My Year in Reading – 2020

My Top 5 Reads - 2020
My Top 5 Reads - 2020
My top 5 books for 2020

In 2020, I tried to broaden the authors that I read. In the past, I have read books mostly by white male authors. For 2020, I wanted to read books by female authors, authors of color, and books by independent and emerging authors.

Overall, I guess that I partially achieved by goals. In terms of author gender, I did pretty well. Twenty of the 27 books that I read in 2020 were written by women. In terms of books by authors of color, I didn’t do so well. I only read 7 books by non-white authors. I did read several books by independent and emerging authors.

Below are my favorite books of the ones that I read in the past year.

My top 5 books of 2020

1. Crooked Hallelujah, by Kelli Jo Ford was my favorite book that I read in 2020. I learned about the author, and the book, from a Zoom talk that she gave through The Writer’s Center (www.writer.org). Crooked Hallelujah is a collection of short stories intended as a novel about a Native American family in the Oklahoma/Texas border area. Ford, a Native American, tells the saga through the eyes of 4 generations of women.

2. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I read one of Lahiri’s short stories in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I was drawn to Lahiri’s work by her straightforward, terse prose and her perspective as a second generation American from the Indian subcontinent. The stories take place in both the USA and on the Indian subcontinent. One of my favorite stories was about a family of second and third generation Indian-Americans visiting their parents’ homeland as tourists.

3. Other People’s Pets: A Novel by R.L. Maizes. I had previously read, and loved, Maizes’ We Love Anderson Cooper short story collection, and when I heard about Other’s People’s Pets on Twitter, I had to order it. Other People’s Pets is driven by quirky characters, as were the stories in Anderson Cooper. La La Fine, who is seemingly abandoned by everyone she ever loved, including pets. But in the end, La La does manage to survive on her own. Maizes’ writing is compelling and moves along at a good clip. But, as in Anderson Cooper, it’s the quirky characters that drive Other People’s Pets.

4. It’s Not All Downhill From Here: A Novel, by Terry McMillan. This was one of the first books that I read in 2020. It’s the first work of McMillan’s that I’ve read. Downhill tells the story of Loretha Curry, a sixty-eight year old woman who is coming to grips with aging. I am a white male, just a year younger than Loretha, I found that I had a lot in common with her, and could really identify with what she was dealing with.

5. The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner. I’m a big fan of Lerner. Lerner is a young highly regarded poet and novelist. I really liked his previous novels and found them “meta-literary”. The books were as much about language as characters and life. Even though Adam Gordon, the main character of Topeka, is a gifted debater, I found Topeka to be not quite as intellectual, or meta-literary, as his previous novels. Once I got past my expectations, I found the book to be very entertaining.

Others in my Top 10 Books of 2020

6. Utopia Avenue: A Novel, by David Mitchell – having come of age listening to late 1960’s and early 1970’s rock music, I couldn’t pass up this novel, based in the mid-1960’s rock scene in London.

7. Preacher Sam: A Sam Geisler, Murder Whisperer Prequel, by Cassondra Windwalker – as a big fan of British “cozy mysteries”, I found this book wonderfully entertaining, with a great main character in Sam Geisler. 

8. Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover – I don’t often read non-fiction, but this book about a young woman who overcomes being raised by an abusive, mentally disturbed father in a closed fundamentalist environment is shocking and inspiring.

9. Idle Hands, by Cassondra Windwalker – The narration by the devil makes this a very thought provoking book 

10. Faithful Place, by Tana French – book three in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series tells the backstory of Detective Frank Mackey and is easily my favorite of the series.

Posted in Reading, reviews

Photo Books You Should Own

Covers of My Top 9 "Photo Books You Should Own"
My Top 9 Photo Books that You Should Own

Starting in 2010, British Black and White Magazine ran a series for a couple of years on the 100 photo books that everyone should own. In a rare fit of cleaning and organizing, I unfortunately threw out most of the magazines. So, I decided to come up with my own list of Photo Books You Should Own.

To put together this list, I surveyed the internet for similar lists and talked with other photographers. Early on, I decided to make the list mainly about “fine art photography” books. I mostly stayed away from “how-to” books, but did include a couple of historical survey types of books for their contributions to the understanding and appreciation of fine art photography.

