Live the Book – A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

I became a pen-pal to a girl in Israel and young man in Palestine. It breaks my heart to see how helpless they feel, and how the violence has impacted their lives in such crippling and terrifying ways. And they both, so much, want peace. They have hope, though, so I guess I must have it, too. I hope to meet up with them in a few years in Italy.



#LiveTheBook #WhereWillYouGoToday

Live The Book – Touching the Void

Over the past two days I was the first to summit the Siula Grande (in Peru) from the West side, crushed my tibia into my knee joint, got caught in a blizzard, fell 150 feet into a crevasse, hiked out, and crawled my way back to base camp with frostbite while going snow blind, suffering from dehydration, almost dying of ketosis (not to mention hypothermia, dehydration …), using the last ounce of my energy to call out for my climbing partner. I’m down now. I’m okay. Not to worry. I’m okay.
I’m freaking exhausted.

#LiveTheBook #WhereWillYouGoToday

A Book A Day … A Summer of Sundays by Lindsay Eland

We all have a little Sunday in us. We want to be noticed, to be praised, to stand out. WE WANT OUR FIFTEEN MINUTES! Right? Isn’t that what we all deserve? A life with headlines and TV interviews?
Sunday is a funny child, stuck in the middle (literally), of six siblings. And she just wants to shine. But at what price?
Lindsay Eland has created a quirky, fun, and all-too-relateable cast of characters in her second middle grade novel. It has great pacing, humor, and just the right touch of mystery.

When you’re the third of six kids, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but Sunday Fowler is determined that this summer she’ll find the one thing that makes her stand out from her siblings.

And when she discovers a silver box in the basement of the library her parents are renovating, she might just have found something to gain her the attention she so craves. Inside is a series of letters addressed to “The Librarian” and a manuscript. But who wrote them? With the help of annoying neighbor-turned-new-friend Jude, Sunday is determined to track down the author. And when she unveils this novel to the world, she’ll be famous!

But uncovering this manuscript means stirring up secrets that some people in the town hoped to keep buried. And Sunday must decide if some things — loyalty, trust, friendship — are worth more than her name in the headlines. 

Age: 9+

Things My Dad Said … On Raising Girls

“If you get married someday, your spouse sure as hell better know how to wash dishes.”

Dad always said this. When I was little, it didn’t mean much to me. I just thought it was a weird pre-requisite for “marriage.” I also, for a long period in my life, was determined to marry a black labrador retriever. So … the washing dishes thing was a moot point.
I have two daughters now. Raising kids is tough. Raising girls has insane challenges. I want to teach them kindness and gratitude. I want to teach them they are important, they’re equal to men. I want to teach them that appearance doesn’t matter in a city that has more plastic in a square km than in international Tupperware convention; their voice counts in the cacophony of male voices; being strong doesn’t equal being a bitch. And to NOT use that oh-so-freaking-annoying habit that women have of raising the tone of their voices three octaves to ask for something. I told my daughter to not do it. And a Colombian friend and I had an argument about it because in Colombia, it’s expected.
Screw that. Ask for it. Be strong. And stop with the bullshit voice change. But doing so is considered harsh in Colombia. (I’d LOVE to see a bunch of men bat their eyelashes and say, coyly, ‘Please, can I have an extra sugar?’)
GAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! *beating head against countertop*
Statistically, though, and on paper, everything I’m teaching my girls isn’t “true.”  According to statistics taken from ‘Girl Rising’ (a CNN documentary about the power of educating girls), 66 million girls are not in school, 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence each year, 14 million girls under 18 will be married this year … the list goes on and on.
So I’ve thought about it … a lot. For me to raise strong girls and be able to tell them the truth,  you have to raise strong, educated, aware boys.

So … let’s raise a world of amazing females together.

  • I’ll teach my girls that their bodies are their own. You teach your boys about consent. Teach them that a short skirt, too many beers or a bad reputation doesn’t mean, “yes.” BE EXPLICIT. Rape happens because there are rapists, not because “she was asking for it.”
  • I’ll teach my girls that femininity and strength aren’t mutually exclusive. You teach your boys that feminine doesn’t mean weak and strength doesn’t mean butch (or bitch).
  • I’ll teach my girls they are so much more than the shell that holds them. You teach your boys to not refer to girls as: a piece of ass, a nice pair of tits, a slut, an object … an object. Teach your boys that every time they look a woman up and down and leer, they’ve just reduced a human being to the status of a barbecue grill, something to be used
  • I’ll teach my girls to speak their minds, use their voices, say their opinions. You teach your boys to listen.
  • I’ll teach my girls they have the same rights as anyone else in this world. You teach your boys that culture, religion, tradition are not an excuse for oppression. I don’t give a rat’s behiney that in someone’s family for the past ten generations the woman had to do X thing. Oppression masked in tradition is still oppression. 
  • I’ll teach my girls they are capable of doing any job in this world. You teach your boys that women deserve the same wages for the same work. 
  • I’ll teach my girls respect, above all. You teach your boys respect, above all.
  • I’ll teach my girls how to change a tire, check the oil, fix a leak. You teach your boys to wash the dishes.

