Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Traveling to Europe with Kindles

Elba Island, Italy at sunset

Before leaving for our one-month vacation to England and Italy, we gave our kids early birthday presents of Kindles. Since the Amazon account was in my name, all my ebooks were automatically archived on their Kindles. When I buy a new ebook, we can have it delivered to all three devices (or select just one) for no extra charge. This had the added advantage of being able to read one book simultaneously. The kids and I had many wonderful conversations over shared books, something I’d missed since they became independent readers.

Hill town of Elba Island

 Elba Island, Italy
The Kindles were great for travel! Our bags were much lighter, and we never ran out of reading material. Since the kids’ Kindles were wifi only, we had download books before leaving home. I also uploaded our itinerary and other important documents. Kindle did the conversion via email for free. Even abroad, I could download books anywhere with no surcharge via 3G on my Kindle and then transfer ebooks to the kids when we found wifi. Wifi connections in Europe were harder to come by, rarely free and often unreliable.

Beachside restaurant on Elba Island
Even my husband, who has an iPad2, covets a Kindle now. Mine was a gift from him. Kindles handle challenging light really well. Font size could be adjusted in dim light or if reading glasses were misplaced. You can even read outside without glare, just like a real book but unlike the iPad.

Figuring out how to charge our devices while abroad took some ingenuity. Kindle Help was not helpful but, I figured out that the Kindle’s charger would work in Europe with standard adapter plugs. We also got a car USB charger. The Kindle battery is meant to last a month with wifi/3G turned off, but on vacation we had to recharge about every 10 days. Reading more hours and using Amazon Kindle case reading lights ran the batteries down sooner.

Kindles should be ideal for travel guides. We could all simultaneously reference the Lonely Planet Guide to Italy without having to lug around the heavy 900-page guidebook. I used it to find affordable hotels and restaurants and to look up historical information on site. However, the maps were illegible and several links didn’t work. Then there were formatting issues: Kindles are designed for sequential reading, not for jumping around. Also, many guidebooks, like the Michelin ones, were not available on Kindle.

Only recently published books and classics (often for free!) are available. I had chosen the Kindle because it had the most titles of any ereader on the market, but it wasn’t enough. One of my favorite novels ever, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, would be perfect for the Kindle since it’s nearly 1,500 pages, but it was not available as an ebook. My 16-year-old son bought a used paperback copy at an English bookstore in Florence and lugged that brick off camping in the wilderness too. He’s my son!

There is an educational advantage to the Kindle’s limitations. Although my son figured out how to use his Kindle to get on Facebook, it was difficult to navigate without a real web browser.  This summer was spent offline.  Usually an X-box player, my son read more novels for fun on vacation than he had all year. His favorite ebook was The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, 600-page historical fiction. To his surprise, he also liked Looking for Alaska by John Green. My son usually avoids young adult fiction, but he opened this favorite book of mine thinking it was a travel book. He got caught up in the story of a wild girl (called Alaska) and a thoughtful boy. He went on to read Paper Towns, also by John Green, but said it was too similar. On this trip, my son read more than me!

My 13-year-old daughter’s favorite ebooks were Beauty Queens by Libba Bray and the Dairy Queen trilogy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, all in young adult fiction. My daughter liked the Kindle so much that she took hers to camp. Ereaders are allowed with Wifi off, but we’ll have to charge it on visiting day. I sent her with a few real books, as a back up.

Ereaders aren’t for everyone, but I suspect their popularity will rise as the publishing world adapts to the internet age. We’re getting a Kindle for my mother-in-law for Christmas since there are limited large print books at her public library. My mother, however, didn’t like the feel of a Kindle and preferred to lug real books around Italy.  Although I love my Kindle for travel, I still buy real books from independent bookstores to read at home.

Bookstore at Portoferraio, Elba Island
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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nervous Nellie's on Deer Isle, Maine

On sunny days of summer and early fall,
I’m painting on the coast,
but grey days are writing and blog days.

Not that my blog is grey today
thanks to a bright red bird
called Nellie.

My teenaged son and I
visited her tearoom and gardens
this time last August.

How can I describe Nervous Nellie’s?
Even the owner isn’t sure:
“I always feel stymied when I try to describe Nervous Nellie’s: a cottage industry that is actually in a cottage? A quirky living museum of island life and culture? A folk art sculpture garden that feels magical, hilarious and poignant all at once? A colorful shop of handmade goods and a tea room with homemade goodies? A sandbox with great toys? A dog that smiles?”
Whatever it is, Nervous Nellie’s is well worth the 3-hour drive from Portland, Maine. From the Blue Hill area, you cross a suspension bridge to Little Deer Isle and onto a narrow causeway to Deer Isle. Then you tell your learner’s permit son NOT to pull over into the sea when an ambulance approaches from behind with sirens blaring. Step on the gas!

Nervous Nellie’s was just
the place to unwind.

Artist Peter Beerits forms
his life-size creations
out of found
and donated objects,
mostly junk.

My son noticed that
this whimsical creature
was born from
the guts of
a baby grand piano.

