The Lost Work of Saint Fiona O’Shniggy


This year marks the 20th anniversary of the celebration of the first St. Fiona Day back in 1997. St. Fiona lived in Ireland during the 10th century. She is best known for popularizing the constellation Orion in song and verse. Following her untimely death at the age of 23, she was canonized and became the patron saint of drunkards, poets and stargazers. She is celebrated on April 1.

It was previously thought that all the songs she had written had been destroyed following her death, but Professor Charlotte Gaskell recently uncovered one song that she has attributed to St. Fiona. Gaskell is the world’s preeminent expert on St. Fiona. She unearthed the song when going through artifacts related to the life of the Pope who was responsible for Fiona’s canonization. The man had met Fiona in his youth, and Gaskell had hoped to glean information about the mysterious saint by studying his effects. In her search, Gaskell came across an unusual scrap of paper with a few lines of verse in a scrawl that did not match any of the other writing in the collection. The small piece had been tucked inside an illuminated manuscript that belonged to the Pope. On the back of the scrap was a note in a different hand that simply said, “Fiona O.” The writing matched that of the Pope, and Gaskell was able to date the scrap back to the time that Fiona was thought to be alive.

Gaskell had quite a task deciphering the text as it turned out to be written in code. As Gaskell explains:

Given the risk Fiona took in writing in secret, it is understandable that she would resort to code to protect her work. But what’s curious about this is that there is no indication that her destroyed work was written in code. The existence of this coded piece of verse makes me think there may be more out there waiting to be discovered. This is truly a remarkable find for Fiona scholars and enthusiasts.

No sooner had Gaskell broken the code than she had all the confirmation she needed that she was in fact looking at original work by Fiona O’Shniggy. It was all there in the subject matter. The short bit of verse was about Fiona’s beloved constellation, Orion.

Fiona was known for her love of studying the heavens. In her mind, each point of life represented a person who had died. Of the few accounts we have of her life, we know that she would point to a particular star and tell someone that it represented someone she had lost. Gaskell theorizes that this is what led to her strong connection to stargazing. It was her attempt to connect to the stories of the past, and, in way, her ideas that the stars represented the past preceded human understanding that the light from stars really comes from years ago.

Up until this point, scholars have relied on the limited writings of others for a glimpse into the life of this remarkable saint. Now, this scrap of paper allows Fiona herself to speak through the shadows of history, and we are hearing her voice for the first time in hundreds of years.

Here, for the first time in English, are the words of the beloved saint:

Curious hunter in the night,
Always hungry for the fight.

Laid to rest amongst many a star.

Will life find me there?
Nestled in the quilt of light up in the air?

Though I wander, you are not far.

Up in the sky is where I look,
The words I write could fill a book.

Unfortunately that is where it ends. Gaskell is unsure of whether this is incomplete work by Fiona or if he rest of the poem was lost to time. It is Gaskell’s hope that she will find more writing. Until then, let St. Fiona inspire you to have a drink, look at the stars and write a poem.

As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” St. Fiona herself was born out of coincidence: the retelling of a bad joke about the constellation Orion, late night discussion between two friends and vivid imaginations. By chance, these things combined in the perfect moment to give birth to St. Fiona. As with people like Kilgore Trout, Thursday Next and Charlotte Gaskell, St. Fiona exists in the world of fiction, but don’t tell her that. She thinks she is quite real, thank you very much!


Book Review: Filmmaking Simplified by Flax Glor

Flimmaking SimplifiedTaking an idea from a screenplay to a finished film involves a lot of moving parts. For the beginning filmmaker, it can seem overwhelming to the point of not even starting a project. Flax Glor’s new book does exactly what it’s title promises: it simplifies the filmmaking process by offering up a clear outline of what is involved at every step of the journey to finished film. Do not let the small size of this book fool you into thinking it is light on information. Glor packs each chapter full of lists of resources, which are especially useful for a beginning filmmaker looking to build their library of resources.

My knowledge of filmmaking is limited, so I jumped into this book a novice. Glor’s style is easy to read. He does not rely heavily on industry jargon, which made it straightforward for someone like me. In the book’s introduction, Glor explains that he is, “a working Filmmaker without a fancy degree or powerful industry connections who has been a part of almost every department on every size Set imaginable.” This comes through in how thorough the book is, and it also shows how important it is for a filmmaker to understand every phase of the project.

Glor’s book is a glimpse into the technical side of being creative in the film industry, and this was perhaps the most fascinating part of this book for me. Making a movie is not as simple as writing a script, getting a camera and hiring a couple actors to act out your story. Even a small budget film requires securing financing, hiring a crew and planning for post-production. This book makes that process accessible to filmmakers at all levels.

