When It Comes to Reading and Traveling You Can’t Plan the Best Stuff

This trip was a Christmas present. Alicia asked for it in some not so subtle ways and I obliged because in years past I’d manage to buy things she never used. Who doesn’t want a karaoke machine or an electronic keyboard, right?

The trip was planned for six months. We did our research, or rather, Alicia did hers and I watched. We wanted to see the obvious: Stonehenge, The Louvre, The Vatican, archaeological sites in Greece, The Colosseum, and whatever else we could squeeze in.

During a trip to Delphi we encountered something that would touch us far more than these national treasures. In a little mountain town we saw a traditional Greek funeral procession which was proceeding by foot down the road. The mourners followed about eight men in uniform. We pulled to the side of the road and killed the engine and could do nothing but silently observe with empathy. We would learn the man died at 48 leaving behind a wife and children. His business had been in trouble. His father had also died at 48.

While in Rome at the Colosseum we were initially frustrated to learn that of all days, the day we picked to visit, the site would be closed to visitors because of a labor strike. We took a short tour around the exterior and heard some history. The tour guide explained that the strike was a result of the incredibly high tax rate, effectively 55%, that the Italian workers paid. We walked down the road after the tour and watched the marching workers from a restaurant as we ate. The march was peaceful but intense.

These are things we could not have planned in advance. To me, though, they were life changing experiences. They were the real activities and emotions of the real citizens of the countries we visited. They’ll stick with me forever.

In this way reading is like travelling. The things that impact you along the way might not be the things you set out to see. Everyone knows the story of Holden Caufield in a nutshell, but do you get a chance to break down and feel what it’s like to be him by reading the notes or Wikipedia entry?

Engage in active reading and you’ll find the unexpected. Maybe you’ll even see something no one else has seen before because you will have read through the lens of your own unique experience. Maybe what you see will change your life.

Photo: Some rights reserved by grahamc99

Read to Avoid Despair or to Confront It

I wrote this post from a beach front hotel room in Greece. No, it wasn’t raining. Before you start to yell, let me explain. I don’t want to tell the story of the entire trip just yet, but I have to offer a few words of explanation so you don’t think I am squandering my vacation on the internet.

Alicia tripped coming out of the hotel room on the way to the archaeological site of Olympia. We spent a morning in Patras’ emergency room, and then we spent a couple of days with her leg elevated and in a cast. It turns out she just had a nasty sprain and partial ligament tear, no broken bones.

Our Patras predicament got me thinking about the mindset of despair. Perhaps our situation is not despair, but Alicia’s fall defeated our hope we would make it to Mt. Olympia and then the Achai Clauss winery. Put into perspective, we weren’t bad off. Patras’ ER facilities were incredibly efficient. Our cab drivers were accommodating in getting us back and forth from the hotel. We have a place to stay and a view of the mountains from our window.

People worry themselves into despair over much less these days, though. Instead of submitting to despair the goal is to find a way to better your situation. For example, I can find a book to read to make productive use of my time. I can also find the time to write a short post to share with people I care about.

Now, I may choose to be desperate, to read a desperate book or a story of a desperate person, but that is a choice. Right now, though, I’d much rather finish reading Swamplandia! and polish off the last of the 2012 Pulitzer contenders that I haven’t read. I am on vacation after all.

If you’re going to be desperate, be deliberately desperate. Act as if your life depends on your external circumstances and be prepared to explain why you acted that way. If you don’t feel like submitting to despair, find an entertaining book to read or a compelling story to write and refuse to submit.


Again, this is just a short note. More on the trip and my experience reading and travelling through London, Paris, Rome, Athens, and Amsterdam coming as soon as I can get it typed up. Thank you to all the great guest posts that went up in my absence. I did manage to follow them while travelling and, as usual, was very happy to see them received well by you, intelligent readers.


Writer to Writer – What We Learn from Each Other

This is an essay by Susan Sundwall.

Once we avid readers step over the line and become writers, we read differently. Now we don’t just read, we glean. Like some kind of medieval peasant, we pick at words, phrases and concepts as though they were bits of fallen fruit there for our taking. Now, mind you, gleaning is not stealing. Oh no, it’s more like hundreds of little “ah ha!” moments all scattered about in other people’s books and what we find there helps us over the humps as we struggle, hammer and tongs, with our own work. Here are some examples.

Humor – Like funny?

How about Janet Evanovich? Ms. Evanovich created Stephanie Plum and let’s her do wacko stuff like accidentally blow up cars, burn down funeral homes, take her Grandma Mazur along on a bounty hunt and have two gorgeous men (Oh, Ranger) vying for her affections. And Stephanie always manages, with the marginal assistance of her sidekick Lula, to solve a crime in the bargain. What’s not to love? She gives all of us a kind of permission to write zany; to let our imagination and individual sense of humor soar.


