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Taos, Western Massachusetts

Hello, I Must Be Going

Groucho Marx said it best. Actually, he sang it in the movie, Animal Crackers. But, yes, it’s official. Hank and I are leaving Taos next month and moving to Charlemont in Western Massachusetts.

Taos has been very good to Hank and me. Like so many people, we arrived 11 years ago with the urge to live here. No jobs. We knew exactly five people. But we had a sense of adventure, and after selling our home in Western Mass. in less than two weeks, we figured we were on the right track.

Things fell nicely into place here in New Mexico. We found a piece of land — interesting story there — and a great contractor, Beau. I started doing freelance at The Taos News, and then became the copy editor, and then its managing editor for eight years. I like to joke I clawed my way to the top — not really, of course.

Until last May I was in the thick of Taos, news-wise. I had a hard-working editorial team that was fearless and fun when it was warranted. We won a slew of state and national awards. For me, covering the news was more a mission than a job.

Hank and I enjoyed living in a place where creativity oozes from the ground. He created amazing furniture, boxes, and frames from wood. The woodwork in and around our home is his.

I wrote fiction on my own time — adult and kid novels. I even published two adult novels and a bilingual kids book (with my friend Teresa Dovalpage).

So why in the heck are we leaving? The answer is we want to be closer to the people who mean the most to us — our family. I believe people who live here with their families will understand. Four of our six kids live in Massachusetts, plus a grandchild and one on the way. My mother and other family members are there. Phone calls, visits, and Facebook are just not enough.

Then, there is the sense of adventure. And given that our home here was under contract in a week, I’d say things once again are falling nicely into place.

So right now, my life is consumed by finding boxes, packing, and seeing to details. We expect to hit the road with our stuff sometime in late July although no firm date has been set as of yet. We are going through the selling process, inspections and the like — so far, so very good. Thanks, Lisa.

Hank went Back East to find us a place to land. Finding a rental was tough. People are opting for Air B&B and I understand why. But we have a nice, affordable place to live before we find something permanent. Charlemont is a sweet town, population around 1,200, near the Deerfield River.

There will be parts of Taos that I will miss: the people, views, and short, sunnier winters. That’s just for starters. Taos is indeed a special place, but, hey, I must be going.

Here’s the link to how Groucho Marx sings it in the movie Animal Crackers

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Penstemon flowers blooming in my garden.

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Creative Women

In the Company of Creative Women

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with two creative women: Georgia O’Keeffe, a legend in the art world, and author Anne Hillerman. Yes, I know Georgia isn’t alive, but I still felt her presence at her home and studio.

Entrance to O'Keeffe's home. Photos were restricted inside.

Entrance to O’Keeffe’s home. Photos were restricted inside.

I traveled with family last Friday to Abiquiu, which has been on my must-see New Mexico list. The Spanish Colonial-era compound was ready to fall into the ground when O’Keeffe bought it in 1945 and then had it restored over the next four years. (She came to Taos first before discovering the Abiquiu area.)

Visitors can step inside her studio but only view the home’s rooms through their enormous windows. It makes sense. Everything is as she left it. Lean and clean. Elegant lines. Subtle colors for the most part. There are her collections of stones and sagebrush trimmed as if they were bonsai. A jimson weed was even in flower.

IMG_3797Later we drove to Plaza Blanca, those mystical formations of white rock she painted, and to Ghost Ranch.

Georgia died in 1986 at age 98 in Santa Fe, where she spent the last couple of years of her life. Still, 31 years later, her home and the vistas she painted emanate with her energy. I was glad to soak it in.

Now, let me tell you about Anne Hillerman. She just completed her third in the Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito series, called Song of the Lion. Yes, she uses the characters created by her late, great father, Tony Hillerman, to solve mysteries in Navajo Nation. What I especially enjoy is that Anne has elevated Bernadette Manuelito to a larger role in her novels. (Here’s my review that appeared in Temp.)

Anne was doing a book signing at op. cit. books in Taos. I had done a public Q&A with her after her second novel, Rock with Wings, came out. I offered to do the same at her June 3 reading.

On Saturday, I asked her about her writing process — she takes a walk with her dog first thing in the morning before she writes and then maybe later in the day — and how she conducts her research. We discussed her characters, in particular Bernadette, and the book’s storyline. She was gracious and forthcoming.

