Pages & Paws

Writing, Reading, and Rural Life With a Border Collie


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From Appalachia to Yale Law: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Delivers Searingly Honest Memoir of Upward Mobility

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Thorndike Press, 2016

By J.D. Vance

 

You may want to buckle up before plunging into this memoir. Cuz it’s a doozy. It’s also an eye-opener worth the plunge.

“To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart” explains the author in the Introduction. He grew up poor, in the “Rust Belt,” in an Ohio steel town that “has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” But he graduated from Yale Law. That’s a pretty compelling story any way you slice it. So I’d listen up ‘fize you. Like this:

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Feeling Sick?

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Public domain

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blogging to bring you this special commentary related to the coronavirus:

 

The coronavirus isn’t the first pandemic. It just feels that way, due in part to the 24/7 news cycle and social media.

 

So what are we to do with this, in this? Another perspective:

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While You’re Waiting – 9 Best Dog Stories Ever

Kimber here. Coming to you from my Purrell-slathered secret bunker. Laying atop my small mountain of T.P. Waiting for the world to end.

NOT!

But I am ready for winter to end!

I’m also waiting for another thing to be gone.

It seems like a lot of humans are freaking out over a virus thing-y. Maybe it’s the face masks?

Mom says be pro-active. Be responsible. But keep a level head. Don’t let fear and panic run your life.

I’m not.

In the meantime, if you’re stuck at home waiting for spring to show up, you might check out these titles (some of my favorites. Not that I’m biased or anything.)

1. Lassie Come Home, by Eric Knight

“First published in 1940, Lassie Come-Home has become a cultural phenomenon and one of the best-loved dog stories in the world, inspiring several movies and TV shows.”

2. Marley and Me, by John Grogan

The heartwarming international best seller about the world’s most loveable “worst” dog.

3. Big Red, by Jim Kjelgaard

Danny, a trapper’s son, knows more about the woods, trapping, and hunting than he does about the big city or dog shows, but when Red’s owner sees seventeen-year-old Danny’s love for the dog, he entrusts the boy with training the champion Irish Setter. A much-loved classic.”

4. Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson

Don’t make me explain this.

5. Kavick the Wolf Dog, by Walt Morey

When Andy Evans stumbles upon the snow-covered wreckage of a small plane, he’s shocked to find a survivor. Should he put the gravely injured dog out of his misery? The look in the animal’s eyes says he’s not ready to die. It turns out that Kävik’s a champion sled dog, and soon he makes a full recovery. When his rightful owner finds out Kävik is alive, he wants the dog back. But Kävik has other ideas.

6. Where The Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls

The beloved classic that captures the powerful bond between a boy and his best friends.

7. The Incredible Journey, Sheila Burnford

Two dogs and a cat and their journey home.

8. Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamillo

Ten year old Opal goes to the supermarket – and comes home with a dog. But Winn-Dixie is no ordinary dog. It’s because of Winn-Dixie that Opal begins to make friends. And it’s because of Winn-Dixie that she finally dares to ask her father about her mother, who left when Opal was three. In fact, just about everything that happens that summer is because of Winn-Dixie.

9. Shiloh, Phyllis Naylor

Marty will do anything to save his new friend, Shiloh, in this Newberry Award-winning novel.

Wait. Do I smell spring?

What’s your favorite dog story?


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How To Write a Killer Christmas Letter

Writing an annual Christmas letter is as seasonal as eggnog and mistletoe. Some Christmas letters have flair and panache. Others are like watching paint peel. How can you write a Christmas letter that’ll knock the socks of your family Saint Nick and make Rudolph’s nose dim?

Here are 12 tips for writing a killer Christmas letter:

1. Keep it short.

I’m talking one page. Preferrably just the front. The more loquacious you are, the less likely people are to read the whole thing.

People are busy, especially during the holidays. No one has time to read a Christmas epistle that’s a War and Peace wannabe. So keep it short and sweet.

2. Be yourself.

This may seem obvious. But it’s amazing how many people try to copy someone else’s style or voice. Don’t. People want to hear from you, not a clone.

3. If you include a photo, make sure you tie it in with the text of the letter. And caption it with the place, date, who’s featured and what they’re doing.