Elizabeth George cannot write fast enough for me. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything she’s ever written. She builds, layer by layer, trait by trait, characters worthy of adoration. In fact, if you blindfolded me and set me in a cold interrogation room in a London police station, I’d know the exact instant that Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley walked into the room. I’d know if he had Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers or his wife, Helen, with him, too. Why? Because Ms. George has made these characters real, the kind you can hear and smell, become enraged at or pine for, empathize with, sense and know. In that knowing, then, we understand that our own characters must have layers that include virtues, regular battles with the dark side of their own humanity, and flaws—even flaws readers will dislike. As an example, take Lynley’s sergeant, Barbara Havers. Besides being a darn good investigator, responsible with her mother and tenderhearted towards children, Barbara is also overweight and a bit of a frump in her manner of dress. These last two are not exactly character flaws, but still, I see myself this way at times, and have bonded hip to hip with this gal.

World Building

Think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Panem in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or Jan Karon’s  Mitford series. Karon taps into our longing for a place where everything, the good and bad, the ugly, the ordinary, and the joyous happens just the way it should, or could, in real life. Her books are character driven and what a charming, quirky lot they are! Father Tim Kavanagh, an Episcopal priest, tools into Mitford and bids us join him as he serves his congregation. He also finds a wife, acquires a stepson and generally shows us what love, patience, exasperation, honor, humor, and faith are all about. From Ms. Karon it seems that plain old life is hardly ever that. Situations from any life, re-worked in captivating language and draped in disguise, can be the catalyst for creating worlds that others will want to visit, if only on the page.

Dead Guys – Uh, Authors of the Past

What author do you know who hasn’t learned something from Mark Twain? I recently re-read Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and oh, the language. Not anything like what we sometimes rely upon these days to deliver a story, but colorful and in a class all its own. True, you don’t hear anyone called a ‘blame fool’ anymore, nor do we expect many of our readers to know what a ‘chaw of tobacco’ is, but I’ll bet you a dead cat in a gunnysack we could all ratchet up the color in our own writing by studying Mr. Twain. Read this tidbit from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to get a good feel of what I mean. In it, Aunt Sally has been looking high and low for the shirt Huck and his friend Tom have stolen from her clothesline. From her tone of voice and her cross words, Huck is certain he’s been caught out.

“My heart fell down amongst my lungs and livers and things, and a hard piece of corn-crust started down my throat after it and got met on the road with a cough, and was shot across the table, and took one of the children in the eye and curled him up like a fishing worm . . .”

If that doesn’t put a picture in your head, I don’t know what will. Go and seek some authors of the past to admire and learn from if you don’t already. You won’t regret it.

Now how about you?

It’s no secret that authors are voracious readers and glean, as I do, from their favorites. But here’s a slight twist on that notion; we can learn as much from a bad example as a good one. So, in a study of contrasts and just for fun, ask yourself these five questions. Then answer them out loud, um, unless you’re reading this while you’re supposed to be working at your day job.

1.       What’s the name of the worst book you ever read and probably didn’t finish?

2.       Who wrote it (if you can remember)?

3.       Why did you hate it; plot, characters, setting, language, concept, your mother-in-law loved it, your ex-boyfriend gave it to you, etc?

4.       Why do you think this book was published at all?

5.       How are you going to avoid writing a book, or anything, that will give someone a reason to say “that’s the worst thing I ever read”?

Clarifying why we dislike something often puts the focus on the things we want to avoid in our own writing. You can easily turn the five points to the positive and gain insight too, but you’ll want to write those down as your answers will be much longer.

As lonely as writing can be, there are great bunches of good writers out there to emulate. We know we’re not all going to reach star status and some of our ideas stink like last week’s meatloaf. But so what? We have as much reason and right to write as the super stars and we can learn much from them and each other along the way.


Susan writes from her home in upstate New York. Her first mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery (Mainly Murder Press) will be available on November 1, 2012. Her numerous poems, essays, and articles have been published in Ideals, Sasee, Catholic Forester, Writer’s Weekly, and Funds for Writers among many others. Go on over to her blog at www.susansundwall.blogspot.com to find out what else she’s been up to.

Photoe: Some rights reserved by Wonderlane.

It’s Never Too Late to Open a Book…Again

This is an essay by Jeffery Cohen.

Reading in the beginning

When I was a boy, I was in love with reading. It was like a miracle to me. I marveled at how a collection of simple letters formed words. Those words brought me colors and tastes and smells. Those words carried me to places I’d never been and introduced me to characters I’d never expected to meet in a million years —sorcerers, kings, generals, talking animals. Reading was magical!

