Good Books

After wandering around the Crazy Horse Memorial site I decided to pick up something I’d been long meaning to read: Stephen Ambrose’s “Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors.” I started reading it at the Black Hills Mile Hi Motel in Custer, South Dakota. Quite fitting, I believe. Then I wanted to bring the book along with me to the Buglin’ Bull, where I ate a delicious Buffalo burger, but I thought that would be a little too cheesy.

So I read most of the book back home in Denver, wherein I had an increasingly hard time picturing George Armstrong Custer in his namesake town where I spend subdued evenings spotting deer along the Mickelson Trail.  I don’t think the quiet small town matched the General’s flamboyant personality. Custer as the guy who racked up the most demerits at West Point (one hundred were allowed every six month period. Custer once hit ninety in the first three months), wore conspicuous attire even in the battlefield, and spent months in New York and Washington schmoozing with reports and politicians.

However there is no denying that Custer loved the area. He was constantly itching to get back west where he could hunt buffalo, march his men through blinding blizzards, and hunt Indians. Even when everyone else was miserable, Custer rarely found anything on the Great Plains to complain about. Custer once toured the area with Colonel Stanley, and his love of the area is downright comical when compared to Stanley’s notes:

“Stanley said it had rained four out of the past six days, sometimes in torrents, and that he was miserable. Custer said, ‘Our march has been perfectly delightful thus far.’”

“No artist, he [Custer] wrote, could fairly represent the wonderful county we passed over, while each step of our progress was like each successive shifting of the kaleidoscope, presenting to our wondering gaze views which almost appalled us by their sublimity.” Stanly told his wife that while the river itself was beautiful, “the country adjoining is repulsive in its rugged, barren ugliness.”


Custer’s cockiness, optimism, and craving for attention caught up with him though. When he and his entourage (which typically included a menagerie of animals, a band, and a reporter) headed out to Little Bighorn he refused extra cavalry support, refused to rest his men and horses before the battle, and refused to properly scout the area. Crazy Horse and the largest collection of Sioux Indians that had “even collected on the northwest Plains,” trounced the cocky General. Custer and his 225 soldiers died that day.

I hate to say it was a good thing Custer died, but…well…yeah. Ambrose cautiously suggests that had Custer been victorious, he may have secured the Democratic Presidential nomination. And this pro-slavery Southern Democrat (who “had nothing new to say – he merely repeated whatever the current wisdom of the Democratic party might be. He filled his letters and his conversations with political slogans, which enlightened no one…”) would have been a terrible president. A town named after him is okay, but I’m glad school children have never been expected to revere him as a president.

A few miles north of Custer, SD is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Kind of. It’s actually the site of a museum that looks out at a huge rock face that barely appears to have Crazy Horse’s face carved out, despite the fact that construction has been going on since the late ‘40’s. The memorial is going to be HUGE, although I doubt I (or anyone reading this) will be alive to see it completed. The fact that it’s taken over half a decade to carve out but a face is kind of sad, but maybe symbolic of Crazy Horse. Unlike Custer, he was a much more modest leader, recognizable in battles for his lack of war paint and feathers.


*Purchasing “Crazy Horse and Custer via the affiliate link above will earn me a bit of cash, so thanks!

As a middle and now high school geography teacher who loves reading to her kids, I’m always on the lookout for really, really good YA (Young Adult) books that are hilarious, moving, interesting to teenagers, and somehow linked to geography so I can read them aloud in my classroom.

It’s been a tough search. There are tons of picture books relevant to my subject and curriculum, but YA book are harder to track down. It’s pretty much hit or miss, because I haven’t found a really database of YA books on travel and/or geography. Luckily I love reading books meant for audiences ten (okay…fifteen) years younger than me and eventually I know I’ll run in to something perfect.

I’ve recently hit jackpot. Not one, but TWO novels about travel. One has a main character obsessed with maps, one has a map on the cover, and they both feature road trips. Perfect.

Jennifer E Smith’s “You Are Here” is the one with Peter Finnegan, the main character obsessed with maps and travel plans:

Instead Peter planned to go to Australia and Africa and Alaska and Antarctica, and that was just the A’s. The list grew from there, ballooning to include Bali and Bangladesh, China and California and Chicago. He had marked carefully on the map the place where you might catch a ferry from Ireland to Scotland, had research mountain climbing in Switzerland and cage diving with sharks off the coast of South Africa.

