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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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1. Get ready to be surprised by Kansas in “I Was A Revolutionary”

Andrew Malan Milward’s short story collection I Was A Revolutionary is all about Kansas and as a whole, it is pretty amazing. Like all collections, there were some stories that resonated with me more than others, but it was really the whole picture that got my attention. I don’t know much about Kansas history (just the “greatest hits”) and Milward clearly knows his stuff. The way he weaves that knowledge into both historical and contemporary stories is quite impressive and by the time you turn the last page you are going to wonder what you missed about the other 49 states.

What you find here includes a stupendous historical story set during the bloody 1863 raid on Lawrence led by William Quantrill; a contemporary tale of a historian’s assistant researching the state’s populist political past; a story of fading love that spins at the fringes of George Tiller’s abortion clinic, and a journey that tests every inch of the spirit to the African American settlement of Nicodemus. The title story focuses on a Kansas History professor who reflects upon all his students do not know about their state’s past and his own wishes for what he had done differently as a younger man.

Taken together these words are sweeping and quietly intense; a picture of a place that while not complete (that would take a dozen books), is certainly a significant glimpse into what makes Kansas the place it is today.

I wish every state had a collection like I Was A Revolutionary; it would make state history a lot more enjoyable to learn.

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2. Considering the up & downsides of a public pitch

The most frustrating aspect of the freelance writer life is the pitch. There is a lot of pressure built into crafting the perfect pitch letter. (Long enough to explain the idea but not too long as to run-on plus it has to include your qualifications as to why you should be the one to write it and it has to have a hook and it has to explain why the publication you are writing is the right place to consider it and it has to be short and to the point or they dump it without reading.) (This letter is inherently nerve-wracking and very nearly vomit-inducing but we do it anyway.)

Once you finally get a letter that you think (hope, dream) works, you email it off to an editor and….you wait. You wait forever. You can’t nudge the editor for at least a month because to do so earlier might make you seem needy. You want to be aloof; you want to be confident in your ability to write that article you want…..to not annoy the editor you have never met because if they get annoyed at you they will probably trash your pitch letter and you will have burned a bridge that never existed and all hope for ever writing for that publication/site will be gone forever. (At least that is prevailing wisdom.)

So. You wait.

And the thing is, most editors never even respond. The pitch disappears into the ether and you never know if it was read by the editor (or even an assistant). Maybe it disappeared into a monumental slush pile or maybe someone’s email changed or maybe the editor just decided to delete every single email he/she had pending because they can do that and no one would ever know.

The point is, most of the time you never hear anything back at all and so you never know if the pitch was wrong or the subject was wrong or your qualifications weren’t good enough or the stars just weren’t in alignment. After a month you send a cautious email and you hear nothing back from that either. (Really, you hear nothing.) And then you have to decide to send that pitch out again (maybe another editor at the same publication or a different set of publications altogether?) or should you completely rewrite it? And how many times do you send it out before you decide it’s a dud?

How many times do you try the pitch?

All of this is to say that longreads had a great piece the other day on the public pitch; the idea of throwing out your idea to editors via social media and seeing what response you could get. The thought is that this takes a bit of power back for the writer (who has the idea in the first place). Of course it doesn’t work unless you have enough editorial contacts via social media to be heard but there is a part of me that finds this very appealing.

I wish I knew for sure I was in a position to pitch via twitter and be heard. (Honestly, I might already be there to a certain degree.) At least I know that someone would see my pitch if it went out that way as opposed to the current method which frankly (for me anyway) is 100% not working. (Same pitch sent out to 8 different editors at different publications over 2 months and only one tepid reply with a promise to send it on to other unnamed editors who…..never replied.)

The big concern in the public pitch is that a more established writer will see it and steal your idea. The longreads piece addresses this and yeah, it’s something I’m thinking about. On the flip side, I think it’s fair to say that I am a writer who knows more about Alaska aviation (and has better Alaska aviation contacts) then pretty much anyone else, so while someone could steal it, they couldn’t bring to it the experience that I can. Plus, I’ve already written a book about Alaska aviation which proves my qualifications and that has to count for something.

