Monthly Archives: October 2016

A Halloween Audiobook

To be honest, I’m pretty impressed with myself.  This is my fourth Book Club Thursday since I started this trip and the first time I haven’t finished reading a new book.

Go me.

But it is Book Club Thursday, and I have not yet finished The Virgin Suicides.  Fortunately, with all the driving I’ve been doing, I have been listening to audiobooks, and I recently finished listening to Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

My first observation is that all audiobooks should be read by their authors or by someone with a British accent.   Neil Gaiman’s voice was perfect for the tone of the story.

As for the story itself, I had trouble turning it off when I parked the car.  I’d forgotten how much I loved Coraline as a character: she’s a child, yes, but it’s clear that Gaiman respects both her and his audience.

Furthermore, the Other Mother is a truly scary enemy.  She starts by offering Coraline everything she ever wanted, which makes her just enticing enough to give her power.  When Coraline doesn’t buy into it immediately, she becomes more threatening, taking away Coraline’s choices.  When she finds she can’t get away, Coraline has to challenge the Other Mother in order to win her freedom and save the souls that came before her.

Coraline is curious, adventurous, hopeful, and determined.  Basically she is the best that childhood has to offer.  She learns something on her quest, causing her to develop as a character without growing out of those wonderful traits that make her someone readers can emulate.  On the way to her happy ending, the adventure is actually creepy.  It goes back to Gaiman’s refusal to underestimate his readers.  Just because it is intended for a young audience, he doesn’t sugarcoat anything.  He isn’t afraid to tell a high-stakes scary story.

Coraline can be misleading.  It’s short and written on a 5th grade reading level.  But even though it’s easy to read, it’s well-written, with imagery and characterization that enhances the overall tone of fear and adventure.  And with Neil Gaiman reading, the audiobook made these things even more potent.

If you’re looking for a Halloween read, Coraline is the book for you.  I recommend the audiobook too.

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“I’ve been sent to spread the message…”

Since I left home on October 1st I have driven through eleven states.  North Carolina mountains bled into Tennessee mountains, Missouri farmlands into Oklahoma plains.  Each city stands out, but the states themselves run together.

But something changed the moment I crossed from Oklahoma into Texas.  More accurately, everything did.  The land became flat and long, and the sky seemed to open up.  It was bluer somehow.  Driving itself was different, with the speed limit increasing and the radio stations getting better and clearer.

Most importantly, felt different.

While in Texas, I went horseback riding (Los Cedros Ranch), treated myself to a steak dinner with a beer flight (The Big Texan), and hiked halfway down the second largest canyon in the United States (Palo Duro Canyon State Park).  I sat on my car and stared up at the stars that night.  I ate some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had at Tyler’s Barbecue…and I’m from North Carolina, where all the barbecue is good.

All in all, Texas treated me very well, and I wasn’t happy to leave it.

One of the last things I saw on my way out of the state was the Cadillac Ranch.  Ten car bodies sticking up out of the dirt, each covered in layers and layers of paint.  A couple of women were spray painting one of the cars as I stood and watched.  Meanwhile, I tried to chip off some of the paint to take home as a souvenir, just like the ladies at the U-Drop-Inn cafe had suggested back in Shamrock.

The spray painting, the chipped paint…even the way the cars had been buried in the dirt: it was all destruction.  And yet, cars lined up on the highway to see this spectacle.

Leslie Jones once talked about how Oprah Winfrey got fired from a job when she was 23.  When someone mentioned how stupid that employer must feel for firing Oprah Winfrey, Jones said they hadn’t fired Oprah Winfrey.  They had fired some 23-year-old who needed to be fired in order to become Oprah Winfrey.  Just like that event turned her into the person she was meant to become, all the destruction makes the Cadillac Ranch what it is.

If you’re ever in Amarillo, don’t miss it.  Actually, if you’re ever in Amarillo, take me with you.  I loved Texas.  I can’t wait to go back.

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Walking Through America

I’ve written before about that moment you come across a book that was exactly what you needed at the precise moment you needed it.  I’m sorry if that’s not your relationship with stories, but it is mine, and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson has been the latest example.

I technically started this book in St. Louis but I didn’t get absorbed in it until Cuba, Missouri.  By Cuba, three “bad things” had happened (all of which have been resolved by now, don’t worry Mom), and I was one horrible thing away from calling the whole trip off and going home.  I was homesick and tired and my money was evaporating faster than I had ever anticipated.  But, amidst all of these things, I found a cozy bed at the Wagon Wheel Motel, and I read A Walk in the Woods.

As soon as I read what Bryson’s cabbie said, about a guy who had dropped out of hiking the AT, I knew I was reading the right book for my own mindset.  “He said it wasn’t what he expected it to be.”  I knew that feeling.  Neither was 66.

“I had never encountered any step so hard, for which I was so ill prepared.”  I felt that, even as Bryson did.  His trip down the Appalachian Trail was nothing like my Route 66 roadtrip…and yet this was the perfect read for that feeling I was having.