4. Mix it up.

If you used a first person narrative last year, try writing from another point of view. The kids? The dog? A neighbor?

5. Include humor.

Not everyone has an active funny bone. But most people like to laugh and enjoy some levity. Include some.

6. Choose a font that’s easy on the eyes.

I can’t tell you the number of times I gave up trying to read through fancy calligraphy or curliqued letters on steroids. It may look pretty. But if your type font is hard to read, few will.

Choose a standard font like Times Roman or Arial.

7. Handwrite the salutation and conclusion.

If you’re writing your letter on the computer and tucking it into an envelope, be sure to start it with, “Hello Bill and Marilyn” (or whatever). In handwriting.

Also hand write your conclusion and signature: “Merry Christmas from Jim and Eileen, Chad, Chloe, and Joey.”

It takes longer. But it’s more personal.

If you’re using an email delivery platform like Mail Chimp, you can customize the “To” field and do likewise.

8. Keep a list. Check it twice.

Staring at a blank piece of paper or screen and waiting for writing inspiration to strike can be intimidating. It’s helpful to keep a running list of key dates and events through the year.

If possible, jot them down real time. It’s a lot easier to just grab your list or review your calendar than it is trying to remember the last 11.5 months off the top of your head, without prompts.

9. Inclufe your contact info.

Make it easy for people to respond by including your address, email, phone, etc. In The Letter. You can do this in the footer of a Mail Chimp or in a regular email or hard copy letter.

10. Use white space generously

Resist the temptation to jam in as much copy as you can on a sheet of paper by cramming every available millimeter with type. It’s hard to read!

Instead, keep your paragraphs short. Indent for new paragraphs. Or better yet, double space between paragraphs.

Make sure margins are adequate. Choose Justify rather than ragged right for your right margin. It looks cleaner and more polished.

11. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

What do you want to know? What will be of interest? Do I really care about your second cousin’s bunion surgery or the egg substitute you just discovered?

We all find ourselves fascinating. But try to write yiur update with an eye toward news that will resonate with and be interesting to your recipient(s). Think: What will my friends want to know about and what can they best relate to?

12. Draw the reader in.

This is key. It’s also rare, as most Christmas letters tend to be one-sided. Even self-centric.

Engage your reader by “pencilling in” a question specifically for them. How was vacation? The new job? Is Norbert coming home for Christmas?

You might also close with something like, “Please let us know what’s going on with you, too” or drawing attention to your contact contact info. so they can easily respond. (See above.)

If your budget allows, print up your letter on some Christmas-y stationery.

Well, that’s it. Now get those creative juices going and make this year’s Christmas letter the best ever!


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Anacondas & Oracles

“Where in the world is Anaconda, Montana?” Mom asks me, peering over her reading glasses.

Do I look like an oracle?

“Wait…” She starts tapping away on the hand-held shiny thingy. Mumbles something about “Googling.”

“Looks like it’s in southwest Montana. Kind of near Butte.”

I have no clue what that means. Do you? Well, Mom’s smiling. She must be pleased with herself. So I’m pleased, too. Can you see my tail wagging?

“What’s up with Anaconda and Montana?” you ask. Well, ya, see, Mom just finished a book she’s been looking to re-read for a long, long time. Not a single library in our entire state carried it. She had to order it through Inter-Library Loan.  I don’t what that means. Sounds like a hassle.

Anyway, her long-looked-for book finally showed up. From one of those book places in Anaconda, Montana. I still don’t know what that means. But Mom finished all 247 pages of that book in one day. So it must’ve been good.

What was it? Oh. You mean the title? Spencer’s Mountain. Published in 1961. By Earl Hamner, Jr. You know, The Waltons guy. Only in this book, it’s not Walton’s Mountain. It’s Spencer’s Mountain. The family patriarch is Clay Spencer. His oldest son is Clay-Boy. Not John. And not John Boy.

But Mom really loves this story about a large family growing up poor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They made a movie out of it in 1963. With somebody called Henry Fonda as Clay Spencer. And another someone called Maureen O’Hara as Olivia Spencer, the mom. Some guy name “James MacArthur” plays Clay Boy.

