"I feel as if I've just come home," she told her mother the first day she stepped foot in Talkeetna. That feeling stayed with her for 50 years, until her death last week at home in that tight-knit Alaska community about 115 miles north of Anchorage.
From a childhood as part of a storied Alaskan family, to a flight attendant career where she visited cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Roberta embraced a wide view of the world that found her nevertheless returning to Alaska as a young woman.
In Alaska's aviation community, Roberta Sheldon's story always begins with mention of her parentage. Born in Seward in 1940, she was the eldest daughter of Bob Reeve, who pioneered the use of skis on mudflats and revitalized Valdez's mining industry with his flights to the claims surrounding the town. Popularly known as "the glacier pilot," Reeve would go on to be the only bush pilot under exclusive military contract during World War II. He then established Reeve Aleutian Airways in 1947, which dominated air routes along the Aleutian Islands for decades.
For the climbing community, Roberta Sheldon is part of the larger story of Denali, and Talkeetna's relationship with that mountain. In articles and books on that subject she is always mentioned in tandem with husband Don Sheldon, arguably the most famous pilot to ever fly on Denali. Don Sheldon was widely known and respected for owning and operating Talkeetna Air Service.
In his book "Moments of Doubt and Other Mountaineering Writings," climber David Roberts recalls the positive impact Roberta had on the company: "We met Roberta that summer . She was strikingly pretty, a slender woman with dark black hair. Somewhat shy, she had a sharp intelligence that she had put to work acting as Don's radio operator and bookkeeper. She also devised a chart to keep track of pick-up dates and parties; no longer would Sheldon file the whereabouts and needs of his myriad clients only in his head."
The couple were often presented as an Alaskan ideal to Outside readers, perhaps no more so than in a Life magazine article from 1964 -- the year they were married -- which described the couple thus:
This year Sheldon married Roberta Reeve, the pretty young daughter of Bob Reeve, one of the great pioneer bush pilots of the 1930s. Of course they took a flying honeymoon, and on it Sheldon made one of his rare miscalculations. Somewhat bedazzled by the presence of his bride as he landed on a frozen lake, he taxied too close to the outlet and the plane plunged through the thin ice. Bride and groom took an icy dunking and the embarrassed Sheldon had to send a sheepish Mayday call to get some pilot buddies to fly up and help get his plane out. But the wedding night drenching didn't seem to bother Roberta, and she has no intention of trying to change her husband's ways.
"I wouldn't try to keep him grounded if I could," she says. "Besides I know he can take care of himself." She says it firmly, as if she means it. Yet every night when Sheldon's plane bounces down on his abbreviated airstrip, Roberta comes running out to greet him with a great bear hug, as if, well, that's one more day he has come home.
After Don Sheldon's death from cancer in 1975, Roberta sold Talkeetna Air Service and became office manager of Genet Expeditions. Ray Genet was famous as a pioneer of the West Buttress route on Mount McKinley and member of the three-man team who made the first successful winter ascent of the mountain in 1967. Sheldon worked for Genet until his death in 1979 on a return climb after summiting Everest.
In the '80s and '90s Roberta Sheldon's focus on Talkeetna became razor sharp. And while she never wholly distanced herself from flying or mountaineering -- she even soloed on Ruth Glacier for her 40th birthday -- the love she had for the area propelled her into a more activist role. It was a calling she articulated well to author Joe McGinniss in "Going to Extremes", published in 1980: "I can't imagine living anyplace else. I feel my destiny is right here....I'm thinking of writing. I would like to try to get what this town is down on paper. I'd like to capture the humor of the town, the independence, the way the land has shaped the people and just the fine values of living here."
Determined to provide, as her son Robert Sheldon explained in a recent phone call, "a comprehensive overview of Talkeetna back to the Native history," she wrote "The Heritage of Talkeetna" which delves into the origins of the settlement. She followed this up with "The Mystery of the Cache Creek Murders," a deep look into a string of mining-related killings in 1939.
"She chose that event to research," explained Robert Sheldon, "because it marked a turning point for Talkeetna. After those crimes people came to understand that the worst could happen, that the old rules and codes no longer applied. Then land use plans happened, the community plans were formed, the Talkeetna region changed."
