Category: On Writing


Bookstore Geek: El Ateneo, again

By Midge Raymond,

When I was in Buenos Aires for the Penguins & Patagonia Adventure with Adventures by the Book, it was my third visit to the glorious El Ateneo bookstore (known as El Ateneo Grand Spendid; there are two other, smaller branches of El Ateneo in Buenos Aires). And it was just as magical a place as it’s always been.

I’m not alone in my admiration of this store: more than a million customers visit it each year, and while many are tourists (on one visit I could barely walk around for all the visitors taking photos), on this last visit everyone in the store seemed to be local; they were browsing, reading, and buying.

The English-language section shrank from two sections to just one, and the selection comprises mostly thrillers and romance. The cafe, while quiet on the day we visited, is still open where the stage used to be.

Perhaps the cafe wasn’t crowded with readers because the former theater balconies make such great reading spots; we found an empty one and decided to get a group photo with My Last Continent.

If you ever find yourself in Buenos Aires, make sure you set aside some time for this bookstore. It’s not only a gorgeous place to visit, but even if you don’t read in Spanish, there are a lot of gift items as well as books, so it’s a fun place for souvenirs as well.



When being a naturalist (or a filmmaker) means letting nature take its course

By Midge Raymond,

I am not a scientist, but I play one on the page. Because my own background is so very not scientific, I needed a lot of research and experiences in order to write (authentically) the character of Deb Gardner in My Last Continent, including traveling to Antarctica and witnessing the continent through the eyes of the many naturalists on our expedition, and also spending time volunteering with penguin researchers at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina. One of the first — and most interesting, important, and devastating — things I learned is that we humans do not intervene when we see wildlife in trouble. It is, after all, the wild.

This is true whether you’re a filmmaker, a naturalist guide, or a researcher: Whatever you observe, you have to simply observe, no matter how heartbreaking it is. But sometimes people find it impossible not to intervene, like these BBC documentary filmmakers who decided to help save emperor penguin chicks as several penguin parents and their chicks became separated when the chicks couldn’t follow them up a steep slope. The crew “‘opted to intervene passively,’ said the show’s director, Will Lawson.” They created a ramp in the ice that the chicks ended up using to climb up to safety.

Was it appropriate or ethical — or both, or neither? As for myself, I don’t think I could stand to watch baby penguin chicks die if I had a chance to save them … which is one of many reasons I’m not a scientist or a documentary filmmaker — because that is precisely what they are supposed to do. To do otherwise is dangerous to both the humans as well as to the animals, often in ways that may not be immediately evident. While in this particular case, penguins’ lives were saved with no apparent harm, the public opinion is divided on whether taking action was appropriate: This article highlights the positive reaction to the film crew’s rescue efforts, while this headline reads, “Filmmakers Criticised For Intervening with Trapped Penguins in Antarctica.”

As a traveler, I’ve seen things in nature that aren’t fun to watch but that are, in fact, natural (one animal devouring another, for example); certainly it’s unethical to get in the way of someone’s meal, no matter how brutal it is to witness. Likewise, scientists and naturalists have to witness such incidents, and many others, without interfering. It is a hard concept to get around, even in fiction. In a chapter of My Last Continent, the character Keller describes having to witness a terrible scene involving an animal in Antarctica. He tells Deb, when he recounts the episode, “I’m still getting used to not intervening.” Her reply: “I’m not sure that feeling ever leaves you.”

As for the BBC film crew, I can’t fault them one bit for saving these penguins (in fact, this video is wonderful to see). However, the fact that they did sets a precedent that could be very dangerous if others decide that intervening is okay, especially if it’s in different, more direct ways. The wild is wild for a reason, and there is still so much we don’t understand. We’ve already interfered with so much in nature, creating so much imbalance, that having this last respect for wildlife, as hard as it is, needs to remain in place.



Penguins & Patagonia: Exploring Península Valdés

By Midge Raymond,

The day after our rainy arrival on Península Valdés, the skies still held remnants of the rain of the day before, which only made the views more spectacular as we explored the 16 kilometers of coastline at Rincón Chico.

Estancia Rincón Chico is a privately owned parcel of about 100 square kilometers (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of Península Valdés is privately owned), but unlike the majority of landowners here, Rincón Chico owners Agustín and María have devoted their property entirely to the wildlife. Formerly a sheep ranch, the sheep are now gone (except for a few who remain on the estancia as pets), and the land is beginning to return to its natural state, with the grasses growing taller and the wildlife returning. Rincón Chico is managed through the foundation Conservación Península Valdés (CPV), created to protect this beautiful, wild place.

The Land Rover in the photo below, with the casco and lodge in the far background, offers an idea of how vast and majestic this property is. Agustín estimated it would take the better part of a day to drive all the way around the entire property.

If you visit Rincón Chico, you’ll have the opportunity to see right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas, penguins, and numerous species of birds and fish. Agustín and María have cameras set up at watering holes throughout the property to study and track what animals live and roam there. Some of the footage we saw included guanacos, armadillos, wild cats, and myriad birds.

We didn’t have to go far to see rheas, like this one who liked to hang around at the lodge eating the flowers.

More elusive were the Patagonian maras, very large rodents with cute donkey-like faces who run like jackrabbits. They were quite shy, but I did manage to get a quick photo.

I confess this place is so magical I even found the tarantulas adorable.

 

One of the highlights of our three days at Rincón Chico was spending an entire morning sitting among the elephant seals on one of the beaches. The seals’ lives are full of drama, and to sit in silence and witness their lives for several uninterrupted hours was amazing.

And, the great thing about having some rainy and windy weather is that the clouds make spectacular sunsets.

At night, Rincón Chico goes completely dark (the generator shuts off at midnight, though there are a few solar-powered lights in the lodge). The silence is complete and almost unreal. It’s incredibly peaceful.

