Have Books, Will Travel

bookshelvesSome people flip through photo albums to fondly remember past vacations. Others, in today’s social media-crazed society, may look back over their Instagram posts to see snaps of time spent away with family or friends, in some exotic location, or just for a short getaway. Me? I just pull up my Goodreads list of books read, and I can happily remember great trips or time spent with family by seeing a book title and the date I completed it. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and my bookshelves can vouch for that. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Metamorphosis of Me into a Literary Reader: A 1987 Thanksgiving break visit to my future husband while he was in grad school in Charlottesville, Virginia, opened my eyes to Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis. Just barely surpassing a frat house for cleanliness and style, I enjoyed the quiet of his apartment and his English major roommate’s bookshelf.
  • Hunting for Something to Read: Over Christmas break in 1999 in Louisiana, awake in the middle of the night with nothing to read, I borrowed Hunt for Red October from my brother-in-law’s bookshelf, my first and last Tom Clancy.
  • Tea Time Will Make You Fat: Living overseas for two years allowed us the ability to travel around Europe inexpensively. In the fall of 2002, just after unpacking and getting ourselves settled, we traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, to see my mother’s cousins and extended family. cooks bookshopWe spent a lovely day at Edinburgh Castle and shopped on the Royal Mile that afternoon, where I stumbled upon the Cooks Bookshop, owned by Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the pair of British cooking celebs I knew from a PBS cooking show. We went in and naturally I had to buy the first of their cookbooks that accompanied the PBS series, Two Fat Ladies.
  • James Bond a la Provence: In the summer of 2003, while living for two years in Belgium, my family spent a week in Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Provence, France. In advance of the trip, I visited the high school library of the international school my daughters attended to check out some books to bring along. One book was an omnibus edition of five Ian Fleming novels. I have such fond memories sitting on the balcony of the rental apartment, reading this hardback while sipping a cool drink and listening to the waves.
  • pittsburghNo Hunger, Too Busy Reading to Eat: Easter break of 2012, I read an entire book in the bathtub of a Pittsburgh Marriott Courtyard hotel room. I was just going to relax in the tub and read a few pages of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, but I ended up adding hot water repeatedly until I finished the whole book.
  • lewes24 Hour Getaway: In October of 2012, my hubby and I drove to Lewes, Delaware, for my birthday weekend. While there, I managed to squeeze in enough reading to nearly get through Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Part mystery, part puzzle, part homage to bookstores, this is still a favorite of mine.
  • Rocky Read of Rowling: In the summer of 2014, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine. maineWith high winds and rough seas, our water activities were canceled several times, but I happily sat on the sunny porch of the inn where we stayed, reading (J. K. Rowling’s alter ego) Robert Galbraith’s second detective mystery novel in the Cormoran Strike series, The Silkworm. Note: book 2 is decidedly creepier and more graphic than book 1 but not nearly as creepy and graphic as book 3. I’ll need a brightly lit room and a stiff drink to make it through book 4.
  • los angelosFirst Anniversary of Baby Bird being Gone: My younger daughter moved to Los Angelos over Easter break of 2016 to pursue her dream of being a screenwriter. While on this life-changing trip to drop her off, I read Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, my first of her novels. The tone and mood perfectly matched my own bittersweet feelings of the time.
  • All the Time in the World to Read: July of 2016 found me in Fort Myers, Florida, visiting a dear friend in her beautiful home. After she left for work each morning, I would have coffee and read on her “lanai”. fort myersAs the mid-day sun became a bit too much, I’d dive into her pool and swim lazy laps. In stark contrast to this paradise of a setting, I read a friend’s debut novel, All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell, which takes place in the ultra-glamorous Upper East Side of Manhattan.
  • Puerto RicoYes, Chef, More Mofongo: Over Thanksgiving break of 2016, my husband took me to Puerto Rico for my 60th birthday. Amidst all the great food we ate there, including mofongo, I devoured Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.
  • Water, Water, Everywhere: Summer of 2017 found me on my first ever mother-daughter road trip, traveling to Niagara Falls. niagara fallsWhile my daughter was off at her conference, I sat in an outdoor cafe with a big cup of coffee and Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings. No waterfalls featured in the story, but all the action takes place on the Chesapeake Bay.

One thing is clear after gathering my photos of the places I have written about in this essay: it seems like I like places near the water as much as I like books!