In the chapter on screenwriting, Glor encourages new filmmakers to start small by writing a short film of only a few pages. This is an exercise to get comfortable with the format. He encourages beginning filmmakers to do the same to get used to shooting a film, even if it is simply following your pet around with a camera or shooting wildlife. Regardless of the subject matter, this will provide some footage that is perfect for practicing editing. You can even show the film to a few friends and get some practice using feedback to improve upon your short film. Stephen King once said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I think something similar holds true for filmmaking. As Glor explains, “Become a Filmmaker the only way possible–by making a Film.” If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to be actively making films–even if it is short films for practice.

It would be easy to build a detailed project plan from this book, and that is perhaps where it succeeds the most. With so many steps and people involved, Filmmaking Simplified will help even veteran filmmakers to make sure they are accounting for every step as they plan, hire and map out the process of taking a story from page to screen.

Filmmaking Simplified is available from Amazon.

When I Fell in Love with Reading


Reading with my dad

I was recently having a conversation with a friend where he told me that he learned to read when he was about 3 years old. Even though I love books and reading, I was never that kid. My parents read to us quite a bit before I learned to decipher all the words on the page, but I do not remember being able to read before being taught in kindergarten.

It was clear from my early days in kindergarten that school was a place where I would be able to unlock all kinds of mysteries, and learning to decipher the letters on a page was perhaps the most amazing mystery of all. My guide through this brave new world was Mrs. Oliveras, a woman who was equally adept at playing guitar and unlocking the magic of reading.

On the day I first began my lifelong love affair with the printed word, Mrs. Oliveras took a few students at a time up into our classroom’s loft. We sat in a small circle around her, and I remember staring longingly at the pink stacks of paper held together by brads that she had in her hands. As soon as we were settled, she passed one out to each of us. On the front was a stick figure version of a cat. I would soon learn that this was Nat the cat.

Mrs. Oliveras worked slowly through each word and had us sounding them out until I was able to read my first sentence:

Nat the cat sat on a mat.

And with those seven words, I knew I had discovered something magical. With this simple sentence, I realized that something I could only experience through an adult reading to me could be done on my own.

If you regularly read this blog, you know where my love of reading has led. Even though I have moved far beyond Nat the cat and his mat-sitting adventures, I still remember that feeling of falling in love with reading. It comes to me when I find myself lost in a  good book or staying up late to finish just one more page. It comes in the beauty of a well crafted first line.

One of my favorite books from childhood is Go, Dog. Go! I think this book became my favorite before I could read. To this day, I consider it one of the best books written on the subject of dogs driving, holding parties in trees and wearing funny hats. Like the adventures of Nat, the book took me to new places.

When did you first learn to love reading? What books were your childhood favorites?

The Adventures of Math & Me


Even in the early ’60s, my mom understood the gender pay gap.

Somewhere along the way I lost interest in math. When I was a kid, I had aspirations of being an astronomer. It was not really much of a stretch given that I am the daughter of computer programmers who worked for JPL and NASA, and my mom earned her bachelor’s degree in math in the early ’60s. She once told me the story of how she had started off in engineering but switched to math after a professor proudly announced to the class that he did not given women anything more than a C because they just were not very good at engineering. I am proud of the fact that she had quite the career as a computer programmer for the American space program before leaving to have two children and eventually take on a career in teaching math and special education.

Even back in my days of science and math interest, I loved reading and writing, and somehow that won out with my academic pursuits. But something that has puzzled me more in recent years has been figuring out the point when I lost interest in math. It seems I suddenly started thinking math was too hard. At the time I did not think much of it. In fact, I had entered high school knowing that I wanted to major in English when I reached college. Despite this, I still enjoyed my math classes at the start of high school. But somewhere around sophomore or junior year that changed.

As I neared by senior year, I decided I only wanted to take calculus so I could get a high enough score on the AP exam to test out of math in college. As an English major, the AP test ended up being enough for me to fulfill all my college math requirements, and I have never taken a math class since my senior year of high school. I had a really good calculus teacher named Ms. Slack. She was no-nonsense and wore a button that had the word “whining” covered by a red circle with a slash. When I proudly told her the AP test was my ticket out of math, she smirked and told me, “Oh, you will one day decide you miss math and will come back. You’ll miss math.” Well, Ms. Slack, 24 years later it turns out you were right.

