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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

When I posted recently about my trip to Ireland four years ago, I promised you a post about the Aran Islands, those three tiny specks of land floating off the western coast of Ireland. I find it a bit ironic that I came to Ireland only to travel to the very edge of it – but the edge can sometimes be a charming place. And this edge was a place of rest, and quiet, and utterly beautiful peace.

We’d found a hostel on Inishmor, the largest of the islands, at the top of a hill (tough to ride up on a bike, but exhilarating to coast down). This view from the front steps exemplified our views all weekend – sea and sky, a few charming buildings, and so much green:

Of course, there were also many stone walls, which crisscross the islands like veins. They were built hundreds of years ago, and they stretch all the way up the hill to Dun Aengus, a spectacular ruined fort (worth far more than the 2 euros we paid to see it):

The cliffs at Dun Aengus are high, with no guardrails or barriers – and when we arrived at the top, we snickered at the other tourists crawling on their stomachs to the very edge of the cliffs – how dangerous! And how silly! But (you can probably guess), after walking over to the edge and nearly being knocked flat by the wind, we dropped to our bellies and peered down over the cliffs, and the wind whipped up to literally snatch our breath away:

Not a swim I’m anxious to take, but an absolutely stunning view.

Since we were out on the fringes of civilization, with limited options for entertainment or distraction, the whole weekend felt wrapped in a kind of simple, peaceful quiet. We rented bikes and cycled all over Inishmor, coasting down hills just for the fun of it, and stopping to pick blackberries along the roadside:

That evening, we ate dinner at Joe Watty’s (the only pub around, I think), and were nearly done when a trio of men came in carrying some musical instruments. They settled themselves in a corner and launched into a set of traditional Irish music, complete with haunting penny whistle – and we sat and listened, spellbound. Colton said later that he felt like Bilbo, listening to the Elves’ music in the hall at Rivendell. Then we walked back up the hill in a light, misty rain. Perfection.

This photo, taken by Colton, sums up the weekend for me: the sunny weather with a hint of chill, the vivid green crisscrossed with gray stones, the wide blue sky and expansive sunshine, and the joy.

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Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
One of Dame Agatha’s most famous, of course – and the first mystery I’d read featuring Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian with the curled moustaches and the sharp brain. Quite an ingenious solution to a seemingly impossible murder story. (And quite amazing how Poirot always knows – or guesses – when people are lying to him.)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick
A truly extraordinary novel in words and pictures – part graphic novel, part children’s book. Beautifully written, and set in my beloved Paris (though Hugo’s Paris is quite different than mine). My favorite lines: “You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”

Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan
I’d head a lot of buzz about this book – it was a big summer hit, and an online kerfuffle about its cover image resulted in a sweet love story. But I didn’t finish it. I wanted to like the Kelleher women, and I wanted to care whether they all could stop griping and just enjoy each other’s company for once, but I found them all rather irritating – and found their dislike of each other unutterably sad.

Essays of E.B. White, E.B. White
I am a longtime fan of White’s children’s books (who doesn’t love Charlotte, Wilbur, Stuart and Louis?), but hadn’t read many of his essays before. I loved every one of these gems, though – White writes with humor, wisdom and a keen observer’s eye about American life in the middle of the last century. I particularly loved his paean to New York and his musings on farm life in Maine.

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, Judith Jones
I knew Jones only as the editor who championed Julia Child – and came up with the title for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But in this lovely, lyrical memoir, I discovered a woman brave enough to move to Paris and carve out a life for herself – and fearless enough to try any food once. I loved reading about her relationship with her husband, Evan, and her connections to so many culinary giants – Julia, James Beard, Marion Cunningham and many more.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg
A childhood favorite (read to me in sixth grade) and bought at the Strand during my weekend in New York with Allison. I read it on the bus ride home for the first time in 16 years, enjoying it even more because I’ve been to the Met now. (And appreciating some nuances of the story I didn’t quite catch as a 12-year-old. This is the magic of rereading.)

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, Trenton Lee Stewart
Fast-paced, compelling and often very funny – this is the second installment in Stewart’s series about the adventures of four unusually bright, quirky children. (A bit like Harry Potter, but lighter, and with logic and puzzles instead of magic.) I enjoyed it, and can’t wait to read the third.

