Subscribe to Jessica's exclusive newsletter

Subscribe to Jessica's newsletter

* indicates required

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Cradle of Catalunya: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 5

A palace near the gas station in Sant Ramon, because it's Catalunya
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
On the morning of May 18, 2016, my husband and I were overjoyed to eat the hotel breakfast because it included "Macedonia" yogurt. Macedonia is a special mixed fruit flavor I had to work hard to convince Stanley to try in 2015. From the moment it hit his tongue, it was the only flavor of yogurt he ever wanted to eat, and you can’t get it in the United States. 

It was a cloudy day, but we were too cheerful to let it bother us. The previous day was only the second time I’d been in Aragón, and that day was going to be the second time I’d been in Catalunya. The regions of Spain are a source of constant cultural and linguistic amazement. 

The mountain tunnels are decorated with flowers.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
It was a long drive to Ripoll, but with all the charms of castles on crags, changing landscapes, an arch that showed the Greenwich Line (opposite the International Date Line), and tons of tunnels through the mountains. We stopped at a gas station in a little place called Sant Ramon, which had a big palace. We bought a large bottle of water for only one Euro and the guy was helpful, conversing in Spanish, but the bathroom keys’ labels read dones and homes, the Catalan words for “women” and “men.” The linguist in me came out to celebrate, not to retreat for the rest of the journey.


The first droplets of water hit us on our entry into Ripoll, a place with lots of garden centers and a few shops. We went to Restaurant Can Villaura for lunch at a quarter to four, when the crowd was thinning out. I got a menu in Spanish to cope with ordering, but was reading all the Catalan on the walls. We had macarrones with gratinado and roasted chicken and fries. Roasted chicken with delicately seasoned sauce and potatoes fried in olive oil had become Stanley’s favorite dish in 2015 and if it was on offer, we couldn’t let it pass by. As soon as we stepped out of the restaurant, it started pouring insanely cold rain.

We ran under a pedestrian bridge, and the prospect of waiting for the cloudburst to pass was unattractive because neither of us had our jackets. Stanley ducked out and ran to the car to retrieve my jacket for me. It got soaked and he was frozen, but the gallantry was not lost on me. I used it as an umbrella to get to the car, where we sat in the blast from the heater for some minutes while it pelted rain.

The monastery at Ripoll after the rain
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
When the rain became normal enough, we drove to the monastery, arriving around 5 p.m. We were all by ourselves in the explanatory chapel in the tourism office and I was overwhelmed with the importance of this place to Catalan history. It all happened here! 


Small section of the main portal at Ripoll
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
The main portal at Ripoll is touted as the finest example of Catalan Romanesque sculpture. Nothing I’d read about it prepared me for how astounding it was. The photos don’t do it justice, of course. Stanley helped me record every inch of the wonder and kept me on schedule so we could see it all before they closed. The interior of the monastery had artistic contributions from the early Middle Ages to the present, and I stood, paced, and gasped, puzzling it all out in Catalan, Spanish, and English. I’m not sure how to convey the joy when I discovered that the cloister had a different capital on every marble column.


The cloister at Ripoll
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
It was a two-hour drive to Cadaqués. The map made it look close from Ripoll, but it wasn’t detailed enough to show all the mountainous switchbacks and curves. I thought we’d come out of the mountains to get to the coast, but that coast is rugged and hilly. Cadaqués is all hills, some of them so steep Stanley held onto me so I wouldn’t slide down. 


Cadaqués at night
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
We didn’t arrive until nightfall, around 9 p.m. The hotel was basic, but it was almost more comfortable that way. A five-star luxury experience could’ve been too much in such an ecstatically charming location. We walked out in the dark and the drizzle to look for dinner. We made it to the shore, with the waves crashing, restaurants, and a Dalí statue, then turned around and bought a pizza (they call them cocas) and a crispy almond honey flatbread about as big as a 33 rpm record at a bakery and ate them with peanut butter crackers back in the room. The prevailing feeling was that we should stay longer, but alas, I’d scheduled only one night there.


