The overall message of The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams far outweighs anything else I can say about the book. Are the characters relatable and well-developed? Yes. I found myself cheering them on throughout the entire book. Would I say that they are the best or most important aspect of the book? No. The relationships they develop with one another are much more interesting. Above all, the role that the local library and the reading list plays in the plot and the development of the relationships between various characters is the real story.
The main protagonists, Aleisha, a young teenage girl with a troubled home life who works at the library over the summer at the suggestion of her older brother, and Mukesh, a widower who struggles to regain his sense of purpose after the loss of his wife of decades, Naina, meet at the local library. The unlikely friendship that unfolds after their first unpleasant meeting sets the stage for all that follows that fateful summer, changing both of their lives irrevocably.
Set in the quiet London Borough of Ealing, the local library serves as a focal point for the community, even if it is well-loved and in search of additional patrons. The reading list Aleisha finds, labeled “just in case you need it,” ultimately brings several people together in unexpected ways. It is this list that I find to be the most interesting aspect of the book. It is obvious that The Reading List was written by a bibliophile for bibliophiles.
The following reading list is found in the book:
In Case You Need It …
The Time Traveler’s Wife * (discussed in the book, but not included on the list)
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Kite Runner
Life of Pi
Pride and Prejudice
A Suitable Boy
From the Author …
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Katherine Heiny, Standard Deviation
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Hiromi Kawakami, Strange Weather in Tokyo
Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Attia Hosain, Sunlight on a Broken Column
Ali Smith, There But For The
Ultimately, The Reading List is about how books and libraries can bring us together. It is a great message that more people need to hear. While I don’t often hear it anymore, there are still some people who do not recognize the modern importance of libraries. Personally, I believe that they are more important than ever. I am grateful that my local libraries appear to be doing well and have a lot of local support. I can’t imagine life without them. What makes The Reading List so powerful is the demonstration of how various characters connect over books and how those connections impact their lives. The right books seem to appear at just the right time. I feel for anyone who has not had that experience. I cannot recommend The Reading List enough.
Yes. I do intend to eventually read through both lists.
Recently, I realized that I mention my hometown extensively without providing many details. Unfortunately, many readers – even seasoned Michiganders – might have no idea where Omer, Michigan is. It is just under an hour north of Bay City. If you take the 188 Standish exit off of I-75, you will likely end up on US 23 north in Standish. Omer is the next small town, approximately 7 miles north on US 23. A bridge over the Rifle River, a caution light, and a set of railroad tracks are all landmarks to let you know that you have traveled through the city.
Being from Omer, Michigan isn’t for the faint of heart. For decades, the city of Omer has held the distinction of being Michigan’s smallest city, boasting a population just shy of 300 souls. Living in a small town does not come without its hazards. Nothing remains private for long. Both of my parents grew up in the area as well, with both of their families having ties to the area going back generations. Growing up attending Standish-Sterling Community Schools, not only was I a teacher’s kid as my mom spent most of her teaching career at Standish Elementary, our family business, Russell Canoe Livery, meant that my family was well-known in both Omer and Standish. In fact, Omer has no school, aside from a Head Start program aimed at preschoolers. When Omer’s school burned down in the early days of the 20th century, it was never rebuilt.
Sadly, despite its location in the heart of Arenac County and its one-time status as the county seat, little remains of a once thriving city. Today, the Arenac Country Historical Society works to preserve the Old Courthouse, the lone remaining structure to tell Omer’s cautionary tale. During the early part of the 20th century, roughly 1905-1918, Omer experienced a series of natural disasters (namely fires, floods, and tornadoes) that nearly destroyed the city. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the local diner, first known as Cody’s and later Ziggy’s (now a Dollar General), had disposable placemats outlining Omer’s history, including the natural disasters.
Originally named Rifle River Mills, Omer’s identity has always depended on the Rifle River. In the late 19th century, lumber from dense northern Michigan forests traveled rivers such as the Rifle to the sawmills in the south, namely in Bay City and Saginaw. In fact, our main location in Omer, our smaller campground, is the remains of an old mill pond. In fact, it becomes easy to imagine the pond if you look at the current topography of the campground. Today, the Rifle River is used exclusively for recreational purposes – fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing, and more. One day last summer, I saw two young girls in bathing suits walking down Carrington St. carrying their canoe. It is forever frozen in my mind as the most “Omer” thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Today, Omer is home to three campgrounds, two of which are also canoe liveries, Russell Canoe Livery and Campgrounds, Inc., being the largest. In addition, Omer is home to Meihls Mechanical, a self-storage business that is continually growing, Dollar General, the Sunrise Side Senior Center, a library attached to city hall, a post office, a small park with basketball hoops and playground, the Old Courthouse, and not much else. While not exactly thriving, the city itself looks better than it has in decades, closed Rob’s Auto and Greg’s Market aside.
