Mountain Biking with a Literary Ghost

While traveling through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—as I am now—my mind often takes a literary bend. Not uncommon for me, but it’s Great Lakes freighters, foreboding Lake Superior, stretching to endless depths, and rugged inhabitants (Yoopers), enduring winter for six months out of the year*, that come to most people’s minds when thinking of the U.P.

MTBYet, while mountain biking this week through the rolling, dense forest and rocky cliffs of Western U.P.’s massive trail systems, I found myself thinking about author Jim Harrison, once a summer resident of Grand Marais. The Woman Lit By Fireflies, his novella, has to be one of my favorite titles of all time, and in another novella, Brown Dog, he perfectly captured an aspect of the Yooper spirit and culture.

Two mystery series by Steve Hamilton and Joseph Heywood also pry their way into my consciousness, a reminder of my to-read list. The remote, semi-wild feel of the U.P. provides the perfect setting for murder and intrigue.

But it’s an older, somewhat forgotten writer, Robert Traver, attorney and author of Anatomy of a Murder, on which the classic film, starring Jimmy Stewart and a very young, sassy Lee Remick, was based, who most often joins me in my mental wanderings.  Although best known for that novel, Mr. Traver was actually a prolific outdoor writer, specializing in fly fishing.

It’s easy in the U.P. to conjure up long-gone authors. Time seems inconsequential, a nuisance best ignored. Quintessential cabins hug remote shorelines, as if they were always part of the landscape, created like the hills by glacial carvings.

And one afternoon, during a ride on those hills, I pedaled along a skinny trail with Carp River’s rapids churning below me. Waterfalls spilled over rocks, merging with the river in a silvery pathway, cutting its way through the earth. I pictured a lone angler, flies decorating his vest, casting next to the river. He murmured a greeting and tipped his cap but otherwise remained silent as sun and shadows flitted across his features.

The trail took me around a corner, swooping across a hill before forcing me to gear down for the next climb, leaving the ghost of Mr. Traver behind until my next visit to the U.P.


*During a cross-country ski trip to the U.P. earlier this year, I marveled at two elderly women as they skied, scarf-less, in single digits as a frigid wind slapped against my face. “We grew up here,” they informed me. “We like the cold.”

Interview with Erin Fanning


I’m moonlighting for the next few weeks over at “Knitting before Knitting was Cool”–a wonderful blog for all things knitting.

Originally posted on Knitting before Knitting was Cool:

I am pleased to welcome Erin Fanning as my first guest blogger on this site!  Erin is the author of a new novel, Blood Stitches.  Erin will be posting once a week for the next few weeks talking about her work.

Blood Stitches-highres

When did you start knitting?

I began knitting about eight years ago, after wanting to for years but thinking I wasn’t crafty enough to learn.

What drew you to knit and what is your favorite thing to knit?

My grandmother was an expert at needlework, and I always admired her ability. One of my greatest regrets is not taking her up on her offer to teach me how to knit and crochet, but school, activities, and insecurity about my lack of artistic ability got in the way. However, I finally forged ahead, and now my main knitting projects are blankets for my many, many nieces and nephews.

When did you…

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A Souvenir of My Reading Self

FiftyBestFifty Best American Short Stories 1915-1965 sits on my bedside table. It’s an unusually heavy book and has burst from its spine, as if weighed down by the importance of the stories and authors contained in its covers. Pages tumble from the book like leaves falling from a tree or perhaps a branch, when a larger chunk of papers breaks apart from the binding.

But I have no intention of discarding it.

I keep it because I admire Editor Martha Foley’s confidence, no equivocation–so sure of herself.  “These are the best short stories spanning fifty years,” she seems to say, “and I dare you to disagree.”

It’s also a reminder of forgotten authors—Elsie Singmaster, Morley Callaghan—along with familiar ones—Ernest Hemingway, John Updike: a symbol of both the transitory and permanent nature of literature. But, most importantly, the book was a gift from my sister Kelly, which she rescued from a used book sale, knowing my love for unusual collections of short stories.