A few months ago I read Peggy Orenstein’s book Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap.The book was originally published in 1995, so the girls that Orenstein studied were only slightly younger than I was at the time she went into two schools to conduct her observations. The thing that resonated most with me was Orenstein’s discussion of the hidden curriculum, which refers to the unspoken values, behaviors and norms that students learn in school. This can manifest itself in the different ways teachers respond to boys’ and girls’ interruptions in class, in how they respond to incorrect answers or other subtle ways. In reading Orenstein’s book, I began to think of how the hidden curriculum may have influenced my change in attitude toward math. It is my hope that in taking on this math project, I can also start to understand why I went from thinking math was fun and a challenge I enjoyed to thinking that math was too hard.

I am going back to algebra, a class I loved and excelled at in eighth grade. After researching some textbooks, I decided on Master Math: Algebra by Debra Anne Ross. I will work my way through the lessons and exercises in an attempt to unlock the joy I felt at solving for x when I was 13 years old. And after that I plan to move on to geometry, trigonometry and the all-important calculus. I cannot guarantee how far I will get and how long it will take me. I still have to manage my nonprofit and see to the regular demands of life. Consider it a hobby, and I will document my adventures with math from time to time here on my book blog.

The funny thing about my parents is that they were both avid readers and could write a decent sentence even though they were technical people. I suppose that is the biggest legacy they left me. I always used them as an example when co-workers tried to pawn off writing work on me because, as they said, “Oh, you were an English major, so you can write.” My parents proved that math geeks could write a sentence just as well as an English major, so now I want to prove that English majors can solve equations just as well as the math geeks.



Readathon Wrap Up #readathon

Another readathon has come and gone. According to the event organizer’s 1,723 readers signed up to participate this time. The event brought together readers from all over the world through the use of social media and a shared love of reading. As I mentioned in my previous post, I wasn’t going to be able to do the full 24 hours, but I managed to read 381 pages. I was able to wake up in time for the 5 a.m. start here in California, and that’s quite an accomplishment for a night owl like me.

I started off the readathon by opening my “Blind Date with a Book” that I had picked up at The Open Book in Thousand Oaks, California. I unwrapped the book and found By the Light of My Father’s Smile by Alice Walker. I was surprised to find an Alice Walker book hiding beneath the paper. I have read a number of her books, but I was not familiar with this one. And, true to Walker’s work, the writing was beautiful. My only regret is that I sped through the book for the readathon, so there are passages I would like to go back to and savor a bit more.

After that I picked up volume 1 of the graphic novel version of The Golden Compass. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of my favorite series, so it was like reconnecting with old friends when I stepped back into Lyra and Pan’s world. While the graphic novel version does not have the same magic as Pullman’s novel, it was an enjoyable effort, and the format was a nice break during the readathon. I look forward to picking up volume 2 in the near future.

Following The Golden Compass, I bravely ventured into the world of Kindles and ebooks by reading Different Seasons by Stephen King. The first novella in this collection is Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. I have seen the movie version of this story a number of times, but, despite having the familiarity with the story, the written version really stands out as some of King’s best work. Unfortunately the need to sleep took over, and I did not finish this novella before the end of the readathon, but I did manage to finish it just before writing this post.

As for the Kindle experience, I sill much prefer my paper books. The one advantage to the Kindle is that it was a little easier to manage in bed than a regular book, but I missed the feel of how many pages I had read and how many were left. The little indication of percentage read at the bottom of the screen did not really replace that experience. I’ll read a book on the Kindle from time to time, but you will mostly see me with paper books–although several other readathoners did tell me to give the Kindle time to grow on me.

Once again, the online community really made this a fun experience. If you have not already, head over to your favorite social media platform, and read the #readathon posts. As I have said before, the readathon community is a supportive and kind group of people. I have never experienced any of the hateful, angry comments that seem to exist in many other corners of the internet. I could easily turn any free day into a readathon of one, but it is the online community that keeps me coming back to Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon.

The next readathon will take place on April 29, 2017, so start getting your stacks of books ready now.

Let’s Get Ready to Read! #readathon


Last spring I participated in Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon for the first time. This is an event for crazy, book-obsessed people like me to read for 24 hours, and it happens every April and October. This month’s event kicks off on Saturday, October 20 at 5 a.m. here in California (check the handy event time announcer that the readathon organizers created to find the start time in your time zone).

I did not make it a full 24 hours last time because sleep pulled me away from reading, but I had a fun time setting aside a full day to immerse myself in books. In addition to all the pages I travelled through, I also had a fun time interacting with the online readathon community. The best part of this event is that it brings together readers from all over the world who discuss what they’re reading, post pictures of beautiful stacks of books and share in the joy of getting lost in a good story. As I have said before, the online reader community is such a kind and supportive place and such a nice break from other online communities that are filled with negative comments and insults.