Please tell me it counts!

(The pitch is not a memoir about AK aviation as my book is but it is about a certain aspect of Alaska flying.)

So, thinking about my pitch this week and what might be wrong with it (or if nothing is wrong with it). I’m going to send it out again next week to a whole new slate of publications. I have a really good hook – a great hook she writes, while keeping it vague – I just need for someone read it who wants to run a piece on the serious [deadly] consequences of this mythic level of adventure that is found in Alaska. Most importantly, it is about the people trying to rewrite one particular deeply entrenched myth and save lives in the process.

It’s all about flying – and hopefully not dying – in Alaska. It’s a good idea, I promise. Give me a shout and I’ll tell you all about it. (In one page or less, of course!)

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3. The words of Noviolet Bulawayo

Noviolet Bulawayo is a Zimbabwean writer. In this passage from her essay in 1914 Goodbye to All That: Writers on the Conflict Between Life and Art, she writes of how the 2010 arrest of Zimbabwe artist Owen Maseko blew her out of her “writing slumber”.

Still, I am not yet at ease with my writer self and, while I am enrolled in a reputable creative writing program, the fact that I have not published a single word means, at least to me, that I do not have the license to claim that writer self. I remember that for a while I resist calling my work in progress a novel, and whenever I am pressed to talk about what I am working on I call it a “thing”. So much goes into naming and calling, and for me the word “thing” makes my project more approachable and less intimidating — after all, I have not written a novel before, so who am I to speak about writing “novels”?

All this is to say that the 2010 arrest of Owen Maseko finds me at the very, very beginning of my writing career and looking to make sense of myself, a novice trying to find footing. But of course life certainly does not always knock on your door to check if you are ready before entering with its sacks of challenges. When the arrest of Owen Maseko comes to my door, it is the first force that shakes my slumbering core.

More on Noviolet Bulawayo at her website. She is….really really something.

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4. Feed the good wolf

I received Tomorrowland for Christmas and we watched it the other night. I loved every minute – it was especially fantastic as I grew up on the Space Coast just south of Cape Canaveral and have some pretty strong feelings about NASA and Disney’s vision of tomorrow. Here is my favorite quote from the movie though, the parable of good vs bad wolves:

A few days ago I watched a barn fire grow on social media over how a blog post was titled by another reviewer. The fanning of the flames, the giddiness of building the fire, turned my stomach. So much time and energy put toward dragging someone down and all for what? Twenty-four hours later it was done, everyone had moved on and here’s the thing – the blog post said what they wanted it to say, everyone was just pissed over the snarky title.

Yeah. This is what we spend our time on now.

I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, and it’s so damn easy to do it….to just get stuck in something that only lives to spread negativity. I can’t believe how much of my life has been spent living that way.

So, I’m trying to feed the good wolf. I should have been feeding the good wolf all along – I have deep regrets over time spent tending the bad wolf, especially when I was much younger. All I can do now is try to avoid that animal in the future which, by the way, brings me back to the greatness of Tomorrowland. Here’s the full trailer – check it out if you can:

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5. Writing in 2016

First 2016 resolution: stop writing posts that are the tiniest bit close to being of a controversial nature. I just don’t have the patience for the comments or the tweets anymore. More importantly, I don’t have the desire to devote the time to even thinking about them.

Lesson learned. Other folks can fight the fights.

Other writing resolutions for 2016:

1. Essay on the first female pilot in Alaska. Her [short] flying career is pretty remarkable. I’ll be visiting the archives at the Museum of Flight in Seattle this month to get a lot of the info I need. I hopefully already have a home for this one and will have it written by mid-February if all goes as planned.

2. Essay on the effort to make Alaska’s aviation environment safer and combat the pervasive (and deadly) bush pilot myth. This one is only in the pitch letter stage right now as I can not justify requesting interview with folks unless I know it has a home. I’ve sent out 7 pitches, gotten one turn down, one “I’ll pass it along” and heard nothing back from the others. Such is the life of a freelancer, but I’ll keep trying.