Today, Omer is relatively well known for two things: the local sucker run and witchy wolves. The sucker run deserves it own post. As it will be starting soon, stay tuned. My piece on the witchy wolf legend, dating back to right after the US Civil War, can be found here. Omer will never be perfect, but it will always home.
Paul McCartney and Wings – Give Ireland Back to the Irish (1971) (Video)(Lyrics)
(Written March 19, 2023)
Paul McCartney never disappoints, and “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” can be considered a perfect demonstration of the breadth and depth of his talents. This past winter, December 2022 to be exact, The 7” Single Box Set hit stores. This monster encompasses 80 seven-inch vinyl singles dating from his Wings and solo careers, spanning over 50 years of musical history (1971-2022). Easily retailing for hundreds of dollars, the idea works as vinyl continues to come roaring back thanks to collectors and the lack of a better medium. What could be better than listening to music the way it was originally intended? As I have no vinyl collection and my days of collecting physical music (my CD collection in the 90s, early 00s) are long over, it never occurred to me to find the collection digitally. Fortunately, that is precisely what I did, and for that, I am grateful. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” shines in the collection as the gem it is.
Rediscovering my favorite Wings hits, along with Paul McCartney’s extensive back catalog of solo work, made listening to The 7” Single Box Set a guilty pleasure. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” definitely caught my attention. First, I had forgotten how much I love the song. It also hit me how easy it is to forget that Paul McCartney can actually rock all on his own, silly love songs aside. I still consider it among the best protest songs of all time.
Then there is the significance of the song. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I devoured the news daily. I learned about “the Troubles” at a young age, and it is still something I will never understand. Hatred between Catholics and Protestants? It didn’t make sense. Differences of opinion and belief? Yes. Hatred? No. It went against not only everything I had experienced as a child in my daily life, it also went against everything I had been taught to believe.
First, my father’s extended family is roughly half Catholic and half various Protestant denominations. While my family and I belong to the Methodist church, my paternal first cousins were raised in the Catholic Church. As a toddler, I attended cousin Nicole’s first Communion. When my Russell grandparents married in 1943, my Protestant great grandmother, Dad’s Grandma Russell, supposedly didn’t originally like the idea of her youngest son marrying a Catholic.
Next, Standish, Michigan, the site of my entire K-12 education, is largely Catholic. I spent my early childhood watching my classmates attend Catechism on Wednesday evenings. My Catholic classmates knew my beloved Joyce – my neighbor, babysitter extraordinaire, and adopted grandmother – from 3rd grade Catechism as she taught Catechism for nearly three decades. I watched in envy that spring as the Catholic girls dressed up as miniature brides to make their first Communion. Later, as an adult, Mom shared with me that she’d felt the same way watching her Catholic best friends make their first Communions decades before.
Finally, our neighbors were Catholic. Not only were they Catholic, they were the most devote Catholics I’ve ever known. It is no secret that my brother, sister, and I adored Joyce and Carl. On Saturday afternoons, Joyce could often be found ironing all of the linens about to be used in Mass later that evening. Earlier in my childhood, my parents actually used to go out from time to time on Saturday evenings. Joyce could babysit, but there was one catch: my sister Erica and I would be attending Mass with her family, as would our brother Garrett years later.
Much to my Methodist grandmother’s amusement, her Catholic friends would comment on seeing my sister and I, dressed up and on our best behavior, in Mass with Joyce and her family, looking cherubic. Erica and I may have attended the local Catholic church more than our Methodist church in our earliest years. Those Saturday evenings are among some of my best memories of time spent with Joyce, Carl, Carla, and Joelle.
Even as a young child, I recognized the cognitive dissonance required for me to hate Catholics. It would have meant hating many of the very people closest to me throughout my childhood – friends, family, teachers, etc. – solely based on religion. Considering my paternal grandmother’s Ukrainian/Polish heritage, it would almost demand some level of self-hatred. I will never even begin to understand.
Supposedly Paul McCartney’s family was a mixture of Catholic and Protestant as well, which would explain “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” Even given his level of fame, the song took a certain amount of courage to write and record, particularly in the aftermath of the Beatles and the formation of Wings. The lyrics say it all:
It seemed appropriate to share a beautiful song by an Irish band on St. Patrick’s Day. I fell in love with the entire album when it first came out, even though it wasn’t exactly the music I was into at the time. It certainly has held up.