You can see my stack of readathon books at the top of this post. These have been culled from my to-be-read shelves. There’s no way I will be able to get through all of these books, but I like to keep a variety on hand, so I can choose my next selection as I go. I have included several collections of stories so I have the option to read some shorter pieces throughout the readathon.

img_7216In addition to my standard stack of books, I will also be braving my first book on an ereader this time. This is quite a big step for me because I have been rather vocal about my hardcore devotion to paper books. I acquired my Kindle earlier this year when a friend got a new Kindle and was looking for a home for her old one. She was hoping that I would learn to love the device, which I have christened Readbot. To give the Kindle a fair chance, I downloaded Stephen King’s Different Seasons. I wanted to make sure I started with a book that is something it’s safe to assume I will like. Stay tuned to my blog for a post-readathon wrap up and my thoughts on my first Kindle-based reading experience.


This time around I will also have my “Blind Date with a Book” selection that I picked up at The Open Book in Thousand Oaks, California. In their store, they have a section of wrapped books that each have a label with a short description. Here’s what I have:

  • Remote Mexican Sierras
  • Woman losing, regaining herself
  • Endangered band of people

My plan is to kick off the readathon with this book. It gives this night owl an incentive to get up early enough to start reading at 5 a.m.

Finally, I know I will not be able to read for a full 24 hours this time. I will be taking a break for a few hours in the early afternoon to make some calls at a local phone bank for Hillary Clinton. I had thought about taking the weekend off from phone banking, but this election is too important. Also, I have commitments on Sunday that I do not want to be tired for, so I won’t be staying up until 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, but I do hope to put in a lot of reading hours during the readathon, and I look forward to the lively discussion online with other participants. The organizers explain that this event is really in the spirit of fun, so there are no hard and fast rules. They encourage those who cannot commit to the full 24 hours to still participate as much as they can. Really the event is about celebrating reading.

For updates on my progress, be sure to follow me on Twitter.

Happy reading!

Lists of Books


At the end of the summer, my friend Jenni Buchanan does an excellent job compiling the syllabus for her book group, Rediscovering the Classics. One of my favorite meetings each year is the one where Jenni reveals the list for the year, which is based on a theme. This year’s theme is “Literary Life Lessons,” and it includes some interesting reads, activities and field trips paired with books. After the syllabus announcement meeting back in August, Jenni and I were going for a hike, and I was telling her how I envy the task of creating the reading list each year. I love lists, and I love books, so lists of books make me happy. Jenni’s response to me was, “Well, why don’t you make up some of your own reading lists?” So, that’s what I set out to do here.

These lists are made up of books that I have not read. Consider it a way for me to organize my to-be-read stack around themes. With only a few exceptions, most of these are in my personal library. I had quite a few books to choose from, given that my to-be-read stack is actually a three-shelf bookcase. Also, given that Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon is only a few weeks away, I figured this is a good time to start building my reading pile in preparation for that event.

Women & Space
Before I was born, my mom worked as a computer programmer for the space program. She eventually ended up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is where she met my dad. Women in the space program have been getting a lot of attention recently, and there are some promising books out and an upcoming movie based on Hidden Figures. Here are my books on women and space:

  • Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr
    I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Sally Ride in grad school when I was organizing an event where she was the main speaker. She was kind, intelligent and inspiring, so I am really looking forward to reading more about her amazing life.
  • Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt
    This book looks at the women known as “human computers” who used pencil and paper to do the complicated calculations necessary for space exploration. They were instrumental in building the U.S. space program and JPL.
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
    Shetterly introduces us to the women who were “human computers” in NASA’s early days, but Hidden Figures specifically looks at Black women who did the work of calculating things like flight paths by hand while also being segregated due to the Jim Crow laws of the time. Be sure to watch the trailer for the upcoming movie to get a glimpse of why it is so important that we recognize the outstanding achievements of this group of women.

Stephen King Books I Want to Read
Stephen King has written enough books to warrant his own list. I did not start reading King’s novels until about ten years ago when I picked up On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I had previously dismissed King as simply a horror writer, but as soon as I delved into his work, I realized I was wrong, and I had grossly underestimated his ability as a storyteller. Yes, there is horror, but more than that, he creates highly relatable characters and writes about childhood in a way that is nostalgic without being overly sentimental. King’s books are usually quick reads–even the ones that are well over 600 pages. They make for an excellent choice when you want a good book to get lost in. This list could be really long, but I will keep it short and limit it to unread King books in my personal library and a few others I hope to get my hands on soon:

  • The Shining
  • Insomnia
  • Rose Madder
  • The Dead Zone
  • Different Seasons
  • Misery
  • Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales

Eastern California
Regular readers know that my favorite road buddy Tim Pershing and I love making adventures of our road trips. Tim’s family is in Reno, so we have made quite a few trips north and south on the 395 through Eastern California. On one trip we were stopped at a gas station in Independence, CA, and we saw a sign pointing toward Mary Austin‘s house. We both wondered who she was, so I got my phone out and started reading up on her.  We learned she was a nature writer in the early 20th century and that she was involved in the famous California Water Wars that eventually resulted in water from the Owens Valley being drained to supply the growing city of Los Angeles. You can learn more about this and more history about the region at the Eastern California Museum in Independence. Eastern California is also home to Manzanar, one of the camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. If your travels take you through this part of California, be sure to stop at the Manzanar National Historical Site. Here are a few books I have picked up on my trips through Eastern California:

  • The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
  • Essential Mary Austin: A Selection of Mary Austin’s Best Writings
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
  • No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California, 1849-1869 Edited by Ida Rae Egli

Soccer Stories
I have only been a fan of soccer in the last couple years, and I owe that to the U.S. women’s soccer team and their 2015 World Cup victory. After watching those games, I was hooked and began rooting for the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League. We have been lucky this year to have two books hit the shelves by players from the 2015 World Cup team, and I have quickly added them both to my list. I recently attended a book signing for Carli Lloyd’s new book and was happy to see that the line stretched around the block. Anyone who doubts the popularity of women’s soccer should have seen the crowd gathered for her signing. So, here’s my short list of soccer stories to read:

  • When Nobody Was Watching: My Hard-Fought Journey to the Top of the Soccer World by Carli Lloyd
  • Forward: A Memoir by Abby Wambach

Alexander Hamilton
I am hooked on the soundtrack for Hamilton, and often when I am listening to it, I find myself googling details about the founding fathers and the early decades of our country’s existence. What I am really enjoying about Hamilton‘s popularity is that many others are finding a new interest in this part of our history. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has brought history alive in a creative way and opens up new ways to see and connect with the founding of the U.S. With that, I would like to tackle these two books:

  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
    This is the book that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write Hamilton. I read the first page of the prologue and got chills. The writing is just that good. I get the feeling that this is not some dry, old history book.
  • Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
    Hamilton fans lovingly refer to this as the Hamiltome because of its size and extensive content. There are pictures, lyrics, notes, commentary and just about anything fans of the show could want. It is a good way to keep yourself busy while you wait for Hamilton’s America to premiere on PBS.

Books I Should Have Already Read
Have you ever been talking to people about books, and they start bringing up certain classics or other well-known works, and you stand there quietly, afraid to admit that you have not read the book being discussed? I think we all have those books–they are the ones that our friends are surprised to hear we have not read. I have slowly been trying to collect some of these when I visit used bookstores, and here are some of the titles currently in my to-be-read stack:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
  • Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Meridian by Alice Walker

America, Roadside Attractions & 4,735 Miles (Part Three)

This is the final part of a three-part series on my recent cross-country road trip. Be sure to check out part one and part two for more of the story.

When we last left off, we were tasting wine in Iowa and then making our way across the state to stay with our friends Becky and Dan in Indianola. Up until this point in my life, my experience with Iowa included a part in the chorus of The Music Man at age 12 where I uttered the line, “Good morning, Mayor Shinn”  and a college semester in London through a study abroad program put on by Central College in Pella, Iowa. My semester in London did not involve a stop at Central, but I was part of a program that included many students who went to school there and had grown up in Iowa–a childhood much different than mine growing up in the LA area. Because of this, Iowa has always been on my list of places to visit.

Indianola is home to Simpson College, a small liberal arts college founded in 1860. Our visit included a stroll through the beautiful campus. Our friends took us to an amazing local ice cream shop called The Outside Scoop. Our time in Iowa also included meeting Tim’s high school friend Andy and his family for lunch in Ames–a city I only knew because of it’s mention in a song from The Music Man (Yeah, a lot of what I knew about Iowa before this trip came from that musical). I knew they were cool people as soon as I found out we shared an obsession with Hamilton. We laughed a lot and enjoyed a tasty lunch before Tim and I headed to Des Moines for a visit to the Iowa State Capitol, which all our Iowa friends told us was one of the most beautiful capitol buildings–they were not wrong. My favorite parts were the suffrage memorial and the law library, which made me feel like I was in the library of a certain school of witchcraft and wizardry.

After a couple days in Iowa, we once again hit the road for a drive across Nebraska that would end with a night in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The drive was around 650 miles, so we made sure to plan several stops at Roadside Attractions along the way to break out the long, flat drive.