“The movie closely parallels the book,” observes Mom. Even including the Rockfish River, Hickory Creek, and Charlottesville. Of course, the names of all the children are different than in the TV Waltons. But that’s another story.

Speaking of stories, have you ordered your copy of Mom’s latest book? It’s a little bit like this Spencer thing: The Small Things: What ‘The Waltons’ Taught Me About Writing & More.

Find out more at Shushes, Small Things & Plain Vanilla.

Arf! Arf!


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A ‘Champion for the Ages’

Reposting from 2018 in honor of Derby Day and the 145th Run for the Roses!

***

“Inevitable.” Isn’t that a great word? Learned it from Mom the other day. As in, the 144st annual Run for the Roses is coming up on May 5. So debates about who was the Greatest Thoroughbred of All Time are… inevitable.

Or so I’m told.

A few other things I learned:

The “Run for the Roses” is also known as The Kentucky Derby. The Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May. It’s the first jewel in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horse racing.

Why do I care about Thoroughbred racing? Well, I don’t. Not really. But Mom does!

She’s been reading a Walter Farley book about one of the greatest champions to ever set hooves on a race track: Man O’War. Along with legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Man O’War is a top contender for Greatest Thoroughbred of All Time honors.

Back to the Farley book.

Man O’War’s remarkable life unfolds through the eyes of fictional stable boy Danny Ryan. Mom says the story is nearly as powerful and compelling as the great Thoroughbred himself. I’m not sure what the means. But it sounds good.

Here’s Mom’s review of Farley’s Man O’ War.

So when Kentucky Derby time rolls around each May, the comparisons between Man O’ War and another great champion, Triple Crown Winner (1973) Secretariat, are inevitable. At least according to Mom. Which horse gets the nod for Horse of the Century? Depends on who you ask. And what day it is.

Both possessed blinding speed. Both ran challengers off their feet. Both broke records. Both have great stories.

So whether your vote for The Greatest goes to Secretariat or Man O-War, a few things are for sure:

1) May is the perfect month for awesome horse stories!

2) Any story by Walter Farley is a great story. Inevitably.

3) Churchill Downs promises another great Run for the Roses this Saturday. (“Run for the noses”? I always kinda thought that was when Mom calls me in for dinner. But I may be wrong about that.)

4) One of the finest athletes to ever set hooves on a race track, Man O’War remains a Champion for the Ages. Just like Walter Farley.

Is it dinner time yet?

Update – May 5: Congratulations to the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner, Justify!


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Shushes, Small Things, & Plain Vanilla

Shhhh!

I’ve heard this a lot lately. Mom’s been working on a project. She calls it The Story. She’s spent like a million years at her keyboard working on it. Or maybe it’s only been 20 minutes?

Anyway, The Story is finally finished. Here it is! (Can I bark now? Like, real loud? Cuz this is like a big bark-worthy thing here, ya know?!)

Find out more at: The Small Things: What ‘The Waltons’ Taught Me About Writing & More.

Here’s one of my favorite parts. Near the end:

High above the river a bald eagle soars in slow circles. Dropping like a stone, the majestic raptor glides low over the water, talons out, and spears a fish. Great wings beating, he climbs to the nearest conifer to tear and eat. Northwest clouds cough out a cold chorus as sable night seeps over the Olympic Mountains.

Night rings down the curtain on day. Ideas roll around in my head like lost pennies. Small things like eucalyptus trees. A Michigan dairy farm. Guitar lessons. A first love. Girl’s chorus and my first creative writing teacher. Lunches and lagoons. Summer adventures and sheer stupidity. Time is like a penny. Life stories that don’t always go the way we planned. Clark Park, to which I’ve never returned….

… Peering out the window at a rising moon, I give thanks for family, friends, and a roof over my head. I recall A.J. Covington’s advice to a fledgling Walton writer and pad back to my keyboard. I can’t help but smile. You were right, Doc. You were right, indeed.

Mom says, “Sometimes even ‘plain vanilla’ has flavor.”

You’ll get that if you get The Story. Woof!


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Winning or Wounding and “Smithing” Well

Geyser spray

Niagara falls. Earthquakes. Stars. Old Faithful. Rainbows. A pen.