Below are my Top 9 “Photo Books That You Should Own”. I chose these nine partly based on how many other lists they showed up on, the impact/renown of the photographer/artist, and my personal opinions. I tried to put together a “top 10” list. But 9 books really stood out from the rest. There were a handful of other candidates for a number 10, but none of them stood out from the others the way my top 9 did. So, here are my Top 9, and “Other Books of Interest”.

Cover of Ansel Adams' Sierra Nevada - The John Muir Trail

Sierra Nevada/The John Muir Trail, by Ansel Adams. Seminal, influential work by probably the most famous landscape photographer of all time. Includes text by John Muir. Used to lobby for the creation of Kings Canyon National Park a couple years after its publication. At the time of publication, it was considered the highest quality photo book possible.

Cover of Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment

The Decisive Moment, by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Essentially a monograph of the best works of the father of street photography. Cartier-Bresson’s forward includes his explanation of what he meant by “the decisive moment.” Recommended by PHLearn website for: Anyone hoping to improve their ability to capture a scene that tells a story.

Cover of Robert Frank's The Americans

The Americans, by Robert Frank. Frank was raised in Switzerland, bringing an outsider’s view to his study of mid-20th century America and Americans. Book includes a forward by Frank’s friend Jack Kerouac. Frank’s work pioneered a raw, candid, and honest style that remains popular to this day.

Cover of Mary Ellen Mark's Tiny - Streetwise Revisited

Tiny, Streetwise Revisited, by Mary Ellen Mark. Tells the story Tiny (Erin Balckwell), first seen in Mark’s Streetwise, published in 1988. Tiny was then a 13-year-old prostitute living in a Seattle community of homeless and troubled youth. Mark’s followed Tiny who, in 1988, was a 43 year-old mother of 10 children of her own.

Cover of Beaumont Newhall's The History of Photography

The History of Photography, by Beaumont Newhall. First published in 1937 as catalog for an exhibition put on by Newhall for MOMA. New sections were added in the fifth edition included photographs made in color. Amazon says “No other book and no other author have managed to relate the aesthetic evolution of the art of photography to its technical innovations with such an absorbing combination of clarity, scholarship and enthusiasm.”

Cover of Deborah Willis' Reflections in Black - A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present

Reflections in Black – A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present, by Deborah Willis. Willis is a contemporary African-American artist, photographer, curator of photography, photographic historian, author, and educator. Reflections in Black, the first comprehensive history of black photographers,is based on a show that she curated Smithsonian. Nearly 600 images offer ich, moving glimpses of everyday black life, from slavery to the Great Migration to contemporary suburban life.

Cover of John Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs

Looking at Photographs, by John Szarkowski. Szarkowski was a photographer, curator, historian, and critic who was instrumental in getting photography accepted as a fine art. Szarkowski presents 100 images from the MOMA photography collection. Each image is accompanied by text, where Szarkowski discusses what makes the work outstanding and significant.

Cover of Galen Rowell's Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape

Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, by Galen Rowell. Rowell was originally known as a climber, having begun mountain climbing at the age of 10. His first break as photojournalist was a solo ascent of Yosemite’s Half Dome, when the then much better known photographer Dewitt Jones was called away at the last minute. Mountain Light explores the differing qualities of mountain light in eight exhibits. Rowell also explains how he made each image – what he “pre-visualized”, how he prepared for the shoot, and the physical challenges of getting the right shot at the right time.

Cover of Kristen Lubben's Magnum Contact Sheets

Magnum Contact Sheets, by Kristen Lubben. Magnum is a international co-operative of photojournalist, founded in Paris in 1947 by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Contact Sheets contains 139 contact sheets and resulting prints from 69 Magnum Photographers. Time Magazine states that the book “offers unique insight into the working progress of the celebrated agency’s photographers over the past seven decades—their approach to taking and editing their pictures as well as their idiosyncratic relationships with the contact sheet.”

Some other books of Interest

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans. James Agee’s text supplements Walker Evans’ images of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. Routinely studied in the U.S. as a source of both journalistic and literary innovation.

The Negative, by Ansel Adams. One of a 5-part series on photographic technique is not just for the film photographer. Discusses Adams’ seminal Zone System of exposure and his concept of “pre-visualization”.