Roberta was not content, however, just to study the past. She became heavily involved in community matters, serving 11 years on the Talkeetna Community Council, nine of them as chairwoman. She was on the Board of Directors for the Talkeetna Historical Society for 13 years and the Talkeetna Comprehensive Land Use Committee for six. Governor Jay Hammond appointed her to the Denali Subsistence Resource Committee and Governor Tony Knowles appointed her to the Consultation Committee for Southside Denali Development. The list of accomplishments goes on and on.
According to daughter Kate Sheldon, Roberta "...was extremely proud that Talkeetna turned out to be The Model for commercial land-use in the State of Alaska," something of particular value to the large touring companies so prevalent in the area during the tourist season.
Further, according to son Robert Sheldon, "Pretty much any environmental project south of the Brooks Range my mother has been involved in on some level."
This was especially true of the proposed Susitna Dam project which Roberta was instrumental in fighting for years. As recently as 2012 she was on record against the dam, writing in The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman: "Some might think that a dynamite river with Alaska-caliber fish runs, together with a small, entrepreneurial town with a strong work ethic and economy, are worth sacrificing for an exorbitantly priced dam. Or, that the health of almost countless named and un-named tributaries and side-sloughs that harbor spawning salmon from the mouth of Cook Inlet to the proposed dam site doesn't count. Don't bet on it."
Coupled with her activism, Roberta's dedication to preserving Talkeetna's past and future extended to the purchase of historic buildings and making sure that history was visibly shared with the many visitors who come to the community every year. According to the State of Alaska Historic Preservation Office, she worked to get the Talkeetna Historic District established and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 and the historic Talkeetna Village Airstrip listed, which happened on August 2, 2002. She also worked with the Denali Arts Council to acquire the old Talkeetna Air Service hangar and lot, which is now the home of the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar.
Perhaps most famous among the climbing community is Roberta's steadfast preservation of the Mountain House, a shelter constructed by Don Sheldon and friends in 1966 on the South Face of Denali. Located on a 5-acre rock and ice outcrop at the 6,000-foot level, in the middle of what is now known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheater of the Ruth Gorge, the Mountain House is managed by Alaska Mountaineering School but firmly owned by the Sheldon family. Aerial tours of the Mountain House are available through several Talkeetna air taxis including Sheldon Air Service, owned and operated by Don and Roberta's daughter Holly and her husband.
"My mother lived her life with discipline and dignity," said Robert Sheldon. Her legacy, found from Ruth Glacier to the banks of the Susitna and along the streets of Talkeetna, is certainly one that many Alaskans can aspire to. "She taught us if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right," says her son. Roberta's entire life is a testament to this credo and the mark she has made on Alaska's history is one that should not soon be forgotten.
A celebration of life for Roberta Sheldon is planned for June 22 at 4 p.m. in the Sheldon Arts Community Hangar in Talkeetna. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be mailed to the Talkeetna Defense Fund at P.O. Box 292, Talkeetna, AK 99676. Both of Sheldon's books can be purchased at bookstores across Alaska or direct from the Talkeetna Historical Society.
I'm going to attend the Chuckanut Writers Conference later this month seeking some inspiration & general writerly thoughts as I ponder several pieces I'm working on right now.
I think this will be a good thing. There are no plans for "networking" or "making connections". (Don't need to pitch anything, don't want marketing advice, don't want an agent talk.) I just want to listen to some authors and gain some new perspective.
I'm glad those are the only reason I'm attending. Sometimes (most times) thinking about the business of writing really sucks all the happy out of the creative bits (at least to me). But the writing part, that I'm really looking forward to.
From The Voice is All, a biography of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson:
They clustered in the mill towns where the trains brought them and created enclaves where no English needed to be spoken--self-contained "petits Canadas" like certain neighborhoods in Lowell, where they had their own churches, parish schools, shops, social clubs and funeral parlors. Every Franco-American community had its own newspapers. It was only the virulent prejudice against them that made them choose to be walled off, it was their cultural pride, which they called "la survivance." In Canada they had held out against the English foreigners who had taken their country from them in the eighteenth century. It was now their duty to endure, surrounded by the foreigners of America. In the words of the inspiring voice that reminded Maria Chapdelaine* of her solemn duty, "many centuries hence the world will look upon us and say:--These people are of a race that knows not how to perish....We are a testimony."