While other kids in the neighborhood flipped a football back and forth, I flipped through the pages of Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’. As my friends scaled the twisted boughs of knotted trees, I climbed the stacks of walled volumes at the library in search of a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ or Mark Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer’. While kids carried around shoe boxes of baseball cards, I carried ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ in a bookbag. The little gray industrial town where I was raised couldn’t keep me from foreign shores and exotic places as long as there were words and books to take me there.

Life’s Lessons

I don’t recall my father or mother ever picking up a book, but they faithfully read the newspaper, cover to cover, daily.  In our living room, a line of bound classics gathered dust — a testament to a fast talking book salesman who had conned my mother into buying something she would never use. She was elated when I began to comb through their brittle pages.

Gargoyles materialized atop a cathedral as I struggled to understand the words of Victor Hugo’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’. I tasted the dust of the chariots of Wallace’s ‘Ben Hur’ and came under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe. ‘The Telltale Heart’ pounded under the floorboards of my bedroom. I heard the tapping of a raven’s beak at my window.

I read my way into my teens. Before love ever came to me, I eavesdropped on the whispers that Shakespeare lent to Romeo and Juliet. I stood knee deep in fields of heather, watching Heathcliff embrace Cathy as he pledged himself. Verses from Shelley and Keats lifted my heart. Ogden Nash made me laugh. Allen Ginsburg made me cry. J.D. Salinger asked me to wonder who I was. Jack Kerouac set me on the road to find out.

Time flies, change happens

Days flew by. High school ended as quickly as it began. Then came college, a job search, new people, new friends. Life flashed like lightning. Todays became yesterdays. Familiar faces faded into distant memories. Dreams vaporized, and I found myself working for a living, buying a house, starting a family. The routine of living led me down roads I’d never planned to travel. Time and books began to slip away.

I would start a book, slide a bookmark between its pages, and promise myself that I’d pick up where I had left off. Weeks would go by, and the book remained unopened. After a while, I would forget just where I’d left it. The happiness I’d felt from reading became a distant memory as the years piled on. I’m not sure I ever consciously realized that I had stopped reading. It just happened. One day, books were no longer a part of my life.

The return

A couple of years ago, I decided to take a writing class. One of my classmates was a voracious reader. She was never without a book. You could see by the way she handled books, the way she held them, the way she turned their pages, that she respected and adored books. Her face glowed when she recounted the storyline of the latest volume in her possession. She spoke of the characters as though they were personal friends. She ate and slept books. She danced with them, sang with them, laughed with them. I wanted to feel what she felt. I wanted to read again.

I began by asking for a recommendation.

“Why don’t you try this one,” she smiled and handed me a copy of ‘Bel Canto.’ “Be patient with it,” she whispered. “It’s worth it.”

How right she was. My senses came alive as the words rekindled my imagination. I blew through it in days, hungry for another. My friend supplied me with a book list. One after the other, I devoured pages like a starving man. ‘The Road’, ‘The Sparrow’, Black Water’, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, ‘The Remains of the Day.’ With an endless stream of stories to discover came a peace and satisfaction I had forgotten long ago.

In an age of electronics, computers, chiming cell phones, and blasting tunes, I have rediscovered quiet — that delicious feeling of being alone with a book without distractions. I find myself not wanting to put a book down. And when I have to, I can’t wait to pick it up again. Now, when I reach the final chapters of a book, I begin to get nervous if I don’t have a new one to take its place. For me, the joy of reading has returned tenfold. Over the years, reading has taught me so many lessons. But the greatest lesson of all is that it’s never too late to open a book!


Jeffery Cohen, a freelance writer, painter, and sculptor, wrote a weekly newspaper humor column for six years. His work has appeared inSasee Magazine. He was a finalist in the 2011 Women-On-Writing Flash Fiction Contest, he won second place in Vocabula’s 2011 Well Written Writing Contest and placed second in the National League of American Pen Womens’ 2011 Soul Making Literary Competition for short stories. When Jeff is not writing or working on art, he is curled up with a good book or teaching himself to play the piano in his hundred year-old Victorian home.

Photo: Some rights reserved by libookperson.

The Inside Scoop on The Outsiders: How Revisiting This Teenage Classic Can Rekindle Your Love for a Good Story

This is an essay by Susan McKinney de Ortega.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton has everything – good-looking bad boys, opposing groups who really aren’t as different as they think, fierce brotherly love, gang loyalty, underprivileged kids perceived as trouble, rich kids perceived as trouble, action, love, violence, death, heroism, sacrifice, and, oh yes, hot chicks.

The novel was first published in 1967 by Viking Press, authored by high schooler S.E. Hinton. She was famously asked not to use her real name and reveal that the story of rival boy gangs in an Oklahoma town was written by a girl.

The Outsiders is the favorite book of all the middle school English classes I have ever taught – just the other day a dog-eared copy surfaced at my house from my 2006 class, inscribed inside the front cover Mine, Not Yours, Luis Eduardo Flores. Perhaps a return visit or a first time look at this drama about a group of sensitive kids misunderstood by the established community will remind adults of why we read in the first place – for pleasure.