Freud’s Couch, Scott’s Buttocks, Bronte’s Grave, Simon Goldhill
A wryly funny, deeply thoughtful meditation on literary pilgrimage – Goldhill visits five writers’ houses-turned-museums, wondering what compels us to make the trek to Wordsworth’s cottage and Bronte’s moors (among other locales). He’s a bit of a skeptic, so he skewers the myth of the literary pilgrimage rather than having any great epiphanies himself – but the journey is highly entertaining and thought-provoking. (To review for the Shelf.)

Heist Society, Ally Carter
I love Carter’s Gallagher Girls series (about teenage spies-in-training), and thoroughly enjoyed this story about a 15-year-old art thief, who plans a heist with a bunch of her friends to save her father’s neck (he’s also an art thief). Fast-paced, witty and full of fun characters (including a handsome love interest). I’m looking forward to reading the sequel.

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This past weekend, I did something I hadn’t done in a long while – took off for a solo adventure (J had flown to Texas for a conference midweek). I’ve been enjoying a delightful email correspondence with Allison, a regular reader of this blog, so I invited myself to her little apartment in Queens, and we spent three lovely days exploring the city together.

Allison is the daughter of a children’s librarian (just one reason we’ve become such fast friends), so she was quick to direct me to various locations in NYC involving classic kids’ books. Needless to say, I relished every one.

On Friday afternoon, amid torrential rain, we made our way to Alice’s Tea Cup for soup, sandwiches, cups of Earl Grey and delectable scones:

(That’s Allison’s pumpkin scone in the foreground, and my chocolate-cranberry scone in the background.)

The next day, I made a pilgrimage to the New York Public Library’s main branch, to visit a few old friends:

Yes. Those are the ORIGINAL Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals – Pooh, Piglet (center), Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga (and Lottie the Otter, a new addition, behind Kanga). And, of course, they are right in the middle of the Hundred Acre Wood:

The exhibit is right in the middle of the children’s room, which has wonderful, colorful New York wall art:

On Sunday morning, I found myself at the Met, to which Claudia and Jamie run away in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s enormous, imposing and grand outside:

And simply gorgeous inside:

I didn’t see nearly everything Claudia and Jamie did, but I wandered through the galleries, gazing at the exhibits and enjoying the general effect of so many beautiful and curious things so close together, for a couple of hours. I’d bought a copy of the book at the Strand the day before, and I read myself back to sixth grade on the bus ride home.

All weekend, as Allison and I walked around Manhattan, we tried to decide where the Melendys would have lived when they had their Saturday adventures in New York. We decided it must have been a lovely, comfortable old brownstone like this:

With flowers in the window boxes, of course. Cuffy, or maybe Mona, would definitely have made sure of that.

On Sunday afternoon, we walked through Central Park, and paused at the lake, where the Melendys went rowing and Randy fell in:

It was a perfect way to end my children’s lit tour. (We didn’t get to go rowing ourselves, but that’s on the list for next time.)

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I like to flatter myself that I’m pretty well-traveled. After all, I’ve been to 24 states and eight countries, and I lived abroad for three semesters (a semester in Oxford as an undergrad and then a year there as a grad student). But I tend to revisit – and read about – the same types of places over and over again. Oxford has my heart, but I adore the UK in general. I never, ever get tired of Paris memoirs; I love stories about Americans forging new lives in Europe because that’s a dream of mine; I drool over Little Brown Pen’s Paris pictures on a regular basis; and yes, I loved Eat, Pray, Love (but the Italy section was my favorite).

Recently, however, I read and reviewed two collections of travel essays – The Best American Travel Writing 2011, and the much more interestingly titled Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar – both of which were extensive tours of places I would never, ever choose to travel. (This is partly because several essays in the first collection, and all the essays in the second one, were set in war zones, where, frankly, I’ve never had any desire to go.) I think the locales in the Best American anthology – Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Moscow, Mumbai, Serbia – provide a clear portrait of where America’s eyes are focused these days (namely: the Middle East, the sites of natural disasters, and rapidly developing countries of all stripes). There was only one gentle European essay, about a man in pursuit of Monet, and while it was lovely, it sort of paled in comparison to the other, more vivid – and usually more shocking – stories.