When Peter’s next door neighbor steals her brother’s car to drive from New York to North Carolina in order to find herself, Peter steals another car and takes the trip with her when the initial stolen car breaks down on the New Jersey Turnpike. When his road trip with the increasingly frustrating and loveable Emma get tough and confusing, Peter realizes this:

Maybe the answer to all of his problems was nothing more than a darkened sky and a glittering city, a lofty perch above the world below. It seemed entirely possible that it was all just a matter of setting and location, and Peter wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before. After all, he understood better than anyone the importance of geography.

What a great paragraph to read when my students start whining about the uselessness of geography.

The next geographically inclined novel is John Green’s “Paper Towns.” Green is one of my favorite authors, but I have to admit this isn’t my favorite of his books. The book is great, his other’s are just that much better. Like Green’s Printz Award winning “Looking for Alaska,” “Paper Towns” features a hilarious and exceedingly messed up female character that the male protagonists spends most of the book reacting to. Near the beginnig of the tale, Margo Roth Spiegelman crawls through Quentin’s bedroom window one night and ropes him into a night of law-breaking, stating: “I need a car. Also, I need you to drive it, because I have to do eleven things tonight, and at least five of them involve a getaway man.”

When Margo runs-away (and not for the first time), her fed up parents change the locks of their house and admit defeat. Quentin and his friends at school aren’t so willing to give up on Margo though. They follow her clues to discover that she is staying in a ‘paper town’ in New York. The author describes paper towns as “copyright traps [that] have featured in mapmaking for centuries. Cartographers create fictional landmarks, streets, and municipalities and place them obscurely into their maps. If the fictional entry is found on another cartographer’s map, it becomes clear a map has been plagiarized.”

Anyways, for various reasons that you will read about in “Paper Towns,” Quentin and his crew need to get to from their high school graduation in Florida to Margo’s paper town in New York in twenty one hours and forty five minutes. A frantic road trip ensues.

Now that I’ve found two YA books that have something to do with geography, I’m hopeful that there is a whole treasure trove of them out there, I just have to keep reading. “Paper Towns” may be a little too risqué to read to my 9th graders (lots of swearing and sex references. Not that high schoolers are fragile beings that have never heard a swear word, but I don’t want to be standing in front of them swearing and reading about sex. However, I can edit if I have to) and You Are Here may be a tad on the touchy-feely side.

So the quest for a perfect book continues. Let me know if you have any recs.

I can’t believe I’m just know getting a library card. I basically lived in the library in Las Vegas, but for some unknown reason I hadn’t even stepped foot into a branch of the Denver Public Library until last weekend. Shockingly, Denver’s seven-story downtown library is just a tad nicer than the one in Las Vegas. The castle-themed children’s library downstairs is adorable, with a story time area in a nearby “turret” with huge windows and pillows for all the kiddos to sit on. I must say the Young Adult “Our Space” section needs some work though – it’s pretty boring.

Looking up from the lobby, a huge painting covered wagons and trains runs around the 2nd story (which is mostly fiction). I love the painting, and it matches the wood panel (but not in a ’70’s type way) theme of the rest of the library.

My favorite floor is the 5h, where the homeless people smell (sorry, that’s not very PC of me. But this is a downtown public library after all) gives way to an old book smell. Plus the 6th floor is where all the maps and painting of western scenes and landscapes are.

The library is located in Denver’s “Golden Triangle” at 10 W. Fourteenth Ave 80204. Plenty of metered parking is available. Library hours are M-T: 10-8, W-F: 10-6, Sat – Sun: 1-5. I love that the library is open on Sundays 🙂 You can get a library card even if you don’t have a state ID yet, as long as you bring in a bill or other proof of address. If you don’t have that yet, the librarians will even give you a card with limited check out capabilities to tide you over until you can bring in a bill or state ID.

So now that I am the proud owner of a Denver Public Library card, I can start working on my must-read list. Any suggestions would be most appreciated!

Historical and Non-Fiction

  • Crazy Horse and Custer: The parallel lives of two American Warrios by Stephen Ambrose
  • 1776 by David McCullough
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (does that count as historical? Haha)
  • Sugar Changed the World: A story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson (A YA book)
  • Freeman: A Liberated Slave in Search of Family, by Leonard Pitts Jr


  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Parker
  • The Same Earth, by Kei Miller
  • Human Croquet, by Kate Atkinson
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – how have I never read this?

