Read This: Shotgun Lovesongs

Monday, September 28, 2015

I rarely (never?) read books that take place in Wisconsin, so when I heard that local author and Eau Claire native Nickolas Butler's first book was not only a national best seller, but also set in small town Wisconsin, I had to grab a copy.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

I was incentivized to read this book, fast, because BRAVA magazine was hosting a book signing/Q&A with Nick. So I set down Steinbeck for a bit and gobbled this up. It was a very emotional character-driven book, and I really enjoyed my binge read.

Farmer Hank, his wife Beth, super star musician Lee, former rodeo stud Ronny, and big-time commodities trader Kip don't seem to have much in common, but they're all childhood friends who grew up together in the fictitious Little Wing, Wisconsin. But the realities of adulthood—marriages, divorces, kids, money, and a particularly incriminating secret from their pasts—threaten to get in the way of their childhood bonds.

Butler beautifully flows between five different perspectives—four male, one female—on an emotional ride through Little Wing. I was really impressed by his five distinct voices!

There's also one (minor) character named Joyce, but I was so excited about it so I thanked him for including a Joyce character when he signed my book, and he wrote this nice note:

If you're looking for a sincere story of friendship and forgiveness with Wisconsin flair (mentions of Packers and cheese curds and Leinenkugels always got me excited!), I recommend this book. Have you read it? I'd love to know what you think!

Vamos a Espana!

Friday, September 25, 2015

When I put together my 101 in 1001 list a little over a year ago, I added one ambitious item in my "Wanderlust" section: 34. Go to Europe! If I'm being honest, I didn't think it would happen.

Although I'm pretty well traveled within the U.S. (including Hawaii, California a few times, Puerto Rico twice, terrible places for work infinite number of times), I've never been to Europe. To me, it feels kind of like the farm with the rabbits in Of Mice and Men. Some far off magical dream that's never going to happen anywhere but my imagination.

But then....we booked our plane tickets to Spain! (!!!)
*Barcelona image here
Even though I traveled constantly for my last job, I never redeemed a single Delta frequent flyer mile (I'd been hoarding them for a "big trip"), so we used all miles. We are flying from Madison to Madrid in late November, and I'm so excited.

We are staying for 11 days and planning on staying in 3 cities: Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville, with perhaps some day trips to other nearby cities. Lots of people asked me: Why Spain? Well, first off, we wanted to go somewhere neither of us have been (Stephen has seen England + Italy). Secondly, we wanted to see ONE country. We didn't want to see 9 countries in 11 days, or whatever. I know some people do that and love it, but it's not us. Also, the food :)

And now is where I need your help: Have you been to Spain? Do you have any tips? Any must sees? Restaurant recommendations?

Oh, and does anyone know how to learn Spanish in a couple months? I am listening to CD's I got from the library in my that's at least a start.

I would love to hear any and all Spain advice!

Field Trip: Devil's Lake

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

I've been to Devil's Lake State Park a number of times over my 4+ years in Wisconsin, but we just went for the first time this year this past weekend! I can't believe the whole summer slipped away and didn't make it up there until the very last summer weekend. At the risk of sounding like everyone else in the world (or at least on the internet): Where did this summer go?

I'm so glad we went, even though our cat gets antsy when we leave him all day on Saturday. If you have a Wisconsin license plate, it's $7 for the day. Although you can do a number of things in Devil's Lake itself—kayak, canoe, fish, swim if it's warm enough—Stephen and I usually go for the hiking. There are many trails, but this is our favorite way is to hike around the whole lake. We park at the visitor's center on the North Shore then do the West Bluff trail, which is 1.4 miles with lots of pretty overlooks, as shown:

We actually saw some rock climbers, which both impressed and terrified me.

Then, once we made it down to the South shore, we read for a while, looking out at the lake and snacking. (Stephen's reading The Fountainhead which is really making me want to read it—anyone else recommend Ayn Rand? I read Shotgun Lovesongs by local author Nickolas Butler and enjoyed it, book review to come!)

Then, to continue our loop around the lake, we like to take the Balanced Rock Trail up to the East Bluff trail. For me, the Balanced Rock Trail is physically challenging! (Stephen hiked a trail like it all the time when he used to live in Arkansas, so it's NBD for him and I'm falling behind and trying not to slip.) It is pretty though! And you have a sense of accomplishment when you make it to the top. In my opinion, only go up the Balanced Rock Trail, not down. Yes, it's challenging going up it, but when I went down it on a previous trip, I just felt like I was going to fall the entire time! (You can scope out all the trails here.) 

