A Book To Take You Out Of This World

Are you suffering from screen fatigue?

Need distraction from the daily gloom and doom?

If so, take a ride with NASA astronaut, Terry Virts. His captivating new book, How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Earth takes us on an incredible journey of spaceflight from training to launch, to orbit and re-entry. 

Terry’s goal for writing the book was to get readers saying “Wow!” and make them laugh.  I can attest that the author achieved his mission. 

Each of the 51 chapters–essays really–can be enjoyed in any order. Nothing overly technical or boring here. Bonus photos, too.

Terry Virts, an International Space Station Commander, is a terrific storyteller. His behind-the-scenes descriptions of astronaut training, zero gravity, first blastoff, on-board tasks, and spacewalks are illuminating and often funny.

If you ever wondered what it really takes to become an astronaut, the answer may surprise you.  (Hint: Start those Russian language lessons.)

Terry adresses other questions like: 

What happens if you get stranded in space? 

 Answer: “You have your whole life to figure it out”. 

What if a crew member dies while on board? 

Answer:  “You’ve got 3 choices…”

And one of the most common questions (after the bathroom one):

Have any astronauts ever had sex in space? 

Answer: Read the book to find out!

Virts covers not just the fantastic elements of spaceflight but the mundane details of daily life: bathing, watching movies, sleeping. An accomplished photographer, Virts helped make an IMAX movie while in space! (View some photos here.)

One of the funniest stories is how Terry became hairstylist to crew mate, Samantha Chirtoforetti, an Italian celebrity astronaut. Of all the skills Virt had to acquire, he says this ranked as one of the most “nerve-racking”.

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The chapter: “Space Tourism: What You Need To Know Before Signing Up” caught my interest. (Tip: Take the meds.) As a life-long space enthusiast , I always wished I had the Right Stuff to shuttle up, up and away.

In the final chapters, Terry reflects on how space exploration has profoundly changed his worldview. And soul. These essays were among my favorite. 

“Are We Alone? Is there a God”

“What Does It All Mean?” 

“…it was pretty obvious from my vantage point in space that there was no reason for the conflicts we have {on Earth}…We are all crew members on this spaceship, and we may as well get along and work together.

Just as Virts was finishing the manuscript, COVID-19 hit our country. His last chapter, “Isolation: Better on Earth or in Space?” offers advice on quarantining with humor and grace. This from a man who spent 200 days on the International Space Station.

With all the unrest here on Earth, outer space is looking pretty attractive right now.  While we won’t get the chance to escape Earth’s gravity any time soon, Virts’ entertaining book offers us a vicarious thrill. 

What out-of-this-world book do you recommend?

Art Can Save Us

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Thank you fellow artists, writers, bloggers, educators, dancers, poets, philosophers, musicians, homeschoolers, trauma survivors, family and friends, near and far for your virtual hugs, kind words, and listening ears.

Thank you for finding creative ways of connection during this Corona pandemic. Thank you for sharing your art and spreading light and hope to others.

I’m still in survival mode, trying to get my bearings. Absorbing unwelcome changes. Surrendering to uncertainty.

In times of crisis, the great poets and writers can offer us solace and momentum.

I leave you the words of W.B. Yeats, from The Celtic Twilight(1893), a lyrical tribute to Irish folklore.

Please let me know how you are doing.

 

I have desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world…

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Library Love

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“In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

I just finished reading Susan Orlean’s latest nonfiction, The Library Book, which got me reminiscing about the magical childhood hours I spent at the Carl Sandburg Library. I can still see the famous poet’s bronze statue staring down at me each time I approached the circulation desk.  I remember the conspiratorial smile the librarian gave me when I checked out my first book from the Adult Section: How to Increase Your Intelligence in 30 Days. ( Yes, even back then, little Evelyn was on the path to self-improvement.)

The Library Book (Simon & Schuster 2018) is an ode to libraries past and present. It is a thoroughly researched and captivating story of the catastrophic fire that engulfed the Los Angeles Library on April 28, 1986. Orlean’s vivid description, along with eye-witness  accounts, bring this devastating day and its aftermath to life.

“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”

Ordinarily, I don’t like books about fires, but The Library Book contains so much more. In trying to decipher the mystery of the library (arson is suspected), Orlean takes us on a journey of fascinating real-life characters, political intrigue, romance, library architecture, book love, and the evolution of the library itself going back to the 1800’s.

“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone.”

Sprinkled into this rich story are Orlean’s own fond childhood reminiscences of visiting the library with her mother who now has dementia.

I highly recommend the Library Book to library lovers and bibliophiles who also enjoy history and true crime mysteries. 

Growing up, the library was my oasis. It still is. When I find myself in new areas, I often look for the local library. From the sparkling modern to the creaking historical—I love them all. 

Here are a few of my favorites.

1.  Johnson Public Library,  Johnson Vermont.

Only library in town. Tiny but cozy, with a sunny reading nook. Friendly staff. Great poetry collection. Near the Vermont Studio Center artist residence.