For that reason, A Walk in the Woods was inspiring.  For every obstacle Bryson came to, he determined he would move forward.  It was also incredibly amusing.  Between Katz, his primary hiking buddy, and the other interesting characters he met on the Trail, Bryson had one hell of a journey down the mountain.  It is a true memoirist who can convey the exact feelings a person gives you, and Bryson did so expertly, giving us conversations and interactions that didn’t just tell the reader how it happened but truly put them in the scene.

Bryson describes his journey down the Appalachian trail exactly how he experienced it: that is, detailed in places and vaguely running together in others.  The strangest part is that it works.  While some books give specific accounts that are too specific or vague sections that leave a lot to be desired, Bryson gave us the perfect balance to let the reader feel like they are travelling down the Appalachian trail along with him and Katz.  It made me, someone who never hikes-ever- want to do it.

And yet (and here’s a spoiler, if you haven’t read it)…he doesn’t make it.  He doesn’t hike the entire trail.

In another story, this could be disheartening, even maddening.  But the way Bryson tells it, it’s a type of victory.  It’s learning  your limits and the true scope of the challenge before you.  It’s rediscovering your humanity and a connection with those around you, at the cost of what could be the experience of a lifetime.

I am going to make it to California…but I have a car.  I understand why Bryson and Katz stopped.  The beauty of his writing is that, despite the fact that he stopped, it is still a story that inspires one to continue  moving forward.  His encouraging voice, which sees the history and context of every movement he makes, is more than enough to inspire readers and compel them forwards.

If you haven’t read A Walk in the Woods, I wholeheartedly recommend it.  Even if your own journey is more theoretical and metaphysical than his, he has a lot he can teach you.  I know, because his book taught me.

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Meet Me In St. Louis (The 6 Best Things I Did There)

After spending a week and a half in Illinois, it was time to move on.  Just over the state line was St. Louis, Missouri, and I arranged to spend two nights there.  This list may tell you more about me than the city I visited, but I recommend these experiences.

6. Eating on the Hill – I wound up at Mama’s On the Hill and the toasted ravioli was delicious.  Anywhere you get Italian food here is going to be authentic and tasty, but I recommend Mama’s.

5. The St. Louis Zoo – This zoo is expansive, but easily walkable  The animals and exhibits are engaging.  And, best of all, the zoo is focused on conservation and education, so you know the animals are well cared for.  I’ve been to three “zoos” on this trip, and this is the only one I recommend.

4. Bellefontaine Cemetery – If you enjoy history, especially Civil War history, this place has plenty of things for you to see.  Personally, I enjoyed seeing the different monuments and which stories went with them.  For instance, I am never going to forget about the man who went to France, fell in love with a model, and commissioned a sculpture of her when he got home…which was moved to the cemetery because his wife got sick of living with the thing.

3. Shameless Grounds – This isn’t for everyone.  Literally…you have to be 18 to even walk through the door.  But if you like barbecue, you should have a chauvinist pig sandwich.  The chocolate chip scone and coffee were heavenly.  And the meal comes with a side of sex-positivity and a queer-friendly library.  Nice and cozy, if you’re into that sort of thing.

2. The Arch – St. Louis is famous for this, and you have to do it at least once.  The view at the top is spectacular, and even the experience getting up there is an exciting ride.

1. The City Museum – There are two ways to describe this place.  The short way is “Gryffindor Paradise.”  For those of you who need more, here it is: Imagine a McDonald’s play place.  Make it twenty-times bigger (yes, even the slide).  Put a ferris wheel and a second playplace on the roof.  And remember that nothing is off-limits.  I literally got lost in a cave at this place.  I loved every second of it.

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“Hold Back the Edges of Your Gowns, Ladies.”

There’s some poetry I really love…and a lot I don’t understand.  Either way, you can’t have a life-changing, soul-searching adventure without a little bit of poetry.  I picked Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg because it seemed the least intimidating of my options, yet still the most relevant.

The title poem, “Howl,” lives up to its name: it’s like one long yell, with all the power and majesty that you’d expect from a wolf.  It’s a howl of pain, as Williams explained in his introduction, from the hell that Ginsberg witnessed.  He enumerates the things the world has done to the people of his generation and what they’ve done to themselves, and he shows how closely related they are.

The poem is a callback to Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” as is “A Supermarket in California.”  He embodies the human experience while still expressing his individual one.  He also claims his history as a queer American by referencing both Whitman and Garcia Lorca.  These are queer artists he’s calling back to, and he treats them the same way he treats the people who are active presences in his life, like Jack Kerouac.

I especially enjoyed his personal feelings as expressed in “America.”  He treats America like an oppressive parent he wants to rebel against.  Then he acknowledges how he himself embodies America, just like when a child realizes they have become like their parents.  While acknowledging this, he still manages to take responsibility for making sure his generation is the one that changes things.  “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” he says.