La survivance depended upon the stubborn preservation, at all costs, of famille, foi, et langue (family, faith and language), all of which were under threat in the mill towns of the United States."
My father's family emigrated from Quebec in 1929 when their youngest child, my great uncle Ben, was 3. I have long been interested by how the French Canadians fought assimilation so hard--it's particularly amusing to me when people use failing to assimilate as a reason to distrust an immigrant group as I know firsthand how complicated this issue truly is.
My father was American-born, in a Rhode Island mill town in 1939. He left home at age 17 for the USAF and resolutely never looked back but, just like Kerouac, he could not truly leave New England or his family or his faith (or his French-Canadian-ness) behind. For this reason, Kerouac is an endless fascination for me.
[Post title from Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940--1956.]
*The main character from a novel of the same name by Louis Hemon, published in 1913.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I missed A Birder's Guide to Everything when it came out on the festival circuit last year--did any of you see it? I get so frustrated when the "loud" movies eat up all marketing oxygen and a film like this one disappears quickly. Here's a bit on the movie from the current issue of Audubon Magazine:
The plot of A Birder's Guide to Everything centers on four kids trying to confirm a possible sighting of a Labrador duck, considered extinct since 1875. I'd been asked to check over a draft screenplay to vet its bird content. The movie's premise--chasing a long-gone duck--might seem preposterous. But I was happy to oblige: It isn't every day that someone decides to film a drama built around teenaged birders.
When I first picked up the screenplay, I feared that birding teens would be treated as a bad joke. Fortunately, it was soon obvious that director and co-writer Rob Meyer had tremendous respect and affection for his characters.
That same feeling was apparent later, when I visited the Birder's Guide set. Everyone working on the film, onscreen and off, believed in the project. That belief shines through in the finished film, where the main characters and their personal struggles come across as glowingly genuine.
The duck "discovery" may be the least authentic thing in the picture, but by the time it shows up, that hardly matters. By then, A Birder's Guide has already worked its magic, which you'll be able to see for yourself when it hits the big screen in March.
And, from last year, a bit about how making the movie turned filmmaker Rob Meyer into a birder.
[Post title from the article about Rob Meyer. Note also the diversity of the teen cast.]
Excellent article up at Outside on the lengths the people of Timbuktu were willing to go to last year to save their long protected (and centures old) books and manuscripts from an invading jihad. Here's a bit on what books have always meant to the people of Mali who dwell on the Niger River:
The skies had been smudged with Saharan sands all day, but this blew out at night, leaving an enormous Milky Way overhead. When Scottish explorer Mungo Park first came down this river in 1795, he was astonished by what people requested: they wanted paper. In the 1840s, the explorer Heinrich Barth gave away reams of the stuff and described traders wandering the desert with nothing but books to sell. Illiterate Africa was a myth. Words--books--had always been necessary.
And this is just a taste of what the people of Timbuktu did to save their books:
"Then, in August, we found the solution," Traore said. Late at night, they began to pack up manuscripts, stuffing them into old rice sacks. Just the packing took a full month and involved dozens of men from several book-owning families. Traore hired five donkey drivers to carry the thousands of manuscripts--no one could count them all--out of the dispensary around midnight, every night for a week. They loaded the donkeys, and then Traore's 72-year-old grandfather, the retired guardian, walked point, scouting for jihadi patrols. Each night, they distributed books to a different house, joining the small number of high-priority works smuggled out of the main library by underwear.
Go. Read the whole article. It will make you believe in the goodness of the world again.
[Post pic: Malian calligrapher Boubacar Sadeck consults an ancient manuscript at his home in Bamako, Mali. Photo: Marco Di Lauro/Reportage by Getty Images.]
From Ilene Cooper's interview with Booklist in March, here is a bit about her YA nonfiction title A Woman in the House (and the Senate):
By the 1970s though, when women were demanding their rights instead of asking for them, many congressmen were growing hostile. When Patricia Schroeder was appointed to the Armed Services Committee, the chair made her and an African American, Ron Dellums, share a chair because, he said, "women and blacks were worth only half a member."
(Dellums was the first African American member of the committee.)
