English Majors Unite

I finished The White Forest tonight, tried simultaneously to go slowly and savor the words and to speed through to the ending.  And then I sat for a few minutes and missed the concept of English classes.  Of walking daily into an hour and twenty minutes of literary discussion.  I want a professor to deliver some compact lecture on the Victorian obsession with the occult.  I want to “throw some themes on the board,” as we used to say.  There was a love triangle in novel, there was a question of humanness, of otherness.  There was sisterhood and the familiar notion of a terrible, beautiful female goddess. (here we’ll veer into feminist topics, boldly and on purpose)  There was nature, pristine and set in deliberate contrast to industrial London.

I would like to sit in a circle with some bona fide English majors and pare this novel into delicate shreds until we’re all laughing and no longer know when we crossed the wavering line that is over-analyzing.

I suppose what it means to graduate is not that you’ve learned all you’ll need to succeed in the world, but that you’ve learned how to learn on your own.

But honestly, where’s the fun in that?

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Between Books

I apologize for the quiet week posting-wise.  I blame it on being between books; I began one, discarded it, began another, discarded it.  I knew I wanted to read something, but couldn’t figure out what.  I spent a great deal of time staring at my bookshelves, and the rest of the time watching mindless YouTube videos and scrolling through Pinterest.  I was generally listless and uninspired and only wanted lukewarm broth with noodles when lunchtime rolled around.  You know the feeling.

Last night I finally settled on one: The White Forest, by Adam McOmber.  It’s ethereal and mysterious and Victorian (three of my favorite qualities in a novel) and it’s just exactly what I’ve been craving.

Today, thank goodness, my productivity levels are up again.  I woke up at a respectable 10:00, put on some flannel, cleaned my room while listening to This American Life, and went out into the 53-degree world with blissful purpose.  I mailed a care package to Amy, who is homesick over there in cheesehead land.  Mom and I visited Ojiketa Regional Park to check out Art Blitz.  Then we went to Sunrise River Farm for apples and apple bread and apple butter.  And I tried to scratch a donkey’s nose.  He tossed his head away, disgruntled that I hadn’t brought a food offering for him.  I guess I see his point.

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Friday Favorites 4

This Milk-Bone marketing fail:

IMG_1591I discovered this beaut in Target today.

For the Fido who is watching his waistline.  Bring him home the low-cal treat he really craves.

And if the caloric statement isn’t enough to make you pause and raise your eyebrows into your hairline (it was for me), the grammatical error surely is.  Because unless that happy Beagle’s name is Mini and she is the owner or creator of the portion controlled Milk-Bones, there should be no possessive involved.

This meme:

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I cannot explain why Nigel Thornberry’s head placed on any body never ceases to be hilarious.  It is simply so.

This daily dose of literary magic:

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Every single day of the year, The Writer’s Almanac website posts a poem and a series of “this day in history” stories (mostly related to writers).  I’ve been an email subscriber for a few years now, and so my daily literary comfort arrives in my inbox at precisely 12:45 a.m.  If you choose, you can listen to the recording (on the W.A. website or via iTunes podcast) instead of reading the page yourself.

Garrison Keillor, lord of radio, narrates.

This book:

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I’ve read a great deal of literature concerning Nicholas and Alexandra and their family.  I’ve been fascinated with them since a young age, and have consciously tried to learn everything I can about their story.  That being said, it took me longer than it should have to get around to reading Massie’s take, especially since his biography is one of the most frequently cited.

I’ve included Nicholas and Alexandra in my favorites because it is such an exhaustive account of N&A’s childhoods, their reign, the Russian Revolution, their abdication, and their deaths.  Massie has a talent for writing about immensely complex events and people using plain, approachable style.  I like that in a biographer.

There were some things I didn’t like so much, however.  Firstly, Massie’s determination to dramatically point out every bit of irony, coincidence, and “if only.”  Secondly, the lack of attention given to the grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria.  I realize that since they weren’t able to inherit the throne, they were considered less important than their brother, but that’s exactly what has always made the grand duchesses fascinating to me: four beautiful, intelligent, über sheltered young women, murdered for no reason other than that they were the daughters of the former emperor and empress of Russia.  It’s the worst part of the tragedy.

