The last time I flew somewhere was in October of 2019 when I took myself on a writing retreat to The Highlights Foundation in Pennsylvania. I spent a long weekend writing, reading, watching the wildlife, and taking long walks through the woods by myself.
The last time the hubby and I took a vacation was in June of 2019 when we spent a few days in the San Juan Islands in Washington. We spent our time hiking the shoreline, watching the wildlife, and taking long walks in the woods together. One of the reasons why I chose the house we rented was because it had so many comfy spots to read.
For me, traveling isn’t often about the go, go, go and do, do do.* I like to sit and stay and experience. It’s about doing the things I love somewhere new. Some of my favorite things to do are reading good books and taking long walks through nature, and I like doing these things wherever I am. Planning for vacation, for someone like me, means the paperbacks I choose to put in my carry on bag are just as important as the shoes I pack in my suitcase. (And those shoes better be made for walking.)
I’m sure there are some people out there who squirm at this idea of traveling. Why go somewhere just to read? You could have covered so much more ground and seen so many more attractions! You’re missing out! I get that, and I concede that there are some destinations where reading would be a dangerous waste of time. (You probably shouldn’t take a book on a safari.**)
Despite opinions to the contrary, this is the kind of travel I love, and it’s served me well. For one thing, books are sponges; they carry the memories of the places they go better than any souvenir. (Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man holds my trip to Peru between its pages, and all I have to do is look at my copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary to be back on the plane to England in 2001.) But a bigger benefit of being a creature of habit is that the things I love to do can be enjoyed anywhere. Even at home.
The hubby and I made the difficult choice not to visit our families for Thanksgiving this year. If we could have popped in for a quick, outdoor gathering, that would have been great, but it’s a four-hour car ride to see my side of the family and a four-hour plane ride to see his. Due to COVID-19, it just wasn’t worth the risk. So I spent my week off work walking the trails near home, reading and listening to good books, and hanging out with the wildlife, both inside and outside of the house. I even turned my front yard into a coffee shop for a day.
I’m grateful for simple pleasures that I can enjoy anywhere. I’m grateful for my health and for the ability to stay in touch with my loved ones even when I can’t visit them. I’m grateful for the stories that keep me entertained while I wait for the world to heal.
I’m looking forward to traveling again. Hawaii, Greece, and Chattanooga*** are all on the bucket list, but the first trip I take when things are safe again will be to visit the families I’ve been missing for too long.
Wherever I go, though, I’ll be taking my books and my walking shoes.
* Aaaaaaaand, now I have “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” by The Police stuck in my head. ** I changed my mind. ALWAYS bring a book. Question: What’s the best book to take on a safari? *** What? It’s nicknamed “The Scenic City” and is supposed to be a lovely place.
It’s been five months since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, shutting down schools and businesses and sending us to our homes like children being sent to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.
There is nothing good about COVID-19, but I’d be lying if I said the stay-home situation didn’t come with a few perks. For some, long commutes have been shortened to the walk from the bedroom to the home office, and although we can’t see friends in person, the switch to online meetings has allowed people to hang out in new ways. Some virtual gatherings have actually been larger than their real world counterparts because people who couldn’t attend due to distance can now participate.
For me, one of the benefits of this stressful situation has been the extra time to read.
Can’t go anywhere interesting? Read. Got insomnia due to anxiety? Read. Avoiding household chores? Read. More walks mean more audio books.
Fewer friend gatherings mean more pages.
Ever-present bad news means greater need to escape reality.
I’ve finished thirty-two books since March 13th, reading eight in June alone. Although I wish my summer had included travel and swimming and brunch and kickball games, this time with books was time well spent. Here are a few of the standouts.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, finished March 28th
This is the book that bridged the gap between the real world and the pandemic world. I started it before everything shut down and finished it after. I spent a lot of time reading it in the porch bed I made for myself. (I spent a lot of time in that porch bed this spring and plan to recreate it in the fall when the weather is cooler.) Magpie Murders is a clever murder-mystery-within-a-murder-mystery that was a nice distraction during troubling times.
Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin, finished May 18th
This YA alternate history was much more engaging than I expected. I listened to the audio book, and I found myself taking longer walks so I could hear more of the story. Set in a world where the Nazis won the war, the plot is about a Jewish girl on a quest to kill Hitler. The experiments conducted on her as a child in the concentration camps turned her into a shape-shifter. Now she’s working with the resistance and using her unusual gift to masquerade as someone else in order to win (hopefully) a high-profile motorcycle race which will give her the chance she needs to assassinate the dictator. The book is fast-paced with ample twists, and the sequel is equally good.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, finished May 25th
The universe is BIG. Like, blow-your-mind-and-make-you-want-to-crawl-under-the-covers-and-hide big. I love listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk, and he narrates the audiobook himself, so I highly recommend you listen to it. It’s not very long and is really interesting. I didn’t understand everything in it, but Tyson has a way of explaining things so that even non-scientists can grasp them.
*Funny story: I first started listening to this one night and accidentally fell asleep with it playing. I had the most irritating dream where my husband was following me everywhere talking about physics, and I couldn’t get him to stop. Walking the dog– talking about physics. Shopping at CVS– talking about physics. I kept saying, “Be quiet!” but he wouldn’t. I was SO annoyed with him! Lol. However, once I tried listening to book while awake, I really enjoyed it and did not fine Neil deGrasse Tyson annoying at all.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, finished May 31st
This novel about a man sentenced to house arrest in a Russian hotel is one of my favorite books. I read it and loved it in 2018 and then re-read it and loved it even more this summer. This funny, touching, thought-provoking story full of unique and lovable characters is the perfect companion for when you’re stuck at home and lamenting your inability to go anywhere. It wins for the most sticky notes I’ve ever left in a book.