Cooper continues with this bit of her personal story about social security which BLEW ME AWAY:
The week before I graduated from high school, my mother died of a heart attack. The salary she earned as a saleswoman was intended to cover my college tuition--thankfully much less in those days. Still, after she died, it seemed college might not be in the cards for me.
Then my family learned that we were entitled to her Social Security benefits. A few years earlier, this would not have been the case. A husband's Social Security benefits went to his family; a wife's were simply put back into the general fund.
It took a dedicated congresswoman, Martha Griffiths of Michigan, to push for a bill that would reverse this injustice.
All rather startling, don't you think? You can see a short video of Congressman Dellums talking about sharing that seat by scrolling down on this Congressional history page.
[Post title taken from the response Cooper received when, as a teenager, she wrote to her Congressman asking about the Congressional page program.]
Richard Bowes writes some wonderful short stories.
"The Margay's Children" is the sort of Bowe's story that especially appeals to me - it brushes up against his love of New York City, his development of realistic complicated characters in a seemingly mundane setting and his drop-in of sudden and unexpected fantasy. We can call it urban fantasy and if you are familiar with Charles de Lint, for example, then you will know what I'm talking about. This is out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye kind of fantasy, subtle and careful.
It is my favorite kind of fantasy.
In many ways, "Margay" is a typical multi-generational family saga. There is much here of mothers and daughters and some of what that entails. Writing in the first person, the narrator, Richie, identifies himself as the godfather of Selesta, daughter of his old and dear friend Joan Malta. Selesta likes cats which is the thread of the larger story about the Malta family that the narrator slowly unravels.
There are Richie and Joan, who knew each other in their youth as "hippies" and Selesta who is young as the story opens but then it college as it continues. There is Ruth, Joan's mother, and her mysterious first husband (Joan's father) who went missing. Ruth is a pistol - she lives in "The House That Ate the World" (Joan's name for it.)
There is a bit of a falling out and a coming together, as mothers and daughters do. There is sitting on porches and children playing in the water and the announcement of a pregnancy which brings excitement and also some trepidation.
Cats figure into this story. Remember that.
What Bowes does so well in "The Margay's Children", as he does in so many other stories though, is lull you into the scenes on city streets and country porches, in places that would be utterly at home in any realistic novel or story. He lets you see just how easily lives can be different or more than you might expect; how the fantastic hides so easily within the mundane. He is revisiting a fairy tale here but you can read it without knowing that and enjoy it just the same.
Richie and Joan have been friends a long time, he is Selesta's godfather, and yet there is much he does not know. Secrets full everything in our lives and in our world; always there are the secrets.
Finally, what I love the most about "The Margay's Children" is that it is not horror. It is a warm family story at the end as it is at the beginning, which is exactly what I wanted it to be. Bowes would have ruined it by bringing in a true monster; nice to see he didn't take the easy way out.
[You can find "The Margay's Children" in The Queen, the Cambion and Seven Others.]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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The May issue of Outside has an impressive, gut-wrenching piece by Eliza Griswold on the poetry of Afghanistan and Pakistan's Pashtun women. (It's all online.)
These are words that will stay with you long after you finish reading. Frankly, they are life-changing words that are all the more amazing because most of us would wonder just how capable of poetry these women would be. (When you struggle so much for survival, it is startling to see that you still write poems along the way.) Here's a bit from Griswold:
Women make up roughly half of the 42 million Pashtun people in the borderland. The kind of hardship they know is rare. Some are bought and sold, others killed for perceived slights against family honor. But this doesn't render them passive. Most of the Pashtun women I know possess a rebellious and caustic humor beneath their cerulean burkas, which have become symbols of submission. This finds expression in an ancient form of folk poetry called landay. Two lines and 22 syllables long, they can be rather startling to the uninitiated. War, drones, sex, a husband's manhood--these poems are short and dangerous, like the poisonous snake for which they're named.
And one of the landays:
When sisters sit together, they're always praising their brothers
When brothers sit together, they're selling their sisters to others.
And another by a woman whose brother was taken away to the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison:
In Pul-e-Charkhi, I've nothing of my own
Except my heart's heart lives within its walls of stone.
"To ask a woman to sing a landay is to ask what has happened to her," writes Griswold, and it is clear that the things that have happened to the Pashtun women are incredibly difficult. These poems bring new definition to the term "hard life" and they are, in their way, revolutionary.