Cadaqués in the morning
Photo by Jessica Knauss 

Next time: the romantic frenzy of Salvador Dalí and Gala.

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Emails and Osbourne Bulls: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 4


Arriving in the early morning.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
My husband and I were diehard Manolo García fans, and in spite of a severe lack of cash that saw us in Arizona, hunched on folding chairs in a one-room apartment with little other furniture, we purchased his 2011 album, Los días intactos. Through the wonders of the internet, we heard the brilliant new songs the same day the Spanish did. But there was no way we could consider going to Spain for the million-city, small-venue tour for that album. 

In 2014, on the other hand, I had been working a regular job for some time. When Manolo García released the latest of his mind-blowingly great albums, Todo es ahora, we were able to listen for the first time together on real furniture in Massachusetts. Because it had been so long since our honeymoon in Spain (in 2009), we decided we would head over for that concert tour. I would finally see Manolo García live and fulfill my lifelong dream, which had been so thoughtlessly obliterated in 2008. 

Being an authentic artist, Manolo can’t be rushed. Instead of launching the 2014 album with a tour, he went back to the studio with his buddies and made a five-disc collection of gorgeously remastered and re-recorded old gems, which of course I snapped up with glee. We waited, but it didn’t look like a tour was forthcoming, so in March 2015, Stanley and I went to Spain for the second time together and had a grand, mostly medieval time. We spent most of the ten days in Seven Noble Knights territory, so it was fitting that the day of our return, I was surprised with an email in which Bagwyn Books accepted it for publication

Later that year, concert dates were published. We conferred briefly and my sweet, wise husband said we should take this opportunity because it doesn’t come around often. I think, empathic soul that he was, he sensed the giant hole in my existence because I had never been to a Manolo García performance. We investigated the concert venues, and they were all enormous, which felt overwhelming to our sensitive introversion. We chose to see Manolo García at the bullring in Valencia because the venue had the smallest capacity. I had never been to Valencia, though I’d always wanted to. 

Ecstatic in 2014 with an unexpectedly signed copy of Todo es ahora 
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
When the tickets went on sale, I jumped on them like the lifeline they were. Eighty Euros apiece gave us admission to a dream come true. I ceded the desk chair to Stanley and he strategized our plane tickets with memberships and miles, and I leaned over his shoulder to help him choose a rental car. Between the purchase of those tickets and the time we would use them, we moved from Massachusetts back to Arizona, so it was quite the geographic brain twister to arrange. 

Two days before our flights, on a bright Arizona May 14, I awoke to an email. (My translation follows.) 

Hi Jessica, 

Are you there? Is this your email? I’m Manolo García. I received your letter and know about the unexpected events you had when traveling. 

Please answer and tell me if you both are coming to the concert in Valencia. 

A hug from this sinner of the prairie [a cultural reference too complex to explain here], who is, 

Manuel García. 

My head exploding, I checked the from address and verified that it was coming from Carmen. Not just any Carmen, but a talented and creative Spanish music artist who happens to be Manolo García’s sister. 


Only when I was half convinced of the message’s legitimacy did I call Stanley in to see. Are there words to describe what it’s like to be contacted by Carmen on behalf of Manolo García? Not really. That day still stands out as unique. Stanley came up with a lot of scenarios, but I focused on accepting that this was enough, that even if we never heard anything from them again, we would still love Manolo and Carmen for all the joy they’d already brought us. We composed a message in reply and checked every time we could as we traveled to see if someone wrote back. Not yet, not yet, we kept saying. 

Stanley and I always divided up the labor of a journey in a way that maximized the use of each other’s talents and made for the smoothest journey. I took care of everything on Spanish soil except the rental car, and Stanley assumed responsibility for all transportation, including how to behave at the airport to get the best service. I was happy to comply with any suggestion he had because the result was always magical. 

