Now Departing for : Texas

Hello Online Reading Challenge Members!

Yee haw! We’re off to the Wild West this month! Well, we’re off to Texas and the American Southwest, a part of the United States with a colorful history that continues to be a favorite of writers and film makers alike. There will be no shortage of excellence this month.

I have to admit, when I first drew up this year’s list of subjects for the Online Reading Challenge I included the American Southwest with Texas because I didn’t think there would be enough books just on Texas. Wrong! I discovered lots of great titles, many of which are among my personal favorites. Here are some of them:

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Don’t let the various awards (including the Pulitzer Prize) for the this book scare you off as “too literary”. It is indeed a masterpiece of writing and a joy to read, but more importantly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. It is the story of one last epic cattle drive across open country, fiercely real, set against an unforgiving landscape and filled with tragedy and triumph,  You will never forget the characters or their stories. An excellent mini-series, starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones, is also highly recommended.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles reminded me quite a bit of Lonesome Dove although it’s a very different story. What they have in common is uncommon characters, epic adventure and tragedy and triumph. I blogged about it in more detail last year. Highly recommended.

If you have not read Tony Hillerman’s books then do yourself a favor and start! Set in the Navajo Territory, these books follow Lt Leaphorn and Officer Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police as they work to solve crimes in this beautiful but remote and isolated part of the country. While these are on the surface crime-solving mysteries, there is a lot going on beneath the surface including the push and pull of old vs new – Leaphorn is older but does not believe in the Navajo myths; Chee is a young man studying to become a Navajo shaman – and the frequent misunderstandings between cultures. Hillerman was a master writer, spare and evocative with great respect for the Navajo Nation. Amazing books. The Blessing Way was the first book; Skinwalkers is the first with Leaphorn and Chee working together; The Thief of Time is probably my favorite (although I love them all).

Finally, there are many tv shows and movies set in Texas and the Southwest. My favorite is Friday Night Lights and I will argue that it is one of the best television shows ever. Starring Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, this series features great writing, excellent characters and epic stories all beautifully filmed and with a pitch perfect final episode. Set against the backdrop of football crazy Texas, it’s actually about family and friendship, finding your own way and growing up. I wrote (enthusiastically) about the show here and here.

My plan for August is to go to the classics and read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop I’ll you know how it goes.

Now, what about you? What are you reading this month?

Now Arriving from : Alaska

Welcome Back Online Reading Challengers!

How was your July? Did you find something wonderful about Alaska this month? Surely reading about all that cold and snow helped keep you cool here in Iowa!

I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a story that is both hopeful and heartbreaking. Set in frontier Alaska where conditions are harsh and homesteading is hard work, The Snow Child is about a middle-aged couple who have come to Alaska for a fresh start. Their only child has died and they are unable to have another. Mabel, struggling with grief is considering killing herself and she and her husband Jack are drifting further and further apart. They are just barely hanging on. One day, impulsively, Jack and Mabel build a snow child and soon after they begin to see glimpses of a small girl in the woods. Who is she? Where did she come from? Is she safe alone in the woods?

Over time Jack and Mabel befriend the girl and welcome her into their home and hearts. She grows into a beautiful young woman, but there is something wild and otherworldly about her, as if she is only here temporarily. What follows is a story about family, both those we are born into and those we create, about surviving sorrow and finding joy again. The land of Alaska plays a big part in this book and is beautifully described – you can almost feel the cold winter winds or see the brilliant sunshine. Ivey is a native Alaskan and her love and respect for the land and wildlife are evident. Based on a traditional Russian fairy tale, this is a lovely, thoughtful book.

Now it’s your turn – what have you read this month?

 

Alaska – Halfway Home

So, how is reading about the Great White North going for you – have you found anything that has grabbed your attention or made you want to move to Alaska and begin a life of rugged outdoor adventure?

If you’re looking for rugged, wilderness adventure, but prefer to live near running water and grocery stores, check out some of the great movies about Alaska; many of them will have you on the edge of your seat.

Insomnia stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. It follows an LA police detective trying to solve a murder in a small Alaskan town. Already having difficulty sleeping, the never-setting midnight sun of the Alaskan summer wrecks havoc on his mental state until he has trouble telling what is real and what is not.

Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s ground-breaking book, the true story of a privileged young man leaving everything behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness with less than successful results.

The Grey, starring Liam Neeson is about a group of men stranded in the winter in the Alaskan wilderness after their small plane crashes. Relentlessly pursued by rogue wolves and battling the elements and their injuries, this is a brutal and suspenseful story.