When she signed my copy of her book, she wrote: “Thanks for the great questions.” I gave her a copy of my novel, The Sweet Spot, with the message: “Thanks for the great answers.”

I’d say Anne was a great interview.

Speaking of The Sweet Spot, here is the link on Amazon

Thanks to those who have read it and my other novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What!

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Antlers hung in O’Keeffe’s patio.

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The Write Stuff

A Year of Books

A year ago, I launched my biweekly book review column, The Write Stuff, in Tempo. Since then, I estimate I’ve read and wrote about more than 52 books for my column — a couple of weeks I reviewed three books instead of the usual two. If you throw in the books that I’ve read for my own pleasure or education, plus working on my own writing, that’s a heckuva lot words.

First off, I want to reiterate that I’m a book reviewer rather than a critic. I let readers know what’s in a book, so they can decide if it’s something they want to buy. I do make suggestions at times to the author and will offer points for improvement. But an outright bashing? It’s not good for my soul. Besides, for the authors, especially those who have published their books themselves, this is likely a labor of love.

The sources for the books I’ve reviewed have run the gamut from self-publishing authors to publishing houses of all sizes including university presses. Novels are in the majority. The rest are non-fiction, including some fabulous art and photography books. I’ve even tackled a few volumes of poetry.

Here’s my system. I read each book cover to cover usually in 50-page increments. Along the way, I use thin sticky paper to mark pages that might be useful to revisit or has a quote worth repeating in my column.

I write the review for the first book soon after I am done reading. I’ve done it enough times that it pretty much flows onto the screen. I use far more playful language than I ever would for a feature or news story. Then, I read the second book, rinse and repeat. I clean up the column, cutting words to reach my limit, plus come up with a headline. I work way ahead of my deadline to make things easier for Tempo Editor, Rick Romancito, and myself.

Sometimes a book’s review has coincided nicely with a reading by the author.

Have I read every book submitted for a review? No. There have been a few that I just couldn’t get past the first several pages. They were badly in need of a good editor or were of a genre, deep sci-fi, I couldn’t get my head around. I just received a book that is nearly 700 pages long I doubt I will have the time to read.

One bonus has been the books that were submitted. (I only review hard copies and not eBooks.) Most I have given away to people I know would love them or to the school for adult learners where I teach part-time. A few I’ve kept.

Do I have any favorites? Without naming names, I am grateful to those authors who made me think, laugh, and admire their way with words. I was glad to spread the word.

MY BOOKS: Okay, here’s a pitch for my two novels: The Sweet Spot and Peace, Love, and You Know What. Find them in two forms on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG

And if you read them, I’d be grateful for a review.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Pine cones bud on this evergreen on a neighbor’s land.

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The Sweet Spot

Something Ever After

My characters live with me long after a book is finished. And it appears that’s true for some of my readers, in particular, those who finished my recently released The Sweet Spot. They want to know if I will write another novel about Edie.

Edie St. Claire is the main character of the novel, set in a fictional town in Western Massachusetts. She’s the young widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam and a caring mother to their daughter, Amber. Most people love Edie, who knows how to have fun, whether it’s working at scan TSSher in-laws’ general store, playing softball or kicking back at the Do-Si-Do Bar. She is good to her father, a cantankerous old coot who runs the town dump, and her aunt, a woman with no brake on her mouth.

But all is not rosy for Edie, who still grieves for Gil, who by my accounts was a sweetheart of a guy. And then, there is her secret affair with his baddish brother, Walker, which ends tragically. We learn about Edie’s strength when that damn little town blames her. She also has the support of her family and Harlan, the stranger who moved next door.

I admire Edie’s spunk. So have my readers. They ask if there will be a sequel. Funny, I mentioned that possibility to my former agent one time, but he didn’t get it. I had a vision of Edie bringing Amber to the Vietnam Memorial Wall to find her father’s name. I wondered if the townspeople ever forgave her. Did she and Harlan make it?

Does Edie live happily ever after or is it something else?

I am considering it, but I am in the midst of another sequel — to the mystery Chasing the Case that I completed in March. Right now, it’s in the hands of a few publishing house editors. But I am so taken by the characters, including journalist-turned-sleuth Isabel Long, and her 92-year-old mother, who’s her Watson.  They solve a 28-year-old case of woman who went missing in her town. It was Isabel’s first big story as a rookie reporter. Yes, the mystery is set in Western Massachusetts.

