Category: On Writing


Bookstore Geek: Dymocks of Australia

By Midge Raymond,

One of the great joys of visiting Australia is running into a Dymocks in every major city.

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Down under, Dymocks is chain bookstore, with each one independently owned. And thanks to Australia’s enthusiastic reading community, a Dymocks in any given city is always bustling.

When My Last Continent first launched in Australia, I stopped in to the Adelaide location to sign books (with Admiral Byrd, of course).

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In Melbourne, the central business district store is gigantic, an absolutely heavenly place for book lovers, especially those of us from the U.S., where independent bookstores of this size and scope are more rare than ever.

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Of course, you’ll find not only books but plenty of cards, gifts, and other bookish delights.

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With row after row of bookshelves, filled with international books on every subject, the browsing is excellent.

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In Melbourne, I had a nice large stack of My Last Continent copies to sign.

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And the Dymocks in Sydney’s central business district is equally impressive in size and style.

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And it was a delight for Admiral Byrd to find My Last Continent in several places in the store, including Australian Fiction.

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And Dymocks also provided bookselling at one of my Brisbane Writers Festival events, so I got to meet Dymocks people in every city I went to. All the staff are welcoming, helpful, and passionate about books. When you’re in Australia and see that cheery red-and-white Dymocks sign, prepare yourself to lose a few hours…and enjoy!

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Bookstore Geek: Paperback Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia

By Midge Raymond,

The Paperback Bookshop in downtown Melbourne is an indie bookstore that’s been here since the 1960s. (And yes, it does sell hardcover books despite its inception as a paperback-only store.)

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The shop is beautiful, very tiny bookstore, open late and perfect for browsing after dinner or drinks. As with most small bookstores, the collection is selectively curated, and this store has a wonderful selection of new fiction as well as travel literature. (If you don’t find what you’re looking for, any book can be special-ordered upon request.)

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I  found gorgeous notecards, many of which came from Australia’s art galleries and local artists, and there’s a great selection of gift wrap as well.

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The Paperback Bookshop only had one copy of My Last Continent, and now it’s a signed copy.

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Bookstore Geek: Hill of Content in Melbourne, Australia

By Midge Raymond,

Hill of Content Bookshop is one of the sweetest and most charming bookstores in Melbourne.

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Located right in the central business district, Hill of Content has a gorgeous setting, making you feel as though you’re in a library, with its rich colors and dark-wood bookshelves.

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I signed a few copies of My Last Continent while in for a visit … hoc2

… and Admiral Byrd was of course on hand to assist.

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Don’t neglect to browse the full length of this lovely store when you visit (there’s an excellent selection of travel books, as well as new books and local and international bestsellers) and as ever, make sure you have plenty of time.



Bookstore Geek: Book Passage

By Midge Raymond,

I’m guessing that most readers and authors alike would agree that Book Passage is one of the all-time great indies, with locations in San Francisco, Sausalito, and Corte Madera, which graciously hosted me for a reading of My Last Continent. It was one of the most fun events Admiral Byrd and I had on the book tour, especially for the chance to catch up with longtime friends.

Book Passage is known for hosting world-famous authors, and thanks to its three locations, no one in the Bay Area need miss out on books or author events, which include book groups; classes for writers, kids, and teens; and food and wine events.

The suburban Corte Madera location is a wonderful, sprawling store with a lovely event space, and it’s also an amazing place to browse. The staff is truly passionate about books, as well as the book industry as a whole, and with its myriad events for all readers and authors, Book Passage is above all a community space, an incredible model for how indie bookstores can thrive in a changing world.

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The yeti crab and other Antarctic discoveries

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”

Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.

I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).

One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.

I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.

 



The sounds of Antarctica

By Midge Raymond,

Among the most amazing things about Antarctica (and there are so many) are the sounds. You can listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.

This wonderful article from Huffington Post offers a few sounds as well — including the voices of an Adélie penguin colony and the wind sweeping across the ice — as well as gorgeous photos and a glimpse of what life is like as a researcher on the continent.

These Antarctic sounds are incredible, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence. The sounds of no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent:

” … we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all… “



Celebrating the “Father of Pinyin”

By Midge Raymond,

I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.

Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:

Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.

I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:

美丽

And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:

美麗

Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).

Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).

The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:

美国

And here is the traditional character:

美國

It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.

When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.

I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.