I hope to revisit Ireland one day. I only spent a long weekend in Dublin while studying abroad in the United Kingdom, and yet, it left a deep impression on me. I have yet to travel anywhere where I felt so at home.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! More to come on Ireland in the week ahead.
I wish I could convey to today’s teenagers and young adults how much freedom we had in the late 1990s/pre-September 11th, 2001. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up just enough to enjoy all that that time period had to offer. Those years, roughly 1996-2001, still loom large in my life. What a soundtrack I could create for that time! Morcheba’s Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day would feature front and center. It is upbeat, optimistic, and fun in a way that is sorely missing today. The video is infectious and fits the song perfectly.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard the song, but it will always remind me of my summer in London. My freshman year at Michigan State, I had no doubt that I’d study abroad. The only questions that remained were: when, where, how, and why. I settled into life at Michigan State with my mom’s experience studying abroad in the United Kingdom in the ‘70s firmly in the back of my mind, oblivious to the profound impact it would all have on my life.
From all the stories I grew up with, I could tell that studying abroad loomed large in my mom’s college experience. It’s clear that she loved every minute of it. Interestingly, I’m not sure if it would’ve happened without my dad. When my mom wanted to marry my dad before graduating from Central Michigan University, my grandparents handled it brilliantly. They suggested that she study abroad before she married. I don’t know if she would have taken that step otherwise. I’m just glad that she did and shared those stories with me. I doubt she knows the extent to which they inspired me.
Spring semester 2000, the professor in my freshman literature class passed out a flier for a short term study abroad program in the United Kingdom that summer. Even though I would be taking another literature course I didn’t necessarily need, I’d be able to finish up my required humanities credits. A summer in London sounded perfect. I couldn’t sign up fast enough. In the end, I would spend five weeks in the heart of London (Bloomsbury) and one week in Glasgow, Scotland. For the first time, I would be away from my family and the canoe livery for an extended period of time during the summer.
It’s funny what I’ve taken away from the entire experience. First, I became an addict. I became addicted to studying abroad. As soon as I returned to Michigan, I knew that I wanted to spend at least one full semester studying abroad. I hadn’t given up Spanish just yet and spending a semester (minimum) in a Spanish-speaking country seemed a foregone conclusion. The width and breadth of Michigan State University’s Office of Study Abroad did not make it easy – or maybe a little too convenient. The choices seemed endless. I couldn’t make up my mind between a semester in Caceres, Spain or Quito, Ecuador. Ultimately, I didn’t have to choose. With my parents’ blessing and plenty of scholarship opportunities, I did both. In the end, I participated in five separate study abroad programs through Michigan State and three alternative spring break programs in Mexico (two in Merida and one in Puebla). The two study abroad programs not mentioned above were short term programs studying business in Mexico (one in Monterrey and one in Merida). I could not have asked for a better education. I like to think that it all started with that summer in London.
When I finally returned to campus, I landed a position as a peer advisor in what was then called the Office of Study Abroad on campus. I spent my time working in the Office of Study Abroad helping students plan their own study abroad experiences. To this day, it is the best job I’ve ever held (Russell Canoe Livery exempted, of course).
In addition to becoming an addict, my experiences in London and Glasgow left me with the sense that I could take on just about anything. I grew up in Michigan’s smallest city, Omer, Michigan. Attending one of the largest universities in the United States, Michigan State University definitely resulted in culture shock, and yet, it was nothing compared to what I experienced living in London during that time period.
In essence, London and Glasgow represented an awful lot of firsts in my life. For the first time in my life, I had easy access to world class museums and theatres. In fact, the program I completed focused extensively on the Arts and Crafts movement. Not only did I have the opportunity to visit the Victoria and Albert (the V&A), we often visited various exhibits as part of class. One free weekend, I explored the Louvre with friends, traveling to Paris via the Chunnel shortly after it opened. I also experienced all the pomp and circumstance of the British monarchy as the Queen Mum turned 100 years old that summer. A closeup I’d taken of a Bobby while witnessing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace didn’t win the Office of Study Aboad’s photography contest, but it did end up in their catalog for the following year. I still have the catalog and countless memories.
Every time I hear Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day, I am instantly transported back to that time in London, to the 19 year old I once was, so many opportunities unfolding before me for the first time. I can imagine myself rushing to catch the tube to class or the V&A each morning from Russell Square Station. I envision myself catching the train to Bath after a failed attempt to spend a weekend of adventure in Wales or heading to the airport to spend the weekend in Dublin. I can’t think of anything more powerful than the ability of music to transport you back to a time and place.