I live in Mexico, and my middle school classes are made up of Spanish-speaking Mexican students who have mastered enough English to enter Advanced, where Miss Sue makes them read literature and write essays. In September, the kids begin To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Halfway into chapter one, they fidget, slump in their chairs, try reading from a face-on-the-desk position.

“This is a great book,” I tell them.

“It’s about little kids,” they complain. “It’s boring.”

In November, I pass out The Outsiders. They open the book, expecting little. But by page 5, Ponyboy has been jumped by a group of rich kids with knives. “How’d you like that haircut to start just below the chin?” one of them says. Then it’s a full-on rumble.  In my room, the only sound heard is the clock ticking toward 3 pm. For once, the students aren’t looking at it.

S.E Hinton wanted to write a realistic book about genuine teenagers who had more on their minds than going to the prom.  Year after year, my kids connect because The Outsiders is about them. In one of my classes, there was a boy who wrote a beautiful essay about his medallion being the only thing he has by which to remember his father, who was killed in a cartel clash. Another boy’s attorney father battled drug use. Another lived only with his brother – his mother had taken off for Columbia with a boyfriend, and his father had found a new family too.

In the novel, three brothers live without parents, fearing that Social Services will split them up. When Johnny’s father is in the mood to whack him or his mother around, he sleeps in the park. Dallas Winston carries a loaded pistol and has done time in jail.

There are the Greasers, from the wrong side of the tracks and the Socs, the socially privileged kids. In San Miguel, if you’re not a Fresa, you’re a Cholo. When I was in school, it was the Jocks and the Stoners. My teens immediately related to the distrust between the groups. My own girls read the book some five years and still post on Facebook, “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”

The novel is also about us. Beyond adolescence, we group and measure ourselves as well.  The Golfers vs. The Bowlers, The Lawyers vs. The Street Cleaners, The Person in the Big Office/Big House vs. The Person in the Little Office/Little House. Even reluctant adult readers will be drawn in by the clash of the haves and have-nots, and what the teenagers in The Outsiders learn about each other and themselves.

Maybe I stayed in teaching for half a dozen years so I could read The Outsiders each fall.  After all, who can resist reading beyond a first line like this: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”


Susan McKinney de Ortega is a Philadelphia-born writer living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico since 1992. Selections from her memoir, Flirting in Spanish, What Mexico taught me about love, living and forgiveness (Antaeus, 2011) are included in Mexico: A Love Story (Seal Press, 2006) and Not What I Expected, The Unpredictable Road from Womanhood to Motherhood (Paycock Press, 2007) and and Salon Magazine (www.salon.com, 1999).

McKinney writes about raising a bicultural family with her Mexican husband in One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk about Polyamory, Househusbandry, Mixed Marriage, Open Adoption and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love, edited by Rebecca Walker (Riverhead, 2009).

McKinney is the director/instructor of the Teen Writers Workshop, part of the San Miguel Writers Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Visit her here: www.susanmckinneydeortega.com and www.sueinsanmigueldeallende.blogspot.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by liberalmind1012.

How My Favorite Childhood Book Changed My Life

This is an essay by Victoria Strauser.

When I was in grade school our class read the book Heidi by Johanna Spyri. This book, written over 100 years ago, is the story of a young orphan girl sent to live with her ornery old grandfather who lives on a mountainside in the Swiss Alps.

Her first summer on the mountain offers Heidi many pleasures never before experienced in her short life – fields of mountain wildflowers, indescribable sunsets, learning how to tend goats with the town goatherd, drinking fresh goats’ milk and eating fresh goat cheese, sleeping on a bed of hay in the loft of her grandfather’s cabin with a view of the stars. A simple, Swiss peasant life.

Life is not all fun and games for Heidi however – losing both her parents as a baby then being dragged up the mountainside by her aunt and left with her grandfather whom most of the town is afraid of; then after falling in love with the mountains and mountain life and her grandfather, being torn away from them to tend an ailing friend in the big city where she is constantly being misunderstood and scolded for not being a “proper” girl.  Her heart aches for the mountain so severely she nearly dies of homesickness.

Although the larger lessons from the book involve philosophical ideas like exploring the relationships (sometimes tenuous) that we have with our extended families, duty versus freedom, and always seeing the best in people even when they don’t seem to deserve it, it was Johanna’s descriptions of Heidi’s simple, peasant mountain lifestyle that captivated me. It was these images that stayed with me long after the days of childhood books and dreams had left me.

As a young girl, I couldn’t imagine a more ideal life than Heidi’s.  Mountain meadows filled with flowers, a flock of friendly goats and a good friend to talk to, simple wholesome food, a tiny cabin home with a fresh straw bed and a view of the stars.