IMG_7769.jpeg“In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.”

2. Harold Washington Library, Chicago

A huge library with stunning architecture. A variety of interesting artwork on each of the 11 floors. Beautiful roof top garden atrium. You can easily spend a day here.

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“The library is a whispering post. You don`t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you..”

2. Memorial Library, Booth Bay Harbor, Maine

This Greek-revival style library has been remodeled since its 1906 inception. Behind the library is a porched Friends Store–a treasure trove of bargain books. Wonderful children’s space.

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Heidi Kirn

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“Public libraries in the United States outnumber McDonald’s; they outnumber retail bookstores two to one.”

4. Providence Atheneum, Providence, Rhode Island

An independent, member-supported library open to the public since 1838. Near campus of Brown University. Its Greek temple style architecture and high ceilings make this small library feel spacious. Special antique and first edition collections of children’s books, nature, art, and British and American literature.

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Nat Rae. ProvidenceAnthenuem.org

5. Fogg Library, S. Weymouth, MA

Renaissance Revival stone library built in 1897.  The historical building houses a children’s library and lovely upstairs study space.

 

 

 

“The library is a prerequisite to let citizens make use of their right to information and freedom of speech. Free access to information is necessary in a democratic society, for open debate and creation of public opinion.”

6. Eldredge Library, Chatham, MA

Small-town historic library on Cape Cod. Its stain-glass windows, oak wainscoting, marble foyer, and large wooden mantle fireplace take you back in time.

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7. West Bloomfield Township Library, W. Bloomfield, MI

A National Medal modern library with inviting spaces for all. Fabulous children’s area. Garden terrace with tables. A gift shop, too!

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8. Ames Free Library, Easton, MA

An architectural gem, opened 1883. A spiral staircase connects the two floors. Peaceful landscaped gardens with pond and fountain. Truly a sanctuary.

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9. New York Public Library, 42nd Street and Fifth Ave.

While not exactly a cozy reading library in my mind, it’s not to be missed. Take a free tour. Enjoy the famous “between the lions” steps, the grand foyer, impressive architecture, art collection, classic reading room, map room, and special exhibits. (Walt Whitman:American Poet through 8/30/19). The gift shop is my favorite!

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“The number of books destroyed or spoiled was equal to the entirety of fifteen typical branch libraries. It was the greatest loss to any public library in the history of the United States.”

10.  My Secret Library Writing Room

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Which library do you love?

 

 

Happy Pi Day!

Pi Day

From PiDay.org

Happy Pi Day!

In case you’re scratching your head…Pi Day falls on March 14. It’s as a celebration of the first 3 significant numbers of  the math constant represented by the Greek letter π—3.14

Remember calculating the area of a circle? 

Divide any circle’s circumference by its diameter; the answer (whether for a pie plate or a planet) is always approximately 3.14.

Pi has a rich history beginning in the ancient world.  Some attributed magical meaning to  π.  For a few thousand years, mathematicians have been scratching their heads over its properties.

Pi Day is celebrated around the globe with pie eating, math chats, contests, and related activities.  MIT has been known to send out its admission decisions on March 14. San Francisco’s Exploratorium has an entire exhibit devoted to this mysterious number.

Could you compete in a Pi memorization contest? 

This is a particularly impressive feat as there appears to be no repeating pattern in the constant.   

Kids (and grownups, too) are fascinated by the idea that Pi never ends! In other words, if you write it out as a decimal, you’re going to need a ton paper.

3.1415926535897932384626433…

Maybe your children, or grandchildren, are lucky to have a school celebration today for this irrational number.

When my kids were home, I baked a pie on March 14.  We explored circle art and puzzles. 

Pi Day Cherry and Apple Pies

From 74million.org

As an educator, I’m passionate about helping kids see math as more than arithmetic.  As a private tutor, I’m often dismayed by the dull and relentless worksheets kids get for math homework.

And don’t get me started on the state of math education.

I advise parents not to leave their child’s math learning to school. Supplement and augment. 

Kids need to develop a strong number sense.  Make math a part of your daily life together: cooking, building, measuring, counting, estimating, banking, graphing, calculating, sorting, scoring, and shopping.

Introduce the language of math to little ones. No need to keep negative numbers a secret until sixth grade.  Hey, it’s minus ten degrees in Boston!   

Play with polygons and trapezoids and tessellations.

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Audrey’s Geometric Display.

Read your kids and grandkids fun math-related picture books:

Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi by Cindy Neuschwander

Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi (A Math Adventure)T

The Grapes of Math by Greg Tang

Circle, Square, Moose by Kelly Bingham.

Count the Monkeys by Mack Barnett

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker

My favorite, for older readers–The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensburger

In my middle-grade novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, Talia, the 13-year-old narrator, is a math whiz who sees numbers in color with distinct personalities. While the story is about friendship, family, and faith, math plays an important role. I wanted to offer young readers a good story while presenting a girl’s love of numbers in a unique way. Kids write to me saying they enjoyed this aspect of the book.