Griswold has a book out now: I am a Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan. It includes photographs by Seamus Murphy, whose photos are also used in the Outside article. I'm really looking forward to reading this book. Poetry was not taught well to me in school - it was a language from centuries ago and never real to me. These landays are reality screaming - I think they would be an unforgettable addition to the classroom.
M.P. Ritger's review of I am a Beggar of the World at the LA Review of Books is a must read as well.
[Post title is a landay from I am a Beggar of the World.]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Standing in the center of the photo, with the large brimmed hat, is my great grandfather Thomas Lennon. I believe that those are blocks of ice they are lifting. I know that Thomas worked for a beer wagon at one point (I have a photo of him with the wagon) and this ice might be associated with that job. I also know that he worked at some point as a painter and, according to the 1910 census, as a "laborer".
This seems to be the same crew as the top photo - several of the men are in both pictures. Tom is seated in the front, center, with the pot in hand; his hat is off here.
My grandmother told me that her father worked many jobs, wherever he could get work actually. At one point in the 1920s they earned money storing liquor in their apartment for a speakeasy downstairs. They lowered the bottles through a dumbwaiter and she remembered helping her father load it. (Every time she told this story it made her laugh)
Tom was an Irish American through and through, born in New York as were all of his brothers and sisters. He is about 22 in these photos; they were likely taken right about the time he married my great grandmother, Julia.
Tom Lennon remains one of the more compelling and confounding parts of my family history. He is the hero and the disappointment in so many stories. In these photos he is simply a man on the job; in some intrinsic way a central part of what it has always meant to be American.
Gustavus author Kim Heacox dove deep into the life of an American icon to craft his stirring new title, "John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire." Heacox, whose highly regarded memoir "The Only Kayak" is a modern Alaska classic, takes readers along with Muir on his late 19th century journeys among the glaciers of the state's southeast region. It was there that he became, as his friend naturalist John Burroughs dubbed him, "Cold Storage Muir," and a nationally acclaimed authority on glaciers who inspired countless others to follow in his studies of the ice.
As Heacox recounts through references to Muir's own works and the works of his biographers and contemporaries, the naturalist first visited Alaska in 1879. Arriving in Fort Wrangell, he set out by canoe with Tlingit guides and missionary Samuel Hall Young to visit the country and "to seek knowledge," as Young explained. What he found was something he did not know existed, a place of mystery and grace that defied all reason. The lure of the glaciers brought him back to Alaska two more times in the years that followed and heavily influenced his writings and activism. The glaciers were a powerful inspiration. Heacox writes:
Muir wanted to inspect every glacier, as if each were a book like the others, similar in general characteristics yet distinctive in its specifics. Some were a deep, compelling blue, others pale and white. Some were heavy with burden, others clean and gleaming. Some were steep and twisted and tortured by crevasses as they spilled down tight mountain valleys; others ran straight and on a gentle gradient that enabled them to wear few wrinkles, as if they'd had an easier life.
In his sketches and notes, Muir made it clear that Alaska's glaciers were simply unforgettable.
After a second trip in 1888, which gave him the adventure with a small dog that inspired the book "Stickeen," Muir returned to the Southeast again in 1899 as a member of the famous Harriman Expedition. It was this journey, in the company of men such as paleontologist William Dall, Forest and Stream editor George Bird Grinnell, photographer Edward Curtis, geologist G.K. Gilbert of the US Geological Survey and naturalist Burroughs -- among many other eminent scientists -- that Muir took special note of the retreat of Muir Glacier. As the group traveled throughout what became Glacier Bay National Park, Muir was reminded of what he had see decades before and how the terrain had changed. Most significantly, sharing his experiences inspired the future work of Gilbert whose landmark title "Glaciers and Glaciation" was published after the group returned from Alaska and included his thorough analysis of how climate, topography and motion affected glaciers. What Muir was imparting was the big picture that glaciers provided about the climate, and the stories their geology held about the Earth's past.