A Harlem Family 1967, by Gordon Parks. Parks live for a month with the 10 member Fontelle family in a Harlem tenement for Life Magazine photo essay. Life wanted to tell its overwhelming white audience why African Americans were rising up in big cities across America in the summer of 1967.

Why People Photograph, by Robert Adam. Book of essays by a well known photographer exploring the myriad of reasons that people take pictures, and how that affects the images and our perception of them. Tackles such diverse topics as collectors, humor, teaching, money, and dogs. Photographers “may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it.

Examples, the Making of 40 Photographs, by Ansel Adams. Adams discusses the technical and aesthetic problems presented in the making of 40 of his celebrated photos. See how, probably the most famous landscape photographer, went about conceiving and making some of his most iconic images.


The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. Cameron’s book is not specifically a “photography book”. It’s a book on creativity. Cameron presents a program to help the artist, and non-artist, capture or nurture their creativity. The book started as a collection of hints and tips from artists and writers. Her “morning pages” can be time spent writing or taking pictures, or any creative endeavor.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , ,

Light at the End of the Covid Tunnel

Covid-19 vaccine bottles
Covid-19 vaccine bottles

My wife and I, both 67, have been fortunate to have received our first Covid-19 vaccine shots this week, as did my 86-year-old mother. Through a combination of perseverance and luck, I was able to schedule not only our first shots, of the two-part vaccines, but I was also able to schedule our follow-up appointments in the specified 3-week timeframe. While we had heard horror stories of people having to wait over 4 hours to get their vaccines, we were all able to get in and out in under an hour. And none of us suffered any reaction to the vaccines.

A lot of people have really suffered from the Covid-19 pandemic. As of the writing of this post, 433,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus in the USA. There have been 25.8 million reported cases of the virus, and probably several times that number infected but with only minor or no symptoms.

So far, my wife and I have been able to avoid many of the effects of the pandemic. We have been very cautious during the pandemic. We follow the guidelines on mask wearing, social distancing, and limiting trips out. As we are retired, we are not reliant on income from jobs to survive. Our kids are grown and on their own, so we haven’t been affected by the shutting down of in-person education and having to deal with child-care and home schooling.

Sure, we haven’t been able to go out to a restaurant or go to stores other than the grocery and drugstore. But we get carry-out regularly and have become big fans of on-line shopping. I miss going to my local coffee shop and spending a leisurely hour or two writing. And my wife and I are looking pretty shaggy, like something out of the early ‘70s. She hasn’t had her hair cut since January 2020. I’ve only gone since July.

But the biggest impact on us has been the constant state of wariness. We never feel comfortable when outside of the house or car. Even though we wear masks and maintain social distancing as much as possible, these actions are only partly effective. Being in our late 60’s, with underlying health conditions, the stakes of contracting Covid are high.

When we got our first shots, and had our second appointments set, we let out a big sigh of relief. We’re able to breathe a little easier now. The ever present sense of doom and dread has lifted a little. My wife is already talking about getting her haircut a couple of weeks after the second vaccine. We’ve talked about maybe even going to a bookstore someday in the not too distant future. And we are seriously thinking about planning our next vacation, for Spring 2022.

Of course, we won’t be letting our guard down, at least until several weeks after the second dose of vaccine. We know that getting the first shot doesn’t mean that we can no longer get infected. But it is a concrete first step in returning our lives back to some form of normalcy. There really does seem to be light at the end of this tunnel.

Posted in Personal Reflection Tagged with: , ,

Book - Other People's Pets by R.L. Maizes

Book Review – Other People’s Pets, by R.L. Maizes

R.L. Maizes’ short story collection, “We Love Anderson Cooper” was filled with rich, interesting, somewhat quirky characters. “Other People’s Pets”, R.L. Maizes’ first published novel is also built upon colorful, quirky characters. In this book, Maizes tells the story of La La (nee Lousie) Fine. La La is abandoned by her mother at the age of 11, and left to be raised alone by her father. La La’s father is a daytime locksmith, but earns most of his income at night by breaking into and robbing houses.

La La’s story  is compelling and moving story. Her life is driven by abandonment and duty. While out ice skating with her mother, La La falls through the ice and nearly drowns. While her mother runs to get help, La La is rescued by a large black dog. Shortly after the near drowning, La La’s mother abandons her family and La La discovers that she has a gift of animal empathy – she can feel exactly what the animals around her are feeling.