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At a Loss for Words: A Book Review

Lost for WordsYou know that feeling when you have a bug bite that has scabbed over and you pick at it and pick at it and make it bleed even though it is hurting and you know that you are making it hurt? That’s sort of the feeling I had while reading Stephanie Butland’s novel The Lost for Words Bookshop (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). I knew what I was reading was making me hurt but I kept reading and kept reading and kept reading, picking and bleeding along the way. In a good way. Really.

To be honest, I picked up this book off of the librarian’s choice shelf because of the cover, a bay window with a window seat and a bright red awning, and of course, the word bookshop was in the title. Right away, virtually from the first page, I was thinking about the voice of the protagonist, how it was edgy and young and “millennial” in nature. Curious about the author, about the person who created Loveday Cardew, I turned to the back flap of the book jacket…but no photo of the author there. Her short bio gave me no clue as to age so I googled her. I was shocked to see that she was not in fact a millennial, not someone who could be a contemporary of LJ, yet she had captured the essence of today’s 25-year-old, struggling with being an adult in a world that had been awfully cruel to her.

13093000I haven’t felt this way about discovering an author’s identity to be so different from the voice of her protagonist since the summer of 2012 when I read The Newlyweds (Knopf, 2012). I was so convinced (but oh so wrong) that author Nell Freudenberger had written the book under a pseudonym or under her married name as a woman, who like her protagonist Amina, had immigrated to America from Bangladesh. Fundamentally I understand that writers create worlds and imagine characters that they bring to the printed page with their literary talents, but I am not often left speechless by it being done in such a convincing way.

I read a lot of mysteries, and I watch a lot of British dramas, but I always do so with one eye closed. I don’t really want to figure out what is going on too early, unlike my husband who usually has sussed it all up and become bored with it by the first commercial break. This book, though, this book was different. As the pages flipped by, and the alternating time frames (1999, 2013, and 2016) moved me about, I was trying to figure out what was going on. I even remarked to my younger daughter in a phone conversation, “something happened to this girl, something bad, she’s holding it back but it’s coming out I can tell, maybe she was raped”. (Note: not a spoiler, just what I had imagined that could be in her history.)

Coast_path_near_Whitby,_North_Yorkshire_(22937616433)I loved this book for many reasons. I loved that it grabbed my interest right away and never let me go, even when I was feeling pained by reading it. I loved the talk of books by people who loved books, who put such value in books. As a literature teacher and lifelong avid reader, that made me very happy. I loved how Butland unfolded the story of Loveday layer by layer, like peeling an onion or tearing away the rind of an orange slowly in one long, continuous, curling strip. I loved that there wasn’t an overload of characters for me to carry along in the story, just enough to make the story work, sort of like the number of words in a good poem, just enough to make it work. I loved that it was set in York, England, with constant talk of the sea, of Cornwall, of Devon, places I haven’t been to but long to see. I loved Butland’s use of imagery to paint a tapestry of scenes in my head, “The water was the blue of inkstained fingertips.” I loved LJ’s vulnerability and the way Butland colored her in, with an armor of tattoos and a mask of contempt for all that makes “normal” people happy and content. I loved how even in her state of absolute fear and confusion, Loveday still tried to excuse Rob because of his mental illness. I loved how Nathan thought he was broken, until he met someone he loved who was more broken than he could ever imagine. I loved how Butland left me speechless and sobbing at the end, how it made me miss my mom even more than I do every single day. But, one of the things I really loved about this book is that I stumbled upon a new author to obsess over.

 

The Battle of Evil against Good

my favorite color is octoberIt’s mid-October and lots of my bookish friends are reading scary stories or mysteries that have elements of the supernatural lurking about. In my 8th grade classroom, we read a short story recently that is classified as science fiction but in many ways represents the materialistic and selfish ways of many in today’s society, making it seem like realistic fiction.

Richard_MathesonRichard Matheson wrote many short stories and screenplays for two well-known television shows from the 1960s: Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Edgar Allan Poe, Matheson’s favorite author, wrote many strange and creepy stories that gave Matheson the perfect basis for writing his own pieces of thought-provoking literature. In the science fiction short story “Button, Button,” the reader is invited into Norma and Arthur Lewis’s apartment to witness a marital argument over a button—just a button—which sits under a glass dome and does not appear to have a function or job.