This movie:

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I had not read the book.  I was unprepared for Anna Karenina’s sudden and violent end.  I shrieked aloud and immediately felt that the English major gods were ashamed of me for not having known what was coming.

Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) is one of my favorite directors, but I was happy to see him take greater risks with this film than I’ve seen him take before.  At the end of the film you will feel (A.O. Scott (NY Times review) says it best):

“Dazzled, touched and a bit tired. But, really, you should feel as if you had been hit by a train.”

Little House on the Prairie, Explained

When I was eight, I asked for a Little House on the Prairie book for Christmas.  I already owned one, and thought I’d like the next book in the series.  On Christmas Eve, in the midst of the annual party, I was given a large gift bag filled with the gingham-bordered books.  All nine of them, including the one I already owned.  The party, needless to say, was lost to me after that.  I plucked out Little Town on the Prairie, because the girls looked the prettiest on the cover.  That was important to me then.  I read as adults flitted about with wine in hand and I ignored Amy when she tugged at my arm, begging me to help her chase our particular favorite adult, deemed “Tim the Alien.”

Ironically, I forgot Little Town on the Prairie at my aunt and uncle’s house that night, and didn’t get it back until I had read through the rest of the series.  I started it first and finished it last.

Once I had read the books at least five times each, had sufficiently cracked the spines and dotted the page corners with peanut butter, I began to make up my own versions of the prairie stories.  Specifically, I liked to make them up alone in my room, using my American Girl Dolls as my daughters.  I had the role of omnipresent mother, and would lecture the dolls as I tugged a tiny plastic brush through their hair.  Things like, “I know you don’t like school, but it’s very important that you have an education,” and “Felicity, you look beautiful.  Any boy in town would be lucky to dance with you” were oft-used phrases.  In fact, I don’t believe I ever did anything with the poor dolls but boss and brush.

When I was twelve or so, mom heard about a pioneer school held in a nearby town for a few days in the summer.  The classroom was a circa 1852 schoolhouse.  Pupils were encouraged to dress as early pioneers.  It was a dream.

I don’t remember much about the lessons, nor about the field trips we took to local historic sites, but I do remember the teacher.  She seemed to me very old and wise, and was almost a cartoon in her elderly perfection.  The throat of her dress was clasped with a large brooch, her hair was an airy puff of white, and one day she drew some of us older children to her.  Her “big girls,” she said, deserved a treat.  In her open hand were three small stones.  They were all alike, save for the varying patterns of gold stripes upon the brown fields.  Tiger’s Eyes, she whispered, as if sharing a great secret.  We took our stones solemnly and pocketed them so that the other pupils wouldn’t see and be jealous.  I showed mine to Amy anyway.  Tiger’s Eye, I told her.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I said.

Later, the big girls sat on the steps together to eat lunch.  We hadn’t spoken to each other yet, but the stones in our pockets had bonded us somehow.  It wouldn’t take much for us to be friends, but it was difficult to begin.  Amy had been picked up by mom for an orthodontist appointment, so I was without my usual freckled buffer.  I had her can of root beer, though, a great treat.  I offered it to one of the girls.  They offered me a cookie in return.  That was all it took.

The other big girls were sisters.  Laurissa, Katherine, and Emily, I think their names were.  The cookie they gave me was good; it was oatmeal chocolate chip.  I politely said so–we were old enough to wade into friendship slowly–and the girls offered to get the recipe from their mother.

Over a decade later, I still have the recipe.  Laurissa copied it out on two neon orange index cards.  The handwriting is painstakingly neat, and the very last step, punctuated with a period, reads: eat.  I made those cookies tonight, wanting the rustic, pioneer-ish task of stirring together butter and sugar, of patting down cupfuls of flour with my fingers.