I’ve been fairly open about my struggles with Turner Syndrome over the years (you can read my story here), but it still amazes me to see Turner Syndrome – along with certain aspects of myself – depicted in popular culture. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how those representations influence perception and so much more. Both well-known depictions of Turner Syndrome, one a “victim” in the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit titled “Clock” (hint: turns out she isn’t a victim at all) and the other, Gwen, the protagonist in the popular novelThe Condition by Jennifer Haigh, have issues and inaccuracies, and yet, there are certain truths that shine through. Personally, I have yet to meet a woman or girl with Turner Syndrome who isn’t as stubborn as we are portrayed in popular culture. It is quite simple, actually: We have to be.
Even though these images of women and girls with Turner Syndrome, along with their accuracy (or lack thereof), have been analyzed to death in the Turner Syndrome community, that isn’t my intention here. No. My intention is to describe my experience of seeing aspects of myself in relation to Turner Syndrome in Gwen in The Condition. I am discussing my experiences only.
Frankly, while I enjoyed The Condition, it isn’t a book that I would necessarily reread in its entirety. Yet, there are scenes, plots, and subplots in which I couldn’t help but see myself mirrored in Gwen – not as a woman, but as a woman with Turner Syndrome. It is those pieces and depictions that have stayed with me for well over a decade at this point. There are several things Gwen is faced with in the novel that most women will, fortunately, never have to face.
The opening scene still takes my breath away. In it, Gwen’s father, who later becomes almost obsessed with the fact that she has Turner Syndrome, watches Gwen tag along with her slightly older female cousin at the beach. He observes them as they run into the ocean. The difference in their height and body structure is noticeable. Gwen’s body remains almost childlike while her cousin’s decidedly does not.
Growing up with older female cousins, particularly my cousin Abby (10 months my senior), I couldn’t help but compare my body to theirs. I always wanted to catch up but never could. I distinctly remember one December shopping with my aunt, cousins, sister, and mom. I desperately wanted to be able to finally buy clothes in the misses section (not kids, not juniors …) like my older cousins. Nope. Not yet. Even though I was now in high school, it would have to wait. In that opening scene of the novel, I could distinctly visualize Abby and I swimming somewhere as preteens. In my head, I was the one comparing.
Later, Gwen is described as hiding herself away from the world in a job in which she remains in the background. Now in her late 20s/early 30s, she wears jeans, t-shirts/sweatshirts, and sneakers everyday, all often too big for her. Given the choice, I’d be right there with her (and am when I can). Quite simply, it is often difficult to find clothes that fit correctly if you are a woman with Turner Syndrome.
A few years ago, I tried on a top while shopping with my mom. I loved the color, the style – everything – except the fit that wasn’t quite right. I came out of the dressing room to ask her opinion. My mom almost mumbled under her breath: “Damn Turner’s body!” I found it hysterical because that is precisely what I was thinking. I just needed it verified. As much as I love the button-downed look, I could purchase blouses three sizes up and still suffer from gap-osis. Sadly, fashion is a struggle at times.
At the end of the novel, I can’t help but root for Gwen. She is so fed up with her family members’ actions and reactions to the life she has created for herself and the fact that she finally met someone that she runs off to the Caribbean to be with her new boyfriend. Considering how her family treats her and reacts to different aspects of her life, I can’t say that I blame her. Her new life in the Caribbean sounds fantastic.
I admit, I am extremely guarded about my personal life as well. It is just that I’ve always needed space. Throwing infertility into the mix is never easy. The idea that someone you love would have to give up having biological children of their own to be with you … Well, unfortunately, that is reality in many cases. I pray that it will get better with age, and in some ways, it already has.
When I finished The Condition all those years ago, my immediate reaction was one of wonder. Did Jennifer Haigh have Turner Syndrome herself? Did her best friend? Who did she interview to get into our heads so well – or at least my head? I loved the title of the book. One may think that “the condition” references Turner Syndrome, but in reality, in the book, each member of Gwen’s family battles demons of their own, even without a diagnosis.
I am a firm believer that everyone has something – some huge hurdle he or she needs to overcome in life. Everyone has a story. As The Condition lingered in my mind, I couldn’t help but feel “seen” in a way I’ve never experienced in a book. As a teacher, it reinforces the need to expose students to as many diverse books as possible. Unfortunately, when we talk about diversity in literature, we too often just focus on race, religion, and sexuality. The reality is that there are so many other stories out there and so many other ways to view diversity. This is one reason why I wish everyone would share their story in some way, shape, or form. No one is ever truly alone.
By the way, if you happen to be the parent of a girl with Turner Syndrome, I can’t recommend the National Turner Syndrome Camp enough. I attended two years, and it allowed me to meet others with Turner Syndrome for the first time. It also boosted my confidence in a way that nothing else ever has.
