Category: The Writing Life


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: Back at Punta Tombo

By Midge Raymond,

John and I volunteered at Punta Tombo with the University of Washington’s Penguin Project (now the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels) back in 2006. We’d always dreamed of returning to the colony, though we were also a little worried about what we might find. We know that the penguin population is down by 45 percent at Punta Tombo (sadly, it is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world), and that tourism is increasing (to 100,000 visitors a year).

Despite our concerns, our visit was encouraging on so many levels. First, we encountered a brand-new visitor’s center with a gift shop, cafe, and a little museum highlighting the wildlife of the region. While this may not sound like a good thing, it is: Unlike the last time we were here, all the cars and buses now park well outside of the colony, which means no more incidents of penguins being hit by cars, or being unable to return to their nests.

As we walked toward the colony, the first familiar sight was in fact not penguins but guanacos on the hillside. These beautiful llama-like animals live among the penguins and miraculously never seem to crush the penguins’ burrows despite how often they walk right past or over them.

We continued on, past the public restrooms, the older gift shop and cafe, the guardafauna station, and the cueva next to which the trailer we’d slept in used to be parked (the trailer is no longer there). And soon we could see that the tourist trail has been much improved, with new walkways and viewing areas, and it wasn’t packed with visitors as we’d anticipated. We arrived as the penguins were carefully incubating their eggs (the chicks are already starting to hatch, as I write this a week later), and as you can see in this photo, the birds are guarding the eggs carefully.

We got the chance to meet with Ginger Rebstock, one of the longtime researchers at the colony, who caught us up on all the news. Among the news we were most eager to hear: Turbo the penguin returned safely to the colony this season, though he was out at sea the day we were there. We were sorry to have missed seeing him, but are so glad to know he is safe and still returning home, though he does remain a bachelor. Ginger doesn’t believe his chances of finding a mate are good; there are far more females than males at Tombo, which means that a lot of the males will remain bachelors.

Thanks to John Yunker for this photo, below, of a penguin rearranging her nest. As you’ll see, the skin around her eyes is quite pink; this is because it was a warm day, and she’s releasing some body heat through these small, featherless patches of skin around her eyes.

Below is a photo of a little bay where we glimpsed Chubut steamer ducks, endemic to Argentina, sharing this little beach with a raft of penguins. It was a glorious clear, sunny day, ideal for penguin viewing.

 

And I absolutely love this photo that Susan took of this beautiful penguin with My Last Continent. (One thing to note about the tourist trail at the colony is that the penguins are used to humans and they will walk right up to you and will pass within inches of you if you’re standing nearby. The penguins who nest near the tourist trail are used to people; further out in the colony, they are far more skittish around humans since they don’t encounter them as often.)

We didn’t get a photo of The Tourist Trail (named after this very setting), but for a fictional read about this amazing colony, check it out here.

As ever, for more great photos of the tour, visit the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.



Penguins & Patagonia: Buenos Aires

By Midge Raymond,

It was more than a year and a half ago that Susan McBeth and I began planning our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure by the Book, and when we found ourselves in Buenos Aires at last, we could hardly believe the trip was finally happening (and a small part of our group would be headed to bigger adventures yet, in Antarctica). But we had three days in beautiful, balmy Buenos Aires first — and we knew the best way to overcome the jet lag after our early morning arrival would be to stay awake, get out in the sun, and walk around. So we headed to one of the city’s biggest treasures: Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur.

This gorgeous ecological reserve comprises 865 acres on the banks of the Río de la Plata. It was only a couple of miles’ walk from our hotel, and once inside the reserve, it was hard to imagine we were still in the middle of a bustling international city, except for a few glimpses through the greenery. The birders among us were especially happy with the myriad species of birds found throughout the reserve.

Of course, the ecological reserve is only one of the city’s many treasures; this being an Adventure by the Book, visiting the gorgeous El Ateneo bookstore was another priority.

Located inside a former theater, this bookstore is a joy to wander through, even if it has only one small English-language section. We posed for a group photo with My Last Continent overlooking the former stage, which is now a cafe.

And no literary tour is complete without an homage to the typewriter — we stopped by this typewriter repair shop, which had a lot of vintage machines for sale. It was a good thing that we had weight limits on our baggage and couldn’t make any purchases, no matter how tempting.

We officially kicked off the Penguins & Patagonia tour with a welcome dinner in the lovely Puerto Madero district, with a gorgeous river view as our backdrop. (Just out of view is Santiago Calatrava’s breathtaking bridge, El Puente de La Mujer, or “Woman’s Bridge.”)

 

Thanks so much to Susan for the great people photos! And, for many more photos and captions from this journey, visit Adventures by the Book on Facebook.



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!).



Bookstore Geek: Shakespeare & Co in Chehalis, Washington

By Midge Raymond,

When I was in Chehalis, Washington, for the Southwest Washington Writers Conference, it was a delight to stop in at one of its fabulous local bookstores, Shakespeare & Co, for a drink and a browse.

The bookstore is located in a lovely historic area filled with gorgeous old buildings, like the former Victorian of the store itself. The two women who own the store, Karen and Mo, told us that the beautiful old house used to be a brothel (which, I’ve realized just now, is probably the reason for the lips on the front sign).

Had the day not been so chilly, it would’ve been lovely to relax outside on the expansive porch … but it was even better to be inside, with several rooms of books and plenty of comfy vintage chairs and sofas on which to sit — such as this plush purple chair on which the bookstore cat, Mary Tyler Moore, was snoozing when we visited (she clearly takes her naps very seriously, but she did wake up later and accept some snuggles).

In the back is a cafe where you can get tea, coffee, pastries, salads, and more, and in addition to plenty of places to sit and read chat are cozy nooks of bookshelves that are excellent for browsing. The bookstore has a varied and artfully curated selection of both new and used books.

Another bit of history that made the visit even more fun: I learned that the building apparently has a resident ghost (confirmed by a customer, who put a book on hold, and then it mysteriously disappeared — though it did turn up later — or, the ghost returned it later).

And of course it was beautiful to see a vintage typewriter on a desk overlooking the street, as if waiting to be used.

Don’t miss this sweet little bookstore next time you’re in Southwest Washington … it’s well worth a visit. And be sure to save plenty of time: You’ll want to eat at the cafe, browse for books, and have a few moments to spend with Mary Tyler Moore.

 



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: 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.



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: 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.