We had some concern about making a connection at the Charlotte airport, and it turned out that even though it’s manageable in size, we arrived at the gate only eleven minutes before boarding. It felt like one more charm in a series of charmed events. For example, our tickets put us into the TSA precheck line. The flight felt long, mostly because it was on one of those fancy airplanes that pressurizes the cabin to almost normal altitude, and when there’s more oxygen it’s harder for me to fall asleep. 

T4 at Aeropuerto Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas
Photo by Stanley Coombs 
We arrived on May 17. Oh, the exhaustion! Oh, the crustiness! We knew the drill about the rental car from the previous year. It was a tiny black SEAT no one would ever want to steal. Then we went back up the flat escalator for carts, and ate donuts and a paleta de ibérico sandwich with orange Fanta. That was several things off the list already. 

We had no trouble finding where to go, even though it was tough booting up Susie, which is what we called our phone GPS navigator, in a "foreign" country. The landscape changed dramatically every few kilometers, and we passed into Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, and Aragón. We saw tons of iconic Osbourne bulls. 

You won't see these wordless liquor ads anywhere but Spain.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
When we caught a glimpse of Medinaceli, which is mentioned in Seven Noble Knights, we stopped and marveled. It turned out to be one of the pueblos más bonitos de España. Yes, this is a thing. Spain officially chooses its most beautiful towns. Next, Calatayud was amazing with thirteenth-century churches and a million castles, but we couldn’t get to any of them in the car, and were too tired to walk. Stanley did some amazing maneuvers on the small streets in that car. There was a statue of Alfonso el Batallador (notorious husband of Queen Urraca) tucked into a corner we swept by. 

Our SEAT for two weeks.
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Calatayud
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
When I was telling family and friends about this journey afterward, Stanley would contribute a story about when I was trying to get the above photo in Calatayud. Stanley didn't even want me to have to get out of the car—that's how tired were were—and, still getting used to the stick shift, he backed into a random invisible concrete block and scuffed the back right bumper. He was concerned that the rental company would charge us for the damage and started hatching a plan to avoid that. 

Our hotel in Zaragoza was in the middle of a big commercial area with trucks and malls. We had trouble finding somewhere to eat and ended up at McDonald’s. That must've been a direct result of my dad, because when he called me while we were on the way to the Phoenix airport, he asked if we were going to eat McDonald’s in Spain. As if Spain weren’t one of the best food countries in the world. But this McDonald's wasn't like any I'd been to in the United States. It had a fancy electronic ordering system, and I ate deluxe fries with curry sauce. 

The Ebro, the signature roof tiles of the Basílica del Pilar, and lovely Zaragoza
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
We slept for an hour and a half and drowsed a little more before resolving to go to Zaragoza's famous basilica. This place is the reason so many Spanish ladies are named Pilar. We went to the top of the tower with the help (but not all the way) of the attended elevator. Amazing views of the Ebro, the biggest river in Spain. We walked around in the Pilar plaza a little, and when we saw a pharmacy, we got Stanley an expectorant because he thought he had either bronchitis or Valley Fever. Then we had gorgeous lemon and chocolate/crema catalana gelato and got back in the car to take a Susie-led tour of Zaragoza’s posh shopping streets and the places only the locals go. It was so attractive, I thought I wouldn’t mind living there. We ended up at the palace, but it was so late in the day we didn't have time to go in. It’s huge! We strolled around it and enjoyed the gardens with the locals at the end of the day.

Palacio de la Aljafería, Zaragoza
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
At that point, we headed for a big mall anchored by Hipercor (one of Spain's Walmart approximations) and shopped for detergent, hand lotion, shaving cream, black shoe polish to "repair" the car, and candy. We had dinner there at a local joint, sharing a menú of esparragos blancos with jamón serrano and a scrumptious bistec with pepper sauce. Natillas for dessert—yum! 

After a day that lasted about 48 hours, we slept well.

Next time, a romantically rainy day in Catalunya. 

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here.


