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.

kids, Taos, Writing

Teaching Kids to Be Authors

I have added another gig: teaching creative writing to fifth-graders. It’s part of the Visiting Artists Program at the Taos municipal schools.

Others in the program are bringing what they do creatively in real life into the district’s classrooms. I work with Kathy Serna’s twenty fifth-graders at Ranchos de Taos Elementary School. My focus is on flash fiction, which I believe fits their writing level and the time I will spend with them — one or two hours a week.

I remember a similar opportunity I had when I was a fifth-grader. That year, a few children from each elementary school in my town — there were several then — attended an enrichment program on Wednesday afternoons. We were taught advanced science and creative writing.

The science was fine. Creative writing, taught by Mr. Graves, was definitely my favorite. I learned about expressing myself using similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech. At that early age I was inspired to do what I have done as an adult — write creatively.

I hope I can do the same for these kids.

My first day was last week. They got to know a bit about me, and I asked them to tell me about themselves via a writing assignment. (I admit I will have to work hard to remember everyone’s names given the short amount of time I have in the room.) I explained about flash fiction and how we will be publishing what they write in a magazine format. We read samples together.

On Thursday, I let them choose a photo  from the pile I cut from magazines. Tell me a story, I asked them. They had pictures of people and animals in a variety of locations. The animals, especially the coyotes were popular. One boy flipped his page over and decided to write about a couch in an ad. It’s a magic couch, he told me.

This time they worked on the computer although some preferred to write their first draft in longhand.

They are a great group of students, eager and polite. Several are bilingual or their primary language is Spanish. Their teacher called them “the best of the best.” I believe Kathy. She’s also a dedicated teacher. I am learning from her as well, like when she said to talk and read with them at the rug area rather than have them sit at their desks. You can lose them there.

I am also eager to learn what these students will teach me about writing.

On Tuesday, the students worked more on their stories after a brief lesson on onomatopoeia. (You know words that sound like the noise they make, like crunch and howl.) A group of girls are including each other in their stories. The same goes for a pair of boys. Kathy and I help the students as needed.

The hour flew by. Kathy told the students they could get together and share their writing with each other. They gathered in the back corner of the room, chatting excitedly when I left. Now that made me feel good.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: The students wrote about themselves on those sheets of paper.

Rio Pueblo
book review, Southwest, Taos

Writing about Reading

I’ve done a lot more reading since I became a book reviewer six months ago. My biweekly column, The Write Stuff, appears in Tempo, the arts and entertainment section of The Taos News.

I proposed the column before I left my job as the newspaper’s managing editor, and Tempo editor Rick Romancito agreed. By my count, I’ve read and reviewed 23 books — 25 if you include the two in the column I emailed Rick this week. And I’ve started the next. Right now I am reading Andrew Gulliford’s adventure anthology Outdoors in the Southwest.

So far, my requirement is that the books must have some connection to the Southwest. Either the author lives in this part of the world, or wrote about it, and often both.

I will read books published by presses and by the authors themselves. I know there are newspapers that refuse to review self-published books. I think that’s snobbish given the changes in the publishing industry. (I will save that for another post.) But the book must be available in print.

All I ask is for a hard copy to keep.

I feel a great responsibility when authors, most likely those who have published the books on their own, ask for a review.

So, I read each one cover to cover. As I find a passage I may want to use or quote directly, I mark that page with a sticky note. By time I am done reading and have absorbed what the author was writing about, the notes are handy references when I start composing my review.

I try to have fun with the language I use for my columns, whether the book is serious or humorous. Yeah, I enjoy writing them.

I am not a book critic but a book reviewer. In my mind, that means I give readers my interpretation of the book and let them decide if they want to buy it. I will note what I liked about the book and when I feel it’s appropriate, its shortcomings. Fairness is a word that comes to mind.

Have I loved all the books I’ve read? Of course not, but I admit finding something in each one that was worthy of my time. I’ve read about topics and genres that I would not normally pick. I’ve even read poetry.

A few books made me laugh out loud. (Thank you.) Others made me shake my head.

I have heard from many of the authors, usually to thank me. A few will post the review on line. Others don’t say a word. It’s okay. That’s not why I write them.

I have had a few people send me their books with the caveat: I hope you don’t think my book is awful, or something like that.

After The Write Stuff appears in print, Rick posts it online at I usually try to tell the world when that happens.

By the way, if you are planning to do a reading in Taos, give me at least a month’s heads-up and a note about the date for the event. For sanity’s sake, I work way ahead of deadline.

Finally, if you are an author who fits the above description, mail your book to: Joan Livingston c/o The Taos News, 226 Albright St., Taos, NM, 87571 or drop it off at the newsroom. The staff will let me know it arrived.

One really last thing, you can find and review my novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What online at Peace etc. on Amazon

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Hank and I hiked a trail at the Taos Valley Overlook. That’s the view of the Río Grande in Pilar at our midway point.

Apache Wars cover
book review, Taos

The Write Stuff: History Lessons

Here is The Write Stuff column I wrote for the Aug. 18 issue of Tempo, the arts and entertainment section of The Taos News. I am sharing it here.

The two nonfiction books reviewed this week focus on history and the people who lived it in the Southwest and Mexico.

The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, The Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War In American History

There’s no doubt the Southwest has a brutal past. And through his extensive research, author Paul Andrew Hutton gets to the grit of one piece of its history: the Apache Wars.

The wars begin in 1861 when the leader of the Araviapa band kidnaps the young son of settlers living in what was called Apacheria. Later known as Mickey Free, he becomes a significant figure during the wars and Hutton’s book.

Hutton writes, “The Apaches, much like the Vikings, lived by raiding. They made a clear distinction between raiding, an economic necessity, and warfare, which was almost always an act of revenge.”