Heacox weaves Muir's journeys around stories about his life back in California, his marriage and fatherhood, the years spent cultivating a successful orchard and the growth of his conservationist career which culminated in meeting President Theodore Roosevelt and establishing Yosemite National Park. Alaska, though, always infused his writings and speeches and as the Last Frontier invaded the American imagination, Muir continued to stress its natural beauty over the more obvious draw of material wealth. In his final years, Heacox writes that Muir was driven to complete a manuscript that would capture what his Alaskan journeys had meant to him.
It was hard work, as always. How to capture Alaska without hyperbole and syrupy language [Robert Underwood] Johnson had criticized him for years before? He didn't have to say Alaska was magnificent; just say Alaska. The name itself was another language, another time, when risk was daily bread and he remembered drinking the cool air like water, and the glaciers--always the glaciers--grand rivers of ice that textured his mind with their crevasses and seracs. How frisky and rambunctious he'd been back then, forty-one going on fourteen, still boyish, a tramp, curious about everything, imaginative, free.
"Travels in Alaska" was completed just before Muir's death in 1914.
There are many layers to Muir's Alaskan experiences and Heacox is careful to consider all of them, from the inspiration it provided his future conservation work, to the struggle he felt between his love of the northern spaces and his wife and children back home. The author manages to take a highly revered figure and place him in the realm of wide-eyed tourist, show how he was as filled with wonder as any visitor upon first sighting the walls of ice. But as much as Heacox's eloquent words and poetic phrases carry readers along on historic adventures, he is also careful to emphasize the science at the root of Muir's travels. Nothing the naturalist did was casual and the author's attention to detail is equally filled with care. Alaskans will likely be particularly struck by the final chapter where Heacox recalls the work to federally protect Alaska's landscape in the years after Muir's death especially in Glacier Bay ("A Monstrous Proposition," according to the Juneau Daily Empire). The story comes full circle, not only for Muir but Heacox as well.
How then to save Alaska? Let it be, said many disciples of John Muir, a growing legion of young, environmentally aware Americans. Slow down. Go softly with an open heart. Stop calling it a frontier. The last frontier is not Alaska, outer space, the oceans, or the wonders of technology. It's open-mindedness. Honor the land and its first nation peoples, and their ability to acquire wisdom, sustenance, and happiness from the wild plants and animals around them. Learn through story. Sleep on the ground. Listen.
Supplemented with stunning archival photographs and a thorough set of endnotes, "John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire" is the best guide for such a trip and Heacox a literary companion that Muir would certainly endorse.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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* Once upon a time, aviator Eddie Rickenbacker was the most famous man in America, the kind of hero that songs were written about and schoolchildren dreamed of emulating. In this entertaining biography, historian Ross (War on the Run, 2009) returns to the dawn of the twentieth century, when cars and aircraft burst onto the scene. Aviation aficionados and war buffs will expect Ross to focus on Rickenbacker's WWI flying-ace achievements; instead, he takes a long look at the aviator's early success in the automotive field as both a brilliant mechanic ("Put simply, engines have always talked to me," Rickenbacker explained) and a daring race-car driver. Drawing heavily on his subject's interviews and writings, while also noting areas of his personal life that Rickenbacker publicly fabricated (most notably his father's life and death), Ross peppers the text with quotes that place readers right alongside the ace through nearly every moment of his life. Obviously this is exciting material to work with--after all, Rickenbacker was a man who drove in the first Indy 500 and dueled with the Red Baron's flying circus--but Ross is never fawning in this thoroughly enjoyable and downright rollicking read.
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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I have just reread Joan Didion's Where I Was From - giving it a "deep" read this time. It is a collection of related essays about Didion's personal history and the history of California, where she grew up. Reading it has made me realize how confusing my own answer would be to the question, if asked, of "Where are you from?"
I grew up, from age 3, in Florida.
We lived in Jacksonville (in a haunted house) and then Orlando and then, from my 5th birthday, in Melbourne. Very nearly all my childhood memories are of the beach and palm trees and flat roads and hot sun and ceiling fans and sweet ice tea and hush puppies and rocket ships. (They call it the Space Coast for a reason.)
Yet this is not really, truly, where I am from.
My father was born and raised in a solidly Catholic and most assuredly French Canadian town in Rhode Island and although he left at 17 he was so much a part of his home that he received the local newspaper for the rest of his life. When we go back to Woonsocket it is to hear his voice in the speech of everyone around us, to be surrounded by my father's people. To be surrounded by our people.