Overall, it's such a pretty park (sorry for the onslaught of photos), and not a bad drive to get there at all (only about an hour from Madison). I'd love to go again when the leaves start changing, as it is officially fall now, believe it or not. Hope everyone's having a good week! xx

Advice on Writing, Vol. 5: Grammar Girl Podcast

Monday, September 14, 2015

As Stephen King emphasized in his amazing book, if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot and write a lot. But, sometimes, one must do other things. Take laundry, for example. Or dishes. It's nearly impossible to read or write while washing dishes! That's where listening comes in. And, although my go-to is audio books I've recently been exploring the world of podcasts, and found one I'm really excited about and wanted to share with fellow writers: Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing!

I highly recommend this podcast. Her episodes vary in length, but are relatively short—usually between 10 and 15 minutes, which I really enjoy. Even in such a short time, I always feel like I learn a lot!

She generally begins her episodes with "Quick and Dirty tips" where she answers sent-in grammar questions. For example, is it band together or ban together? When you're using and/or as a subject, should the verb be singular or plural? And so on. I enjoy this part because I feel it helps me improve both my writing and speaking. Sure, if you're writing a book an editor will likely catch grammatical errors—but isn't it nice to feel you know as much as an editor? And to feel more confident when speaking?

Often, episodes continue with "meaty middles" which generally delve into ways to improve your writing, like understanding parallelism or story structure. I particularly liked Episode 473 from July 9, "How Understanding Toy Story Can Help You Get Into College" which went into how most Disney/Pixar movies follow the same story structure. She used great examples!

Then, she generally ends with a fun language tidbit, usually about the origin of an idiom. For example, did you know the term "following suit" stems from card games?

Her podcasts are incredibly well-researched—she'll often read excerpts from books or speeches, and gather advice from linguists if she needs to. Overall, I love this podcast because it makes me feel smarter. If you are one of those lucky people who avoids doing laundry and dishes at all costs, it would be a fun thing to listen to while driving :) Check it out on iTunes or on the Podcast app on your iPhone!

Any other podcasts I should check out?

p.s. Advice on Writing Volumes one, two, three, and four.

Read This: On Writing by Stephen King

Monday, September 7, 2015

The joys of reading an author writing about writing were revealed to me when I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and loved it. So, I was itching to get my hand on a copy of Stephen King's book, which so many other authors had recommended reading in the FAQ section of their websites. I've never read any King, because I am SUCH a scaredy cat when it comes to all things horror. (Embarrassing, yes. But I'll have nightmares for weeks that are no joke!) So, I was a tad hesitant to even read this book but I scary can writing be? :)

Stephen King approached this book in a completely different way than Lamott approached hers. Whereas Lamott's mixed writing advice and life advice all at once (and contained beautiful metaphors), King split things up. The first chunk of the book (labeled C.V.) reads like a memoir (which I loved! See here, here, and here for proof of my memoir obsession).

King had a fascinating childhood and is (duh) a very good storyteller so his childhood/early writer and recovering alcoholic stories flew by. The origin story of Carrie, his first successful book, is incredible. (Hint: his wife is a pivotal player in getting him to write the book that ultimately launched his career.)

Then comes a section entitled "Toolbox" where he talks about assembling your writer's tool box filled with things like vocabulary ("the bread of all writing") and grammar, and elements of style (for which he highly recommends this book by Strunk and White).

Grammar tips from King range from relatively basic "avoid the passive tense" to hilarious "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs" (especially adverbs that attribute dialogue.)

Once he's covered the necessary tools, King moves onto the most lengthy part of his book: On Writing. He delves into things from dialogue to plot to character to theme to writing method. One of my favorite parts of the book is King pulls examples from all different kinds of books, so you can dissect different writer's choices.

A few favorite parts:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."

King says he writes 2000 words a day, and recommends new writers start with at least 1000 words a day, and can take one day off a week. 

King compares writing fiction to extracting a fossil from the earth. The story is there you just need to patiently find it. He very much prefers character-driven not plot-driven stories. He says using plot to get your story is like using a jackhammer to get your fossil. Sure, you'll get it, but it won't be pretty. Personally, I love this analogy. He is very anti-outline, thinking you should listen to your characters above all else, and I am finding this to be true for me in my writing as well. (And consistent with what Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird.)

Overall, I felt like I learned SO much from reading this book, and this review (obviously) just grazed the surface. If you are an aspiring writer: read this book! And let me know what you think :)

California Trip Advice: Part 2

Thursday, September 3, 2015

I can't believe this Saturday I am heading back to the Golden State! So, I figure it was high time to share some more photos from last September :) See Part 1 for the first bunch.

After we explored San Francisco, we rented a car and headed down the Pacific Coast Highway. Let's just say for miles on end I wanted to stop every 15 minutes to take pictures.

It was a breathtaking, leisurely drive down to our Airbnb in Carmel-by-the-Sea. If you couldn't tell by the charming hyphenated addition to its name, Carmel by-the-Sea is a city overflowing with charm. The city is on a hill that spills into the Pacific Ocean. The beach overlooks the famous last hole in the Pebble Beach Golf Course. Since Carmel is not a cheap place (there were people visiting from all over the world!), we stopped a farm stand on the side of the road on the way down and stocked up on incredibly delicious and cheap avocados and almonds. So, pro tip: buy fresh avocados and almonds!