Before leaving Iowa, we found an Easter Island head hanging out in a park. Our stops included a photo op at the GI Body Shop in Grand Island, Nebraska. There’s a yard full of cartoonish cars up on polls that will bring a smile to even the most road-weary face. We made a quick stop at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island in search of more information of a story of two boys from 1864 that we read about on the Roadside America app. Nat and Bob Martin had been shot by Sioux Indians. One of the arrows pierced both of them and joined the brothers together. They tumbled off their horse and were left for dead in a ditch, but they managed to survive and make it back home. Both survived well into adulthood. In front of the museum, you can see a statue of the two boys joined together by that famous arrow, and if you drive about 15 miles from the museum, you can find a marker in the spot where the boys were temporarily joined together.

Our trip also included a quick stop in Gothenburg, Nebraska for a visit to a sod house and some coffee for me. According to the guest book at the coffee shop, they recently had a famous visitor there.

After spending the night in Cheyenne, Wyoming, we made our way to Salt Lake City, Utah via a number of roadside attractions that involved stops at two Little America Hotels in Wyoming. Little America is famous for its taxidermy Emperor Penguin. Back in the 1930s, the owners had originally wanted Emperor the Penguin to be their live mascot, but he did not survive the journey from Antarctica, and now his glassy eyes stare out at visitors from his home perched on a fake block of ice in a glass case. Our drive that day took us along the Lincoln Highway–a stretch of road presided over by the president himself.

Perhaps one of my favorite stops on this leg of the trip was the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. This was another excellent find from the Roadside America app. What drew me here was the story of George Parrott (also known as Big Nose George) and the shoes made from his skin. Back in the late 19th century, Big Nose George got quite boastful about his criminal exploits, which led to his arrest. He attempted to escape jail by attacking his jailor, but the jailor’s wife heard the commotion and was able to coax Big Nose George back to his cell with the help of a pistol. Masked men broke into the jail and “rescued” Big Nose George, but his rescuers were not really rescuers at all. They turned out to be a lynch mob and poor George met his end strung up on a telegraph poll.

The story does not end there. Legend has it that because of the size of George’s famous nose, extra pressure was required to close the lid of the coffin. Even though George was finally squeezed into the coffin, he would not yet get peaceful eternal rest. Doctor Thomas Maghee and Doctor John Eugene Osborne decided to steal George’s body to study his brain for criminality. This was not quite enough for Osborne who decided to use some of Big George’s skin to make a pair of shoes and a medical bag. You can see the shoes at the museum. Big George’s skull cap was also sawn off and presented to Maghee’s young assistant, Lillian Heath, who would go on to become the first female doctor in Wyoming. They kept his body in a whiskey barrel, where his remains were discovered in the 1950s.

Go to the museum to learn more about Big George’s story, but also be sure to check out all the other interesting items, and spend some time talking to the staff. We had a nice conversation with the museum director who told us all kinds of fun facts about Carbon County and even played the 1913 Edison phonograph for us. Local legend has it that Edison got the idea to invent the lightbulb during a visit to Rawlins.

After a night in Salt Lake City, Utah, we made our way across the Nevada desert and ended our trip in Reno, Nevada, where we visited Tim’s family and picked up his niece for a week with us in Southern California. No sooner were we back to our regular lives than we were both planning for what big road trip we would take next, but all those will have to wait for another time. The real world calls and not every day can be spent on the road, but we will head out again soon. After all, the world is full of stories, and we only saw 4,735 miles of it.

For anyone planning a road trip, I highly recommend the Roadside America app. I am not being paid to endorse their app or website; I am just a huge fun. I opted for the full version (includes attractions in the U.S. and Canada) at $8.98–less than what you would pay for most travel books. You can get just one region for $2.99 if you don’t want the full version, but I would recommend getting all of it to inspire future travels.

Pictures of the Iowa Capitol and the cars on polls in Nebraska are by Tim. All other pictures are by me.