If you prefer your entertainment a little less terrifying, try The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Bullock’s character, a high-powered executive, threatened with deportation back to Canada, announces that she is (unknown to him) engaged to her assistant. His price for agreeing is that she travel to his family home in Alaska and see if his relatives accept her. Hilarity ensues. A charming, light-as-air romantic comedy.

Any one of these should help cool you off during this hot Iowa summer. What are you going to watch (or read)?

 

Florence Foster Jenkins on DVD

Florence, possessing a heart of gold and a tin ear, wishes more than anything to be a great opera singer. She is very active in the mid-1940s New York City music scene and rubs elbows with many of the famous including conductor Arturo Toscanini, songwriter Cole Porter and actress Tallulah Bankhead. But while she has many friends and has helped many musicians, her dream remains out-of-reach – until she decides to do something about it.

St. Clair, her beloved husband, knows perfectly well that Florence cannot sing, but he pays her voice coach and new pianist very well to treat her as if she has a lovely voice. When Florence is determined to give a recital, St. Clair makes sure the tickets are sold only to fans and friends and bribes reporters into write glowing reviews. All goes smoothly – well, except for the fact that Florence has a terrible voice – and St. Clair relaxes. Which is, of course, when St. Clair’s well-meaning white lies come around to bite him. Florence, without telling St. Clair, books Carnegie Hall. Oh, and records an album. St. Clair’s carefully constructed safe haven for his wife is about to come crashing down.

Florence Foster Jenkins is simply a lovely movie. Charming, funny but also bittersweet. Starring the always amazing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant (still so handsome), this is a movie that will make you laugh but it’ll also make you stop and think. It’s about reaching for your dreams, about overcoming the obstacles life throws at you (Florence’s life hasn’t been easy), about finding your true friends and standing with them. It’s about having the courage to follow your passion and never give up.

Now Departing for: Alaska

Hello Fellow Online Challenge Readers!

This month we’re heading north, to Alaska. Just the name conjures up images of a rugged, wild frontier. A land of extremes – in landscape, in weather, in individualism, in wildlife, this beautiful place is full of adventures great and small and has the stories to prove it.

You’ll find a wide range of titles to choose from this month. There are quite a few mysteries set in Alaska, including the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabanow and the Maxie and Stretch series by Sue Henry. There are also a lot of romances, like, a lot. Maybe all that cold weather is good for snuggling? Check out Fire and Ice by Julie Garwood, Northern Lights by Nora Roberts or Darkness by Karen Robards.

For fiction, consider Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union about a (fictional) Jewish state that has been established in Sitka, Alaska after World War II. Protocol Zero by James Abel (also known as Clive Cussler), is a thriller that fans of Michael Crichton will appreciate. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is historical fiction set in 1885, told through the letters of a young couple. Or try Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle, a story of revenge set the in the Alaskan bush.

If you prefer non-fiction, you’ve got some great books to look at including Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer about a privileged young man who headed into the wilds of Alaska in an attempt to live off the land, or 81 Days Below Zero by Brian Murphy about a young Army pilot that survived brutal conditions after crash landing in the Arctic in 1943.

I am going to read Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey about a childless couple homesteading in Alaska who, after building a figure out of snow, find a little girl in their woods. It sounds like an intriguing mix of history and magical realism. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now, what about you – what are you reading this month?

 

Now Arriving from: San Francisco

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

We’re back from the City by the Bay – how was your virtual visit? Did you find a book that gave you a taste of the city?

I hit the jackpot this month and read a great book – Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Set mostly in San Francisco, the story revolves around a mysterious bookstore that is open 24 hours a day and caters to a very particular clientele. More that that it’s an exploration of old vs new, of how pen and paper (and books) mesh with and clash with technology and new ideas.

Stephanie wrote a great review of this book for the blog a couple of years ago which I suggest you check out. It gives you a great description of what the book is about (without spoilers) and why it’s so good. It’s also pretty funny – Clay’s internal dialogue is often hilarious (and very relatable) and while San Francisco isn’t an integral part of the story, it does add a lot of character to the setting. Read it – it’s sooooo good!

Bonus: if you like to judge a book by it’s cover and mostly pick up a book because of its appearance rather than what the blurb says, then you have to check this one out because the cover glows in the dark! Yep. I tested it myself and it really does glow in the dark. Kinda super-awesome.

So, what about you – did you find anything super-awesome to read (or listen to or watch) this month? Tell us!