I haven’t seen those girls since the last day of pioneer school when they trotted off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.  The American Girl Dolls are packed snuggly in a large box in my closet.  I still peek in now and then to scold Molly for letting her bangs get so tangled.  My Little House books, still the ones from that long-ago Christmas gift–the new color editions are lovely, but I just can’t bring myself to upgrade–have a place of honor on my bookshelf.  I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve read them, but I suspect at least twenty times each.  I still have my Tiger’s Eye.  Its great significance hasn’t yet been  revealed to me, but I don’t worry about that.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I tell myself.

Top Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (Part 1)

I was too late applying for a job today.  The posting was still on the company’s website, but the deadline at the bottom was August 12th.  I sent an email anyway, asking if the position had already been filled.  And if not, if I could send my application and begin dedicating various lucky charms toward the cause.  Sarah, who responded to my email, said in the friendliest way that the position had been filled, but that I should check back later.

I will certainly do so.

But what made me want the position badly enough to send that email in the first place was that applicants were asked to include–along with cover letter, resume, writing sample (the usual)–a list of their ten favorite pieces of contemporary literature.

Let me tell you.  I’ve applied for many a publishing job.  At larger and more prominent publishing houses.  But not one has asked me for such a list.

This is strange, because it seems to me that for one to work in publishing, one must be first and foremost a reader.  A crazed, midnight oil burning, Half Price Books residing, I can’t sleep until I know this character will be all right reader.  Able to recite the red wheelbarrow poem on demand.  Able to explain the origins of Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym without pause.  Unable to use the term “Harry Potter English Major,” because, Good Lord, all readers are wonderful and miraculous and welcome.  And we all have guilty secrets.

The entire Twilight Saga is on my bookshelf right now.  In hardback.  I am not ashamed.

But mostly, readers delight in such lists.  That’s why, if I might be so brash, I’d like to make my list now.  And to make it even thought August 12th is long past.

Don’t think of this as my desperate plea for that job that got away.  Think of it as the kind of opportunity I wait all year for.

Holly’s Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (in no particular order, because I couldn’t possibly):

1. Into the Wild.  This book served as my introduction to creative nonfiction.  It showed me that true stories could be told in literary prose.  Jon Krakauer told us about Chris McCandless without presuming to know him.  And more importantly, without presuming to criticize him.  I like an author humble enough to give you the facts, set the scene, and then back off.

2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  Tell me how overdone Hamlet plots are and I’ll smirk and hand you this book.  I haven’t yet been able to describe the plot without making it sound silly (it’s not) and as if it’s for young people (it’s not).  The prose in Edgar Sawtelle is breathtaking.  The story is set in the Chequamegon National Forest in Northern Wisconsin (my childhood stomping grounds).  And I’ve never wanted to bring a character to life more than I’ve wanted Almondine to be real.  Almondine is a Sawtelle dog.  You’ll know what I mean when you read the book.

3. Never Let Me Go.  I am not a professional reviewer.  My adjective pool is somewhat shallow.  The word flawless comes to mind, however.  Heartbreaking.  Eerie.  Masterfully layered.  I read this book when I need a lesson on how to reveal a world slowly, subtly.

Expect the next three on my list in the next post.  You didn’t think I wouldn’t prolong this delight, did you?  Whew double negative.  I’ll just leave that there.

Friday Favorites 3

This song:

You know that song “Mirrors” by whats-his-name former *NSYNC lead?  The song that is played three times an hour on every radio station in the country, including those stations typically reserved for classical and/or talk?  That song has been stuck in my head for the past three days.  This afternoon I even invented an elaborate system which involved showering with the door partly open so that Mac could blast “Mirrors” without suffering steam damage.