Wash dishes. Okay, Dad, so I’m a slow study. I get it now. I really do.

In light of this, I have a list of must-reads for both boys and girls. As a writer, I take issue with the “boy book” idea — meaning if the main character has a penis, then boys will be able to relate. Since I majored in English and had to read all the misogynistic, angst-riddled novels written by aging European dudes you can imagine and got mere tastes of women authors in classes boldly labeled “Women’s Lit,” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say books and novels and characters that are great are about the human experience. So guys, pick up a book with a female main character. And parents, really, some of these books are must reads for both boys and girls. Read them together. Talk about them.

On Being American (Or …just hand over the Cheerios)

“You are not very American.”
I paused when someone said this to me recently.
“It’s a compliment, you know,” he said.
I don’t know how to respond to that. What does that mean?

A very weird part of living abroad and being American is being American. If that makes any sense. At all.

“Americans! Bah! Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola.” (A French cousin said this to me. A lot. Thankfully he didn’t know about my Cheerios fixation.) 
“Americans take up too much space.”
“Americans are ignorant, kind of stupid.”
“You are not very American …”

My paternal grandparents, French Basques, immigrated to the US in the early 1900s. My grandpa was a sheepherder and miner. My grandma was a maid. My maternal grandparents were children of Norwegian immigrants. My grandpa was a farmer. My grandma, too.
I grew up taking Basque dancing lessons and making chorizos in the garage. I ate lefse and Basco beans, learned how to make kringle and (later) Picon punches and homemade hooch. (Yeah, you KNOW you want that recipe). No, we did not have a still in our backyard, though we had an old wine press. 
My friends, instead of Basque dancing lessons, went to Greek, Italian, and German festivals. We all seemed to have relatives from far away who liked to give sloppy cheek kisses and too-hard pinches.
I love peanut butter and baseball movies; I cry when I hear The Star Spangled Banner. I know how to dance the Texas two-step and swing, salsa and merengue. When my girls were babies, I used to sing them The Gambler and Stand By Me because I didn’t remember the words to any other songs.
My heart aches when I watch how senseless violence and shootings are so commonplace that my nieces have to go through “shooting drills” at school. I am horrified with super-sized anything (really … there is such a thing as too many fries) and find the idiosyncracies of my country too absurd for fiction, both tragic and funny as hell.

I grew up in the perfume of sagebrush and snow-capped mountains, and every summer we visited my grandma’s farm in North Dakota … fields of golden sunflowers, flax, wheat. Flat, flat, flat. In North Dakota you can watch your dog run away for three days. 

I’m an expat. Sure. Visions of Hemingway and Stein changing the world with their words while getting stoned over bottles of French wine come to mind.
I’m not that kind of expat. I fell in love with a Colombian, and we decided to build our life here. I spend my days chasing after two little girls who, by the way, don’t like peanut butter (I’ve utterly failed to inculcate them with American-ness 101.) They barely take notice of the Cheerios (from my Panama contact) in their bowls. I’ve actually stopped giving them Cheerios. They don’t appreciate that unsinkable taste.They’d rather eat empanadas.
My oldest speaks English with a Spanish lilt and the little one definitely is going down the expressive, gesticulating Latina route. They’re both Colombian Americans … two nationalities, two passports, two cultures, no peanut butter.

What is American?

Maybe my five-year-old said it best the other day.
A: Mom, you know that thing where you won’t let me wear a bikini or get my ears pierced?
Me: Yeah.
A: *accusatory tone* It’s because you’re American, isn’t it?
Me: *silent for a bit* I guess it is.
A: *shrugs and walks away*

Yep. I’m American. (My daughters don’t realize it yet, but so are they — peanut butter failings aside.) And, from far away, this 4th, I’ll celebrate with my annual burger, beer, and a slice of watermelon. What could be more American than that?