It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.

 



Bookstore Geek: Warwick’s

By Midge Raymond,

Before last summer, it had been years since my last event at Warwick’s, and, as always, it is fabulous to visit this quaint bookstore in the heart of La Jolla…I’ve missed it both as a reader and a writer.

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Warwick’s is the oldest family-owned and -operated store in the country. Above the door is printed: “Independent minds need independent bookstores,” and this store lives by this motto in its diversity of visiting authors as well as its curated selection of books and gifts. We had a fantastic crowd on the balmy summer evening I was there, and I wasn’t able to browse as much as I normally would have, but I noticed that the store has a new look since I last visited, and the layout was very open and welcoming, even with the event set-up.

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The staff of Warwick’s are friendly and helpful, and I was especially delighted by the gift of signature wine Admiral Byrd and I received.

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We look forward to returning long before the next book!



Bookstore Geek: Elliott Bay Book Company

By Midge Raymond,

The Elliott Bay Book Company was one of the first places I read when my first book, Forgetting English, was published in 2009, at its charming former location in Pioneer Square. Elliott Bay moved to its Capitol Hill location (cedar bookshelves, stained glass, and all) in 2010, and this setting is just as beautiful and welcoming.

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On my book tour last summer, Admiral Byrd joined me in exploring the light, sun-filled room on the main level (it was a perfect, sunny day in Seattle). I highly recommend visiting this treasure in person, but those who can’t visit Seattle can order books to have shipped to you. (For example, you can order a signed copy of My Last Continent).

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The event space downstairs is lovely, and especially lovely is being able to bring along drinks from the cafe. Admiral Byrd and I had a great evening and so appreciated all those who braved Seattle summer traffic (and left the sunshine to venture inside!) to join us.

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It’s wonderful to know that Elliott Bay continues to thrive in its no-longer-new neighborhood, and I look forward to visiting again soon. This is a don’t-miss Seattle landmark for every visitor, especially book lovers.



Bookstore Geek: Powell’s City of Books

By Midge Raymond,

When you walk into Powell’s (the Burnside entrance), you’ll see this on the wall in front of you to the left…

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…and this perfectly describes this mammoth bookstore that is all things literary. Most readers and writers are very familiar with this famous store, which has four additional locations, but of course there’s nothing like the original City of Books.

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Its rooms range from wide and airy, like the front entrance, to cozy little nooks, to large rooms where you can get lost in the stacks (which is a great thing). And its event space is gorgeous, lined with books and artwork.

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Powell’s is one of many bookstores embracing the Espresso Book Machine, and they also wisely offer online sales for loyal customers and those who prefer to buy from indie bookstores. (If you’re one of those, note that Powell’s has signed copies of My Last Continent in stock!)

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Among the best things about Powell’s is the staff’s love of all things literary, and this can be seen around every corner, where you’ll find curated lists of books, like this one celebrating Pacific Northwest writers.

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Powell’s is all about the Pacific Northwest, not only in terms of books but everything else about it (which all go well with books).

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If you haven’t visited Powell’s, set aside at least two days for a visit when you’re in Portland. It’s one of those places you can’t possibly see in only one day.

*Special thanks to the fabulous Laura Stanfill of Portland’s Forest Avenue Press for taking many of these photos!



Bookstore Geek: West Grove Collective

By Midge Raymond,

I was delighted to have West Grove Collective as the official bookseller for my book event at the Women’s Museum of California this past summer.

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I remember the West Grove Collective from its days as The Grove, when I went to many open mic nights. Today the store has evolved into so much more: Anne Mery, who manages West Grove Collective, has partnered with vendors who carefully curate the merchandise they offer, including books and artwork, clothing and jewelry, furniture and home accessories, and the music offerings of SoundShip San Diego.

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Anne’s gift for curating was on display at the Women’s Museum event, where she paired My Last Continent with other books on the Antarctic, the poles, the oceans, and other sea adventures — as well as a penguin wine opener.

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The next time you’re in San Diego, be sure to visit South Park to spend some time in West Grove Collective…for books, events, and so much more.



Bookstore Geek: New International Bookshop in Melbourne

By Midge Raymond,

While wandering around Melbourne’s Carlton neighborhood, we were thrilled to stumble upon The New International Bookshop, which calls itself “Melbourne’s famous radical bookshop.” A cooperative founded in 1994, the bookshop continued the tradition of the communist International Bookshop; learn more about the history here.