YA Lit

  • Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. I read the first two Hunger Games tales a few years ago when they came out, but haven’t gotten around to the final installment yet
  • Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley: The 2012 Printz Award winner
  • Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta: A past Printz Award winner that I keep meaning to read
  • What Happened to Goodbye, Sarah Dessen’s latest. She is a YA genius and I love everything she writes.
  • Why we Broke Up, by David Handler.
  • The Fault in our Stars, John Green’s new one. Another YA genius.
  • Breaking Beautiful, by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
  • Sean Griswold’s Head, by Lindsey Leavitt

I’ve been pondering what to do with my Washington D.C. pictures because I don’t really have anything fabulous to write alongside them. Suggesting that readers copy my D.C. itinerary of walking around the Mall, visiting the Smithsonian, and eating at Jaleo hardly seems groundbreaking. I (sadly) wasn’t in my nation’s capitol long enough to do anything out of the ordinary, and nothing weird happened to me while I was there.

So I put off my Washington D.C. post until recently when I re-listened-to Sarah Vowell’s “Assassination Vacation,” (I have nothing against books, but Sarah Vowell’s stuff is best on audio) and inspiration struck. I didn’t have to tell my own D.C. story; I’d just steal someone else’s. Thanks Sarah!

In Vowell’s 2005 book “Assassination Vacation,” she travels around the US (often with reluctant friends and family members) in search of anything that might have anything to do with an assassinated president. Obviously her morbid quest lands her in D.C a few times. Here’s what she had to say about some of the spots I photographed on a very blue-sky day last October.


Sarah Vowell on the WWII Memorial:

Never underestimate the corrective lens that is sentimentality. Take for instance the new National WWII Memorial next to the Washington Monument. Each state gets it’s own bland stone pillar. The first time I see it, I hated it at once, (I think it mucks up the Mall) but nevertheless search for the Oklahoma granite pylon because my late great uncle, John A. Parson, served in the Philippines. Damndest thing, but the minute I spot it, Oklahoma, I burst into tears.

Daniel Chester French was the sculptor of the Lincoln memorial who fretted for nine years over the piece. Upon viewing his completed work he was horrified. Vowell writes:

 “The problem with putting in a reflecting pool? The darn thing reflects! When the light off the reflecting pool bounced up on to Lincoln’s face it looked as if a flashlight had been held up under his chin…Lincoln looks frightened, startled, confused. Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ by way of Macaulay Culkin’s ‘Home Alone.’ Apparently ‘hilarious’ wasn’t the aesthetic French had been going for.”

 Ceiling lights were installed to correct the problem. However these light would have been unnecessary on my particular visit as the reflecting pool had been drained for renovation.

“This tour of the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley ends up at the Lincoln Memorial because that’s where I’m always ending up. It’s the closest thing I have to a church.”

To contrast with a night of drinking Guinness and screaming “Slainte,” I’d recommend picking up some good Irish reads to round out the green month of March. My two recommendations were not on the designated Irish Reading Table at Denver’s, Tattered Cover, although there were some good reads there. Oscar Widle and James Joyce were the obvious choices, but I haven’t read Ulysses and writing a  blog about The Importance of Being Earnest and Dubliners might sound a bit too much like an essay for some Freshman Western Lit college course.

The shamrocked decorated table also included Tony Hawks’s Round Ireland with a Fridge, which I purchased because I’ve heard great things about the tale of the guy who carried a fridge around the Emerald Isle. However, I haven’t read it yet – look for the review NEXT St. Patrick’s Day.

My favorite Irish story to date is Leon Uris’s Trinity. Uris is an American writer, so maybe that’s why Tattered Cover didn’t have a place for him on the Irish Reading Table. Then again, there wasn’t a single copy of his book in the entire store, so that might have had something to do with it also.

I read my former husband’s copy of the book three or four years ago, after he’d been pushing it on me for years. I wasn’t initially excited about the read. The book was thick, the yellowed pages featured very small print, and the dusty cover was not very interesting looking. Plus I’d just started my YA lit phase (which has yet to end), and Trinity was going to be a serious departure from slim books about teenage angst.

But since I’m here writing about it, you know I loved the book. First of all, my grasp on 19th century Ireland is much stronger after reading Trinity. I even read Uris’s description of Ireland’s potato famine and tales of the Irish sneaking into British lands to steal food aloud to my 8th grade students, and they were captivated by the tale (although the girth and obvious age of the book had them initially suspicious as well). The conflicts between the British and Irish, Protestants and Catholics, those who immigrated to America and those who stayed (often to fight for Irish independence) were portrayed with all their complicated nuances. The fictional stories of Conor, Seamus, and their extended families is what made the history interesting (even to 13 year old “urban youths”) and the book one of my favorites. Be sure to read it by next St. Patrick’s Day.