Monday, May 22, 2017

"I think I was robbed": The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 3

Although I've loved Manolo García since 1995, I had never seen him live. It was a matter of not believing I deserved to experience even a moment of the happiness a Manolo García concert would surely provide. In 1995, 1998, and 2005, I had opportunities involving varying degrees of difficulty and expense, and seized exactly zero of them. 

As I wrote last time, the summer of 2008 was already a huge deal because I moved in with the love of my life, and in August I was finally going to a Manolo García concert as well! It was part of the tour for his fourth solo album, Saldremos a la lluvia. In order to afford the airfare, I had to save money for months ahead of time, when I had only odd jobs. Stanley’s acceptance and encouragement of this crazy trip meant the world to me. It was only for the weekend, Friday to Tuesday, and the cost was something like a hundred dollars per hour that I would be on Spanish soil, but Stanley understood that this would fulfill a life’s dream for me and regarded it with utmost respect. He couldn’t come with me only because we had just spent so much money moving.

My visits to Spain had never focused on Madrid. It was a mere stopover on the way back to the States, or on to other, more quintessentially Spanish regions.

I made my way quickly from the airport to the train station, having honed my navigation skills on seven previous trips. I waited in line for an hour to buy my ticket to Ciudad Real, the city where the concert would take place. Then, instead of stopping to eat, I called Stanley from a bank of phones, because I knew he would want to know I was safe and on my way.


I learned immediately upon hanging up that it doesn’t do to get so comfortable in the biggest train station in Spain that you drop your guard, even for a second. When I turned away from the phone bank, back to my rolled luggage, my purse was not where I had left it. I stood, astounded, and a fellow traveler started making signs as if to ask whether he could use the phone.

“Creo que me robaron” (I think I was robbed), I said, unable to believe it.

“¿Que te han robado?” (You’ve been robbed?), he replied in surprise. He kindly led me to the security guards, starting a long afternoon. It was Friday, and a holiday—the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary—so I had to search the neighborhood for a police station that was open in order to report the theft, darting here and there, sweating copiously in Madrid in August with my rolled luggage, and stopping to ask people directions every so often. With the purse, I had lost American and European cash, credit cards, the train ticket I’d just purchased, a digital camera Stanley had leant me, as well as my passport and all my other forms of ID. At the police station, I learned that you cannot have money sent to Spain from the United States without a proper ID.

By the time I’d made my declaration, the time for the train for Ciudad Real had come and gone. I still hadn’t eaten, and I had hotel reservations in Ciudad Real, but no way to get there. I had Spanish friends, but they were all outside Madrid and I hadn’t brought their phone numbers with me, anyway, since it had been planned as such a short trip. It was looking as though I would have to sleep in the train station and beg for crumbs until the American Embassy opened on Monday so I could replace my passport.


I refused to surrender to panic, and eventually, after I’d insisted enough about how destitute I was, the police called social services. Two pleasant young Spaniards—fans of Manolo García, no less—came to deposit me in a Good Samaritan house, where I could sleep in a shared room, take public showers, and eat terrible food, all at no charge. Grateful as I was, all I could do was wait and try not to think of all my ruined plans.

Each time I had come to Madrid previously, it had struck me as a hulking modern behemoth: overwhelming, busy, and not open to enjoyment. This was in spite of my programmed tours of the typical tourist destinations. This time, without a Euro cent to my name, I couldn’t spend money on goods or attractions, and so I would have expected to enjoy Madrid even less than before. But without the distractions of timetables and costs, I could focus instead on learning the streets on foot. I took advantage of churches with free admission for something to do, and since I couldn’t even take pictures, I found myself becoming much more present and receptive, observing and experiencing the life—people, birds, plants, art—around me. I fell in love with Madrid in the purity of those three days. 

Photo by Jessica Knauss 
I got to speak with Stanley on the phone twice, for about three minutes at a time, as I milked the last minutes out of the calling card I’d brought from the States. Overall, I think he had a worse weekend than I did, worrying about my safety and comfort. 