The map of stories in Mud Crabs reads similarly, though of course conflict is overtly present in every single story, not just hiding behind the scenes. (And the conditions for war-zone journalists are worse than for travel writers in peacetime, however uneasy the peace.) But despite the fact that I would never choose most of these locales to visit (or, usually, to read about), I was totally swept up in the stories of these people, and their keen-eyed observations of cultures so totally different, so completely Other, than my own. It’s a testament, in part, to great travel writing, which evokes a place in a few well-chosen details and conversations. But perhaps it also represents a broadening of my own horizons.

I’m still not sure I want to go to Asia or Africa or the Middle East on my next trip – besides the concerns for safety in some of these places, I suspect I’ll always be an Anglophile at heart. But I’m learning to appreciate stories from all locales, however war-torn or foreign to me, and I think that’s got to count for something.

What places do you like to read about that you’d never choose to go?

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After delving recently into The Story of E.B. White by Michael Sims (which I loved – scroll down for review), I’ve been on an E.B. White kick.

(Image from amsaw.org)

I’ve read Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, of course, but had only read snippets from White’s essays and letters. But after reading his biography I was fascinated by this wise and witty man, who wrote prolifically for The New Yorker and other publications (and who loved dachshunds as I do). So I’ve been savoring his essays on my daily commute – often smiling, sometimes chuckling, at his observations.

Here, some of the lines that have moved me:

Familiarity is the thing – the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the tree is hung with puckered frozen fruit of the right color. [...] Or so it seems to the homing traveler. (“Home-Coming”)

Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists, just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts. (“A Report in Spring”)

I bought a puppy last week in the outskirts of Boston [...]. There had been talk in our family of getting a “sensible” dog this time, and [...] after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, “Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!” (“A Report in Spring”)

All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright. (“Bedfellows”)

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now. (“Here is New York,” written in 1949)

In the fury of the storm, thought was impossible; the future was expunged by wind and water; I lived at last in the present, and the present was magnificent – rich and beautiful and awesome. It gave me all the things I wanted from life, and it was as though I drank each towering wave as it came aboard, as though I would ever after be athirst. (“The Years of Wonder”)

The slowness of rail travel is not because the Horse is incapable of great speed but because the railroad is a gossip; all along the line it stops to chat at back porches, to exchange the latest or borrow a cup of sugar. (“The Railroad”)

If our future journeys are to be little different from flashes of light, with no interim landscape and no interim thought, I think we will have lost the whole good of journeying and will have succumbed to a mere preoccupation with getting there. (“The Railroad”)

[Walden] is distilled from [Thoreau's] vast journals, and this accounts for its intensity: he picked out bright particles that pleased his eye, whirled them in the kaleidoscope of his content, and produced the pattern that has endured – the color, the form, the light. (“A Slight Sound at Evening”)

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I wrote a post recently about how my body and my soul – quite apart from my conscious brain – sometimes remind me where I was, and what I was doing, at this time four years ago when I was living in Oxford. (This happens occasionally with other experiences – every May I get nostalgic for the two weeks I once spent writing at Camp Blue Haven in the mountains of New Mexico, often before I’ve quite registered the date on the calendar.)

Each September, my thoughts turn briefly back to a weekend spent in Wales, with a fun-loving crew of American students. But then, a week or two later, they turn to a quiet few days spent in Ireland, with a boy who is my cousin in reality if not in name. (Our grandparents, and our dads, have been best friends for forty-odd years.)

Colton’s semester abroad in Galway coincided with the first semester of my year in Oxford, and I’d long wanted to visit the Emerald Isle, so I hopped on a plane in mid-September to spend a long weekend with him. (This trip confused my English housemates; one of them asked bluntly, “But – isn’t Ireland quite similar to Britain?”)

Maybe it is, but my experience of Ireland was perhaps different from most people’s. For one thing, I spent hardly any time in Dublin (a fact I’d like to remedy some day), and I didn’t really meet any Irish people – Colton and I kept mostly to ourselves. That first night, when I arrived tired from a flight bookended by two long bus rides, we ate spaghetti with salami and Parmesan, in the university apartment Colton shared with three other guys. And I’m no drinker, so I didn’t go to Ireland for the booze (though Colton let me try a sip of his Guinness, and his roommates urged me to try mead) – instead, I ordered a cup of tea at every pub we went to.