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The bookshop, located in the Trades Hall union building, a wonderful selection of progressive books, and even has a section devoted to environmental books, which was wonderful to see. The bookshop carries new and classic left-wing titles on everything from socialism to anarchism to philosophy to feminism.

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The store also has a great selection of shirts, bumper stickers, and cards.

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There is also a large secondhand section in the store which features donated books and a cozy reading spot.

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Don’t miss this treasure next time you’re in Melbourne … it’s well worth a visit!



Cat Editors: Susan DeFreitas and Akira Kittysawa

By Midge Raymond,

Meet author Susan DeFreitas, who writes with her feline muse Akira Kittysawa.

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I’ve had many cat editors over the years, all of whom were kind enough to spare me the worst of their critiques. But perhaps I knew that, in order to get my first novel published, I was going to need a firmer editorial hand.

Enter Akira Kittysawa—a tiny, somewhat shy shelter cat who, within six months of being adopted, had grown into sturdy, assertive alpha feline who, despite having almost no voice, was adept at bending the two humans in the household to her will.

Named after the great movie director Akira Kurosawa, this cat pulled no punches on my novel. Unlike other cat editors, who would meow politely from the floor until invited to weigh in on the manuscript—and would graciously accept being ejected from the process when my editorial instincts ran counter to theirs—Akira (Kira for short) insisted on being intimately involved in the editing process every step of the way.

 

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Her feedback was integral to turning Hot Season from a collection of linked stories from my grad school days into a full-fledged novel, and her determination to remain firmly seated on my lap—no matter how awkward this made typing—really gave me so much insight into some of my own characters, many of whom are just bound and determined to do some really inadvisable things.

For instance, my character Katie? She’s a freshman in college who wants to be an activist, and she’s decided to blow up the construction equipment of a developer that’s set to destroy a local river.

Her roommate Jenna, in her second semester, is determined to do something just as dumb, though probably less dangerous, in cheating on her long-term boyfriend with the hot new guy at school (though she does have suspicions that this new guy might be an undercover agent).

And their third roommate, Rell, may be older and wiser in many ways, but she just can’t seem to keep from trying to keep these girls from doing these dumb things they want to do—which, you might argue, is pretty dumb in an of itself.

All of these characters aren’t trying to cause conflict—they’re just being who they are. Just like Kira isn’t trying to cause conflict when she gnaws on my computer cord (just like she wasn’t trying to cause conflict when she destroyed the last one). She’s just a person who really needs other people to pay attention to her. (Unless she’s never seen them before; in that case, they are completely and utterly terrifying.)

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My cat editor reminds me, at every turn, that people really can’t help being who they are—and the conflicts that result are, ultimately, what drive effective fiction.

She also reminds me that characters don’t really show us who they are until they are completely and utterly exasperated with each other.

Thanks, Kira!

 

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in The Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and a contributor at Litreactor.com. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.

 



See you at Wordstock in Portland!

By Midge Raymond,

I’m so looking forward to this Saturday’s festivities at the Wordstock festival in Portland.

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You can see the incredible lineup of authors and presenters here — and in addition to panels, workshops, and readings, there will be so many fun events, like Friday night’s LitCrawl and pop-up readings at the Portland Art Museum.

I’ll be on the panel The World Changed: Disasters Natural and Man-made, with Sunil Yapa and Alexis Smith, moderated by Zach Dundas, at 10 a.m. at The Old Church, and I can’t wait to chat about these amazing authors about their books.

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I’m also looking forward to my pop-up reading at the museum at 12:30…and to catching so many of the other events of the weekend. Check out the full Wordstock schedule here, and I look forward to seeing you there!



Post-reading cocktails with Admiral Byrd, part 2

By Midge Raymond,

Though the book tour began in June, Admiral Byrd and I are still busy with events (and post-event festivities). We had an especially fun book-launch party in Ashland…

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…at the lovely Liquid Assets Wine Bar.

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Then it was on to Southern California for a few more weeks of events…

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..all over San Diego County.

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And then, onward to the Bay Area…

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…where post-Litquake festivities included mimosas and green tea.

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I’m looking forward to a few more events — including a reading at Sunriver Books & Music on October 22, Portland’s Wordstock literary festival, and Friday Words & Wine in Ashland. Click here for details!