I love this photo of John and me with our incredible hosts, Agustín and María. If you ever want to experience Rincón Chico and Península Valdés, remember that visits to the estancia support the work of Agustín and María to continue the conservation of the property, the science of learning about its creatures, and rewilding former sheep pastures. I certainly hope we’re able to return again very soon!



Penguins & Patagonia: Rainy afternoon happy hour book club

By Midge Raymond,

On the afternoon we arrived at the gorgeous Estancia Rincón Chico on Península Valdés, it was pouring rain, windy, and cold.

So, we decided to have our author talks and book signing that afternoon, with the timing just perfect for cocktail hour.

It was beyond wonderful to talk about My Last Continent with readers who were seeing firsthand parts of what inspired the novel: volunteering at Punta Tombo, learning so much from experienced penguin researchers, being out in the middle of nowhere with no human sounds other than the wind and the braying of the penguins. I read a few excerpts from the book — one scene set in Punta Tombo, which we’d visited the day before, and one scene set in Antarctica, where half of our group would be headed in a few more days.

And John‘s novel The Tourist Trail was even more fun to talk about, as it’s just been released in a new edition, with the sequel on its way into the world in February of 2019. Also, in The Tourist Trail, Punta Tombo features even more prominently than in My Last Continent, so readers got an even better idea of the colony from reading his novel. John read an excerpt from the book that actually retraced our own steps from the day before.

 

We enjoyed a fantastic Argentine Malbec as we chatted about the novels and signed books…

…and we had so much fun we forgot all about the wind and rain.

To see more of Susan’s terrific photos, visit the Facebook page of Adventures by the Book!

 



Penguins & Patagonia: Puerto Madryn

By Midge Raymond,

After a couple of sunny days in Buenos Aires, the next stop on our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure was the much cooler, windswept oceanside city of Puerto Madryn in Patagonia. The amazing two days we spent here were arranged by Carol Mackie de Passera of Causana Viajes (indeed all the Argentinian details of the trip were arranged by Carol, but our visit to Puerto Madryn was specially and thoughtfully curated by Carol to fit our literary theme). Also a naturalist and guide, Carol arranged for a tour of the local history museum, Museo del Desembarco, followed by a traditional Welsh tea with Argentinian authors in the beautiful historical building of the Welsh Association.

We (below, from left: Marcelo Gavirati, Silvia Iglesias, and Carlos Dante Ferrari — plus me, John, and Susan) had a wonderful chat about writing, culture, travel, and the fascinating Welsh history of Patagonia (the Welsh arrived in Puerto Madryn in the 1860s) and its thriving community here, all as we devoured scones, bread, pastries, and tea.

Carlos Dante Ferrari is the author of eight books, including one translated into English, The Patagonian Rifleman.

Marcelo Gavirati is a professor and has published many books and articles on the history of Patagonia, including this article in True West Magazine, which focuses on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s arrival in Argentina.

Silvia Iglesias is a journalist, teacher, poet, and novelist. She has published two books of poetry — Perfect Bodies and Strange Bodies —  and a novel, Yaoyin.

This next photo features our entire group as well as association staff, all of whom were wonderful and so much fun to spend the afternoon with.

Thanks to Susan for the terrific photos, many more of which can be found on the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.



Bookstore Geek: Book ‘N’ Brush

By Midge Raymond,

Book ‘N’ Brush is a bookstore in downtown Chehalis, Washington, that I never had a chance to visit but got to know because it was the official bookstore of the Southwest Washington Writers Conference. The display tables Book ‘N’ Brush set up at the conference so beautifully showcased the presenters’ books, with flowing fabric, flowers, and glass beads, and all of the books artfully organized among them.

By the time the conference ended and I walked past the bookstore in downtown Chehalis, it was already closed — but I do look forward to visiting the next time I’m in the area. From my brief peek through its cool vintage storefront, I could see that there’s a wonderful array of books and gifts, cards and games — as well as the art supplies that give the store its name. And the love of all things books that was displayed at the conference is even more evident in the store itself.

I’m also so happy that signed copies of My Last Continent are available at Book ‘N’ Brush, so if you’re looking for a copy, do support this lovely indie bookseller (you can find it in the store, and you can also order it online!).



By-the-wind sailors on the Oregon coast

By Midge Raymond,

When I talked about travel writing at library events in the lovely coastal towns of Pacific City and Manzanita last weekend, I mentioned that one doesn’t have to travel far to write about place — that, in fact, sometimes the most fascinating people, places, animals, and history are right where we are, or closer than we think.

I discovered just how true this is when I encountered a new creature I’d never seen before — the Velella velella, which are also known as by-the-wind sailors. When I first saw a mass of white on the beach, it looked to me like feathers, or maybe plastic.

When I got closer I saw that some of these creatures were also indigo blue in color, and that they were in fact little marine animals. They are about three inches long and look similar to jellyfish but are actually hydrozoan. They get their whimsical name by the little “sail” that sticks up and makes use of the wind to propel them across the water.

By-the-wind sailors live in temperate waters, and so they are common on the coasts of California and Oregon, often washing up on beaches by the masses. They wash ashore bright blue and will eventually perish, dry out, and become white, transparent, and thin as tissue paper.

They feel a bit rubbery when still holding the sea’s moisture, but when they’re dry they’re frail and papery. (I touched them only after learning their venom is not dangerous to humans, but I did avoid touching any who were still living.)

Next time you’re strolling a beach in spring, be sure to cast your eyes downward on occasion and look for these beauties. Sadly, you’ll be viewing them in their final days or hours (and evidently massive numbers of them create quite an odor, which wasn’t the case in Manzanita), but they’re breathtaking to see.



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!