In the Good Samaritan house, I viewed a Star Wars marathon dubbed in Spanish because of a ten o’clock curfew. From the balcony, I watched parades and festivities in honor of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the street. I got to observe all manner of people passing through the residence, and I helped some of them by interpreting between them and the staff. Perhaps most importantly, I got to read a gift from Stanley, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which had been in my rolled luggage. Without that book’s sane perspective, I would’ve had a completely different experience. 

What was really important? I was safe and I had my future husband’s love and support, albeit from afar. This confluence of events taught me to accept things as they are. Wishing they were different would only have made me miserable, since there was nothing I could do to change the situation.

Photo by Jessica Knauss 
Monday rolled around, and using the subway fare the Good Samaritan house had given me, I got to hang out at the American Embassy. With my new passport, Stanley was able to send me money, and I stayed in the Madrid hotel I had reserved from home, before leaving for the States, as planned, on Tuesday. Iberia upgraded me to first class at no charge, as if they somehow knew I hadn’t been able to live my dream and wanted to compensate. 

I still hadn’t seen Manolo García in concert. But there are worse things than being temporarily stranded and penniless in Madrid, as I have come to understand. Stanley thought I should let Manolo know what had happened, so I wrote a letter. Nearly a year later, Manolo responded with a beautiful watercolor with his signature and a personal note (with my name, lower left) thanking me for my efforts. If I wanted to come back to Spain (he thought so), I should let him know. I’d earned a coffee, or a beer, or whatever I wanted, with “un amigo.” He was referring to himself! What a great guy!

Art by M. García; photo by Jessica Knauss 
A few months after that, I returned to Madrid with my new husband on our honeymoon. We didn’t call up Manolo because we were still astounded that he’d responded at all, never mind so nicely, and couldn't conscience taking advantage, but we spent a couple of enchanted days in the capital of Spain. I was able to show Stanley around all the better for the crazy experience the previous year, and I’m sure it helped to convert him into almost as big a Spain fan as I am. Eventually, we returned to Spain together twice. Such a glorious times with the man I love most in the most magical place. 

I first wrote about my cutpurse adventure on the occasion of our first wedding anniversary:


Our marriage was relentlessly tested with threats of poverty. As you can see, we were happy anyway. At least in part because of that disastrous 2008 trip to see Manolo, we appreciated what we had while we had it. Non, je ne regrette rien. 

After that, Stanley and I were never apart if we could help it. The passionate love we started with matured quickly into devotion forever. The small details of day-to-day care and kindness were already apparent in this short, fraught time we were apart. 


And so Manolo García provides the first bookend. This story of happiness continues in the next posts with our decision to return to Spain in 2016 and a short communiqué from one Sr. García. 

Catch up with the other posts in this series here.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Road Trip Music: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 2


In July 2008, I moved in with Stanley, who would become my husband the following year. In order to bring the small number of items he treasured from where he’d been living in Idaho to Massachusetts, we did our first cross-country road trip together in his Honda Accord and had nothing but fun. We stopped and explored or ate or rested whenever we wanted to, and I’d brought a bunch of CDs (remember those?) for our road trip soundtrack. 

Everything I’d played for him up to that point had been music I loved, and he’d loved it, too. But I was still nervous to stick in the Manolo García CD. His fourth solo album, Saldremos a la lluvia, was pretty unusual, with Greek instruments and environmental lyrics in Spanish. My previous relationship had scarred me when the man in question couldn’t tolerate listening to Manolo García because he couldn’t understand what he was singing about. (I’ll note that as a giant red flag if I ever date again!)


“This disc is really important to me. This is the artist I love most in the world,” I said. “It’s okay if you don’t like it. I’ll take it out and we never have to hear it again together, but if you don’t like it, please be kind.” Asking Stanley to be kind was like asking a flower to bloom, but it was still early days. He acknowledged my request, and after the first song, I stared at him to gauge his reaction.

“It’s nice,” he said. “Leave it in.” Not the jumping for joy I could’ve hoped for, but the response still flooded me with relief. We listened to the whole disc attentively, and when we’d gone through all the other discs, Stanley did the most wonderful thing: he requested Manolo García again!