Power.

Writer, maybe you’ve never really thought about it before, but do you realize the power you have at your fingertips? The impact your words can have? There may be no other profession that can persuade, convince, motivate or edify like writing. Writers have the ability to create, enhance, improve, challenge, enlighten, embrace, entertain, or educate like few others. We can also destroy, defeat, discourage, dampen, denigrate, divide and dispirit.

If you’re a word smith, smith well. And carefully, because the “power of the pen” is immense.

Oops

Example: Awhile back I received a Dear John letter from a friend. Let’s call her Sally.

Okay, it wasn’t really a “letter.” It was more like a one-way ticket for an under-the-bus reservation. Seems I inadvertently “hurt her deeply” by not immediately returning an “I’m dying, please call me” message she left on my machine. While we were on vacation. Out of town. Tent-camping for a week in Incommunicado Land.

Her first message came in an hour after our departure for terra incognita. The second arrived the next day, and with increased voltage: “I can’t believe you haven’t called me back yet. I told you I was dying.” (This isn’t the first “I’m dying” call I’ve received from Sally.) I called her back when we got home. No answer. Left a message explaining we’d been out of town for a week, hoped she was feeling better, please give me a call and let me know how you are.

No response.

Several months later I received a four-sentence note from Sally. “Please do not contact me again” she wrote, “I’m not interested in a one-way relationship.”

At Your Fingertips

Now, I could go several different directions here. But to stay on target, here’s the point: If you’re a writer, you have enormous power at your fingertips. You can wound or win with your words. You can splash canvasses with color, wonder and intrigue. Introduce readers to far-off lands, distant destinations, or, like Tolkien, create entire worlds and histories in your head and transfer them to the page. You can inspire, amuse and make merry. You can also delve into the depths of despair, cut others off at the knees. Alienate, isolate, separate and depress.

A good example of the latter: 1984 by George Orwell and Night, by Elie Wiesel. If you’re really interested, here’s a list of the Top 10 Most Depressing Books. (I do not agree with this list entirely, but they got 1984 right.)

I scoured the internet in search of a reasonable, sane listing of the Top 10 Most Inspiring or Uplifting Books ever written. By “inspiring” I mean uplifting, engaging, poignant, powerful or laugh-out-loud. A beautifully crafted, thoughtfully written work that ignites an “Aha!” moment(s), drawing readers into something bigger than themselves.

‘Most Inspirational?’

I must’ve read through like nine zillion lists, usually punctuated with, “You have got to be kidding!” So, after I picked myself up off the floor, I decided to create my own. Here in no particular order are my purely subjective choices for Most Inspirational:

The Bible

The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams

Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls

The Notebook, Three Weeks With My Brother – Nicholas Sparks

The Christmas Box, Road to Grace series – Richard Paul Evans

The Gift of the Magi, The Ransom of Red Chief – O. Henry

The Hiding Place – Corrie ten Boom

These Strange Ashes – Elisabeth Elliot

The Applause of Heaven, When God Whispers Your Name – Max Lucado

A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Cold Tangerines – Shauna Niequist

The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

Secrets of the Vine, The Prayer of Jabez – Bruce Wilkinson

The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

The Wizard of Oz – Frank Baum

For Those Who Hurt – Charles Swindoll

Woods Runner, Winter Dance – Gary Paulsen

The Mitford Series – Jan Karon

Inkheart – Cornelia Funke

Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Out of Africa – Isak Dinesen

Walking With God, Waking the Dead – John Eldredge

Sunrise to Paradise – Ruth Kirk

That’s the short, short list of champion wordsmiths who’ve “smithed” well. If you want the full list, check out my Book Shelf.

Kristine Lowder - close up

What’s on your list? Cite an example of someone who “smiths” well.


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20-ish Top Reads of 2018

“Clear the decks!” crows Mom. “It’s Best Books time!”

She may be a bit confused. Ever since my puppy days it’s been “deck the halls” this time of year. Well. You know how moms are. Especially when someone asks, “Which kid is your favorite?”

Okay, okay. So no one put it quite like that. But plenty have asked which books are her favorite. “It’s almost the same thing,” sniffs Mom.

Hah, bumhug! says I.