I have a maple leaf tattooed on my right wrist for my French Canadian heart which still, even with him 15 years gone, beats for my father.
My mother was raised in an air force family and she would tell you she was from everywhere and nowhere as most military families would say. But both of her parents were from the Bronx and their roots go back years there in Irish American households and families, in song and dance and laughter and a thousand kitchen conversations.
The shamrock on my left wrist is for my Irish soul; it's something you are born with and stays with you no matter where you live.
I have never been to the Bronx and only once to New York City. But most of my grandmother's family is still in New York State (all over including the city), and all of my genealogy research has involved NYC. My future may not be there but a large swath of my past most certainly is and it continues to be the center of learning who we are as a family and how we came to be Americans.
So you can see how this whole "where are you from" question is sort of confusing.
I do not have five generations in any one place; I have Florida and Rhode Island and Quebec or Florida and the Bronx and Ireland. My parents, remarkably, met and married in Madrid, Spain (my father was in the air force, my mother was there with her family as that was their latest station). The deep roots that Didion writes of are totally foreign to me and yet so much of her emotion for California, for exploring how the land formed who she became, resonated with me.
After the death of her mother (In California) she writes of going through her things:
I had my grandmother's watercolor framed and sent it to the next oldest of her three granddaughters, my cousin Brenda, in Sacramento.
I closed the box and put it in a closet.
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.
And that was it. My grandparents gave up the Bronx when they committed to a military life and my father left Woonsocket behind partly out of desperation to see some other part of the world. And I left Florida for Alaska because as much as I love the beach, I wanted to go away. (It's funny - I still don't know why I wanted to go away.) But when I consider who we are - who I am - the answers are all found in Rhode Island and New York. I am surrounded by pictures of those places, by accents, by the memories of food and traditions, by the locations of so many weddings and funerals, all in Woonsocket and the Bronx.
Everything about the family I have known and loved is in those two places. Dealing with what we left, with what we lost by leaving, means immersing myself in places where I actually never lived. Florida gives me no answers on that score and so I have to wonder, is that the place where I am from or somehow, some way, am I more from places where I never lived?
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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Hélène Gerstern's upcoming novel, The People in the Photo, is absolutely sublime. Translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz, this epistolary tale is a family mystery, a sweet romance and a serious page-turner. It snuck up on me, plain and simple and I couldn't put it down.
The story is, on the surface, pretty simple. The main character (also named Hélène) lives in Paris where she works as an archivist. Her mother died when she was 4 and her father has also recently passed away. Her stepmother has Alzheimer's and is in longterm care. While going through her parents' apartment, she finds a picture of her mother with two men she does not recognize. She runs the photo in some French and Swiss newspapers as an advertisement asking if anyone recognizes the men or the sporting event (tennis) they participated in. Stéphane Crüsten responds that one of the men is his deceased father and the other his best friend.
In the letters that follow Hélène and Stéphane try to uncover how their parents came to know each other. More pictures are found and Stéphane visits the family friend in search of more clues. Bit by bit the two learn how their families were connected and the numerous secrets that are buried in the past. Also, bit by bit, they surprise themselves by falling in love thus providing a light romantic tension to the mystery.
Everything about The People in the Photo works. The pacing is fantastic - the buildup of the romance is subtle and true to the characters' restrained emotions. But even without that element (which I enjoyed very much), it is the slow unfolding of the past that keeps the pages turning. Finding out who these people in the photo were and what their level of involvement was and why on earth it has all been kept quiet (Hélène's mother died in a very prosaic way after all - a car crash), are questions that I really wanted answered. I also liked very much that Gerstern doesn't back away from ugly moments and gives readers the kind of emotional payoff that the story promises from the very beginning. The ending is powerful stuff and serves all the characters (past and present) well. There's just not a single disappointment to this novel; it's really a wonderful book.
And for me, of course, The People in the Photo brought to mind all the secrets hidden in my own family photos; all of the faces I look at now that hide so much from decades ago. I know many of these secrets, others I am still hoping to uncover. I identified a great deal with Hélène and Stéphane and their search for the truth and I can tell you, all of it rings powerfully true.