Their revenge is beyond cruel. I will spare you the gory details. But then there’s corruption on the part of the U.S. military and government, plus their typically inhumane treatment of the Apaches and other tribes.

At the wars’ end 30 years later, the frontier was no longer a free-for-all for settlers and the Apaches were banished to Florida or reservations.

Here is a description of the encounter between Geronimo and Gen. Nelson Miles, when the chief makes a pitch so he and his people could return to the White Mountains instead of being moved to Florida.

“Geronimo must now surrender with only the promise that his life would be spared. He and his people would be sent to Florida to join their relatives.

‘This the fourth time I have surrendered,’ he said to Miles.

‘And I think it is the last time,’ the general replied.”

Later, the fierce Apache warrior meets an undignified end.

And who is the Apache Kid? He and his death were the stuff of legends.

Fans of Southwest history will relish this book. Hutton knows his stuff. He is a distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico and the former executive director of the Western History Association.

I imagine for Hutton the people and their stories became ingrained as he put this book together. But that is unlikely the case for readers who might not be similarly absorbed in this historic period. Yes, many such as Cochise, Geronimo and Kit Carson may be household names but most are not. A glossary of the players and perhaps a timeline would have been helpful.

Hutton does employ a bit of storytelling including dialogue to make his book more than a historical account. I get it. But as a former journalist, I cringed a bit when I read this line about the Apaches: “Some young men joined because they were bored or wished to escape for a time from their nagging wives.”

The book’s 514 pages include an index, photos, bibliography, extensive notes of sourced materials, plus a satisfying epilogue. Published by Crown, the hardcover book retails for $30.

Hutton will read and sign his book Saturday, Aug. 27, 2-3:30 p.m. at Op Cit Taos at the John Dunne Shops.

The Women of La Raza: An Epic History of Chicana/Mexican-American Peoples

This book is obviously a labor of love for its author Enriqueta L. Vasquez, who explores and promotes the contributions of women in Mexican and Mexican-American history. They include queens, scholars, activists, revolutionaries and even a saint.

La Raza coverAmong my favorites were in the chapter, “Women of the Independence.” Several were women of privilege such as Leona Vicario. No jail could hold her. In one escape Vicario returned home to gather her jewels and money to help finance the revolution.

Then there was Gertrudis Boca Negra, who prior to her execution, tore off her blindfold and said in part, “The day of freedom will arrive. You who love me and have come to grieve for me, carry on the fight.”

Vasquez spent years on her research and its ultimate end product — a historical book augmented with footnotes and glossaries. Her book is so jam-packed with stories of strong women, however, at times the information is overwhelming. I recommend reading in chapter-sized bites.

While Vasquez is straightforward in her factual presentations, she is not hesitant to give opinions grounded in her own background as a person of Mexican-Tarascan parentage, especially regarding Mexico’s warfare with the U.S.

Certainly likeminded students of history will find this book informative.

Vasquez, a Taos County resident, was on the editorial staff of the Chicano newspaper El Grito del Norte in Española. The Women of La Raza is available in paperback for $15.


books, hippies, Taos

Keeping Up With Appearances

The publishing experiment continues with two readings, actually three, in two days. Not as racy, certainly, as Lenora, one of my main characters in Peace, Love, and You Know What, having sex with three guys in two days, but that is fiction. This is real life.

On Thursday, June 30, I was part of the lineup of 50 or so writers who read from their works as part of SOMOS of Taos’ open house in its swanky new headquarters. I was the first, reading from Los Primos y el Pez Mágico — the English part anyway — in the kids’ hour. We had a good crowd of gymnastic campers from next door and even adults.

somos reading June 2016

Reading at the SOMOS of Taos open house. Thank you Bleuzette La Feir for the photo.

Throughout the day, writers of all genres read from their work. That night I was back with the adult fiction writers. I read from a chapter in Peace, Love, and You Know What called The Hard Truth, which is the second in the book.

I had nine minutes. When I prepared, I realize a lot happens in my novel. Since the plot involves college hippie tribes and dirty professors, I wanted to keep it simple and focus on the main characters. I wanted dialogue. The Hard Truth worked.

The next morning I drove across the mesa to KNCE 93.5 FM for David and Carolyn Hinske’s radio show, You Kids Get Off My Lawn. (Don’t let the title fool you into thinking the Hinskes are curmudgeons. They are really sweet.) The station is located in an Airstream trailer, aka the Silver Twinkie, next to Taos Mesa Brewing.

As a journalist for over 30 years, I am usually the one asking questions. This was a change for me. But I was delighted the Hinskes read the novel. (Carolyn made a pitch that it would make a great movie.) And they asked great questions about the book, the writing process, and my former life as the managing editor of a newspaper. I think I gave decent answers.

And I read a bit from Peace, Love, and You Know What. Here was the challenge: as I told David and Carolyn, I not only swear like a sailor and I write like one. The FCC frowns on that. So I printed out a chapter and change a couple of the words so the radio station wouldn’t get into trouble.

That won’t be the case Friday, July 8, when I do a solo reading. Again it will be at the SOMOS office in Taos, from 6-8 p.m.

This time I am going to read sections from chapters to get those who attend through the three-day bash — and then one from a year later to show where this book heads.

My friend Teresa Dovalpage, who grew up in Cuba and knows nothing about hippies, will do a short Q&A. I will have books to sell — $12 each — and sign. And I will be serving brownies, without the magic ingredient, of course. To make it authentic to the book, however, I may even use a Betty Crocker mix.

I am hoping for a raucous good time.

Can’t make it and want your own book in Kindle or paperback? Here’s the link: Peace, Love, and You Know What

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Hank and I were sitting in our front yard after dinner when the light hit the landscape in a rather magical way for several minutes.