As with so many writers, I fell in love with reading first. Over the years, I have found my reading life crucial to my continuing education as a writer. The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to read as widely as possible. The best part: Most of the tips, resources, and suggestions I am sharing here are little to no cost. One crucial requirement: a library card.
The following is a continuation of the list I started in Part 1. You can find it below.
I currently belong to three book clubs, and all three serve different roles in my reading life. First, as a writer, I would encourage you to join a book club similar to Mid Michigan Writers’ own Scribblers and Scholars. We meet every-other month to discuss books from the point of view of writers. Lately, we’ve been working on comparing Educated by Tara Westover to The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Scribblers and Scholars aims to provide writers with a book club focused on dissecting the craft of writing, although we tend to discuss just about anything related to the books.
I’ve also belonged to the Standish-Sterling Book Club for years. It is the first formal book club I’ve joined, and while we certainly discuss the books we picked, there is an in-person social aspect to the club that I love. In fact, two of my former teachers also belong to the club, both of whom have had a profound impact on who I am today. We meet monthly, and there is truly no judgment if you don’t quite finish a book that is less than thrilling or if you can’t make a meeting.
Last but not least, I’ve also joined the Spartan Book Club, which resides entirely online, as an alumni of Michigan State University. In fact, it has its own forum and much more. Books are selected quarterly, and once again, members are free to participate as much or as little as you’d like. I’ve met some wonderful people online and have thoroughly enjoyed the book selections. I’ve also used the Spartan Book Club for reading suggestions, as there are also several wonderful books mentioned not chosen as a book club selection.
I mention all of my book club experiences because they demonstrate that there is one out there for every type of reader. As a writer, all of my book club experiences led me to books I would not have picked up otherwise. I am a better writer for it, and it provides yet another outlet in which to discuss books. Think about what you would like out of a book club, and with a little research, you will find it.
If you haven’t discovered the benefits of ebooks yet, here are a few things I’ve noticed as a writer. First, I tend to be a collector. I intentionally collect certain books, hopefully to be read more than once. While there is nothing quite like the smell of a good book, collecting hundreds of ebooks takes up a lot less space in my home. Second, with Kindle, my preferred ereader and type of ebook, I can have my entire ebook library not only on my phone, but on my Chromebook and Kindle Paperwhite as well. Last but not least, I have a hard time highlighting or writing in traditional books. Ebooks allow me to highlight and make notes to my heart’s content without marking up a traditional book. My notes and highlights are waiting for me when I return.
Ebooks tend to be more cost effective as well. Often, the Kindle version is less expensive than either paperback or hardcover. While the prices of Kindle books are rising in some cases, there are also several websites and offers for free or low-cost Kindle books. BookBub is one of the best. I actually had to quit because I found too many great free books. It became overwhelming. Of course, libraries are increasing their access to ebooks as well. The beauty of ebooks from the library is that, not only is there no cost, you don’t need to physically visit the library or remember to return the book either.
Research and Read Book Reviews
There are countless places to find good book reviews and research book suggestions. Goodreads has everything and provides access to all kinds of reviews. Personally, I enjoy book blogs. My favorite is Modern Mrs. Darcy. She has it all: endless book lists, audiobook recommendations, her own book club, a podcast, and so much more. If you are into the reading life, you need to check it out. It might take some research, but once again, there are book blogs and review sites aimed at every type of reader. It is a matter of finding your niche.
Take a Class
I admit, pursuing my English Language Arts (ELA) endorsement in secondary education (grades 6-12) forced me to branch out as a reader. I’ve learned so much from my formal writing and literature courses. Yet, it isn’t necessary to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on tuition to take a literature class.
Two trusted, established sites I’ve used in the past are Coursera and Canvas. While I haven’t taken writing or literature courses specifically on either site, I do know that they are readily available at little or no cost. Other courses I’ve taken on those sites, mainly on educational technology, have been wonderful. On the clearinghouse site ClassCentral, a quick search under literature resulted in free survey courses offered by the likes of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania on a wide variety of subjects relating to all aspects of literature. You can find my search result here. There is also The Great Courses Video BingePass available on Hoopla that allows patrons access to the The Great Courses Video Collection for free for a week. The possibilities are endless.
Curate Your Own Lists of Books/Literature
Of course, there is always the DIY approach. Take the time to make your own lists of books and other forms of literature that interest you. I’ve made several of these lists over the years, and it helps me keep track of things that I came across years ago. I’ve found creating lists of authors and major works to be helpful. Make the list you are seeking if it doesn’t quite exist yet – and have fun.