Thus I won my husband over for the Manolo García cause. Or rather, Manolo's awesomeness won Stanley over. Eventually, I made an mp3 disc with Manolo’s entire solo works for listening in the car, and one day we realized that it was all we ever listened to. When the nine hours finished, it cycled back to the beginning. When we realized this, we traded the disc for Lily Allen, whom we had seen together in concert in Boston. But as wonderful as she is, it felt wrong (Stanley's word, not mine!) to have anyone but Manolo in the CD player. So back in Manolo went. 

Sometimes when getting out of the car, we would say, “Bye, Manolo!” We might measure a trip by how many Manolo albums it took to get there. Once we visited Tumacácori, a lovely Spanish mission so close to Arizona's border with Mexico that we passed through a checkpoint on I-10. I turned off the music so the officers wouldn't hear Spanish coming out of our speakers. "That was a good idea," said Stanley. What a world! I hope that's the only time it's a good idea to turn off Manolo music.

Stanley would ask me what some of the songs were about, and some, he informed me, were love songs. “No, it’s love gone wrong,” I would say, or, “Yes, a love song to the city of Cádiz…” No matter the real lyrics, to my husband—an inveterate romantic, at least as soon as he met me—they were all love songs. They accompanied us through life like a faithful friend. 


The above song was Stanley's favorite for years. I'm not sure he liked the video much, though. 

Tune in next time for the unexpected outcome of my 2008 journey to Spain and how it laid the basis for a wonderful marriage. Catch up with the other posts in this series here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Three Brown-Haired Loves: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 1

Three men, all brown-haired, brown-eyed, and handsome down to their souls, have received my lifelong devotion. One is Alfonso X, el Sabio, whom I “met” in 1995, 711 years after he died. The most important is my husband, Stanley, who, as you probably know, passed away in July 2016. Last summer, I lived a lifetime of lows—and highs. Stanley left the world suddenly, and only two months before, we experienced the best two weeks of a marriage that had already doubled the world’s happiness quotient.

I’ve been learning about the therapeutic uses of writing about happy times, so I'm going to turn this blog into a travel narrative of those awesome two weeks in Spain in May 2016. I have to lay the groundwork with yet more happy things, namely my third love, Manolo García.

Who? 

If I had a dollar for every unit of how much I love Manolo García, a lot of people would never have to worry about money. My family would be set forever. Several universities and millions of hungry people would benefit from my love of Manolo García as much as I do, and the cycle would continue. Yes, Manolo García is the key to world peace and full bellies. 

He’s primarily a musician, with an illustrious career on the Spanish pop scene. I love his melodies and his voice, and of course, that mysterious alchemy when he was making music with Quimi Portet. The writer in me appreciates his surrealist, poetic lyrics. They come from pure inspiration. They either make no sense at all or they make perfect sense. Below is my translation of the song that makes the most sense to me.

“Rosa de Alejandría” Nunca el tiempo es perdido (2000)

Rose of Alexandria, yellow rose. 

I want to get away. To go deep into silence. 
I want to get away
from this life I live unconvinced,
and delve into the time of lights,
raw clay jars lit by the hand of the mysterious potter. 

I want to get away. Go deep into silence. 
Walk calmly. Abandon this path.

I want to get away.
Make a nest in the eaves
with the blue-feathered swallows.
Become a measuring cup for bushels, liters, gallons,
be wheat on the threshing floor,
never dust on the pavement. 

Rose of Alexandria, yellow rose.
Today you must be my guide, the shining light.
Midday lighthouse, simple rose
Rose of Alexandria, yellow rose.

With flowers in a flaming field
like a Saint Francis [of Assisi], I live among the thickets
crawling with lizards. 
I feed on chimeras
and content myself with simple things.

Maidens with smiling faces find me at peace,
like a perfect Góngora [poet of sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Córdoba, complex imagery, revolutionized the Baroque style, longing for the peace of the countryside]
surviving far from the hubbub. 
With my yellow rose, with my rose from the precipices. 