3. Essay on French Canadians in New England. This draws on the history of my father’s family who immigrated from Quebec in the late 1920s. It combines family stories with the history of French Canadians in the region. I’m actively working on this and know where I want to pitch it – which I won’t say because I don’t want to jinx it. More on this if it sells.

4. Essay on my great grandmother and her 3 sisters because their stories are just all too different and too crazy. I’m still researching some facts on this one; aiming for this summer to have it ready to pitch somewhere. (No idea where as of yet.)

Last year I wanted to write and pitch an essay a month (and did pretty good at that) but this year, with the cosmic ray book taking precedence, I just can’t pursue that sort of schedule. (Or, I think I shouldn’t.) I have 2 chapters done, the 2nd one is with my agent right now to get her thoughts. I have a ton of research coming my way on the book (277 pages from Princeton this week!) and want to be able to give it my full attention and write this book. The big goal, of course, is to get a contract.

2016 could be a really big deal for me professionally; even more of a life-changer than signing with the new agent last year.

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6. We need to stop publishing books depicting happy slaves.

1. There is a new picture book out called “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” which tells the fictionalized story of one of Washington’s slaves, named Hercules, a highly talented chef for the first president and how he baked a cake for Washington’s birthday.

2. To know more about the book and why there is controversy about it, see Edi Campbell’s review.

3. Kirkus was not impressed with the depiction of happy slaves in the book.

4. There are some facts to consider when looking at this book. Most notably, slavery is wrong. It was wrong in 1600. It was wrong in 1784. It was wrong in 1860. It is wrong today. George Washington owned slaves. Hundreds of slaves.

5. Slavery is also, by definition, cruel. Whether or not Washington was physically abusive to his slaves is a significant part of his biography but it does not change the truth that slavery in and of itself is cruel. Slavery robs a person of the freedom to live the life they choose to live, where they choose to live, pursuing the dreams they choose to pursue and loving the people they choose to love. It robs them of every level of individual freedom that a person has. It places them in a submissive role as the very fact of their existence is predicated upon the kindness of others. A slave is thus afforded only the smallest levels of happiness in his or her life—happiness that life is not worse in the hands of a crueler master. This is about the saddest kind of “happy” I can imagine.

6. Having said all that, George Washington was a great first president. But we need to separate the man from the myth which means no stories about the cherry tree, no stories about asking Betsy Ross to make a flag and no stories about his super “happy” slaves.

7. When I was teaching my students were soldiers in the US Army. This meant that my classes were always incredibly diverse which is important. When we talked about Washington, I would bring up the subject and ask my students what they knew. I always got stories about the cherry tree and Betsy Ross, how he led the army, how he was the first president, etc. And without fail, one of my African American students would always point out that Washington owned slaves. Never a Caucasian student. I am sure this was because most of them did not know while ALL of my African American students did. (This is why diversity in the classroom matters—biases become clear.)

8. I think Washington’s slave ownership (along with other slave-owning founding fathers) is important to understanding who he was. Just as I did not discount his brilliance on the battlefield (and I think he was a great military commander), nor did I ever have anything negative to say about his key decisions as president (starting with his decision not to be king and to only serve two terms), I also made sure we talked about the notion that men who prized their freedom enough to risk their very lives fighting for it should not see any problem robbing others of their freedom (this included discussion of Native Americans and women).

9. We have enough myth-making in fiction; we don’t need to use it in history.

10. Look, I wish Washington had not owned slaves. (I also wish Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings were able to marry, that Andrew Hamilton didn’t have such a hot-head and that instead of the Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher stories we had actual real women of the Revolution to celebrate.) (I could go on and on here.)

11. But George Washington owned slaves. And he was not the only one. And understanding who these men were, how they could be so brave and so smart and yet also so blind when it came to the evils of slavery, is key to understanding what America meant then and how much we have evolved into what America means today. This is a complicated, discussion that means we can admire a man’s character traits on one hand and be appalled by them on the other.