Have you ever fallen so in love with a place that you still dream about it years later – and you fall so in love with your memories of that particular time and place that you instinctively know that reality will never come close to what you remember? It can happen. In 2002, I fell in love with Austin, Texas. In reality, I fell in love with a time and place that no longer exists.
It started out innocently enough. When I began planning my year abroad – one semester in Quito, Ecuador and another in Caceres, Spain – I knew that I would also need to make plans for the summer after Spain. I lucked out. The spring of my sophomore year at Michigan State, I landed a position as a paid intern at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota. I must have been on a roll that semester because I also landed a paid co-op opportunity (6 month contract) with Applied Materials (AMAT) in Austin, Texas. Ultimately, I accepted the position with IBM and asked Applied Materials if I could pursue the co-op opportunity the following summer/fall. They said yes, and I left East Lansing for a series of adventures that would take me away from campus for over a year and a half. I was well on my way to pursuing several of my dreams at once, including a career in tech.
My time in Austin did not start off well. When I arrived in June 2002, I didn’t know anyone. I ended up subletting my first apartment from a UT student. It was OK, but my only roommate in our four bedroom apartment spent all of her time with her boyfriend. Often the only trace of Carly was the reeking skunk smell of pot. Soon, things would change.
The first week or two at Applied consisted of orientation classes and touring facilities in what’ve been loving termed bunny suits. What I loved about AMAT was their place in the tech industry. We didn’t make the chips; we made the machines that make the chips. After a long day of orientation, an engineer I’d just met, Melissa, asked if I wanted to go get a drink and have dinner after work. Little did I know just how much she would impact my time in Austin.
Melissa and I became fast friends over dinner. Once I began describing my experiences studying abroad in Ecuador and Spain, she began telling me about her former coworker at Motorola, Andy, a fellow engineer. She thought that we should met, and frankly, I think she was trying to set us up. There was only one catch: Andy was currently exploring Machu Picchu in Peru and wouldn’t be home for some time. It would be worth the wait.
In the meantime, on July 24th, 2002, on my way to work, a huge moving truck made a left-hand turn in front of me when I had the green light. He hadn’t seen me. In the accident, I broke my big toe and the metatarsal. The molding on the driver’s side door of my car also sliced me behind my ear. If I had had a passenger, he or she probably would not have survived. In the aftermath of the accident, things somehow came together. My mom flew out to Austin to help me find a lawyer and a new car. She couldn’t believe how well I knew the city even though I had only been there just over a month. I had to help navigate in the days before Google Maps due to my cast.
By the time I had a walking cast, all bets were off. I quickly found out that the six month sublease I’d been promised was really only for three. Livid, I needed a new place to live within a few weeks. In the end, I found a much better place to live just in time thanks to Applied Material’s internal listings. The months living with Karen and her toddler son were great. It was almost as if I had the good fortune to live with a fun aunt for several months. Things were finally looking up.
In all the chaos of the accident and moving, I finally met Andy. We ended up on a blind date at the type of place that could only exist in Austin – Flipnotics. The first floor was a quirky retail t-shirt shop. The second floor included a restaurant/bar with a small performance space for live music. We were there for the music. I wish I had a video of Andy’s face when I opened my car door. He was horrified to realize that I had a walking cast up to my knee and that he had invited me to a venue requiring climbing a large set of stairs. Fortunately, we hit it off right away.
One of the best things about Austin, then and now, is the live music. It isn’t called the live music capital of the world for nothing. Andy was the perfect companion with whom to check it all out. It turns out that as a hobby Andy had a radio show – ATX Live – on the local co-op radio station KOOP. Soon I would met his friend and manager Cheryl. Andy would later serve as president of KOOP for several years. It isn’t every day that a man you admire and respect introduces you to someone who soon becomes one of your best friends. That is precisely what happened.
Over the next few months, Andy, Cheryl, and I had numerous adventures. I admit, I had a huge crush on Andy by this time. Cheryl did her best to try to get us to end up together, but it wasn’t meant to be. However, the fun I had that late summer and fall are never to be forgotten. The three of us attended the first Austin City Limits Festival in Zilker Park. Cheryl “conveniently” couldn’t join us the second day. The antics that took place that weekend are stories in themselves that belong with other songs. At the end of the festival, Andy and I ended up at a favorite local restaurant called Shady Grove. As it was within walking distance of the festival, we had to order takeout and eat/drink on the lawn, it was that crowded.