Arf you may know, Mom met her 2018 reading challenge last week: 365 books in one year. People keep asking which “kids” are her favorite from that long, long list. (For background, see: When They Tell You It’s “Impossible.” Also see: How I Read 100+ books in 90 days.)

I’m kinda curious myself. I gave her the puppy eyes look.

Works every time.

So ‘clear the decks’ for Mom’s Top Reads of 2018.

Warning: “That ‘top 20’ thing’s just not gonna happen,” says Mom.

Indeed, competition for a spot on Mom’s ‘totally subjective, 100% unscientific’ list was fierce. So bow-wow-ish, in fact, that Mom divided the list into four basic categories:

  1. Best Fiction
  2. Best Non-Fiction
  3. Best Series
  4. Favorite Authors.

Also Honorable Mentions.

Each book earned its respective spot based on quality of writing, creativity and poignancy, superior characterizations, outstanding, unique plots and overall excellence. And Just Plain Fun. (Note: No book that brainlessly, repeatedly deploys gratuitous profanity ever makes Mom’s “best” list. She calls that “sloppy-writing-lazy.” Hah, bumhug again.)

365 books in one year. And then some! November 27, 2018.

Anyway, Mom’s Top Books Read in 2018 are,in no particular order:

Best Fiction

  1. Hattie Big Sky – Kirby Larson
  2. Time for Andrew – Mary Downing Hahn
  3. A Dog Called Homeless – Sarah Lean
  4. Run Far, Run Fast – Walt Morey
  5. The Incredible Journey – Sheila Burnford
  6. There Come a Soldier Peggy Mercer
  7. Wolf by Wolf – Ryan Graudin
  8. Anchor in the Storm – Sarah Sundin
  9. The Wood – Chelsea Bobulski
  10. Man O’War – Walter Farley
  11. The Journey Back – Priscilla Cummings
  12. Sarah Bishop, Thunder Rolling in the Mountains – Scott O’Dell
  13. The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Mary Pearson
  14. Ever the Hunted– Erin Summerill
  15. Hoot – Carl Hiassen
  16. Dividing Eden – Joelle Charbonneau
  17. The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams
  18. Unwind – Neal Shusterman

Re-reading a seasonal favorite, “The Christmas Box,” by Richard Paul Evans.

Best Nonfiction

  1. A Prisoner and Yet – Corrie ten Boom
  2. The Kite Runner (historical fiction) – Khaled Hosseini
  3. The Black Dogs Project – Fred Levy
  4. Before Amen – Max Lucado
  5. My Family for the War (historical novel) – Anne Voorhoeve
  6. Great Lodges of the National Parks – Christine Barnes
  7. Hidden Child – Isaac Millman

Best Series

  1. The Misty of Chincoteague series – Marguerite Henry
  2. The Silver Brumby series – Elyne Mitchell
  3. Billy and Blaze books– C.W. Anderson
  4. The Jimmy Vega mystery series – Suzanne Chazin
  5. Black Stallion series– Walter Farley
  6. The Survivors series – Erin Hunter
  7. Fire and Thorns trilogy – Rae Carson

Favorite Authors

Honorable Mentions

Well, woof the deck! Or something. All this reading and book-ing makes me hungry. About that leftover pot roast… You gonna eat that?

 


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Who’s Up for a Party?

Someone say “party”? Like with cake? Lots of noise? Celebratin? Ice cream? (My favorite is French vanilla. Just sayin’.)

Mom says we just achieved a ‘milestone.’ I’m not exactly sure what that is. But she seems pretty pumped about it. So it must be party-worthy. Here it is:

Okay, okay. I’m finding this “11 thing” a bit hard to swallow, seeing as how I just turned two. I mean, creepy crawly cat whiskers! I only took over this gig about a year ago. But I love anything Mom loves. Reading. Writing. Books. My favorite is, ‘rural life with a border collie.’ For obvious reasons.

So we just wanna say a big ole THANK YOU to you, our loyal readers. You make it all worthwhile. Well, that and beef jerky.

Meanwhile, what would you like see on the blog? Topics? Ideas? Suggestions?

I got this. Soon as I score some of that frozen vanilla stuff…