12. A six-year old can not understand this kind of argument and frankly, shouldn’t have to.

13. You must tell a six-year old about George Washington as president and you must tell him or her that he owned slaves and then you say that slavery was wrong and you explain how the founding fathers are men to admire on one hand and be disappointed in on another. (And please, let’s talk about Native Americans and women in this discussion also.) But giving them a book that depicts a slave as happy while owned—that actually depicts every slave as smiling and happy—is hella wrong.

14. Seriously, 100%, hella wrong.

15. I do think that the story of Hercules, the field hand who became Washington’s chef, should be told. I think however that it belongs in a nonfiction book for MG or YA readers and I think it should include what became of him after he ran away (with the fact that he ran away as a way bigger part of the story then an author’s note at the end as it is in “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”). Oh—and how about mentioning that he left behind that cute little daughter who clearly loves her daddy so much in the book? Really—we’re going to unpack the whole complicated history of broken families during slavery and it’s long term sociological ramifications with first graders? (Or, how about we don’t and instead share this story with kids old enough to discuss it.)

16. (Side note—anyone who thinks that an author’s note in a picture book is going to be read by 90% of the readers is dreaming.)

17. But more than anything, I think the very notion of the “happy slave” needs to die. It was never true and to continue to peddle it, especially to children, is beyond the pale. (Yes, like anyone some slaves had some happiness in their lives but if you think they were overall “happy” with their living situation then you really need to read some history. A LOT OF HISTORY.)

18. This is a book that should not have been written, should not have been edited and should not have been published. It serves no purpose; it contributes nothing significant to honest discussions of our nation’s history in general or Washington in particular. It does however perpetuate a lie that will only confuse its young readers.

19. The time for myth-making about George Washington is long past. We are strong enough for the truth and we are way past time for learning it.

[Updated: the author of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” on why the book depicts smiling slaves.]

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7. “Toward home in the distance.”

I have been thinking a lot about what home means lately, which made coming across this passage in The Long Way Home by Louise Penny especially significant:

Here, around him, was his heritage. His country. His history. But it was more than that. Here on the walls, were his insides. Out.

The brightly painted homes. Red and mustard yellow. The smoke tugged from the chimneys. The church spires. The winter scenes, the snow on the pine boughs. The horses and sleighs. The soft light through the windows at night.

The man with the oil lamp. Walking a path worn through the deep snow. Toward home in the distance.

Gamache turned. He was surrounded. Immersed. Not drowning, but buoyed. Baptized.


My mother was a classic military brat, growing up all over. But my father was born in a very French Canadian town in Rhode Island, son of two French Canadian parents and even though he left home at 17 for the military, he never strayed far from his heritage; he was always implicitly of his people and thus my brother and I, grew up in Florida with a peculiarly strong affinity for what it means to be French Canadian from New England.

When I explain that some people they do not believe me (how could it be possible?), and yet it is very true. As much as I am fascinated by my mother’s family history (almost entirely Irish Catholic) and adored her parents, aunts and uncles, it is still French Canadian that I primarily identify with. I am certain this is true entirely because of my father and much of his heritage he imparted upon us (hockey! hockey! hockey!). It’s something I am still thinking about and trying to write about. It is something I want to understand, not only for myself but to better know who he was.

Another passage from The Long Way Home, mostly for the Béliveau reference:

Treasures from childhood. Old keys to old homes he no longer lived in. Pennants from races won. A particularly fine chestnut. A piece of wood someone assured him was from Jean Béliveau‘s hockey stick. Relics from the saints of childhood. Talismans.

[Post pic of Clarence Gagnon’s “The Yellow House.”]

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8. He should have been immortal

Anything I was going to post seems irrelevant in the face of losing David Bowie. Such a great and wondrous talent the world has lost; he was truly irreplaceable.

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9. On reading about someone’s lost father and misplaced aunt

Susan Johnson Hadler’s The Beauty of What Remains is about her search for information on her father in World War II shortly after she was born. I can’t remember where I read about it but I was curious to see the roadblocks Hadler encountered along the way, most of which came from her family. It was really interesting stuff, how she had only the tiniest of clues as to what happened to him and whiere (he died from the detonation of a bomb at an ammo dump in Germany), but also how there was continuous reticence on the part of her mother to talk about him as it hurt so much. Interestingly, while her stepfather seemed to have no problem with the research (Hadler and her brother were mostly raised by him and referred to him as “Dad”), their younger half siblings (to one degree or another) show a strong aversion to upsetting their mother and don’t always support Hadler. All she wants is to know who her father was and the people who can’t understand why that matters make her search for answers really difficult.