Question for You : Do You Still Use Traditional Travel Guides?

In this day and age, with technology so ubiquitous and most of us carrying a tiny super computer around in our pocket, is there still the need for paper editions of travel guides? Do you still check out the latest edition of Fodor’s or Rick Steve’s guide books for recommendations on hotels or tips for avoiding long lines?

There’s no doubt that technology has changed the way we gather information, including planning for a trip. GPS guides us, GoogleMaps shows us locations and nearbys, blogs and Instagram are full of inspiration and tips and pretty pictures, every tourist board and Chamber of Commerce has a website promoting their location and there are multiple apps for nearly every city, museum or activity. Why would you still need a more traditional paper guide?

Technology offers a lot of pros. It has the ability to update information quickly and frequently (although, just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s accurate – it pays to do your research!) I find Instagram a great source of reality by following people who live in the city/locations I’m interested in (Paris, London and Amsterdam are my current favorites) Unlike tourist boards who show only perfect pictures of amazing scenes, the people I follow show the less-than-perfect (although, who are we kidding, those cities are still pretty awesome!) – bad weather days, off-the-beaten-track sights, ordinary people, quiet details. They’ll often post about coffee shops or cafes that aren’t in the guidebooks, or tiny shops worth searching for, or street art and local events. I find a lot of creative photography inspiration in these posts and they help give me ideas on what to look for when visiting.

That said, I still like to carry a paper map, partly because I love just looking at them and studying them and partly because they give you an overview of the area – it helps me to get a grasp of the unique geography of where I’m at. And I still look at paper travel guides (my favorite are Rick Steves; they have never steered me wrong) – I do a lot of flipping back and forth through the book as I compare areas of the city/country and what’s available from eating to sleeping to transportation. Rick Steves (and most of the other travel guide companies) also has an active online presence; I take advantage of both. I think, for me, the question can be answered the same as it can be for ebooks vs paper – there’s room for both.

Now, what about you – do you still use paper travel guides? Or have you gone completely online?

Photo Essay: Summer at Eastern

Even though it feels like summer has been here for more than a week already, as of 11:24pm last night it is now officially summer. And that means the prairie meadows at the Eastern library are coming to life.

The tall grass prairie (which originally encompassed Iowa) is incredibly beautiful and complex, full of life and surrounded by birdsong. Rainforest ecosystems get a lot of press and support to preserve and save and while I have no problem with protecting rainforests, don’t forget about the eco-system in our own backyard – the tall grass prairie, which is almost virtually extinct, is just as valuable, complex and beautiful.

Monday night, between rain showers and with dramatic clouds as a backdrop, I took a little time to enjoy these wild gardens along the edge of the Eastern library.

The purple flowers around Eastern’s sign are catmint which is not an Iowa native, but blends well with the wild garden beyond.
Dramatic rain clouds above the Eastern library
Purple coneflowers (echinacea) among the grasses.
As part of the Green City initiative, the city of Davenport has planted and maintains the prairies at Eastern.
Grasses and sky, the simplest definition of the prairie.
Butterfly weed  (asclepias) is popular with bees too.
Sunny black-eyed susan (rudbeckia)
The barn isn’t actually very old (about 3 years old) but fits perfectly in this setting. Living Lands and Water rents it from the city.
A stand of wild yarrow.
Milkweed, a favorite of Monarch butterflies, about to bloom.
A meadowlark visits the edge of the prairie. You’ll see – and hear – lots of birds including redwing blackbirds, plovers, song sparrows and red-tail hawks.
This is blue vervain, a member of the verbena family.
Prairies support lots of beneficial insects like this bumblebee.

Interested in learning more about tallgrass prairies? Check out Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie by Aimee Larrabee or Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: the Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle. Or grab The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands by Sneed Collard which is about the efforts of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge which is located a few miles east of Des Moines.

I also highly recommend visiting the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge – they have a visitors center with excellent exhibits, offer educational programs about restoring the prairie (it’s much more complicated than throwing out a few seeds), have an easy walking trail for up-close views of flowers and grasses and a scenic drive where you’re likely to spot the Refuge’s bison and elk herds. Even though it’s located just a few miles from I-80, there are a few places in the Refuge where you can stop your car and, if you turn your back to the road, all you see is prairie and sky. No cars, no roads, to telephone wires. You can almost – almost – imagine what it was like before the first pioneers arrived.

All photos by Ann Hetzler, 6/19/2017