Nationality, culture, ethnicity, religion … identity. It’s a loaded thing to be called something. And I understand that so much of how we view other cultures, how we come up with our sweeping generalizations, comes from the media, past experiences, and expectation. (Honestly, I don’t know a single Colombian who doesn’t cringe when somebody makes the typical “cocaine” joke.)
But in every country, there are pockets of grace and tragedy; places of shame and joy. I kind of think there’s a little “American” in everybody because “my America”, the one I love and believe in, was built on a dream, a fight, ideals, intentions, failings …  hope. That’s what makes me American.
So, instead of deciding how someone is, discover how someone is. Be surprised. However, if you insist on making assumptions, at the end of the day, all I ask you to do is hand over the Cheerios.  Colombia’s great failing is the lack of Cheerios.
I know. How do I survive?

Here’s a list of “American” books I love, love, love. All of these capture snapshots and vignettes of “Americanness.” Jigsaw-puzzle pieces of culture, adaptation, rampant madness and more. What books would you add? How do you define your “Americanness”, Canadianness, Colombianness, Englishness, Israeliness, South Africanness, Austrailianness, Chineseness … wherever you’re from?

A Book A Day … December 6 and The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Mara Dyer believes life can’t get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.

It can.
She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her strangely unharmed.
There is.
She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.
She’s wrong.

I first wanted to read this book because I loved the title.  I was so so not expecting what happened and who Mara was, which is nice. (This is why I often don’t read reviews because there are too many spoilers.) What I love is that it is fast paced, unexpected, and Mara is a very likeable, very flawed main character. And the whole weirdness about the book … works.  After reading the “story behind the story”, it makes the book even creepier and more thrilling.
I don’t even want to tell you the “genre” of the book because it might give some of what’s going on with Mara away.  It’s a great read for those who like suspense, contemporary, paranormal, a little thriller, too. Honestly, it touches on all sorts of unexpectedness, and the more I think about it and the story behind the story (which I just read for curiosity), the more fascinating the book becomes.
Not for young ones. Definitely YA — maybe 13 and up. Be ready, though, to get lost or lose someone within the first few minutes of picking up the book because you really won’t want to put it down until you get to the end.
(Don’t read at night!)


The Year of Prime … On the Seventh Day of December

Today madness begins. Well, it began a couple weeks ago but now Colombia jumps into the nonstop (literally) December celebrations with the Alumbrado. (pics up on Friday since it’s today and tomorrow!) Anyway, to commemorate Colombia and celebrate its exuberance (to say the least … yes, I’m bracing myself for the next twenty-four days of insanity), I’m recommending COLOMBIA: A NEW VISION by Santiago Harker.
Santiago Harker is an accomplished photographer who has spent his life traveling Colombia and capturing magical moments. We just went to one of his exhibitions this past week. The light, life, color, and dimension of his photos is indescribable. This is a truly exquisite journey into the Colombia I love, not the one we so often see misconstrued in the media. Open the pages and join me exploring the world I love!

Happy Reading!

The Year of Prime … On the Sixth Day of December …

As promised, three more recommendations to catch up on the days I’ve missed!!! And as the rush of December and life kind of swamp me, my recs will be sincere enough but perhaps not as “in depth” as they should be. (Yes, that’s a way of saying I’m a slack blogger. Yikes!)

Today, I’m tipping my hat to Edward Bloor. I’ve heard about TANGERINE for the last ten years or so and was always intrigued but never got around to reading it until this past year. I. Loved. It!
Paul is your average seventh grader … except for the fact he’s “legally blind” and his brother is a psychopath. He has distorted flashbacks about why he’s blind, but his fear of learning the truth blocks memories.(Yeah. it’s not every day we face those kinds of obstacles).
Paul’s looking forward to a fresh start in Tangerine, Florida. While his mom and dad are wrapped up in work and his brother’s “football dream”, Paul proves himself to be one of the best soccer players at the school, befriends a group of “tough kids”, and learns to love the art of tangerine growing. What’s most remarkable and wonderful about this novel is Paul — unassuming, kind, and though he doesn’t think so, incredibly courageous. (It takes loads of courage to be kind.)  This is a great novel to read for readers and writers, like a blueprint on how to create a complex and wonderfully developed, unexpected hero.

Another classic on my list falls into that “uncomfortable read” category. It’s truly, though, one of the most masterful YA novels I’ve ever read. Most have heard of Robert Cormier’s, THE CHOCOLATE WAR. I read it, for the first time, several years ago and just wanted to weep. Jerry begins his refusal to sell chocolates for the annual school fund raiser because he’s put up to it by the school mafia — the kids who really rule the school. But when they tell him it’s time to sell and he refuses, the entire balance of power rocks and Jerry becomes an anti-hero, pariah, scapegoat, loathed, admired and totally misunderstood. This is a brutal study of human nature and how we live in a clockwork society — and what happens to those who live on the edge of what we consider “normal”. Intense. Heartbreaking. I’d venture to say it’s edging toward that “must read” pile. (Though I hate those “must read” piles because, heck, if anybody told me I “must read” Ulysses, I’d poke my eyes out.) Simply phenomenal. How’s that? (Instead of “must read.”)