From Leon Uris, I’m moving on to Marian Keyes. Writing about these two authors in the same 700 words is a bit like writing about how smart Einstein and Dave Barry are. Yet, here we go.

I went through my chick-lit phase in my early twenties, passing around pink-jacketed books with my girlfriends along with our Steve Madden heels. Authors from across the pond were our favorites, (exception: Jen Lancaster) most likely due to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. We still exuberantly text each other when the Renee Zellweger flick comes on TV despite the fact that we all have copies of the movie.

Anyways, my chick-flick phase has (somewhat) come to an end, but I still read anything Marion Keyes writes. Her best batch of books chronicles the tales of five Irish sisters. Keyes is working on writing a book about each sister. The oldest sister’s husband takes off the day her baby girl is born, another sister loses her mind and takes off to L.A. for awhile, another get a tad too friendly with heroin, etc. The books are HILARIOUS. Reading them in order is not at all necessary. My favorite of this series isAnybody Out There?

I’m not even mentioning the plot as to not give anything away, but unexpected heartbreak comes with the expected hilarity in this one. I’ve read it over and over – usually in one sitting. Don’t start this book at night if you have to get up in the morning.

Uris and Keyes are the ultimate Irish-tale due for girly wanna-be history buffs. If you are of the male persuasion, you might want to skip Keyes and pick up Round Ireland with a Fridge instead. Let me know if it’s worth the read.

Leitheoireacht Shona…Happy Reading!

My favorite Christmas story just happens to be about traveling. Kinda. Convenient, as this means it is an acceptable thing for me to write about here. My favorite book is not traditionally thought of as a Christmas tale. It is not read out loud by families on Christmas Eve (or ever). It is not displayed on Barnes & Noble’s holiday table. However, when I place the book between branches of my parent’s Christmas tree, it looks much more festive.

But my favorite Christopher Moore book really is Christmas-y! Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal,” is my go-to-gospel even though it’s not really a gospel or in the Bible and liberally uses the word “fuckstick.” The premise of this book is that Biff has been resurrected by an angel in the year 2000 to write another gospel, this one about Christ’s life starting at age seven. While the angel watches soap operas, professional wrestling matches, and MTV, Biff writes his gospel. He tells about how he and Jesus (called Joshua in the book) TRAVELED through Asia (see, traveling) to find the three magi that followed the star to attend his birth in Bethlehem. They then return to Jerusalem to round up the disciples. An excerpt, if I may:

             “What can we do?” said Andrew. “We’re only fishermen.”

            “Come with me and I’ll make you fishers of men.”

            Andrew looked at his brother who was still standing in the water. Peter shrugged and shook his head. Andrew looked at me, shrugged and shook his head.

            “They don’t get it,” I said to Joshua.


            Thus, after Joshua had some food and a nap and explained what in the hell he meant by “fishers of men,” we became seven.


             We came to another small village and Peter pointed out two brothers who were fitting a new oarlock into the gunwale of a fishing boat.


             “Come with us,” I said, “and we will make you oarlock makers of men.”

            “What?” said Joshua.

            “That’s what they were doing when we came up. Making an oarlock. Now you see how stupid that sounds?”

It is hands down the funniest and most thought-provoking book I’ve ever read. Although some would describe it as sacrilegious, I actually feel more spiritual and okay with Christianity after reading it.

Although most of the story is made up, the setting, events, and characters are meticulously researched. There are many references to the Bible in the story, some of which are real Bible verses and some of which are made up (from the books of Amphibians and Excretions for example). Author Christopher Moore has this to say on the subject:

…if the reader knows the Bible well enough to recognize the real references, there’s a good chance that he or she has decided not to read this book. [We]…advise those who are not familiar with the Bible to find someone who is, sit them down, read them the passages in question, then say, “That one real? How ‘bout that one?” If you don’t know someone who is familiar with the Bible, just wait, someone will come to your door eventually. Keep extra copies of Lamb on hand so they can take one with them.  

I often want to go look up this and that in the Bible after reading Lamb. I’d been re-reading Lamb last Christmas and hadn’t had a Bible handy in some time to look things up. That Christmas Eve, my brother, father, and I were drunkenly headed to midnight mass after a lively family dinner. We rolled up late, ignored warning glares from my mother in the choir, and found a pew. Then my brother and I had the following exchange:

 Me: “Where are all the Bibles around here?