We spent one day simply walking around Galway, taking photos of red leaves and stone churches:

And later, we went on a long walk down by the river, where, as Colton said, the dryads live:

On our stroll down the River Corrib, we spotted a ruined castle on the opposite bank (Castle Menlo, though we didn’t know it then). “I really want to go over to the other side and find that castle,” Colton commented. We looked at each other, and ten seconds later we had turned around, heading across a bridge and down the other riverbank, determined to find the castle (which eventually proved to be in the middle of somebody’s cow pasture. Only in Ireland):

We climbed around on the ruin – there were, blessedly, no barriers blocking our way or signs telling us not to – and snapped pictures of the ivy-covered buildings and walls. Eventually, we sat in one of the windows and watched the sun setting over the river, not needing to talk much, just soaking in the beauty and the green leaves all around us and the mellow, golden sunset light.

Every September, when the winds turn crisp and the grass and trees seem to glow brilliantly green before they begin to turn yellow and red, and when I start craving Yorkshire or Earl Grey tea with milk in the mornings instead of summer fruit teas, I think back to that weekend in Ireland, and I remember the light glowing on the stones of the castle and the sun sparkling on the river, and the long, quiet walks and talks with a friend I’ve known literally all my life.

The second part of our trip took us to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland – but those deserve their own post, which I’ll share soon.

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Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, Ally Carter
After reading the first book in the Gallagher Girls series, I wanted more – this is such a fun concept (a boarding school that’s really a training ground for female spies!). The characters – narrator Cammie, her headmistress/spy mother, her spy-in-training best friends and their highly trained faculty members – are great, and the action is fast-paced and often quite funny. (And you can tell the author loves creating every detail of this world.)

Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover, Ally Carter
Gallagher Girl book #3 is a little darker and a lot more intense – though it still is a really fun story of how to navigate being both a spy and a teenage girl. (Neither role, as Cammie often points out, is easy.) The cliffhanger at the end left me scrambling for the fourth book (fortunately I’d bought the whole series at once).

Only the Good Spy Young, Ally Carter
Book four and our characters – well, some of them – are being pursued by an ancient, international terrorist organization – and nobody’s sure whom to trust. The writing gets better, the characters get deeper, the questions get bigger. (Now, of course, I have to wait until March, when book #5 comes out, to find out what happens.)

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
I had a wonderful time at the pre-release party for this book – so I was eager to dive into it. And it did not disappoint. A complex, multilayered story of a very unusual circus, a challenge between two magicians (who inconveniently fall in love, which of course complicates everything), and a boy named Bailey who loves the circus at first sight. So many fascinating characters, gorgeous descriptions and twisting plot points. Truly fantastic.

My Year with Eleanor, Noelle Hancock
I liked the premise of this book – a young woman, laid off from her job, takes her inspiration from Eleanor Roosevelt and decides to spend a year confronting her fears. But a lot of her activities seemed like stunts (shark cage diving?) and she spent a lot of time whining about her own issues rather than taking the initiative to make them better. I eventually got bored and put it down.

The Best American Travel Writing 2011, ed. Sloane Crosley
An odd but compelling mix of travel essays – most of them about places I’d never choose to go (Kurdistan, South Beach in Miami, Russian Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia, a commune in Copenhagen). Not always pleasant, but fascinating – and there are some beautiful moments amid all the cynicism and guns. To review for the Shelf.

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, Susan Gregg Gilmore
A story of racism, forbidden love and family issues in 1960s Nashville. Our heroine, though pleasant, is naive and self-absorbed – she never stops to consider the effect her actions will have on other people. And the ending felt like the author had simply run out of things to say. The Help and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt touch on this same territory, and do it better.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
I’ve loved Betsy Ray for a long time, but only met Emily Webster last fall. She struggles with loneliness, despair and boredom when her classmates go off to college – but, in delightful fashion, she learns to “muster her wits” – founding a Browning Club, teaching English to Syrian immigrants, taking piano and dancing lessons, and even falling in love. Wonderful, and a good reminder to muster my own wits when life feels a little blah.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims
I love E.B. White’s writing, but had never read a biography of him – and this one proved fascinating. Packed with detail about his family life, his years in New York, his work at the New Yorker and his relationship with his wife, and his enduring love of farm animals. Wonderfully written and so well done – it also sent me scrambling to the library and the bookshop for White’s essays and letters.