It also joined me one summer while traveling along the north shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It became my literary companion, as dark and somber as the depths of Lake Superior, which were always in view.

The collection began to disintegrate during that trip. At night, I’d grasp several pages and read Flannery O’Connor, James Thurber, or Bernard Malamud. I considered scattering pieces of these great stories across the U.P.–John Cheever in Grand Marais, a few pages of Dorothy Parker for Munising, and a smattering of Lionel Trilling in Marquette.

And now I wish I had… a souvenir of my reading self everywhere I went, to be picked up by a walker strolling next to a park bench or a waiter bussing a table, creating an endless cycle of reading and sharing, just as Martha Foley intended.

Cherry Pie and Landscape Quilts: A day of cycling

Beulah, Michigan’s Cherry Hut

I noticed the ad while thumbing through a local travel guide during lunch at Beulah’s Cherry Hut. Pie sat on my fork, waiting to be popped into my mouth. Ice cream melted on the plate in a swirl of plump cherries and creamy vanilla.

State of the Art Framing and Gallery, the ad read, along with a photograph of a quilt unlike anything I’d seen before. Northern Michigan’s forests and lakes exploded from the tiny picture, as if they’d always been created from fabric, needles, and thread. Landscape quilting, it was called, which seemed an understatement.

I had to see these quilts in person.

Time slipped around me, pooling into infinity, completely unimportant on a cloudless summer afternoon with nightfall hours and hours away. Our bikes were propped against a rack outside the Cherry Hut, and State of the Art Framing and Gallery, according to the ad, waited only a few blocks away.

Miles of riding stretched in front of us: a circumnavigation around Platte Lake then back along Lake Michigan to Frankfort, my favorite sort of afternoon—exploring the world by bicycle with stops along the way for cappuccinos, lunch, and cherry pie. The kind of day–without boundaries or agenda, as limitless as Lake Michigan’s sand dunes–that practically screams for a side-trip to a gallery.

A few minutes later, we pedaled down the quiet Beulah streets to the gallery’s simple storefront, but what waited inside belied the deceptive exterior. All the seasons burst from the walls in brilliant and muted colors. Trees, fields, flowers, and lakes came alive. Ann Loveless’s quilts brought the outdoors inside, as if she had the ability to sew nature.

Later, while biking next to Crystal Lake, I compared the blues of the water with Ms. Loveless’s creations. And it occurred to me how beauty and wonder are everywhere, whether watching a dragonfly flit over a pond or admiring the skill of a quilter. All it takes is the slow rhythms of a summer day and the freedom to allow oneself to explore it.

Ratings Trolls: A warning and a revelation

ThreegoatsA member of a popular website recently gave out more than 7,000 one-star ratings (no review) to seemingly random books, some out-of-print for ages and difficult to obtain. It quickly became obvious that this person hadn’t read the books and had a different agenda than merely providing feedback.

Shocked, I posted a comment about it to an online writer’s group. Many of the authors weren’t surprised, having heard it all before. Another writer called the person a troll.

But my favorite response came from best-selling author John Gilstrap: “I actually won an award at ThrillerFest a couple of years ago for the worst review ever. Of my first novel, Nathan’s Run, a New York newspaper wrote, ‘The glue boogers in the binding are more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.” You can’t let the small stuff get you down!”

And John is so right: life is full of trolls lurking underneath bridges. All one can do, like the Three Billy Goats Gruff, is remain brave and fearless, ignoring every obstacle and charging forward, forcing the trolls to shamble back beneath their bridges and drown in their own venomous pools.

Knitting Memories Into Yarn

Afghan for my niece... almost finished!
Afghan for my niece… almost finished!

“Did you finish it?” my nephew Jonah asked me.

No further explanation was necessary. I knew what he wanted; he’d been asking the same question for months.

This time, though, instead of saying, “No, not yet,” I nodded and beckoned for him to follow me outside to my truck, where I dipped into the backseat and pulled out a red-white-and-blue knitted afghan.