I want to get away. Go deep into silence. 
I want to get away. Abandon this path. 
I want to get away.

Rose of Alexandria, yellow rose.
Today you must be my guide, path between islands. 

Midday lighthouse, simple rose.
Rose of Alexandria, yellow rose.

His more recent work has been a lot less angst-ridden, but no less beautiful. Manolo García is a huge influence on me and my writing, because I try to tap into that mystical place of creation he accesses with his words and look for the most beautiful images, the ones that would make him proud.

Also he's a wonderful person and loves living creatures. But those are matters for the coming posts, in which I will describe how the great Manolo García bookended my magnificent married life with Stanley, and our stunning last trip to my beloved Spain, complete with photos and videos. 


Monday, May 15, 2017

Books of the Last Year: A Recap

The past year has been a whirlwind, in good and terrible ways. But that doesn't mean I haven't been reading, and today I'd like to acknowledge some of the finest books I've read (relatively) lately. A mention here constitutes endorsement, and I plan to place reviews in the appropriate sites.

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag. I wanted something to read on the plane to Spain, but I don't recall how I came across this author. I loved the sense of women's history and empowerment here.

 Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown. A fellow Launch Lab alum wrote this perfectly researched and imagined historical fiction about some of the most universal women's struggles.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I had this book recommended to me many times before I finally picked it up at my then-local bookstore, Antigone in Tucson, Arizona. It was the last in a long and hallowed line of books I read to my husband. He hadn't grown up with adults reading to him, so I started reading him my favorites and exciting new books to him before we were married. When my voice would give out, he would often pitch in, especially if we were at a really good part. This is why my husband put Harry Potter in our wedding vows. I had a lot of trouble getting into The Night Circus. Though my husband enjoyed it, I couldn't see that it was coming to any particular point. We didn't quite finish before my husband checked into the hospital, and after he lost consciousness, I read the last three chapters to myself sitting in a chair next to his bed. Of course, that's when the story all comes together and I ended up finally understanding why so many people recommended it to me.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I was nervous to get into this book because the great Manolo García, my idol in all things creative, recommended it to me when I met him in May 2016. If it was no good, what would that say about this artist I so admire? I purchased this book at Antigone two days before my husband passed away, which you might think would mar it for me. But I remember going to pick the book up with my sister-in-law as a much-needed break from the hospital, a slice of normal in a world that was quickly turning upside-down. I needn't have feared any of this. Lucia Berlin's writing is so overwhelmingly fantastic, this book is the only thing I remember about the first month after my husband's passing.

Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton. A tour-de-force by a fellow Launch Lab alum.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. On point and familiar, even though everyone's grief is different, with the added benefit of falconry drama—doubly unforgettable. I wish I'd read this before publishing the goshawk scenes in Seven Noble Knights!

The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman. Useful and no-nonsense exactly when I needed practical coping mechanisms.

The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud. This author was a favorite for my husband and I to read to each other, and I was comforted to be able to read this book when it came out on our wedding anniversary. I loved the mind-blowing imagery of life after death and how the two worlds might intersect. And I'm glad Lucy didn't abandon Lockwood & Co. for long.

Odd Adventures with Your Other Father by Norman Prentiss. I came across this gem by a fellow Kindle Press author when we did a cross-promo together. Whimsical, touching, and shocking in all the right places, this book made me realize I love some kinds of horror writing. The end is an unspeakably beautiful fantasy for someone who's lost a loved one to cancer.

Narrow River, Wide Sky by Jenny Forrester. I earned an internship at Hawthorne Books this winter, and focused on setting up the book tour and other publicity concerns for the wonderful author.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. Thank goodness I came across this daring and truthful memoir in the Hawthorne offices! Read it. Now. You'll thank me.

Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch. A hilarious examination of the gender and age bias in traditional psychotherapy. It made me want to read every other book Lidia Yuknavitch ever produces.