Fictional Bookstores I Want to Visit

rory books

I have been rewatching Gilmore Girls in anticipation of the new episodes being released in November. I love how present books are in the show, and it is always fun to see what Rory is reading. Fans of the show know that the townspeople and their businesses feature prominently in Gilmore Girls. Add the small Connecticut town of Stars Hollow to the list of fictional places I would like to live. I was recently watching an episode from season one where Rory wandered into Stars Hollow Books with her dad when he is visiting. The cute, little bookstore features in other episodes of the show, and I started daydreaming about walking down the aisles and picking out a few books. It got me to thinking about other fictional bookstores I would like to visit.

black & white & read

Black & White & Read Bookstore, Gilmore Girls

Add this to the list of reasons that Stars Hollow is an awesome place: they have two bookstores even though it is a small town. Black & White & Read hosts regular screenings of old movies. I would gladly pull up a chair, bring some snacks and watch a movie among shelves of books with my favorite residents of Stars Hollow.

monster book

Flourish & Blotts, Harry Potter Series

Being the Potter fan I am, I cannot forget to mention Flourish & Blotts, the bookstore in Diagon Alley where Hogwarts students have been buying their school books for years. During Harry’s first visit there in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, the store is described as a place, “…where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all.” The bookstore pops up throughout the series, including being the site of fight between Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy during a Gilderoy Lockhart book signing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. We also see the poor bookseller struggling with his stock of The Monster Book of Monsters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I will take a moment here to imagine wandering the aisles with Hermione and checking out all her favorite titles.


Sempere & Sons Bookstore & the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (Cemetery of Forgotten Books Series)

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s series starts out with The Shadow of the Wind, which is our first introduction to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a vast, old library of winding shelves, full of titles that have been forgotten. The books are lovingly preserved there for the few that are allowed access to the library. Tradition dictates that anyone initiated into this place must take one title and protect it for life. The novel unfolds when young Daniel Sempere selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. Daniel’s dad runs a bookstore called Sempere & Sons, so, needless to say, bookstores and libraries play a prominent part in Zafón’s series. Added bonus: the series is set in Barcelona, a city I visited and loved back in 1996. I will gladly accept a trip back to Barcelona that includes a visit to Zafón’s fictional locations.

Portlandia mermaid

Women & Women First, Portlandia

I would love to visit Toni and Candace at the fictional feminist bookstore, Women & Women First. They do not get a large number of customers, and their behavior toward their customers often leads to customers leaving the store without buying anything, but I can’t help but love Toni and Candace’s dedication to keeping their bookstore going, despite the fact that feminist bookstores in the U.S. are becoming more and more rare. It is not just the awesome selection of feminist books and merchandise that makes this store appealing, but it is also the way that Women & Women First allows us to laugh at feminism without resorting to the mean insults normally used. Even with my MA in Women’s Studies and my feminism, I am not sure I would be able to please Toni and Candace enough to have the chance to buy something in their store, but it would be worth a try.

What are your favorite fictional bookstores? Share them in the comments.

America, Roadside Attractions & 4,735 Miles (Part Two)

In my last post I detailed the first part of my recent cross-country trip. To catch you up, I took off on a nearly two-week road trip with my favorite road buddy Tim. The main purpose of our trip was to attend a second memorial service for his mom in her hometown of Bushnell, Illinois. His mom passed away in May, and my dad passed away in June. Having both been hit with the loss of a parent within about a month of each other, we also knew we needed to make this trip to take care of ourselves and to get a break from all that we had been through. So, we put our lives on hold and took off.

When I left off last time, we were on our way to Bushnell, Illinois, but we had a stop planned in Hannibal, Missouri on our way there. Hannibal is best known for being the home of Mark Twain–a fact that becomes very obvious when you see just how much this town has formed its identity and a whole tourist industry on the famous American author. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am a sucker for quirky tourist stuff, and I also love literature. So of course I had to stop in Hannibal.

One of the first things in Hannibal that came up on my Roadside America app was the Haunted House on Hill Street–part Christmas & Halloween store, part wax museum, part haunted house and 100% awesome! This rates high on the list when it comes to quirky things we saw on this trip. Perhaps the scariest part of the experience was the room full of 27 wax figures of both real and fictional people from Twain’s life and books. This part of the tour involved standing and staring through glass at the wax figures, which were lit from below–something which upped the spooky factor. A voice narration described who everyone was as well as some interesting facts about the people represented in the room. We learn, for example, that the Tom Sawyer figure contains real teeth taken from a boy’s mouth. There’s no explanation about why the teeth were extracted, and if the boy knew they would live on in the likeness of Tom Sawyer. The narration was just long enough to make you question whether or not a figure or two moved while you stood there staring. Needless to say, I was thankful that there was glass between us and them. At the conclusion of the narration, we were directed to walk through a door and into the haunted house. This was your standard haunted house fare, complete with black lights, glowing creatures, things that pop up, bursts of air and sudden noises. I laughed and screamed in turns, and had a good time.

It’s hard to top an experience like that, but we did have fun visiting Twain’s boyhood home, Huck Finn’s house and Becky Thatcher’s house. I am a book nerd, so I took a moment to whitewash Tom Sawyer’s fence just long enough for a picture, but then I figured it was time to find some friends to handle the job for me.