. One Is Not A Lonely Number

How do you feel about math?  What color is your favorite number?

 

How to Write a Great Ending: (Why Endings Matter in Fiction and Life)

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Why is it we can forgive a book’s slow start, a meandering middle, but not a bad ending?

Some endings leave you feeling cheated. Or disappointed. Or plain confused.

You’ve invested your time, money, and heart and you want a payoff at the end.  Endings matter to readers and movie-goers. A lot.  The highly ambiguous ending to the 2014 movie Birdman ignited an intense online debate about what actually happened. Some loved the ending, others hated it.

For years after publishing Gone with the Wind, author Margaret Mitchell was deluged with reader requests for a sequel. Mitchell adamantly refused, saying she purposely left the ending ambiguous because she had no idea whether or not Scarlet and Rhett would be reunited.

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So what makes a bad ending? 

I asked my friends and family. Their answers aligned with the advice you’d get in a basic writing workshop.

-Confusing

-Based on coincidence

-It was all a dream

-Contrived

-Too many loose ends

-The hero dies without achieving or seeing his goal/dream

-Manipulative

-Unrealistic

-Too Sad

There’s a great scene in the movie The Silver Lining Playbook when the main character Pat, upon finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, throws the book out the window. Pat then wakes his sleeping parents and launches into a rant over the love story’s bleak ending.

“…She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys…Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Turns out, Hemingway considered at least 40 possible endings to the classic 1928 novel. If your curious, a 2012 Library Edition exists containing these alternative endings. 

This brings to mind the wacky physics theory of “parallel universes.   I won’t get into the scientific details behind the controversial concept, but basically, it explores the possibility that other versions of ourselves, our histories, and our outcomes exist simultaneously in multiple universes. (A premise portrayed many a time in science fiction tales.) 

So, let’s say you’re feeling sad and regretful about letting a lover go. Perhaps you can take comfort in the idea that somewhere out there your replica is enjoying life with this missed love.

In the 1980s and 90s, the widely popular children series, Choose Your Own Adventure, allowed readers to assume the role of the protagonist.  Every few pages,  the reader gets to make choices that determine the outcome. The fun part is getting the chance to explore several possible endings.

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Each book’s introduction affirms the power the reader holds. 

“There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences…but don’t despair at anytime YOU can go back and alter the path of your story, and change its results. 

If only real life were like that.

 

How do writers craft the perfect ending to their story?

Some decide on the ending at the very beginning and fill in the rest. Others follow a detailed outline which builds to a specified ending. Others writers like to journey with their characters and allow the ending to unfold. The process becomes an exciting discovery.

Best-selling thriller writers Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline described this process in a recent NYT podcast. After getting a feel for the tone of the book, Lee Child just sits down to write and sees what happens.  Lisa Scottoline knows only the beginning when she starts writing a novel. As she reaches each new point, Lisa asks herself, “Okay, now what?”  The prolific author says this process mirrors life.

I rarely know the ending of a story before I write. Even if I have a sense of the story’s conclusion, I often change my mind or consider alternatives. In my novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, one of the characters reveals a secret toward the end.  I didn’t even know what it was until I got there. 

In my new short story, “When We Were Bad”, I knew one of the characters would end up in the wrong place at the right time but wasn’t sure if she’d get out alive. Making that decision ultimately changed the final paragraph which I rewrote several times.

But even when you decide on the ending of your story, how do you know it works?

What makes a good ending?

This is a trickier question than what makes a bad ending. According to the character Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye,

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

I love this quote and have experienced the feeling myself.

The answers my friends gave me regarding a good ending were more about emotion–how a story ending left them feeling.

-Happy(ish)

-Enlightened

-Moved

-Astonished

-Transformed

-Curious

-Wishing it never ended

The most common answer was satisfied.  Hmm. Makes me think of a good meal. What is satisfying to one reader may cause another to toss the book out the window.

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So how does a writer choose?

A while back, I came across an answer. 

A good ending to a plot must be both inevitable yet surprising. 

I’ve been pondering this paradoxical advice since ever since.

Thriller writer, Meg Gardiner, (also interviewed in the NYT Podcast) summed up the above axiom in her 2015 blog post as: 

Amazing! Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected.

Try putting your favorite books and movies to this test.

For me, this played out in the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes(Don’t bother with the movie version.) It’s a contemporary romance between an unlikely pair who seem to hate each other at first then fall deeply in love. At the end of the book, one of the characters makes a choice that made me cry.  I thought about it for days. At first, I was sure it was the wrong ending. But as I reflected  (and debated with a friend), I could see the author had planted the seeds for what was to come. The reader doesn’t want this ending, is hoping until the last page that it won’t happen, but it does.  The conclusion is unsettling, thought-provoking and, indeed, “inevitable, yet unexpected.”

Few endings, in fiction or life, are perfect.

Story endings can leave us sad and still be a good ending. Or, perhaps, the right ending.

What are your favorite or worst book/movie endings? 

If you’re a writer, do you plan the ending ahead of time?

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