Button, Button unitMatheson’s short story “Button, Button” did have a job, however. Using the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden as his starting point, Matheson creates an allegory that clearly shows the reader exactly what greed and temptation can do to a weak person. Norma dreams of many things: a cottage on the island, a car, a better apartment, nicer clothes, a trip to Europe, a baby. Arthur keeps telling her these things will come in time; they will achieve their dreams together, but Norma can’t let it go. She is intrigued by the button and its immoral promises. She rationalizes and tricks herself into believing that pushing the button will bring them BOTH happiness, not just her. “It’s for us,” she says as she pushes the button.

st michaelIn the Catholic faith, St. Michael the Archangel was sent to defend Christians in battle with the devil. It’s a shame Norma did not know the prayer to St. Michael. Perhaps the warrior archangel could have stopped her from making the biggest mistake of her life.

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us.

Just Say Cheese!

cheese signFor two years I lived in Belgium, where supposedly there is a different cheese for every day of the year. Just a few blocks from my house on Avenue de Versailles was my favorite store, Fromagerie Saint-Michel, and during those two years, I was a frequent customer. The ladies behind the counter were so helpful and allowed me to taste many different kinds of cheese on each visit. They would offer me suggestions as to which cheeses to serve together and what other foods should be served with them. I just loved shopping there.

Cheese has always been my favorite food. I’m pretty sure I could live off of cheese alone, although a crusty piece of baguette, with a thin spread of salty French butter, really makes a nice piece of cheese a whole meal. I love grainy, white cheddar cheese from Ireland as much as I love creamy, runny Brie from France. I like Swiss cheese with its big holes that look as though a mouse has been nibbling his way through the center. I like manchego cheese that comes from Spain, which tastes great with salty, green olives and honey-glazed Spanish almonds.

racletteOf course, cooking with cheese is even better than eating it plain. Who doesn’t love rich and creamy mac ‘n cheese, which my mom baked in the oven until the macaroni pieces sticking up around the edges were crispy and golden brown. A grilled cheese sandwich on toasted rye bread, cooked on low heat in a skillet coated with butter, is a great Sunday night dinner while I grade papers and get ready for another week of school. All over Europe people gather together for dinner parties, happily dipping chunks of bread, slices of apples, and tiny roasted potatoes into a cheesy dip called fondue. A slight variation of this is raclette, which is a nutty, mild and creamy cheese that is melted in front of a fireplace, and then the oozing melted part is scraped onto plates and passed around. This is also served with really good bread and roasted potatoes.

raclette grillCheese isn’t just for lunch and dinner, though. In the Scandinavian countries, people eat sliced cheese and cold cuts for breakfast. All along the East Coast of the United States, people smear cream cheese on bagels, sometimes with crazy flavors and sometimes just plain. In Italy, people spread fresh ricotta cheese on slices of toast and drizzle them with honey for breakfast or as an after-school snfondueack for their kids. And of course, there is no pizza without mozzarella!

Hands down, cheese is my favorite dairy product. Even though cheese is a close relative of yogurt, I could never love yogurt the way I love cheese. Cheese simply is the perfect food, eaten alone or on a sandwich, manchegosliced or cut into chunks, made into a dip or melted and scraped onto bread, for me there is nothing like it.  In fact, when someone is ready to take a picture of me, and they tell me “say cheese”, I am not smiling for the camera. I am smiling for the cheese!

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait (And Work)!

ibm selectricWhen I started teaching 8th grade English, I had the urge to do some writing for myself. Modeling essay structure for my students became fun, not work. I had many papers to write in my graduate courses for certification to teach, and my instructors would tell me I was a good writer. But, teaching full-time while earning my teaching certificate did not allow much free time for creative writing. Once the certification process was complete, I began to tinker around with short stories and an idea for a young adult novel, but my beta readers all told me the same thing: Too much exposition. Takes too long to get started. You don’t write the way you tell your stories. Your stories are so much more exciting. This was also confirmed when I sent a piece off for a professional critique. The one positive comment: Your dialogue is so realistic!

So, I decided to back up and try a different tactic. Since telling stories seemed to be my strong suit, I decided to concentrate on writing creative non-fiction. So, on December 31, 2014, my daughters helped me create a website, this website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt. I set a goal: An Essay a Week for One Year. My hope was that in that one year of disciplined writing, of putting my work out there for all to see (and hopefully read), my writing would improve. I would learn to get to the point. I would learn to dive into the story rather than dilly dally around it. I would strengthen my ability to write something with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I would hopefully learn to write the way I tell stories, with more imagery and excitement. Practice makes perfect, right?

puccini in the sunMy first essay was about our dog, License to Carry. I pushed the “publish” button and the line was drawn in the sand. I’ve never ever given up on anything in my life, so I had no intention of giving up on this goal either.