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, finished June 26th
My mom recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did. It’s a murder mystery about a high school English teacher who’s also a writer and who’s obsessed with a horror story written by a mysterious deceased author whose study was located in the attic of her school. Oh, and it’s also a ghost story. Um… check, check, check, check, check. This book was right up my alley! Despite all the gruesome murders, it still felt like a fun escape from the world.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, finished July 11th
This middle grade novel-in-verse about a Syrian girl who moves to America really grabbed my heart. The writing is excellent, the main character is clever and relatable, and the struggles she goes through are perfect for middle school readers who have had to learn how to straddle two cultures and for those who haven’t. I marked so many memorable lines, including:
Americans love labels.
They help them know what to expect.
I think labels stop them from
I’m starting to think, might be the bravest thing a person can do.
I recommend this book to kids and adults alike.
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater, finished July 17th
On November 4, 2013, on a city bus in Oakland, California, a black teenage boy named Richard flicked a lighter at the hem of the skirt worn by an agender teenager named Sasha. Within seconds, the skirt went up in flames, severely burning Sasha and changing both of their lives. The 57 Bus tells the story of these two teens and their very different backgrounds and the consequences of a moment. This was a hard book to read but an important one that has me thinking about my role as an educator and a citizen and a human and how I can help create a society where the Sashas and the Richards of the world can both live safe, successful lives.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, finished July 29th
This slow, creeping, ultimately sad horror novel is full of atmosphere and subtle but persistent spookiness. Writers are told that their endings should be both surprising and inevitable, and Susan Hill nails it. This book is still on my mind weeks after reading it.
Love, Teach: Real Stories and Honest Advice to Keep Teachers from Crying Under Their Desks by Kelly Treleaven, finished August 3rd
I have been reading the Love, TeachBlog for years, and I’m so excited that Kelly Treleaven’s book is finally in the world! Her combination of humor, heart, and crazy competent teaching advice has gained her a huge following of tired, stressed, but fiercely dedicated teachers who are thankful for her unflinching honesty and welcoming kinship in a profession where it’s really true that anything can happen. Treleaven’s book has fewer funny stories about “whisper turtlenecks” and the time she was late for work because she got a squirrel stuck on her head (true– there’s a video), but it is jam-packed with super useful tips about everything from setting up your classroom to dealing with unsupportive administrators. But don’t worry. Even though the book is serious in its mission to help teachers through the rough parts of the profession, there are still plenty of quirky stories and embarrassing moments sprinkled throughout. It made me both laugh and cry (but not under my desk). The book is aimed at first year teachers, but I’ve been in the classroom for twenty years and still found so much of the advice inside helpful. I recommend it for teachers of all ages, all content, and all stages of their career. You won’t find a more honest and heartfelt guide to education anywhere.
What books have kept you from going crazy during the pandemic?
I love ghost stories. That’s probably a side effect of being born on Halloween. While I’ve never seen an actual ghost, it’s not for lack of trying. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to spend our October evenings waiting until it was dark so we could go throw rocks at the haunted shed on the back of our property to see if we could get the ghost to come out. We saw things and heard things—shadows and sparks and footsteps—and once a rock came back at us, but I can’t say for sure that I ever saw a ghost. I guess I’ll have to keep trying.
In the meantime, I like to read about other people’s encounters with the supernatural. One of my favorite souvenirs to pick up on vacation is a book of local haunted lore. What better way to get to know a place than to read about what scares the people who live there? I’ve read haunted tales from all over the country, from Alaska to Montana to my own city of Austin, where you can take a tour of the most haunted spots in town. (I recommend it.)
So when Arcadia Publishing decided to adapt their Haunted America series for middle grade readers and offered me a chance to write one of the books, I jumped at the opportunity.
Ghost stories? Local lore? Scaring children? Check, check, and CHECK. I knew this project was right up my haunted alley.
In April and May, between online teaching and online grading and zoom meetings and virtual celebrations and socially-distanced parades, I was writing and revising The Ghostly Tales of New England. I was grateful to be busy. This project helped keep me sane during a stressful time. Plus, it was a lot of fun. I mean, getting paid to write stories about mad doctors and lake monsters and ghost pirates and vengeful witches? It doesn’t get much better than that.
It was especially cool getting to write about New England because I’ve visited those states a few times. It’s a gorgeous part of the country, full of history and beauty. I loved going to the beach, eating delicious lobster, and seeing where some of the great writers of the past are buried (as well as some of the great ice cream flavors of the past).
[Pictured above: The final resting places of Washington Irving, Louisa May Alcott, and Rainforest Crunch]
If only I’d known that some of the locations I visited were haunted! Like the picturesque Nubble Lighthouse in Maine and Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. (You can read about the creepy side of these popular tourist spots in the book.)
I’m proud to announce that The Ghostly Tales of New England will be available on September 7, 2020, but you can pre-order a copy on Amazon. The book is written for grades 3-8 (ages 8-12) but will hopefully be entertaining for adults too.
I’ve already been paid for my work on this book and won’t receive any royalties from the sales, so don’t buy it because you want to give me money. (You can always use my Tip Jar if you want to do that.) Instead, buy it because it’s full of spooky stories that will simultaneously give you the creeps and let you take a virtual vacation. What more could you ask for?