Far from any mountain, my actual childhood home was nestled in the woods on the shore of a very big lake, but my imaginiation made up for the differences in scenery. Paths through the edge of the woods near our home became our make-believe village.  A large rock was utilized as bed-chair-table in our tiny “home.” Bread and cheese were my favorite food staples, and the family dogs became my “goats.”  The steep path up and down to the beach was our mountain trail.

After 18 years of nearly idyllic life in the woods, I moved to a large city to attend college. Much like Heidi not having a choice over being rudely dumped off at her grandfather’s cabin, I didn’t feel like I had much choice over the decision to attend school in the big city. Once there, like Heidi trapped in the city tending her ailing friend, I felt “stuck” and couldn’t figure a way back to a country life again.

My job was in the city.  I couldn’t afford my own home in the country.  And I had a family to think of and plan for and take care of.  My debts were high, with school loans and childcare and later a mortgage. The 100-year-old, three-story brick house had an incredible view of the Duluth harbor, but it was no mountain.  My heart longed for fresh country air and the sounds of bird songs and wind in the pines rather than traffic and sirens.

For a long, long time it seemed my childhood dreams of a country life would be beyond my reach. 18 years of office jobs and big-city living were followed by another 6 years of even bigger city living, as my husband transferred for better work opportunities.  We worked tirelessly to live below our means and pay off our collective debts so we could make some radical changes to our lives.

But despite our efforts, our debts increased.  Multiple health crises hit us.  A child with special needs and a lot of professional care increased the financial burden.  It seemed our debts had no end.

Wearily we plugged along, managing to stay on course, slowly paying off one debt after another, surviving one health crisis after another, dabbling in country experiences like canoe camping and backpacking as we waited patiently to make a permanent move out of the city.  These excursions were but band-aids on my heart’s longing for a country life, and at times I wasn’t sure I could stand the city for one more minute.

In 2008 my country longings started to get the best of me and I discovered alpacas and started my own herd, buying a female named Brigid and boarding her with her home farm 75 miles away since we had no farm of our own.

In 2009 we moved to the country outside of our big, big city to be closer to our alpaca.  We still didn’t own a farm, and my husband now had a 54-mile-a-day commute, but at least I could now see Brigid and her new baby Grace every day as they were just five miles down the road. And my house was once more surrounded by trees and fresh air and bird song.

In 2010 we rented a 2-acre farm on the western side of the big, big city and brought 3 alpacas to our farm and started our first flock of chickens, a little experimental farm of our own. It was clear right from the start on this tiny little farm that I was hooked on the farm life for good and there was no going back.

It’s now 2012, perhaps 35 years or longer after first reading about a young girl on a Swiss mountainside.  We have moved to rural western WI and are about to put an offer on a 40-acre farm and buy our first flock of sheep, who will cavort happily with our small herd of alpacas and flocks of chickens and whatever else tickles our farm-fancy.

I am not a young girl on a Swiss mountainside, but I am a farmgirl shepherd living out my own personal version of Heidi’s story.

A story that all started a very long time ago with a children’s book about an adventurous girl and a dream of a simple life.  A dream that I never forgot.


Victoria Strauser is a farmer, writer and software tester. She has been published in MaryJanes Farm Magazine and authors a blog, www.gypsyfarmgirl.com. She lives with her husband in western Wisconsin on a farm with their alpacas, sheep, chickens and a few spoiled house cats.

 Photo: Some rights reserved by Adam Arthur.

5 Books for Fathers/ Books to Read with Your Dad for Father’s Day

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

This Father’s day instead of a watch, gardening tools, a new video game or dinner out, give dad something different. Gift him with words on pages and some of your time and attention: i.e., buy him a book, and read it together. Why?

Among other reasons, because women read more than men. According to NPR, even among avid readers surveyed by the Associated Press, women typically read nine books per year, whereas men read only five. This Father’s day, why not do something to make up for that gender difference?

More importantly, because it’s an amazing opportunity for a little father-daughter, or father-son bonding. Finding meaning in words together will help you to better understand and really get to know your father and his opinions and ideals. Plus, if your pop isn’t already an avid reader, this is your chance to share your love of reading with a loved one.

So go ahead, wrap one of the books recommended below for dad in a shiny (but masculine) paper, grab a second copy for yourself, and make a plan to read and discuss it together.

1. “Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son” by Michael Chabon

Pulitzer prize winner (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”), Michael Chabon presents readers with an amusing and touching collection of essays previously published in “Details Magazine.” . Chabon candidly recounts his formative years in the 1970s, reflects (sometimes hilariously) on toys, styles of manhood, and the art of faking handy-manliness, and creates entertaining portraits of Chabon’s first father-in-law, and his brother.