The Last Letter From Your Lover, Jojo Moyes
A tale of star-crossed lovers, jumbled memories and (honestly) the most atrocious timing possible – frustrating at times, but compelling. Two parallel love stories, which each involve an affair between a married person and his/her single lover. Oddly, I felt more compassion for the 1960s married woman with the awful husband (Jennifer) than I did for the modern-day single woman dating a married man (Ellie). Perhaps I felt like Ellie had more options, or that her married man was a jerk (he was)? I don’t know. Anyway, this is still a well-written, powerful story about love and choices and second chances.

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents, ed. Matt McAllester
A collection of travel essays set in the war zones of our time: Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti, Bosnia. These writers are used to bribes and gunshots, to long days and sleepless nights, to poverty everywhere they look. But they have wonderfully vivid memories of meals shared with refugees, with soldiers, with friends made in unlikely places, even (in one case) with captors. The last essay, set in Bethlehem, brought me to tears. To review for the Shelf.

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Making a birthday wish last year

I am a big fan of lists, as you all know, and in recent years I’ve loved the idea of making a list on my birthday – of things to accomplish, enjoy, start and/or finish before my birthday. Twenty-eight sounds awfully grown-up – but here I am! – and here’s my list:

1. Try out the Project Life system to document either some of my time in Oxford or our first year in Boston
2. Go to New York to see Ben in The Lion King (and visit friends)
3. Plan a trip to Europe/Oxford
4. Hang out with my family in Texas
5. Dig into some classics I’ve never read
6. Visit a place I’ve never been (this one comes up every year for me)
7. Clean out my desk at home (currently full of stuff I don’t use)
8. Visit my loves in Abilene
9. Go apple picking again
10. Knit some swoon-worthy autumn accessories
11. Buy a new pair of black high-heeled boots
12. Keep in better touch with far-away friends (stolen from Bethany’s list)
13. Explore more of New England
14. Try at least 2 new recipes a month
15. Visit half a dozen area bookstores I haven’t been to yet
16. Go see The Civil Wars in concert with my Jeremiah
17. Take another writing course (at Grub Street or Emerson)
18. Take a financial management course with J
19. Put together new outfits from pieces I already own
20. Schedule a checkup (it’s been far too long)
21. Start or join a book club
22. Buy a sassy red handbag
23. Drive up to New Hampshire or Vermont to see the fall foliage
24. Fill a new notebook with a super-secret writing project
25. Get a Massachusetts driver’s license
26. Learn to pay attention to one thing at a time
27. Send 28 handwritten letters (Christmas cards don’t count)
28. Go to a literary festival/conference/event

Do you make lists like this? If so, I’d love to know what’s on them!

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I love surprises of the everyday variety; I don’t always relish big life surprises. But here, a handful of the most delightful:

1. Loving my first job out of college – an admin job on campus – as much as I did.
2. Bethany moving back to Abilene, for a year and a half of wonderful “borrowed time.”
3. Finding another family in Abilene (and staying there as long as I did).
4. Becoming a total tea addict. (I never touched the stuff until college.)
5. Interning in Hawaii for a month one summer. (Surprises every DAY.)
6. Learning to navigate traffic on a bike in Oxford, and loving that, too.
7. Moving to Boston – the difficulty and the richness, and lots of other things besides, have surprised me.
8. Actually writing a novel in a month in 2008.
9. The surprise party Jeremiah gave me when I turned 21. (Yes, I was totally surprised.)
10. Singing a brief solo in the Les Miserables medley during a choir concert in college. (I was so sure I hadn’t gotten it – but I ended up with a solo from “On My Own,” my favorite Les Mis song.)
11. Writing a cover story for Radiant magazine – how surprised I was to be asked!
12. Being told (not asked) to learn to play the piccolo for a high school band concert in London.

How about you? Any wonderful life surprises to share?

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Because endings, too, can be so good.

1. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both. (Charlotte’s Web)
2. We talked of what was to come. And of the lost art of keeping secrets. (The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets)
3. “‘God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world,’” whispered Anne softly. (Anne of Green Gables)
4. And now we’ll all go swimming. (No Children, No Pets)
5. Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you. (I Capture the Castle)
6. “Music I heard with you was more than music, and bread I broke with you was more than bread.” Yes. And always will be. (Two-Part Invention)
7. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy. (A Moveable Feast)
8. “Well, I’m back,” he said. (The Return of the King)
9. She could feel the Big Hill looking down as the Crowd danced at Tib’s wedding in the chocolate-colored house. (Betsy’s Wedding)
10. The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

What are your favorite last lines?

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