Among my other books, I have turned two into series. I am two-thirds of the way through the fourth book in The Twin Jinn series, as yet unpublished. I have two more books for the Los Primos/The Cousins bilingual series.

As for Edie, I definitely can see spending time with her again, her rough-and-tough family, and the other characters. I had such a good time with them.

Want to get your own copy of The Sweet Spot in paperback or Kindle? Here’s the link:The Sweet Spot on Amazon

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s a mural at Bowlin’s Mesilla Book Center in Mesilla, New Mexico, where we attended the New Mexico Press Women’s conference. “The Cousins and the Magic Fish/Los Primos y el Pez Magíco” was the second-runnerup for the Zia Award.

 

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Teaching, Writing

Keep Writing

Today, May 6 marks the end of one writing project: creating a book of flash fiction with my fifth-grade students. They’re not really my students. But as part of the Taos Visiting Artists Program, I began working with Kathy Serna’s class for two hours a week beginning last fall.

The photo above is the book’s cover. The students chose its name: Superstar Writers of Ranchos Elementary. And, yes, to me they are superstars. Today at a reception the public can see that, too.

My life as a writer began in earnest in fifth-grade. Students from the town’s schools gathered on Wednesday afternoons to take an advanced course in science and creative writing. Guess which one caught my imagination?

I wanted to do the same for these fifth-grade students. I came for an hour on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. I began by reading aloud, some from other people’s writing, but mostly mine, actually from The Cousins/Los Primos bilingual series. Los Primos cover(More below on that.)

Then over the months we spent together, I gave them five writing prompts: A Picture Is Worth 750 Words; Along With Paul Revere’s Ride; Three Inches Tall; My Neighbor Is a Giant; and I Have a Superpower. The students were given a word count for each.

Their teacher and I worked alongside the students, encouraging them. A few, whose first language is Spanish, wrote in English. One boy wrote in Spanish.

Hopefully, this experience was as rewarding to the students as it was for me. Their teacher said her students wouldn’t have had such opportunities to write without this program.

Yes, I believe their creativity and confidence increased over those months. One student wrote a story about living in a sink of dirty dishes. Another told Paul Revere’s ride from the perspective of his horse, Brown Beauty. One student wrote a giant stepped on her father — but a potion save him.

Here is one called “The Battle,” by Elijah.

3-5-20: Have you ever wanted to join the ant army? Well, don’t. Let me tell you why. If you’re three inches tall like me and a human, then you are unlucky. I was a mad scientist’s puppet for a long time until one day he shrunk me and I got away. Then about three days later, the ants found me. The Midway Ants found me, I meant. They raised me, fed me, all the stuff a child needs to stay alive. I was always a little bit bigger than the other ants, but they didn’t mind. Neither did I.

When I was 16, I joined the Midway Ant Army. Now in 2020, there is another ant war. Midway vs. Fullway! It’s three days until I get sent to the army. My birthday is tomorrow.

3-6-20: Today is my birthday, but I have no one to celebrate it with because everyone is freaking out about the ant war. Well, I need to go train in base camp. I’ll probably document again tomorrow.

3-7-20: It’s 6:30 p.m. and I’m going to bed, so I can be ready for the war. God bless Midway!

Day of the War: Right now as I write, my left arm is not working, so this is pretty hard for me. I got bit three times and shot once. It hurts so bad. If anyone ever gets a hold of this, please send help. We are under attack. I don’t think I’m going to survive.

Midway Loses the War: Sgt. Elijah almost won the war for Midway, but Fullway had the upper hand. Now all Midway Ants are extinct. These are the last documents Sgt. Elijah took. God bless Midway!

This week, I visited the class this week to bring each student a copy of the book, plus cookies I baked. I got a huge welcome with cries of,“We missed you so much.”

Many asked me to sign their books. This is what I wrote: “Keep writing.” And I meant it.

Zia awardABOUT LOS PRIMOS: The bilingual kids books “The Cousins and the Magic Fish/Los Primos y el Pez Mágico” got some recognition when the New Mexico Press Women named it second runner up for the Zia Award. I was the author and Teresa Dovalpage, the translator. My son, Ezra, created the illustrations. Teresa and I were at the conference in Las Cruces to accept the award and read from the book. Jessica Savage, with the NM Press Women, is behind us.

 

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