Mystery critters:

Ruby–who has only just learned to whine when she has to use the outdoor facilities (before she simply followed one of us around with her ears perked)–and I discovered a mystery whilst patrolling the yard yesterday evening.  Sidenote: Ruby is a dog, not my human younger sister.  My real human younger sister only whines when I talk to her during Pretty Little Liars.  Anyway, some kind of animal was up in a tree clipping sizeable branches and letting them fall to the ground.  There was already a scattering of green-leaved sticks when Ruby and I arrived on site, and a few more fell as we peered up to catch a glimpse of the creature.  No luck.  The foliage was thick enough to hide it, and it quieted once it spotted us.  Was it a squirrel?  But I’ve never seen a squirrel prune branches like that, unless it’s beginning to build a nest for winter and planned to gather the clippings later?  Was it a bear?  I’ve seen a treed bear before.  For a split second I thought maybe a pet monkey had escaped from somewhere and was about to flash down at me, teeth bared.  But perhaps that’s not it either.  If any zoologists care to comment, particularly if you can support my monkey theory, I would be grateful.

This book:

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I would like to dispel any rumors involving the feature film Cheaper by the Dozen, starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.  The movie is, in fact, based on a real-life family, but only so far as both the real and the fictional family had twelve children.  The real-life family, the Gilbreths, were quite different than Steve and Bonnie’s in every other way.  The parents, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, were pioneers in the field of motion study around the turn of the century.  And the book–written by two of the children–details the uniqueness of a large family governed by notions of efficiency.  Think French and German language records played in the bathrooms.  The book is heartwarming and very funny:

“Dad himself used to tell a story about one time when Mother went off to fill a lecture engagement and left him in charge at home. When Mother returned, she asked him if everything had run smoothly.
Didn’t have any trouble except with that one over there,’ he replied. ‘But a spanking brought him into line.’
Mother could handle any crisis without losing her composure.
That’s not one of ours, dear,’ she said. ‘He belongs next door.”

Weddings:

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I’m attending my first tomorrow.  I mean, I was a flower girl for my aunt and uncle’s wedding when I was five, but all I remember about that is enjoying the swish of my beautiful dress.  Tomorrow two of my friends from college marry.  I will be wearing lipstick. I will likely cry.  I will likely make a fool of myself on the dance floor.  But I’m so excited that I doubt I’ll sleep well tonight.

This blog reader:

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Okay, guys: this is cool and something you should look into if you, like me, keep tabs on about twelve different blogs.  To get set up, all you have to do is make a free account with Feedly, enter the URLs of the blogs you read, and then the day’s postings appear right on your Feedly.  No need to go to each individual website.  I use Feedly on Mac and as a mobile app, and both are user-friendly and frankly pretty slick.

This TV show:

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When I was in high school and everyone else in the nation was watching The Office, I wasn’t.  What was I watching instead?  Survivor, House Hunters, probably some Disney Channel.  The commentaries on the Chronicles of Narnia DVD.  I don’t know what was wrong with me, either.  I’m on the bandwagon now, however, and happy to be here.  Kevin and his squinty-eyed one liners are my favorites.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

One of my elementary school teachers was an organized sort of person who not only liked to hang charts on her classroom walls, but also liked to lay down the facts straight off.  On the first day of school it felt like we learned more about her than she learned about us.  We learned her pet peeves, we learned her expectations, and we learned the meanings of distinct phrases she frequently uttered.  “Heavens to Betsy” was one (an expression of mock despair or genuine surprise).  “Crumbuttons” was another (the Catholic school version of “oh shit”).  “Garbage in, garbage out” was a third.

We became used to hearing the phrases after a while, just as I became used to having to stare at the large red x’s that abutted my name on the behavior chart (often, my report card from that year tells me, for talking out of turn.  Imagine that).

But up until now, I had always associated “garbage in, garbage out” with television.  Perhaps the teacher explained it to that effect.  Anyway, it meant that if you watched TV shows with excess violence or profanity, you ran a high risk of adopting similar behaviors yourself.  It made sense.

All these years later, however, I’ve realized that the phrase goes further than that.  Namely, in my case, when I read poorly written books, my writing takes a nose dive in quality as well.  But when I read beautiful books–The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, recently–my writing becomes (forgive me) a little bit beautiful as well.  I’ve always known that as a writer, books are a great influence.  I sincerely doubt I’ve ever written anything that I hadn’t first picked up in one existing book or another.