In the woods, we found the junk court of King Arthur . . . and some other folks:

Nervous Nellie’s isn’t so much a sculpture garden but a sculpture town. 
We stepped inside Red’s Lounge . . .

To hear some blues.

Then we shared a quiet morning
from another time.

After a real tea with Nellie,
we went back
to my friend's cottage
with jars of jam
in a lobster fisherman’s bait bag.
My favorite was Blackberry Peach Conserves.

It tasted like sunshine.

Book to read on Deer Isle:
My favorite Sarah Dessen novel, 
The Truth About Forever
revolves around a teenaged boy
who makes sculptures out of junk. 
His girlfriend has a summer job catering. 
Wes and Macy would love Nervous Nellie’s too.

Next Post: Wednesday August 31st 
It's time for another mom-son vacation
before school resumes (yikes!)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jumping the Nest

Squam Lake, Chamberlain-Reynolds Memorial Forest, New Hampshire

“Are you pregnant?” 
My husband joked when he caught me organizing bookshelves and bagging crumbling craft projects.

“I’m not nest building, just clearing out old twigs.”

Double rainbow at Olde Orchard Inn, Moultonborough, NH

Our kids are at camp/wilderness experience and my agent is reading my work in progress. They left behind more than eggshells.

Our home gets especially bad at the end of a school year and when I’m finishing a manuscript. The house would echo with emptiness if there weren’t so much junk.

This will be our life in four-years’ time, when both kids are off to college. Sometimes my husband and I joke-bicker over whether the spare room will be an office for him or a painting studio for me. It would be bliss to write without interruption or to paint the evening light without arranging after school pick-ups. We could go out to dinner just the two of us on a whim, as we did last Saturday night.

There are advantages clearly, but life is fuller with the kids at home, and not just because of all their stuff.

Last weekend we visited our 14-year-old daughter in New Hampshire. She and her friend seemed older after two weeks away at an island camp. The girls had made rings of silver and bronze and had braided macramé bracelets. Their bond to each other was even stronger. As we let go, our children reach out and grasp new hands. They aren’t really children anymore but not quite women either.

Up another mountain last year in Acadia National Park, Maine

Meanwhile, our son turned seventeen on a snowy mountain peak in the company of caribou.

 He writes:
“Greetings once more from the woods. All is still well out here. At the moment it is most excellent, as I am writing while taking a break from cooking pancakes.”

What am I doing in this empty nest, 
knee-deep in dusty books? 

Time to pack my art bag and go. 
The rocky coast of Maine is the best studio. 
Next week I’ll share my paintings and hear of their adventures. 
Maybe I'll have feedback from my agent by then too. 
No use waiting at home!

Except it's raining yet again.

Guess I'll read a new book...
and check for more rainbows.

Innisfree Bookshop, Meredith, NH (603) 279-3905

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

In State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, scientists discover a drug in the Amazon, which appears to extend female fertility into old age. An American drug company plans to market a “Shangri-La for ovaries.” Marina, a childless middle-aged pharmacologist, is sent to check up on the research and to collect the remains of her colleague, who had died mysteriously in the jungle. Marina is mistaken for a native due to her Indian American skin, especially after she loses all her luggage. Her perseverance, despite daunting hardships, makes her an admirable protagonist.

Patchett’s descriptions are wonderfully sensuous: “The outside air was heavy enough to be bitten and chewed.” Another scene involving an enormous anaconda snake in a boat was viscerally action-packed. I could smell, hear and even taste the Amazon, but what ruined the experience was that the non-indigenous characters all seemed to fear or to resent the jungle. The setting was an impediment to their work.

Cornwall, England - really!
I’ve done some field biology myself in challenging settings: in Kenya and in the Gulf of Mexico. I once found a tarantula on my sleeping bag. Elephants have charged me; I almost stepped on a poisonous snake and a bad jellyfish sting made me pass out. The physical hardships were daunting, but the beauty of the setting more than made up for it. A passion for science and the thrill of discovery makes fieldwork fun . . . at least for some of us. I got the sense that the author transferred her personal fear of the Amazon to her American characters.

State of Wonder, and Marina in particular, had so much potential but fell short, especially at the end. I disliked the narrative tone even as I appreciated the quality of the writing and all the fascinating, well-developed characters. Patchett is the most talented wordsmith. You can mine almost any page of her novels for gems. Perhaps my problem was only that I had such high expectations based on Patchett’s earlier work. Her Bel Canto, also set in South America, was nearly perfect. Patchett remains one of my favorite authors.

However, the South American authors Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez did a much better job of capturing how beauty balances the dangers of the jungle. Hey Amazon, why can’t we get One Hundred Years of Solitude on the Kindle? I just bought this gorgeous paperback copy for my son at the Borders closing sale. Talk about final chapters. Will 2012 be the year of the ebook?

Disclosure: no free products were received. While stowing my Kindle for landing in Heathrow Airport, I read about Patchett’s new novel (published June, 2011) in a magazine. I then sampled the first chapter and downloaded the ebook while waiting for the train to Cornwall. Kindles are great for travel!

Where I read State of Wonder: West Country, England
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@Barrie Summy