Later, Andy had LASIK surgery, and unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned. He ended up blinded for a week. As it was near his birthday, Cheryl and I threw him a party at his house once he regained his sight. I finally got to meet a bunch of his friends, coworkers, etc. It ended with Andy having to smooth things over with local cops late in the evening. Our “dress to be seen”/birthday party was a complete success.
As Halloween approached, Andy asked if I wanted to go to a house party hosted by local musician Chelle Murrey. Once we arrived, I dressed as a gypsy and Andy dressed as Zorro, Andy told me that he had a surprise for me. It turned out that a Beatles’ tribute band were going to play at the party, and knowing that I was a Beatles’ fan, he wanted me to have the opportunity to check them out first. I will never forget it. I bought Chelle’s CD that evening, and even though the music hasn’t quite held up, it will always remind me of Austin.
Shortly after one more party – this time a birthday/going home/Christmas party for me in mid-December at Karen’s house – I had to pack up my new-to-me 2002 silver Grand Prix and make the long journey home – alone. I arrived back in Michigan right before my birthday and Christmas. A year and half and a thousand adventures later, I would be returning to Michigan State in January 2003 to finish my degrees. I would graduate in May 2004. I never wanted to leave Austin behind.
On December 15th, 2002, a cold, foggy day in Austin, I left, listening to Chelle Murrey, trying to keep it all together. Austin represented everything I wanted after graduation – a good job, great friends, beautiful place to live, and for the first time in my life, a social life that actually felt like me.
My senior year at MSU, I did everything in my power to land in Austin. I made it to second round interviews with both Dell and Applied Materials. Unfortunately, my manager at AMAT left a few weeks before I did. He didn’t even get a chance to do my review before he left, that was left to someone I had only known for a week. In essence, I had no one on the inside fighting for me. Only half of the engineers and supply chain grads were hired. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them.
I did put my time back in Austin to good use, however. I met up with Andy and finally told him how I felt. In essence, he told me that he viewed me as a little sister. He explained that he was at a completely different stage in life. At 22, devastated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Looking back, I completely understand where he was coming from at that point. At 29 and about to finish his MBA, he already owned his own home and was established in his career. I still needed to finish undergrad.
It is funny how I should have seen it coming. He bought me a cowgirl hat at the Austin City Limits Festival because he was afraid I was going to fry otherwise. As cold weather set in, he warned me about trying to drive on ice in Texas. In essence, I may know how to drive on ice being from Michigan, but others in Texas do not. My dad would have been impressed.
Today, Andy is married and still lives in Austin, now owning his own business. I’d love to track down Cheryl. I have a feeling that if we were able to catch up after all these years, it would be as if no time had passed at all. The only person with whom I am in contact is Karen, who keeps reminding me from time to time that Austin has changed – and not for the better.
In essence, this is a love letter to the Austin I knew in 2002. Some of my favorite landmarks and haunts, namely Flipnotics and Shady Grove, no longer exist. I still follow AMAT and the semiconductor industry. How could I not after 2020? The Austin City Limits Festival has grown beyond all recognition. I can only imagine how the city has changed and evolved. I just hope that it is still as weird as I remember and remains a welcoming place for young undergrads trying to find their place in the adult world. Those memories of Austin will always be a part of me.
As with so many writers, I fell in love with reading first. Over the years, I have found my reading life crucial to my continuing education as a writer. The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to read as widely as possible. The best part: Most of the tips, resources, and suggestions I am sharing here are little to no cost. One crucial requirement: a library card.
I read Reading Like A Writer well over a decade ago, but it is one of those books that never left me. I can’t recommend it enough for any writer. Prose makes the case for reading widely and for looking carefully at the literature you love most. Ask yourself: Why do I love this particular author? Why do I keep coming back to this particular genre, series, or author? What techniques is the author employing to keep readers interested?
There are endless opportunities to learn the craft of writing by reading if we know what questions to ask. Bonus: The reading list Prose includes for writers is wonderful.
Make Use of Your Local Library and Get to Know Your Local Librarians
A library card is a no brainer. These days, I tend to use mine to discover and borrow audiobooks via the service Hoopla, as well as borrow ebooks for my Kindle. Yes, I still checkout traditional books from time to time. The advantage to ebooks, including Kindle books, and anything from Hoopla is the simple fact that it isn’t necessary to visit the library at all. It is easy to borrow them online. Once they are due to be “returned,” the borrower simply no longer has access to the book. If not quite finished, readers may be able to renew online, depending on the popularity of the book.
Over the years, librarians have been extremely helpful. As an English teacher during the COVID 19 pandemic, I was fortunate to have local dedicated librarians who were willing to Zoom with my English classes in order to teach students how to borrow books digitally. Once restrictions were lifted, those same librarians helped me prepare a “book tasting” for my classes in an effort to help students figure out what genres they might enjoy. As a patron, if you ask, a librarian will nearly always be able to at least point you in the right direction. They, indeed, should run the world.