I’m so baffled by this (especially as we are talking about decades in the past). I do know that more than once when I spoke about family history with some of my relatives, I have been asked why on earth I would want to know. “It’s in the past, what does it matter?” This always makes me want to answer, “It doesn’t have to matter to you, it matters to me. Just tell me what I want to know!!!” (But that, of course, would be wrong…..)

The second part of Hadler’s book deals with her search for aunt, her mother’s older sister, who was committed to an asylum in her twenties and no one quite knows when she died. As she looks for information on what caused her illness and death, Hadler discovers that her aunt isn’t dead but living in a nursing home and that opens up a ton of issues with everybody.

She is still alive and no one knows. It is unreal.

The aunt’s children thought she was dead, her siblings (who have various degrees of estrangement) all had different stories on what happened to her and why and this poor woman somehow ended up in the care of the state for over fifty years (!!!!) because no one wanted to bring her home. (Short story – significant postpartum depression, husband commits her then dies suddenly, children taken by his family who never liked her, her father can’t deal with embarrassment of what she did, her mother is dead and everybody else just got preoccupied with their own lives. That’s how you end up committed for the rest of your life.)

I have a distant family member who ended up in an asylum in the mid-twentieth century that I’m still trying to find out more about. (She definitely died there – I have her death certificate.) Every time I think my family history is so complicated though, I read something like The Beauty of What Remains and it gives me pause. All families are complicated and we all have secrets. But man – we shouldn’t forget who we were, or who we came from or what happened to our family. As Hadler proves, keeping the secrets only make everything a lot worse.

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10. New year, new plan…..of course.

I keep reading articles that say the blog is dead and then I keep reading blogs because I like them. It could be that there are only a couple of dozen of us out there all reading each others blogs and everyone else is happily hanging out on twitter, tumblr,etc. etc., but I like a blog….I like reading someone’s thoughts on a book or a movie or more and getting a little bit of insight into the life of the person writing it.

It’s a peek at other worlds (just a little peek), and it keeps me going back for more.

But the whole New Year thing makes me look at my own blog (along with every other blasted aspect of my life), and think about how it can be improved. I am sure that readers of Map of My Dead Pilots or my articles in Alaska Dispatch News come by here and are mystified by reading book reviews or family history posts, but it’s the kind of thing I’m into (along with Alaskan aviation and, because of the work in progress, mountain climbing, cosmic rays and archival research). From time to time I think that maybe I should limit the blog content more and just put up reviews or only some kind of reviews but then I see something or hear about something and want to mention it and I end up with the same all-over-the-place blogging that I’ve always done.

(Except now with more mountain climbing, cosmic rays and archival research. There’s going to be a lot more this in 2016, I promise.) (And yeah, I’m still figuring out how to explain the cosmic ray stuff.)

But one thing I do think I can do more of is not wait until I have some bigger, longer blog post to go up here and instead post those occasional interesting things I come across so that my blogging itself can be more regular (I really slacked off over the last few months), and I can ditch the habit of leaving “blog this” notes to myself all over the dining room table. (Serious 2016 Resolution: DITCH THE ENDLESS PIECES OF PAPER IN MY LIFE.)

To wit, I got some books and movies for Christmas and here are some thoughts:

1. Page One: Inside the New York Times. This is an incredibly well done documentary, a fascinating peek into newspaper journalism in general and the NY Times in particular. My husband found himself surprisingly riveted and we both left as devoted fans of David Carr (who sadly passed away this way). I already have a subscription to the NY Times for access to the archives (for the mountain book) but I also added Carr’s book to my TBR list over the next couple of months.

2. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness sounds like a straight-up paranormal thriller with some romance tossed in. It has sold a zillion copies and I wanted to read it because of the history aspects (a mysterious book is found in the modern day Bodleian Library at Oxford which sets all the action in place and brings a witch and vampire together and could mean the end of the world….). It is SO MUCH FUN! A big huge look into tons of history (Harkness is a historian) and I’ve already read book two (from the library) which sends them main characters back to Elizabethan England so it was all Kit Marlowe and Walter Raleigh and the School of Night and on and on. Talk about fun reading—I’m all over book three this week.

3. Woman in Gold is the story of the Klimt painting that the Austrian government claimed was legally willed to the state museum by the owner but her descendants successfully proved in court was actually stolen by the Nazis during WW2. Helen Mirren tears this one up – her emotions are both intense and controlled…she can make you cheer or cry just by looking at the screen. Again, though, it’s the history that blew my mind here and how it got so twisted. “We are keeping this painting for Austria,” the officials argue and their willful ignorance of how it was stolen from Austrians is infuriating. Spoiler: the good guys win.

4. Louise Penny. Read every single book by her, whether you are a mystery fan or not. She creates characters and setting like we all wish we could; I can’t get enough. (Her latest is on my nightstand right now.)

5. More.To.Come.

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11. Assessing Nov & Dec on the resolution scale

In preparation of my year in review post, here’s a look at what I got done in November & December:

1. Reviews to Booklist for Wild By Nature, This is an Uprising, The Alaska Retreater’s Notebook, Until We Are Free, Sex in the Sea and Eruption.

2. Reviews of Starflight and Shadows of Sherwood submitted to Locus.

3. Several articles submitted to ADN, one ran in November and one in December. One was revised for possible January and one should have run but got lost going back and forth between my editor and I which is a bummer (and some lost dollars for me as it was about Christmas and can’t run now).

4. Send a cold pitch letter to several national magazines for a piece I’m working on about aviation safety in Alaska and the people involved in changing the current attitude up there. I was turned down by one publication, got a semi-hopeful response from another (the pitch was being passed along to another editor which is something….). After the holidays, I’ll be sending the pitch out to a few more magazines and see about follow-ups to the ones I haven’t heard from.

5. Ed Rickets From Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska was released on November 27th. I’m happy about this book both for Shorefast Editions and for my own essay on the boat trip with Ricketts, Joseph Campbell and Jack & Sasha Calvin.

6. My holiday shopping/recommendations article for teens went up at The Seattle Review of Books and [hopefully] gave some folks some good ideas. I highly recommend checking out the Seattle Review site; they are really doing some wonderful literary reporting and reviewing.

7. And…..I sent the revised first chapter on my work in progress to my agent and she liked it, so I’m off to the races on chapter 2 and all the rest. There will be much more about the book and my research for it in 2016 and in the year end post!

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12. Some holiday shopping suggestions

1. I have a big round-up of recommended books for teens over at the Seattle Review of Books. I covered multiple genres, fiction & nonfiction, new books and older—basically I tried to be as broad and diverse as I could be. All of these books are great and I’m sure there is something in there for the YA reader[s] on your list.

2. There were several other books I read this year that I highly recommend. These include the entire Inspector Gamache mystery series by Louise Penny (set in Quebec, smart, unique, and full of deep studies of human nature); The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey (a modern scholar’s discovery of the secrets hidden within the Duke of Rutland’s castle); The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, one of my favorite reads this year—I bought 4 copies as Xmas gifts. (A woman is robbed & loses her purse, a nearby bookseller finds it and tracks her down by the clues in her red notebook. Simple, but fantastic.)

3. And more books I loved this year: Bellwether by Connie Willis (a reread of a perennial favorite that is quirky, full of historical pop culture references & contains some of the wittiest dialog ever written.) Adore this book! The Lost City of Z by David Grann (search for a lost explorer deep into the Amazon – what’s not to love?) Jimmy Bluefeather by Kim Heacox, a novel set in SE Alaska that is about a young man’s dashed dreams, a grandfather’s determination and a whole lot of quirky characters in small town Alaska; Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward is gut-wrenchingly honest and a lesson in how to write honestly—every writer should read this book. Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood, an illustrated memoir about politics, feminism, social conflict and how to live the artistic life. Yeah, it’s as amazing as people say it is.