My final rec for the day is a psychological thriller. THE OTHER, published in 1971 and written by Thomas Tryon, is about thirteen-year-old twins growing up in Connecticut in the thirties. One is the “good twin”, the other absolutely evil. It takes the reader on a freaky journey through two incredibly messed up kids and has one of those “holy crap” endings. I read it in high school (ahem, over twenty years ago) and still remember wishing I could sleep in my parents’ room for about a week. (I didn’t. But don’t think I didn’t REALLY consider it.) Don’t read this at night.

Happy reading!

The Year of Prime … On the Fifth Day of December

I’ve missed four days. Four days of wonderful, phenomenal, fantastic books I’d love to recommend (great holiday gifts!), so, cheating (a bit), I’m cheating. I’m putting three-in-one here (and will catch up tomorrow with another three!) … THREE BOOKS THAT I ABSOLUTELY a.) loved b.) really felt moved by c.) really felt disturbed by d.) and loved.

Sometimes a great book doesn’t end up leaving you with a great feeling. It’s uncomfortable, it makes you question yourself, how you feel about things, how you view the world. And my first rec of the month is such a book.
LIE, by Caroline Bock is totally and completely uncomfortable. A story about kids who, for kicks, go beating up Mexicans (any Latinos, really, but they just jumble them all together in the same basket) on weekends in Long Island and something goes horribly wrong. Told from several POVs of kids involved, parents not wanting to be involved, a Mexican coach, a principal who feels like this should just “go away” … That idea of “everybody knows, nobody’s talking” that we all get swept up in at time. The nuance of racism and how we often turn a blind eye to what’s in front of us made me feel squirmy.
LIE is one of those books that I was SO RELIEVED I had finished but so glad I had read.

Next up on my rec list is a book I absolutely, positively loved. FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB by Antony John is simply wonder. Winner of the 2011 Schneider Family Award, this novel is about Piper, a teen misfit, who’s been given the job of manager of the school rock band DUMB. She has one month to get them a payinggig. Easy, right? Except for the band’s leader is an egomaniac who’s invited a hot, talent-less girl on board because, well, she’s hot, and the guitar players can’t really play. Their only hope is a band-geek to get them in line. Basically, the band sucks. And on top of it all, Piper can’t hear a thing because she’s deaf. This is one of those perfectly written novels about kids being kids and overcoming insane obstacles — not the obvious ones (being deaf and having tone deaf band members) — but the ones that kids have to deal with everyday: acceptance, tolerance, first love, conflicts with parents and more. I laughed out loud. What a wonderful, WONDERFUL novel.

OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D Schmidt is next on my list. The Newberry Winner for THE WEDNESDAY WARS, OKAY FOR NOW has already gotten a National Book Award Finalist nod and it is so deserved. Doug Swieteck is new in town and has everything going against him: a drunk, mean father, an almost-meaner brother whose reputation makes it hard for Doug to do “anything” right at school, a brother who’s returning from Vietnam a very different person, a horrible, PE teacher who’s got it out for him … basically, the list goes on and on. And on top of it all, Doug can’t read. But Doug can draw, and gets drawing lessons from the town librarian, tutoring from the horrible English teacher, a job delivering groceries for his only friend, Lil’s, father and somehow finds a way, through kindness, perseverance, and friendship to turn his life around. I cried many times in this heartbreaking story. It’s so beautifully written. The story weaves in the themes of loss, hope, anger, abuse masterfully. Hats of to Mr. Schmidt for such a beautiful, beautiful story. He makes me want to be a better writer.

Happy reading!! Holidays and books … you can’t go wrong!

A Book A Day: On the 21st – 24th of Christmas

I’m doing a chunk here because, well, if you haven’t gotten your gifts purchased by now and are brave enough to brave the stores, I wish you the best and know that I really can’t help much anymore!

So … here’s a smattering of books that are GREAT for kids of all ages (meaning grown-up kids, too). And, quite honestly, I can’t imagine a better gift than the right book for the right person. So … have at it!

I will now let the Colombian holiday black hole swallow me up and will resurface after the 25th … Hopefully in one piece. (mentally and physically).
Many many wishes for a healthy and happy holiday, whatever you choose to or not to celebrate. Just have a healthy December and New Year!