If time were no factor, I would have spent an entire day marveling at the cottage-style Carmel houses. Most have adorable names like Robin's Nest, Sanctuary, and Pear Tree Cottage. Of course, we opted to spend out days driving along the Pacific instead. Our airbnb was only a few minutes from the start of the 17 Mile-Drive, a drive through a gated community of famous views. For only $10, you can take your time driving through a well-marked route and stopping for the sites. The highlight of the drive is the famous Lone Cyprus standing triumphantly above the Pacific. 

The Lone Cyprus
Although you won't see the Lone Cyprus anywhere but the 17 Mile Drive, you don't have to pay for incredible views in California. Driving on the PCH south of Carmel leads to the Bixby Bridge—a must-stop spot! The beautiful arched bridge connecting the winding highway cutting through the mountains is a site to add to your bucket list, stat.

The Bixby Bridge
It's difficult to leave the Bixby Bridge, but Big Sur beckoned. The road winds on and on, and right when you think there couldn't possibly be another magnificent view, there was one. We veered off the PCH to make stop at the secluded Pfeiffer Beach. This also had a $10 entrance fee but was worth every penny.

Pfeiffer Beach
Although the wonders of the PCH continued, we spent our evenings in Carmel, watching the sun set over the beach and eating at places like La Bicyclette and Dametra Cafe.

Our final stop was Yosemite. Actually staying inside Yosemite National Park is astronomically expensive, and also must be planned as far as a year in advance. However, I can't stress this enough: stay as close as you can to an entrance. You're going to inevitably be doing a lot of driving to get to Yosemite, so don't add more car time onto your trip. Also, there was actually lots of traffic in the park, so just be ready and wake up early! We stayed in an Airbnb in a one-room private apartment about seven minutes fromt he south gate which was perfect. Pro tip: Go old school and print your directions! Cell service cannot be relied upon in most parts of the park, so don't trust in your GPS to get you where you need to go! There's no point in splurging on a large room in Yosemite, as you'll want to spend as much time as possible outside, as shown:

Here's the breathtaking Glacier Point that looks like a painting:

We also spent a morning wandering around the vibrantly red otherwordly Mariposa Grove, the only pictures I shared in a reasonable amount of time :) Based on our Airbnb host's recommendation, we ended up dining at The Narrow Gauge Inn, a rustic steak house near where we stayed, and really enjoyed the food. 

And that leads me to the biggest problem about California: There are so many beautiful sites to see, you'll never want to go home. I'm very excited to go back this weekend, though this time I'll miss little TT. :) Hope everyone is having a great week! 

Read This: A Separate Peace

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

There are quite a few classics which I a.) own and b.) have always meant to read but somehow c.) haven't gotten around to. I mentioned quite a few in my summer reading list (made entirely of books I already have), and I'm happy to report I just finished one. Checking off one of these books always feels gratifying, and, as is the case with most classics, my only wish is that I read it sooner:

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Most people I've chatted with read A Separate Peace in high school, but somehow my school skipped right over it. It's the story of two boys at a New Hampshire boarding school called Devon. Devon is fictitious but is based on the author's high school alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy.

(Many boys at Bucknell went to similar schools; I frequently parked beside a car at Bucknell with a "Phillips Exeter" bumper sticker, which further made me want to read this book!)

Though Knowles accurately paints the place of the story, the time seems to be an even more powerful force of the setting: during World War II.

The two Devon boys, introverted, academically-driven Gene and sporty, extroverted Phineas (or Finny), are attending school at an intriguing time in history—when the march to high school graduation is nearly synonymous with the march to the battlegrounds.

The progressing war courses throughout the background of the story—but the tumultuous relationship between Gene and Phineas takes the forefront. They are best friends and roommates with polar opposite personalities, but still, each seems to see the other as an extension of himself.

At the beginning of the book, it seems that Gene (the narrator), rather envies Phineas and looks up to him in kind of a hero-worshipping way, he says:

"He could also shine at many other things, with people for instance, the others in our dormitory, the faculty; in fact, if you stopped to think about it, Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met. I was glad of that too. Naturally. He was my roommate and my best friend." 

However, when a terrible accident occurs and both Phineas and Gene are involved, it prompts Gene to deeply and darkly explore their friendship, and learn about himself.

I really enjoyed reading a book that focused on a complex, but deep, platonic friendship. So many books are saturated with romantic love, but friendship can be just as big of a force in someone's life, especially someone in high school.

As a warning, I wouldn't call this an uplifting book by any means, but, for me, it was thought-provoking, beautifully written (I loved his metaphors and how they often related to nature), and definitely worth reading.