4. I continue to be enthralled by Field Notes brand notebooks. I have six of them going at any time with everything from a straight-up TO DO list to a book on genealogy leads, to ongoing research for my current book. They are the perfect size, the perfect weight and come in a lovely array of colors. If you can’t get them to you in time for the holiday, present them as New Year’s gifts. (There is even a new log for drone operators. So cool!)

5. We probably have close to a dozen magazine subscriptions coming to the house. Some are gifts, others personal must-haves. I love a good magazine and read all kinds, from VOGUE (so cheap and so pretty!) to SMITHSONIAN, YANKEE, GARDEN & GUN (I get both my New England & southern fixes this way), OUTSIDE, POPULAR SCIENCE and on and on. I am more likely to buy my literary magazines as one-offs, trawling for the work of favorite writers. I just picked up the latest TINHOUSE for the Andrea Barrett story, and always take a look at what’s in PARIS REVIEW and GRANTA. I also check out the HARVARD REVIEW and BRICK and just heard about A PUBLIC SPACE’s latest issue which I am most certainly going to order. So, yeah, magazine/journal subscriptions = good gift idea. You could also purchase a selection of current issues and wrap them up as a set of unique reads. (Oh – also the BELIEVER; some great interviews in it.)

6. Got a genealogist in the family? A membership to Ancestry.com is….everything. I love this site and it has become a total addiction. (Also point them in the direction of Maud Newton’s tumblr THE BEGATS which is great reading with all kinds of good links.) (Really looking forward to her book!)

7. Or consider a subscription to Lizzie Skurnick Books. These reprints of teen novels from the ’30s to the ’80s have a great design, cover a wide variety of interests and are just consistently good reads.

8. Also be sure to check out Mother Reader’s 150 Ways to Give a Book which couples books & gifts for readers of all ages (including kids). I promise you will find something there for every reader on your list!

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13. So many things…….

Lots of things to recommend that caught my eye in recent days. Have a look:

1. As it is the holiday gift giving season and whether or not you are shopping for yourself or others, I recommend you check out my friend Liz’s blog where she is reviewing not only YA titles but also a lot of mighty fine romances for adult readers. I guarantee you will find some books to buy there (and I second her recommendation of author Tessa Dare).

2. Jenny Davidson’s blog is another I highly recommend. I’ve mentioned it here before but if you haven’t checked it out, please be sure to do so. Not only do you get a ton of great reading recs of all kinds of books, you also gets links to tons of fascinating articles/sites online.

3. Just finished reading Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books and I can not recommend it enough. If you enjoy reading cultural history titles at all, and regardless of whether or not you are Jewish (I’m not), you will find the story of Aaron Lansky and how he tracked down and saved Yiddish books (creating a book center to preserve and share them) to be absolutely riveting. Lansky is a great writer and he combines a ton of anecdotes with a lot of intriguing history around the Yiddish language and how it was developed. Great stuff.

4. This also caught my eye–Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest by Julie Zickefoose. This oversized nature book is not due out until April 2016 but an advanced copy came my way and it is one to keep an eye out for if you are a bird lover (or artist). The author digs deep into natural history, references her daily diary and observations and complements the text with some truly lovely full color illustrations of (of course) baby birds.

5. And for Cyber Monday, we have reopened the Book Fair for Ballou High School Library for the day! If you have some time in the midst of your holiday shopping, please take a look at the Ballou wish list and send a book or two their way. Your generosity would be most certainly be very much appreciated.

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14. Update on the Book Fair for Ballou High School

ballou

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

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15. A book fair because books are magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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16. Assessing October on the Resolution Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[Post title from Shackleton, of course.]

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18. In the Appalachian Mountain Club Bulletin….

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

That luck thing can really come through sometimes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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20. Driven by Kelley Armstrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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21. Finding family we lost 75 years ago….

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

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

And now I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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23. Barry Moser writing about brotherly love

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

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

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

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

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

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24. Assessing September on the Resolution Scale


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25. On writing about where we are from

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

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

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

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

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

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