Despite his often bittersweet musings on present-day childhood and child-rearing, Chabon’s book is touchingly optimistic about parenthood, manhood, and growing up: “Time after time, playing Legos with my kids, I would fall under the spell of the old familiar crunching. It’s the sound of creativity itself, of the inventive mind at work, making something new out of what you have been given by your culture, what you know you will need to do the job, what you happen to stumble on along the way.”

Especially recommended for: Fathers and their sons who are fathers or soon-to-be-fathers will especially enjoy sharing their reactions to Chabon’s scribblings on being a man in the modern-day era.

2. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

A mysterious, anti-social writer who regularly refuses to talk about his writing, Conan McCarthy won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for “The Road.” This dark novel describes the journey of a father and son through charred remains of America with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, a pistol to defend themselves against cannibals, and a shopping cart of scavenged food. In this post apocalyptic dystopia, nothing moves, it’s bitter cold and falling snow mixes with ashes of civilization in the wind, “The Road” is the story of a father and son, sustained by love in a world where hope has disappeared.

Especially recommended for: Readers and their fathers who enjoy science fiction, horror, and post apocalyptic books and movies, and spare, careful prose.

3. “Cultural Amnesia” by Clive James

An Australian by birth, and a well-known British television personality, James is also a poet, novelist and nonfiction author. “Cultural Amnesia” is James’ massive, nearly 900-page volume of everyone who is anyone of important in the 20th century, including people that lived died long before the 20th century dawned. From Coco Chanel to F. Scott Fitzgerald, James proffers entertaining tidbits and meaningful insights as to why these people and what they did with their lives and times matter. The book is packed with such witty observations as: “Most things that Prime Minister Thatcher is remembered for saying were not said very memorably.”

Especially recommended for: Biography and short story readers that prefer to do their reading in short bursts. This is an ideal book to read over time with dad, perhaps selecting a profile or two to read every week.

4. “The Fiddler in the Subway: The Story of the World-Class Violinist Who Played for Handouts, And Other Virtuoso Performances by America’s Foremost” by Gene Weingarten

A weekly humor columnist for the “Washington Post” and two-time Pulitzer winner in feature writing, Weingarten embroiders beautiful and hilarious vignettes about every aspect of life in “The Fiddler in the Subway.” Topics like an isolated Alaskan village plagued by alcoholism, daily life and terrorism in Jerusalem, the hostile detachment of a man who refuses to vote may not sound funny, but Weingarten manages to infuse his tales with humor in addition to his characteristic insight and empathy. The title of the collection makes reference to his first Pulitzer winner, the story of what happens when you put a famous virtuoso violinist in the subway to play for tips. Weingarten’s second and notably more depressing Pulitzer winner about parents who kill their babies accidentally by leaving them in a hot car for too long is also included in the collection.

Especially recommended for: Fans of humor writing and human-interest feature articles in newspapers and magazines that don’t subscribe to “The Washington Post.” Buying the book and reading it with dad is a great excuse to catch up on these pieces from an award-winning writer like Weingarten.

5. “The Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes

Highly decorated Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran, Karl Marlantes wrote this narrative over a period of 30 years while raising a family and working full-time. What makes this particular novel stand out from other books about war is that it reads like action-adventure, all the while powerfully conveying the War-is-hell message that is typical of almost all war tomes. The book, set in 1969 takes its title from a hilltop firebase and depicts protagonist Second Lt. Waino Mellas and the men of Bravo battling the North Vietnamese Army while enduring leeches, diarrhea, jungle rot, malnutrition, dehydration, and immersion foot, as well as the stupidity and micromanagement from senior officers, general bureaucratic incompetence and military and racial politics.

Especially recommended for: Readers and fathers who enjoy reading adventure and war stories and who have served in the armed forces. While some readers will not agree with Marlantes’ depictions of the politics of war, every reader can benefit from reading about and debating perspectives different from their own.

Do you read with your dad?

Have you ever bought your dad a book for Father’s Day? Which was it?

Have you read any of the books profiled above? Did you like them? Why or why not?


Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by ernop.

Best Places to Get Inspired to Write a Book in Paris

This is part three of a three-part essay featuring Parisian book activities by Christina Hamlett.

From my own experience, one of the most common questions that writers get asked by non-writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Yet strangely they never seem to be satisfied with the answer, “From real life.”

When my husband and I travel, I’m never without a notebook to jot down potential titles for articles, snippets of conversations or quirky character sketches that will eventually work their way into my books. A real writer, I think, can’t help but walk past a house and wonder who lives there, speculate about the relationships of people having lunch, or even imagine what a city must have looked like 20, 50 or 100 years ago.