As a writer, if you find yourself in a rut in your reading life, there is no better place to seek inspiration than the library. I’ve been known to take pictures of the covers of books I find interesting in order to add them to my to-be-read pile later. At times, just the creative grouping or display of books at the library is enough to spark ideas. If nothing else, pick up a copy of the magazine BookPage to find out what’s new.
Utilize Audiobooks to Energize and Expand Your Reading Life
Sometimes, a book is just better via audiobook. I admit, I was skeptical. It felt like cheating. Frankly, the book Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim changed all that. As a fan of both The LIttle House on the Prairie book series and TV show, I knew that I didn’t want to miss Nellie Oleson herself reading her memoir. I was not disappointed. Currently, I am listening to The Storyteller by Dave Grohl. It is another example of the audiobook format being well worth it. Right now, with audiobooks, I am focusing on memoirs read by their authors. It seems a natural fit.
Personally, between work and school, I drive quite a bit. As much as I love listening to the radio and music, audiobooks are a great way to make the most of my time in the car. It gives me more time to devote to books, which is always a good thing.
Catalog – and Share – Your Reading Life
Before there was Goodreads, there was LibraryThing. While I have used other benefits of LibraryThing over the years (I am a lifetime member), it offers a way to easily catalog your collection of books or simply track your reading. Similar to Goodreads, LibraryThing also connects communities of readers.
Sadly, I don’t use either website to track my reading as I am trying to come up with a good system that I will continue to use. However, both Goodreads and LibraryThing are both excellent ways to find new titles, connect with other readers, read book reviews, and so much more.
Personally, one of my favorite annual features of LibraryThing is SantaThing during the Christmas season. After choosing a participation level between $20-$50, someone else in the LibraryThing community is tasked with finding books for you to enjoy within that dollar amount. As a participant, you get to pick for others. Fortunately, there is a form to fill out that helps avoid duplicates, detail favorite genres/authors, and more. It is fun to both pick out books for someone you don’t know and see what others have selected for you. I have participated for several years at this point, and I have yet to be disappointed. I view it as an annual birthday/Christmas present to myself. It is yet another way in which I’ve come across wonderful books I would have never picked up otherwise.
Sharing books is equally important. Frankly, I can’t imagine my reading life without having opportunities to share what I’ve read with others. I’m fortunate to have grown up in a family that shared and discussed books. Today, I share book reviews on my blog, Ramblings of a Misguided Blonde, and I still share my favorites with family and friends. Beware, I tend to review books I love. I rarely write a negative book review as I can think of only one exception.
It seems so obvious, and frankly, it is a piece of advice that everyone loves to share with writers: “Write what you know.” It just isn’t quite that simple. There are things you know – and then there are things you know – the gut-wrenching realities that no one wants to truly admit. I’m beginning to see the difference. For me, that is passion. There has to be a lot of enthusiasm behind whatever it is that I’m sharing if it is going to be any good. I have to love what I am about to write.
Early last week, I found myself writing an article outlining different tips for writers regarding their reading lives. In short order, I had nearly 2,000 words. It is something I know and perfected over the years. I take reading seriously. It simply amazes me how I tend to have almost too much content when I write about certain subjects. If it involves reading, books, music, or education, I could keep going for hours.
Why, then, haven’t I been focusing on just those topics all these long years? The simple answer is I don’t know. The full answer is a bit more complex. WIth music, copyright laws surrounding song lyrics are tricky. I needed to come up with a unique way of sharing the music I love. I think I may have finally accomplished that. When it comes to books and reading, I spend so much time reading and discussing books in person that it seems silly to write about it much, book reviews aside. In essence, I need to get over myself.
Then there is education. As at least a 5th generation teacher (yes, I’ve traced the teaching tradition in my family back at least that far), I have definite opinions and insight – far more than my actual experience in the classroom would suggest. I have to be extremely careful. Sometimes when a writer is a little too close to the subject, it is easy to get burned. In private conversations, I’m content to know that I am not alone. One day, once I’ve made some definitive decisions regarding my teaching career, it is going to get interesting.
It may have taken me quite some time to find my voice, niche, and style, but I am just getting started. In spite of the fact that I am 42 and a certain TV “personality” – I refuse to use his name here or mention the network – stated that women reach their peak in their 20s-40s, declining once they hit 50, I have so much more to accomplish that it isn’t even funny. It will take me well beyond 50. Stay tuned!