Life is Short—Art is Shorter by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman. Astonishingly effective in their brevity, the pieces here inspire you to experiment in this age of short attention spans.

Death's Dancer by Jasmine Silvera. Another wonderfully imaginative book by a fellow Kindle Press author.

The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales. I picked this up because I've been accepted into the prestigious Tin House Summer Workshop, and I'm thrilled I'll be working with Manuel Gonzales in July. Every one of these stories excited me for its approach, its novel logic, its turns of phrase, or the proliferating concepts I sensed behind the imagery, which was always exactly as crazy as I needed it to be.

Violation by Sallie Tisdale. Some of the best essays by one of the best essay writers.

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown. I won this advance readers copy via Goodreads. I think disappearances and faked deaths are a whole genre in themselves. This one had compelling characters and interesting twists.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier. Another Goodreads ARC win. Othello is my favorite Shakespeare, and the way the author transferred it to a 1970s middle school playground is fascinating. Great pop culture references run through the interesting and believable decision to make the action take place over a single school day.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. After a tragedy or trauma, you no longer have Option A available. I'm doing a lot of thinking about what my Option B is, and this book helps with that as well as with not feeling so alone.

I'm astonished I've read so much when concentration has often been a challenge this year—I've left out plenty of books here! Thanks for checking out my recent literary path. Straight an narrow it ain't!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Achieving a Big Goal without My Soul Mate: Seven Noble Knights at the Harvard Book Store

My trip to Massachusetts last week was the culmination of so many hopes and dreams. It was also the first time I'd been back to the place where I met my husband without him. Friends, beauty, and acute loss combined to create an emotionally complex triumph for my writing career.

Reading at the Harvard Book Store is the most obvious validation I've had of my book baby, Seven Noble Knights. I've been planning this event since before my husband passed away so unexpectedly. I always thought he would come with me, be his wonderful supportive self, and take photos and videos. I had to look elsewhere for the support I needed, and am amazed and thrilled that I found it.

Among the awesome people who attended the event were the other reader, talented memoirist Nadine Kenney Johnstone, author of Of This Much I'm Sure; Jennifer S. Brown, author of Modern Girls; Rick Heller, author of Secular Meditation; and Maile Hulihan, author of the forthcoming comedy Trinity of Bitches. Their enthusiasm helped me focus on the wonderful things about the evening.

I've rarely seen anything more beautiful than my book baby for sale in the Harvard Book Store.

Right next to checkout, ready for the next eager reader! Looks like it's already sold a copy or two...

I wanted the audience to love my epic novel as much as I do, so I read from it with great gusto.


Want to see the reading in action? You can because of kindness and support from my college creative writing advisor and dear friend, who took the video.


After the reading, Nadine Kenney Johnstone and I took questions from the audience. We discussed inspiration, how to get the writing done even when moving across the country, our next projects and sequels, working with an academic press, the lost medieval epic poem on which the novel is based ("It doesn't get more exciting than that!"), and the value of human life in the tenth century in light of the excerpt's mention of a "homicide fee." One audience member astutely pointed out that Seven Noble Knights would make a great television series. I'm not the only one who thinks so!

On a side note, look at the book behind Nadine: The Regional Office is Under Attack! This is by Manuel Gonzales, with whom I'm going to have the honor of working this July at the Tin House Summer Workshop!

Nadine also spoke about the reliving/processing/healing effects of writing her memoir and I wondered if that was in my future, too.

One of the prettiest city blocks in the entire USA
Many readers purchased books and I got to sign them with a nice pen I wish I could've kept. After the rush, Alex from the Harvard Book Store had me put my name in the remaining copies. Signed copies of Seven Noble Knights are now available if you drop by or order online! Nowhere else.

Friends tell me my husband's spirit was there to witness this event that meant so much to me.

I know. It wouldn't have happened without him.

If you can't get enough Seven Noble Knights videos, don't miss the intimate reading of Chapter I—murder, mayhem, and machismo in just five minutes!