This is still a dramatic realization, though!  On one hand, if I read Woolf, Fitzgerald, Atwood, I may have a shot at standing in their ranks some day.  On the other hand, I like to read the odd low-grade paperback.  I like to revisit my childhood favorites, down to about RL5.  I sometimes like to not think as I read, as horrific as that may sound to you.  Am I doomed to forever waver between genius and foolishness, then?  Shall I publish a Pulitzer one year, bonfire kindling the next?  Or should I simply stop reading altogether, removing the good in order to avoid temptation to indulge in the bad?

Crumbuttons.

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The Thunderbird Project: A Guest Post by Author Rebecca Harwell

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine from high school asked me if she could write a guest post for this blog.  Oh sure, I said. That would be quite nice, I said, as if I am frequently approached in such a way.  I’m sure I radiated suaveness, but truthfully, I was and am terribly excited about the post you are about to read.  Rebecca Harwell has written a book entitled The Thunderbird Project, which has been published and is available for purchase beginning today (August 13th).  While just looking at the cover tells us that this is no amateur piece of business, and reading Rebecca’s blog tells us that she takes her writing as seriously as any seasoned author, in her guest post Rebecca takes the time to talk about the specific struggles she has faced as a young author.  Which is, you know, pretty inspiring for those of us who often find it difficult to push ourselves in the writing department.  

I’ll surrender the mic now so you can get to the good stuff.  

But first, can we all take a moment to exclaim over how awesome this book cover is?  

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Guest post by Rebecca Harwell, author of The Thunderbird Project:

“It’s about superheroes.”

Ever since I announced my book deal for THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT, people have enthusiastically asked me about getting a book published at a relatively young age (a soon-to-be sophomore in college) and then want to know what it’s about. When I tell the truth, they pause, say “Oh,” and politely change the topic of conversation. Sometimes, I wonder if I should say something impressive like, “It’s a treatise on the nature of good and evil and what it means to be heroic in modern society.” But even though some of that might be true…

It’s really about superheroes.

Superheroes with awesome powers. Superheroes who don’t wear spandex tights or impractical capes. Superheroes who have to face the darker side of having abilities that set them apart from society and mark them as something other than human.

I wrote THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT when I was seventeen—a junior in high school. It wasn’t the first manuscript I had written. It was the fourth. I began writing when I was eight (when I honestly believed a story about unicorns fighting evil dragons would be published) and finished my first 200+ page manuscript in eighth grade when a school assignment forced me to buckle down and get to “The End.”

That first book was horrible. So was the second. The third was passable, but lacked the spark that makes readers fall in love or publishers jump up and offer contracts.

Then I began THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT. I left behind all the “this is what the book should be” and wrote the story I wanted, filling it with my love of superhero movies and comic books. It has a larger plot and more complex themes than anything I’ve written before.

Like almost any writer will say, the road to publication is long and frustrating. After spending a year writing the book, I had to write up a query letter and a synopsis (pure torture) and send it out into the world with my fingers crossed. This book took a long time to find a home. I submitted it for nearly a year before it was signed by Bedlam Press, an imprint of Necro Publications.

THE THUNDERBIRD PROJECT is being released in e-book, trade paperback, and limited edition hardcovers by Bedlam Press. Check out my website www.rebeccaharwell.com for details on where you can find it. Many thanks to Holly for letting me take over for a day to talk about it.

From the back cover:          

Not all superheroes live a glamorous life.

The Thunderbird project was an FBI-run group of superhumans until they were unceremoniously disbanded and sent out into the world to live normal lives. But unfortunately for the red-headed, mean-tempered Jupiter being 18-foot tall makes blending into society pretty much impossible. She resigns herself to living in warehouses and searching for a place where she can just be left alone.

Some just want the world to forget them.

Four years later, after being followed for days by unmarked vehicles, Jupiter is attacked and left for dead on a bridge, narrowly rescued amidst screams and camera flashes by an old teammate. She discovers that members of The Thunderbird Project are being targeted and one is already dead. Jupiter reluctantly joins the newly reinstated group.