My grandmother, age 3, and her older brother Robie, age 6. I have a series of photos taken this day, with their two older brothers, parents and some sadly unidentified friends or family members.
From the way they are dressed it seems it must have been a special day and with no snow on the ground I'm inclined to think it is Easter. We always received new clothes for Easter and I'm sure the tradition was true for them as it was for us. (Even when Catholic families have little money, at the very least a new bow or gloves turn up in Easter photos.)
These two ended up bickering as the years went by - too close in age probably. Robie went on a motorcycle trip across country to California as a young man - pictures from that period will make you positively swoon.
In nineteenth-century America and Europe, a time before television, telephones and the Internet, people read real books. They drank literature like water. The literacy rate was not high in some places, but in southern Scotland, along the Firth of Forth, from Dunbar to Edinburgh, where Muir spent his first eleven years, it was higher than 80 percent.
Among those who could read, books were prized possessions. Words on paper were powerful magic, seductive as music, sharp as a knife at times, or gentle as a kiss. Friendships and love affairs blossomed as men and women read to each other in summer meadows and winter kitchens. Pages were ambrosia in their hands. A new novel or collection of poems was something everybody talked about. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen, Dickens, Keats, Emerson, Cooper, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Twain. To read these authors was to go on a grand adventure and see things as you never had before, see yourself as you never had before.
From John Muir and the Ice that Started the Fire by Kim Heacox. See my full review over at Alaska Dispatch.
[Photo from Nat Park Service of Glacier Nat Park.]
By: Colleen Mondor,
Blog: Chasing Ray
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When her unexpected death from cancer was announced in 2012, the national outpouring of grief over the loss of Sally Ride was swift and genuine. The subsequent obituary revelation that Ride was a lesbian in a committed relationship for more than a quarter-century was proof of how successfully the icon had guarded her personal life. With the full cooperation of Ride's family and friends, both inside and outside of NASA (including ex-husband and fellow astronaut Steve Hawley), author Sherr pores over Ride's life, from her tennis-star childhood to her college years in the male-dominated field of physics and meteoric rise as America's first woman in space. As familiar as readers believe themselves to be with Ride's story, Sherr has done an impressive job of uncovering the pressures (and sometimes comical missteps) of NASA's macho culture and its approach to the first class of women astronauts, the unparalleled commitment Ride brought to her job, and the zeal with which she embraced her later challenge to broaden science opportunities for girls. This is an intimate and enormously appealing biography of a fascinating woman, a triumph of research and sensitivity that lives up to its subject and will likely move readers to tears in its final, poignant pages.
YA/General Interest: Ride will always be first, famous, and fascinating. With much of the book dwelling on her youth (she was an astronaut at 27), this is an excellent choice for teens.
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My [starred] review of the upcoming Sally Ride biography by Lynn Sherr has gone up at Booklist. This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it for anyone who came of age during the shuttle years. It's a great read for book clubs and also a solid title to recommend to teens looking for book reports. (Ride was only 27 when she became an astronaut!)
As much as I knew how impressive it was for Ride to become an astronaut, you don't realize how much of a struggle it was to go against NASA culture until you read her story. There is also how society viewed women for the entire history of the space program. Consider this quote from the book:
A 1958 editorial in the Los Angeles Times had welcomed women on interplanetary flights as mere "feminine companionship" for the "red-blooded space cadet," to "break up the boredom" and produce a "new generation of 'space children'." But, asked the writer, what if the "feminine passenger" (the concept of coworker was not yet on the radar) was incompatible? "Imagine hurtling tens of millions of miles accompanied by a nagging back-seat rocket pilot." Look magazine, Life's popular, photocentric competitor, framed the debate more soberly in 1962 with a cover story entitled, "Should a Girl Be First in Space?" Answer: "[W]omen will follow men into space."
And then there's this one:
In 1965, newspaper columnist Dorothy Roe declared, "Girls who are clamoring for equal rights as astronettes [I swear, she wrote "astronettes"] should consider all the problems of space travel. How, for instance, would they like to wear the same space suit without a bath or change of clothes for six weeks?....How will a girl keep her hair curled in outer space?"
Sally Ride was one in a million; I wish she had more years with us; I'm sure she would have changed the world even more if given the time.
[Photo courtesy of NASA]