We gave a quick wave to the Mississippi and then drove up to Bushnell. I had heard quite a bit about Bushnell from Tim’s mom Anne. She always had a fondness for the small town she grew up in and continued to have her columns published in the local paper up until her death. Anne’s stories about the people from Bushnell and the town itself made me feel like I had already been there. Bushnell is a small town of just over 3,000 people. It was founded in 1854 when the Northern Cross Railroad built a line through the area. It’s got the quiet tree-lined streets one expects in a small, Midwest town, and there was a strong sense of community present when we gathered at the community center for the celebration of Anne’s life. I am not a small-town girl, but I can see why Anne held a special place in her heart for her hometown. I had a lovely time visiting Tim’s family in Bushnell and hearing stories of his mom’s youth spent in the town.

Before we left Bushnell for our next stop in Indianola, Iowa, Tim insisted that we stop at a local grocery store to buy some ham salad. Tim said it was one of his favorite foods on his childhood trips back to Bushnell. I use the term “food” loosely because I take issue with anything that lists the first ingredient as “Assorted Hams.” Chalk it up to my snobby California palate, but I really don’t think I can accept ham salad as a food.

Ham Salad

After the ham salad adventure, we began the drive to stay with our friends in Indianola, Iowa. We stopped at a bookstore in Burlington, Iowa that was home to a replica of the TARDIS from Doctor Who.  Aside from the TARDIS, Burlington by the Book is a delightful bookstore with a nice selection and friendly staff. We even made time to drive down Snake Alley, a competitor for the title of World’s Crookedest Street. Apparently there is much debate about which is more crooked: Snake Alley or San Francisco’s Lombard Street. I have been down both, and scientifically I am not sure which street should have the title, but I think I enjoyed the fact that there is less traffic on Snake Alley. Plus, it’s in a town with a TARDIS, so that should get some bonus points. I’m not sure, but I think that the TARDIS and the crooked street might be some kind of sign that something is off with the space-time continuum in Burlington, which makes it an awesome place to visit. I would love to go back and explore the town a bit more because we saw some interesting street art and other stores that would be worth checking out.

I experienced my first major Midwest summer storm from behind the wheel of my Honda Civic as we made our way across Iowa. We made a quick stop at a gas station as the sky opened up and thunder rattled the awning over our heads. We looked around as lightning streaked across the sky and realized that the locals were not heading for cover despite the torrential downpour, so we bravely pulled out onto the road. Fortunately the rain stopped and moved on almost as quickly as it started, but the experience did leave me asking Tim to Google the signs of an impending tornado. I am happy to report that I did not end up experiencing my first tornado on this trip.

Iowa wine

We made an unplanned stop at Cedar Valley Winery when we saw a sign advertising wine tasting. Tim and I have made regular trips to the Napa Valley, and we finally took a wine tasting class earlier this year, so we decided to put our tasting skills to the test in Iowa. Living in California, it is easy to forget that many other areas produce wines, and we were surprised to see this cute, little winery tucked in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa. The woman who worked in the tasting room was very knowledgeable and explained that the wines there were made entirely from the grapes grown on the property. She also told us that Midwesterners tend to enjoy their wines on the sweeter side, which we noticed with the wines we tasted. She asked about the purpose of our trip, and Tim explained that both of us had recently lost a parent and that we had just been to a memorial service for his mom in her hometown. It’s a tale that’s part Victorian novel and part fodder for the classic American road trip, right?

As I said in my last post, this could easily be a story of all those complicated emotions that are a part of grieving the loss of a loved one. And to be honest, when I would hear one of us start to tell the story, it almost sounded tragic to the point where I wanted to laugh in order to avoid crying my eyes out. Yeah, grief is complicated. And sometimes all you can do is get on the road and keep driving, which is why we did what we did. Maybe this is the kind of story where we find ourselves out on the road, or maybe it was just a way to try to fill in a little bit of the huge void left when you lose a parent. I don’t know yet. Even though the miles on the road are done, there are still miles to go in the grieving process, and I am lucky we had the opportunity to drive cross country because staying still was making me lose my mind.

I will leave off there for this post and will wrap things up in part three in a few weeks.

For anyone planning a road trip, I highly recommend the Roadside America app. I am not being paid to endorse their app or website; I am just a huge fun. I opted for the full version (includes attractions in the U.S. and Canada) at $8.98–less than what you would pay for most travel books. You can get just one region for $2.99 if you don’t want the full version, but I would recommend getting all of it to inspire future travels.

All pictures are by me except the Bushnell sign, the TARDIS picture and the picture of me with Tom Sawyer’s fence. Those are by Tim Pershing.