Ginsberg manages to mix the sacred with obscene, using curse words and sexually suggestive language to convey pain, hope, and love.  Even, in some instances, faith, as he references the Creator and the Father alongside his claim that the “closet door is open” for him.

“I want people to bow as they see me and say he is gifted with poetry, he has seen the presence of the Creator,” he says.  And for 50 years, his poetry has been doing that for the queer community just like Walt Whitman before him.  His poetry lives on, every sacred, vulgar word of it, and America needs it just as much now as it did when he wrote it.

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5 Things to Do on Route 66 in Illinois

The plan is for today to be my last in Illinois.  I’ll be the first to admit my recent plans haven’t gone entirely right, but I do feel it’s time to move into the next phase of this road trip.

Illinois has been full of kitschy Route 66 sightings.  If you ever want to take the Mother Road through the Prairie State, here are five things you shouldn’t miss.

1. Lou Mitchell’s.  This little diner in Chicago has been sending Route 66 travellers off since the Road began.  Stop in, have the coffee and the pancakes.  And the ice cream, no matter what time of day it is.  It’s the only way to get your trip off on the right foot.

2. Pontiac Route 66 sites.  This includes the Route 66 museum, with knickknacks from every stop in Illinois.  There’s a shovel that was used to create the road and a table from the original Steak N’ Shake in Normal, IL.  There’s also a mural tour to take around the city that captures the spirit of freedom and the nostalgia of the road.

3. Memory Lane.  The original stretch of Route 66 in Lexington is complete with old-timey signs that would have called to the original travellers.  With its amount of disrepair, it’s clear why the road was originally decommissioned.  Though you can only drive down it during special events, it’s a nice stroll any time.

4. The Atlanta Library and Clock Tower.  (Skip the Palms Cafe.)  This is a nice place to relax, for one thing, with the Route 66 Park in the town’s square.  The library and clock are an amazing example of architecture and the information about the Keepers of the Clock was interesting and inspiring.  This town is all about preserving history and the Keepers of the Clock are truly representative of that.

5. The World’s Largest Covered Wagon in Lincoln.  It’s dumb and kitschy, but it is the World’s Largest and it’s an interesting piece for making you think.

I have a few more sites to see today that I may add to this list, but this is a good way to start a traditional trip down Route 66.

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The Wind in the Willows

My last few weeks in the UK – at Oxford – weren’t entirely ideal.  I spent two weeks sick: feeling tired and uncomfortable if I was out of bed for too long and being unable to eat much of anything.  This came after the pick-pocketing incident and I was still dealing with that aftermath.  My mother had sent me a new credit card, and my passport worked as ID, but I couldn’t get cash for anything and I couldn’t prove I deserved a student discount.  Plus, since I’d waited until the last minute, I had to worry about writing a review after EVERY play we went to, including Titus Andronicus, which I would pay anything to never have to think about ever again.  Don’t misunderstand me: I was still enjoying myself, but stress was starting to creep in too.

This was the mood I was in when I discovered Oxford has something called The Story Museum, and I was immediately determined to go to it.  Each room was a lifesize display of a children’s book – most of which, I had read.  I walked through a wardrobe and into a snow-covered room to cower before the White Witch.  I saw Tink at the Darling House and Max where the wild things were.  But one room stood out above the rest.

It was tucked away in a corner and, though the fireplace wasn’t real, I could still feel the warmth.  It was a lived-in little kitchen, with pots and pans and the feeling that the homeowner was about to jump up and start cooking for his guests.  There was a large green armchair against the wall, facing the fireplace, and it looked as cozy a spot as any.

This exhibition involved children’s stories, but ones that had been picked by other children’s authors, who then dressed as a character from the book.  The Wind in the Willows had been chosen by Neil Gaiman, who was featured in the room dressed as Badger.  It was his home I was visiting.  Sitting in that armchair, already feeling like all I needed was a blanket and a mug of tea to feel perfectly at home, I hit play on the tablet that was sitting beside me…and heard Christopher Eccleston, my Doctor, reading the passage about this home I had stepped into.

I hadn’t read the book before and, after having an introduction that emotionally charged, I had to wait until I found a pretty copy of it.  When I did, I had to wait still until I was in the right mindset to read it.  I’m glad I waited until now; it’s brought me a lot of comfort this week.

At this point in my life, home is hard to define.  I spent a long time planning an imaginary one.  I’ve spent even longer living in someone else’s, unsure when I’d be able to make my own.  I’ve joked that it’s where your cats are or your books are, but those are things you put in a home.  A home is, I think, somewhere you can go to and know you can’t be touched, or hurt, or lost.  It’s a place you feel safe and accepted and warm and cozy, like that room in The Story Museum: you feel like you can take a nap and everything will be all right when you wake up again.  You feel like there is something, some invisible barrier, keeping out all the things that could ever hurt you.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame gave me a glimpse of that feeling this week, even in a place that scared me a little.  It’s nice to know I can still feel at home between the covers of a book.

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Thoughts from Chicago

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