Our recent trip to Paris was certainly no exception to this creative process, and I came away with a fun series of “brainstormers” to get your own imaginative juices flowing:


Stroll amongst the headstones and crypts, taking note of the art, masonry and inscriptions. (http://www.pariscemeteries.com provides a nice overview before you go.) Imagine the life and times of those who are buried and the families that spared no expense to memorialize them. Spooky note: in our self-guided tour of Montparnasse, we happened to come upon a sepulcher door that had been left open; could this mean that its ghostly inhabitant stepped out for a moment but will be returning shortly?

Sidewalk Cafes

Watch the world go by over a glass of wine and a slice of quiche. The tables and chairs are assembled in close proximity, making it easy to eavesdrop on conversations. So you don’t speak French? No problem – make up your own dialogue to fit the ages, clothing and mannerisms of the people you’re observing. (It’s also fun to do this watching foreign TV shows without subtitles.)


In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the screenwriter character of Gil (Owen Wilson) longs for a more romantic era…and finds it when a mysterious car whisks him off every evening to the 1920’s company of Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. In a reverse spin, choose your favorite artist, composer or writer that found inspiration in The City of Light, take yourself to the nearest park for some meditation, and imagine how s/he would react to the 21st century.


Paris is expensive to be sure but not if you’re just shopping for new plots. Study florist shops and decide what kind of flowers your fictional characters would buy for a first-date, an apology, a proposal or a break-up. Look at furniture store windows and imagine what kind of people will purchase the items displayed. Observe the salespeople and make up comedic/dramatic/supernatural stories about the lives they lead outside of work. Go to an open-air market (a Paris tradition since the 16th century); between the sellers and the buyers, you’ll get lots of ideas for new characters.

Life Imitating Art

Once upon a time I had an English teacher who would show us pictures of famous pieces of art and tell us to compose short stories based on our impressions. (Years later, it’s still an effective tool for unclogging those pesky mental cul de sacs.) There are over 60 museums and monuments in Paris – see where I’m going with this? – and if you purchase a 2, 4 or 6 day pass in advance (http://en.parismuseumpass.com), you can avoid the inevitably long queues and save yourself a lot of Euros. Once inside, you’ll find no shortage of plot material amongst the paintings, sculptures and artifacts.

Every Window Has a Personality Behind It

Contrary to what you always see in the movies, not every hotel room has an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower. Most of them, however, do have delightful views of Paris rooftops, dormer windows and balconies. I don’t know about you but I always love speculating about who lives in all those flats, how long they’ve been there and what kind of decorating they’ve done. At some point, you may even see one of the tenants open a window to water plants, hang laundry or step out on the fire escape for a smoke…and so your story begins!


Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author whose credits to date include 28 books, 145 stage plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a professional ghostwriter and script consultant for stage and screen. Visit her website at www.authorhamlett.com.

Best Places to Read a Book in Paris

This is part two of a three-part essay featuring Parisian book activities by Christina Hamlett.

One of the things I noticed on our recent vacation in the City of Light is that the French are totally unapologetic about their reading habits. An example of this was the evening we officially celebrated my birthday at Le Paris, The Hotel Lutetia’s timelessly elegant Michelin Star restaurant. Shortly after we arrived, a solo gentleman was seated at a nearby table and proceeded to pull out a novel roughly the thickness of War and Peace. Over the next couple of hours – for meals such as this are never rushed in Paris – he enjoyed his dinner and engaged in small talk with the servers but never once set the book aside.

Interestingly, this became a fairly common occurrence in restaurants and bars – a testament to the love of literature and the unabashed enjoyment of a good story regardless of the setting in which the reader finds himself. If books are yourpleasure, you’ll find yourself in stellar company.


In the late 19th century, there were 45,000 cafes sprinkled throughout Paris. Although that statistic has shrunk by 90 percent and has been impacted by both the rise in fast-food venues and a ban on smoking, they are still popular hangouts for locals and tourists that want to grab a snack, catch up on news or bury their noses in books. Unlike the American tradition of turning tables as quickly as possible, French servers are in absolutely no hurry for you to be on your way. We noticed, for instance, two ladies reading paperbacks over their morning coffee at 9:30; when we passed back the same way at 1 p.m., they were still there.


When beautiful weather beckons, everyone heads outdoors to enjoy the sunshine, inhale the fragrance of flowers and hit the “pause” button on a park bench. Paris has a number of idyllic settings for that very purpose, the most famous of which include:

  • Le Jardin du Luxembourg – This botanical haven traces its origins to the mid-17th century and the inspiration of the Medici family. Settle in beside a cool fountain, on an iron chair, spread a blanket on the grass or sit on the steps of the palace and lose yourself within the pages of imagination.
  • The Tuileries – Another brainchild of the Medicis, this is the oldest and most artfully symmetrical garden in the city. Replete with statues and plenty of benches, this blissful reading spot is within easy walking distance of The Louvre.
  •  Bois de Vincennes – It’s hard to imagine a public commons that boasts more acreage and greenery than Central Park but Vincennes Wood is it. The botanical park, gazebos and lakes offer plenty of places to tuck into your latest read without any interruption.