However, 2015 proved to stretch me to my limits. For some crazy reason I decided to direct High School Musical Jr. for my former school’s spring musical. Rehearsals began in February, and middle schoolers came out in droves. It was the biggest cast ever, almost fifty 7th and 8th graders involved in the production. Think cheerleading uniforms for 25 girls and basketball uniforms for a bunch of boys, the largest number of boys we’d ever had show up for auditions. Balancing the extra workload of directing this mega-musical with teaching full-time, and squeezing out enough time to write an essay each week before my midnight Sunday deadline, was quite the challenge.

And, then God sent me yet another cross. My father in Louisiana became critically ill and was in and out of the hospital and rehab center. Things really escalated in April just before tech week for the musical. I flew to Louisiana to help my brothers manage my father’s care and make many difficult decisions, leaving the production to the care of the teachers on my team. They did a wonderful job of pulling it all together, and I returned to Maryland just in time to see the closing performance, which was a splendid success.

Sadly, my father died less than two weeks later, sending me back to Louisiana for his funeral, at a very busy time in the life of a middle school teacher: exams, graduation, report cards, permanent records, closing up a classroom for the summer. Somehow, in grief, I managed to keep my deadline each week, with several essays being written on my father’s computer. Those essays are still difficult for me to read, but most importantly I continued to pursue my goal, to write and hone my craft.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve 2015. Hurray, I had reached my goal, 52 essays, one a week for one year, all written and published on my website before midnight each Sunday! Whether out of habit or out of some competitive need to continue on, I continued writing my weekly essays until the end of April of 2016. At this point, a friend said to me, “Stop! You did it, now work on getting published in print!”

But, how? The answer came to me when I happened to pick up a copy of Washington Family Magazine, a regional parenting magazine dropped off at my former school once a month. In the February 2017 issue, I read the article, “Local Mom Profile: Welcome Back to the Table”. It was a great article, but as I was reading it, I thought, “I can do this. I can write an article like this.”

Later that week I queried Washington Family Magazine and asked if they would be interested in a profile of a local mom who had converted her garage into an art studio where she hosts the ever-popular paint night parties and uses her art to promote her social justice causes. After getting the green light to proceed, I signed up for one of her paint parties and subsequently scheduled an interview with her. I submitted the article in March, and then radio silence. In the months that followed, I followed up with the editor periodically while I shopped the article around to some national publications. I received polite rejections, although one did tell me it was well-written and enjoyable to read.

Published Articles Mar-AugThe article, “Local Mom Profile Artist Angie Kilcullen and Barn Again Home” was eventually published in the March 2018 issue of Washington Family Magazine, almost a year later. In the subsequent five months, I am happy to report that I’ve developed an ongoing working relationship with this local magazine:

April 2018: “Finish Strong: End the School Year on a High Note

June 2018: “Squash the Summer Slump” and “Local Dad Profile: Mark Turgeon, Father of Three and Father to Many More

July 2018: “Can’t Travel? Take a Literary Staycation

July 2018 (sister publication): “Book It: Take a Literary Staycation

August 2018: “Armchair Traveler: Books That Let You Travel the World (Without Leaving Home)” and (local kid profile) “Flying To Infinity and Beyond

And, I’ve submitted one for the upcoming September issue.

As with “An Essay a Week for One Year”, I’ve accomplished my goal of getting published in print. Onward to a new goal, to reach outside of this local market and get published in a national publication. I continue to work on my fiction writing as well, having spent some of this summer fine-tuning a short story that takes place at the popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow. I’ve submitted it to a local literary contest. We’ll see. I’ve had good luck locally!

Baltimore’s Child Magazine

Please check out my article with this popular regional parenting magazine!

Book It! Stuck at Home? Take a Literary Staycation!1(1)

How to  End the School Year on a High Note!

Check it out!

1Check out this month’s Washington Family Magazine for my freelance work in their August issue:

Armchair Traveler: Books That Let You Travel the World (Without Leaving Home)

Flying to Infinity and Beyond: Meet the 11-Year-Old Boy who Became an Instant Indoor Skydiving Star