Jonah, excitement flitting across his face, wrapped it around his shoulders and swooped back inside, as quick as Superman, to show the afghan to the rest of his family.

My nephew Max, standing nearby, asked, “Will you make me one too?”

I hesitated. It had taken me more than a year to knit Jonah’s afghan, and I was ready to move on to smaller projects. But how could I say no to Max’s request, his expression so serious and voice tentative?

“Of course,” I said, “What colors would you like?”

Soon another red-white-and blue afghan clung to my circular needles. The choice of colors reflected Max and Jonah’s shared love for American history, as well as Jonah’s interest in super heroes. Next came a blue afghan for my niece Kadance, the yarn perfect for an outdoorsy girl with energy as expansive and boundless as the sky.

In a sense, the blankets act as mirrors, a slice of my nieces’ and nephews’ personalities, perhaps even a form of storytelling, an approach to knitting I borrowed from my novella, Blood Stitches. In an early version of the book, the main character, Gabby, snuggles next to Abuela, grandmother in Spanish, as she knits. Together they interpret the yarn: green reflects the color of Gabby’s eyes, and specks of pink become tulips dotting a field. Gabby eventually learns that Abuela’s knitting has a deeper meaning with magical results.

On a smaller scale, it’s an idea that can add a touch of magic to anyone’s knitting, from beginners to experts, making each project unique and memorable and, particularly for children, a way to engage the imagination.

I hope one day my nieces and nephews will understand that the afghans I knit are reflections of them, our shared experiences woven together, memories, I pray, they’ll keep forever.


This essay was originally published on Hobby Reads.

Of Authors, Mothers, and Maugham

MoonspinnersDuring the summer of 1979, between morning and afternoon swim-team practices, I read my way through Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart, and Daphne du Maurier.

Rocking in my hammock, under a hot Idaho sun, I traveled to windswept moors dotted with heath, swooned over brooding lords of the manor, and identified with governesses, plain yet intelligent, full of thoughtful observations. They not only won over my heart but also the love of the lord, as well as solving mysteries.

But by July 31, having come to the end of my self-directed summer-reading program, I uttered the words that all parents dread.

“I’m bored,” I said. “There’s nothing to do.”

I cringe now. Nothing to do? Impossible with endless libraries to explore and subjects to study. But I was 13, restricted by immaturity and narrow-mindedness, which, of course, I never would have admitted at the time, let alone recognized.

OfHumanBondageMy mother, not one to accept boredom, took to me to the library and introduced me to another favorite author, W. Somerset Maugham. Of Human Bondage became the cure for my boredom.

I approached the book with skepticism, even though my mother had introduced me to Mary Stewart’s Moon-Spinners, the beginning of my summer-reading-binge. I soon softened, though, to the main character Phillip, and Of Human Bondage joined me in the hammock. Other Maugham novels followed. Then school began with its predictable reading lists, and I found myself daydreaming about ramshackle mansions and secrets hidden in attics.

So it was appropriate that, almost 35 years later, my mother, a life-long letter writer of extraordinary ability, sent me the following quote, taking me back to my hammock, piles of books, and endless summer days stretching as long and wide as an Idaho sky.

MoonandSixpenceFrom The Moon and Sixpence (Chapter 2) by W. Somerset Maugham: “It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them.  What chance is there that the book will make its way among the multitude?  And the successful books are but the successes of a season.  Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered to give some chance reader a few hours of relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey.

And if I may judge from reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much thought has gone in to their compositions; to some even has been given the anxious labor of a lifetime.  The moral I draw is that the writer should see his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.”

Now another summer begins with a note on books from my mother, her ability to send the perfect message at the most appropriate time still finely tuned. Books gather around me in piles, waiting to be read. The only thing missing is my hammock, and the cupcake or two always waiting in my mother’s pantry.

Happy weekend everyone!

And if you have a moment, please share your favorite summer books and/or quotes from authors in the comment form.