Several of my Parisian associates who have to commute to work on a daily basis swear by the Metro as a cozy bubble for guilt-free reading. Not only do they maintain that it’s something they can do just as easily standing up as sitting down but that it takes much less time to stuff a book in your pocket when you reach your stop than it is to power-down a laptop. A book, they add, is also a great deterrent if you’re not inclined to socialize with strangers on public transportation. Thinking of taking a cruise down the Seine? There’s plenty of breathtaking scenery along the 482-mile route but there’s also ample opportunity to put your feet up, enjoy the river breezes and amuse yourself with some light reading.


Yes, yes, you probably read paperbacks in the bathtub all the time at home but there’s something decidedly different about doing it in your Paris hotel room. It all starts with buying the right soap by Roger & Gallet. In the 1870’s, these were the same purveyors who invented that cute round bath soap wrapped in pleated paper. This brand and squillions of others can be purchased at Paris’ premier department store, Le Bon Marche. You’ll also want a nearby plate of chocolate. Chocolate shops abound in Paris but my personal fave is La Maison du Chocolate located next door to The Lutetia. Lastly, indulge in a split of champagne from room service, turn on the tap and hang a “Do Not Disturb. I’m Reading” sign on the bathroom door. You deserve it.


Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author whose credits to date include 28 books, 145 stage plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a professional ghostwriter and script consultant for stage and screen. Visit her website at www.authorhamlett.com.

Best Places to Browse for Books in Paris

This is part one of a three-part essay featuring Parisian book activities by Christina Hamlett.

There’s much to be said about walking in the Paris rain with the one you love. When those April showers are suddenly accompanied by high winds and chilly temperatures, what better place to seek shelter from an afternoon storm than behind the doors of a beckoning bookstore? The City of Light certainly has no shortage of them, each with their own unique “stories” to tell.

Here’s a sampler to get you started:

Shakespeare & Company

37 Rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris

This iconic Parisian bookstore in the Left Bank’s Latin Quarter is the stuff of legends. As you troll the shelves and rub elbows with fellow literature lovers, you can almost feel the presence of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fizgerald, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein hovering over your shoulder. Workshops, weekly readings and performances are an added bonus.

Abbey Bookshop – La Librairie Canadienne
29 Rue de la Parcheminerie

75005 Paris

This true browser’s delight is housed in an 18th century townhouse that’s packed to the gills with over 24,000 titles. Lest you feel overwhelmed by this glorious sight, the shop’s enthusiastic management will help you hunt down whatever you’re seeking, including ordering books that are out of print.

Berkeley Books of Paris
8 Casimir-Delavigne

75006 Paris

Launched by a trio of Californians whose love of books is matched only by their collective passion for Paris, this venue carries a broad spectrum of used editions and is also a good place to sell books from your own collection. Online purchases can be made as well if your carry-aboard simply can’t accommodate one more title to take home.

224 Rue de Rivoli

75001 Paris

When the printing press was invented, the 16th century Galignani family was among the first to put it to stellar use as a way to distribute reading materials to a broader audience. Almost three centuries later, these Venetian entrepreneurs relocated to Paris (via London) and not only expanded the family publishing business to a bookstore but also added a reading room where visitors could chat about titles of the day. The shop (still owned by Galignani descendents) excels in literature, fine art, history and popular culture books.

Gibert Jeune
10 Place St-Michel

75006 Paris

Gibert Jeune is a family enterprise that was founded in the 1880’s and today sells over three million books annually, a third of which are second-hand.

Tea and Tattered Pages
24 Rue Mayet

75006 Paris

Time truly stands still at this second-hand bookstore and charming English tearoom that has the cozy feel of a private home. Should you doze off past closing, one can’t help but wonder if the owners wouldn’t simply tuck you in with a crocheted afghan and come back to awaken you in the morning.

FNAC – Montparnasse
136 Rue de Rennes

75006 Paris

FNAC – Champs-Elysées/Galerie du Claridge
74 Avenue des Champs-Elysées

75008 Paris

If you’re accustomed to book browsing at American mega-stores that also carry music, greeting cards, games, movies and multi-media electronic devices, you’ll feel right at home at these two FNAC addresses. Their travel guide sections are outstanding and the stores frequently host guest speakers and book-signings.

Last – but definitely not least – was our fortuitous discovery of the sizable book department at The Louvre as well as The Tuileries Gardens bookstore (which specializes in all things flora) located near the Place de la Concorde.


Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author whose credits to date include 28 books, 145 stage plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a professional ghostwriter and script consultant for stage and screen. Visit her website at www.authorhamlett.com.