But some people won’t forget and just want them dead.

With a whole lot of pain and past between them, the team struggles to find the identity of the assassins so they can all go back home. Since any chance of getting away from the world disappeared the day she crawled onto that bridge, Jupiter just wants to make the guys who came after her pay. And if that means sticking it to a world that hates her…so much the better.

You don’t get a ‘happily ever after’ when everyone considers you a freak.

Inaugural Friday Favorites

When I’m not writing blog posts–that is, when I’m not slaving away in a garret with only a stubby candle to light my laptop and a small mouse for company (A Little Princess style)–I am often reading other blogs.  And what I have noticed over the past few months is that many “other blogs” have a feature called “Friday Favorites.”  Friday Favorites is typically a pictorial-with-captions list of some of the blogger’s favorite products, techniques, memes, recipes, etc. from the week.

I’ve explained before how much I love information in blurb form when it comes to the internet and magazines (funnily enough, since I am a rather long-winded blogger myself), so needless to say, I am a fan of Friday Favorites.  I am also a fan of having a weekly tradition.

Therefore, I have decided to start a kind of Friday Favorites of my own.  I can’t promise anything cute or crafty or delicious, but I can promise you a pictorial representation of my week.

Here goes:

This book

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I’ve been eyeing The Pillars of the Earth for years.  Every time I passed it on the shelf in library or bookstore, I would pause briefly, sometimes pick it up, but always eventually put it back.  For some reason, it never seemed the right time to dive into such a massive volume.  But last week I was finally finally in the mood for a real story.  A story that wouldn’t be over quickly.  Now I’m almost 300 pages in and entirely hooked.  I plan to write a real review once I’ve finished the thing, but if you’re another TPOTE (pronounced tee-p-oh-t) stalker, I advise you to give it a chance now.

This song

Can I like Taylor Swift now?  Now that she’s pop and punk and all grown up?  Because I’ve been listening to this song all week.  What can I say?  I swoon for acoustic duets.

Writing at a desk

Hemingway_at_his_writing_desk.

Yeah yeah, it’s a little presumptuous to choose a picture of That Crazy Genius Bastard Hemingway* to accompany this post.  But to get back to my point, I have only recently begun to write at a desk.  Before, I was in the camp that believes that in order to truly focus on creating, one can’t be distracted with the discomfort a desk chair often provides.  Now, I’m in the camp that believes that in order to truly focus on creating, one needs to get their rear out of bed and into the kind of chair that screams NOW WE’RE GOING TO WORK.  And you know what?  I’ve never been so productive.

This Brand

imagesLike most high quality outdoor outfitting brands, Patagonia is ridiculously expensive.  But they also make the kind of comfy, fleecy, that-girl-could-climb-a-mountain gear that I could quite easily live in.  In fact, Patagonia fits perfectly into this daydream I have about living in the North Woods of Wisconsin and rolling out of bed each morning for flannel, coffee, and writing.

This child

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There were some fiery Facebook posts this week concerning young George Alexander Louis.  Apparently, it’s a terrible sin for people to stop and pay attention to the birth of a baby when there are so many “more important”–and much more sober–things happening in the world.  I say, the world would be a terrible, terrible place if we couldn’t take a break from tracking violence and death and injustice to celebrate something joyful.  I certainly admit that I will likely never actually meet George.  Nor do I live in the country which he will someday preside over as king.  But I think it’s silly to pretend that the small family in the country above doesn’t impact the world at all, or to pretend that the way they live and dress and speak to the public doesn’t say a great deal about the modern times and the modern monarchy.  This is culture happening, and I think it is deserving of our attention.

Road trip planning

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I will not at this time disclose the destination of the road trip, nor the date of departure.  But you’d better believe I’ll document every sweaty, touristy, awe-inspiring bit of it.  For if any family can match the Griswolds, it is surely mine.

*A literature professor called Hemingway this when I was a sophomore.  Since then, I haven’t been able to shake it.