Jay: “They don’t have Bibles in church.”

Me: “Why not? I want to look up something questionable.”

Jay: “That’s exactly why they don’t put them in church.”

This was extra hilarious after several glasses of wine. We couldn’t look at each other for the rest of the service without laughing. It should be mentioned here that Jay and I are loud and not discreet even in sober circumstances.

My parents were so glad that we’d come to church with them.

A final Lamb quote:

“Nobody’s perfect…Well, there was this one guy, but we killed him.”

 Merry Christmas!

Purchasing Lamb via the affiliate link in this post will earn me a bit of money, so thank you!

Someone who likes traveling and reading is extremely easy to buy a present for. There are tons of great books for travelers whether they are hikers, Francophiles, adventurers, or single females. That last category is getting more and more crowded due to Elizabeth Gilbert’s commercial success.  

My brother (who would definitely NOT appreciate “Eat, Pray, Love”) is a hiker and also a writer. As his sister, I’ve decided that he should read more. So I went out and purchased Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” as his Christmas present. Hopefully Jay won’t read this blog between now and December 25th.   

But it’s too easy to just buy someone a book, wrap it up, and call it good. So I’m giving Jay additional presents to open while reading. Naturally, each present corresponds to some section in the book. This also:            

a)      Ensures that he actually reads the book – sneaky, huh?

b)      Provides me a reason to read the book before giving it to Jay. So not only is he getting a present that I actually want for myself, but now he’s getting it secondhand. I’m a great sister.

Come Christmas, here is what my brother will receive along with his very own used copy of Bill Bryson’s book:

  • After the author decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, he spends the first 23 pages worrying about bears. He writes about past bear attacks in an increasingly panicked fashion. He particularly notes that bears like Snickers bars. When Bryson’s friend comes to join him for the hike, the friend (unbeknownst to the bear danger) brings a backpack full of Snickers bars. Jay’s first present is, of course, a Snickers bar.
  • After Jay reads the following passage on page 96, he will be rewarded with sticky rat traps. In the book, Bryson and his friend Katz find themselves spending the night in a rodent infested shelter:

I turned on my headlamp to find a packmouse on top of my sleeping bag…not six inches from my chin, sitting up on its haunches and regarding me with a gimlet eye. Reflexively, I hit the bag from inside, flipping him into a startled oblivion. 

“Got one!” cried Katz.

“Me too,” I said, rather proudly.

  • By page 144, the book has returned to Bryson’s bear phobia. It’s the middle of the night and Bryson fears that there is a bear outside. Upon conferring with Katz (who is decidedly less hysterical about possible bear proximity), it is discovered that the sharpest instrument they have to slay bears with is…toenail clippers. Naturally, this is Jay’s next present. If I was a good sister, I would have bought bear spray for my brother instead. But bear spray is $40, so I decided to pass. If my brother ever does get mauled to death by a bear, I will feel very bad. Maybe I’ll buy him bear spray for his next birthday.
  • Jay’s next present (to be opened at page 185) is a $10 donation to Earth Justice, an organization that is working to stop some types of coal mining. Check out their website, wherein you can download the donation form. I’m giving Jay the form and a ten dollar bill, so technically he can decide what to do with it. However, he will have just read Bryson’s description of the town of Centralia. This eastern Pennsylvania town had to be evacuated in the early ’80’s because of the coal fire raging just under the town’s surface.

In 1981, a twelve-year-old boy was playing in his grandmother’s backyard when a plume of smoke appeared in front of him. As he stared at it, the ground suddenly opened around him. He clung to tree roots until someone heard his calls and hauled him out. The hole was found to be eighty feet deep. Within days, similar cave-ins were appearing all over town. It was about then that people started getting serious about the fire.   

  • Crazy, huh? Jay’s last present will be a body warmer, which he will be instructed to open on page 220, after reading about Bryson’s various descriptions of hypothermia.

I decided not to get Jay a final present upon completing the entire book, but an airline ticket to Great Smoky Mountain National Park would be appropriate, as would an “America the Beautiful Pass,” which is a yearly pass guaranteeing free admission to all the National Parks he may want to visit.

Please feel free to copy my idea as you are Christmas shopping for your own brothers, family members, and friends. But even if you don’t come up with a whole slew of presents to give alongside the book, any reader on your list that even mildly likes to hike will enjoy Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

Please know that this post contains affiliate links. Purchasing books or bear spray via the links in this post will earn me a bit of money – so thanks!

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