La La is home schooled by her father, a locksmith by day and burglar by night. She gets engaged, moving in with her fiance, and enrolls in veterinary school. Then, one day, La La’s father is arrested. Driven by a sense of duty to her father, and the fear of being abandoned by her father’s going to prison, La La makes some choices that result in her life crumbling and being abandoned by everyone around her. But don’t despair, La La does survive, on her own, even after losing her gift of animal empathy.

The characters are what drives “Other People’s Pets”. The book is a compelling, quick read. The writing moves along at a good clip, but it is the characters that makes the reader want to hurry to see what happens next. In addition to La La, La La’s father is, you could say, quite the character. Maizes shows us that he is multi-dimensional, and really tried his best to raise La La the best that he could, on his own, within the limits of his career choice.

Posted in Reading, reviews Tagged with:

Book Review – “Preacher Sam (Sam Geisler, Murder Whisperer)”, by Cassondra Windwalker

Book Cover of "Preacher Sam" by Cassondra Windwalker
Book Cover of "Preacher Sam" by Cassondra Windwalker
Preacher Sam, by Cassondra Windwalker, is a great read.

Let me start out by saying that I really enjoyed “Preacher Sam (Sam Geisler, Murder Whisperer)”, by Cassondra Windwalker. I’ve become a big fan of the British “cozy mysteries” on TV.  What I like about these “cozy mysteries” are the quirky main characters and the colorful supporting characters.

Sam Geisler easily fits into this mold. Sam is an ex-minister. His struggles with his personal demons recently caused him to give up his ministry and his wife. His demons are much more serious to Geisler than to those close to him, including his ex-parishioners. He is called upon by his estranged wife and the minister who took over Sam’s flock to look into the murder of one of his ex-parishioners by her best friend, another ex-parishioner of Sam’s. Sam, in keeping with the cozy mysteries conventions, eventually solves the crime, in his idiosyncratic manner.

I found the book riveting. The story moved along quickly, with the requisite twists and turns. The characters of Sam, his sister Dani, and his estranged Melanie are well defined, multi-dimensional characters.  I was torn between trying to rush through the book for the story and characters and reading more slowly to take in and appreciate Windwalker’s wonderful writing. I highlighted many truly memorable lines in the book.

Posted in Reading, reviews Tagged with: , ,

Book Review – We Love Anderson Cooper, by R. L. Maizes

We Love Anderson Cooper, by R.L. Maizes

I’ve always felt that the test of a good book is that it is just as good on a second read as on an initial read. R.L Maizes debut short story collect, We Love Anderson Cooper, passed the test. And it’s now in my to-be-read pile for a third reading.

I am a big reader of short stories. And I especially enjoy collections where a common thread ties the stories together. The common thread in Maizes’ book is the unique perspective of each of the main characters. Maize has created quite a diverse collection of characters. They are all somewhat outsiders, whether by their nature, their actions, or circumstances.

The eleven stories cover a wide range of characters. And Maize is able to give each character their own unique voice. First, there is the young Jewish boy preparing for his bar mitzvah in the opening story, “We Love Anderson Cooper”. He has been assigned to read a passage from the book of Leviticus that condems homosexuality and homosexuals. There is a young girl in the story “No Shortage of Birds” who watched her professional golfer father get killed by an errant golf ball. She was too stunned to warn him of the ball coming at his head. The girl then has to deal with her mother buying a parakeet and naming it after the dead father. In the story “Ghost Dogs”, the sense of loss is handled differently, by a totally different character, this one a middle aged female lawyer. Her husband has just walked out on her and her dogs died, due to her negligence. Then the couch in her office, inherited from her grandmother, collapses. The painter in “Tattoo” doesn’t deal with the loss of a loved one. He is suffering from painter’s block. He turns his artistic skills and training into becoming a tattoo artists. He struggles from his own apparent success as his tattoos seem to help the sick and disfigured people who come to him.

The book is very well written. The stories flow quickly and smoothly. They are a real joy to read. And I loved the endings of pretty much every story. There are no heavy handed epiphanies, “lessons learned”, or morales to these tales. The endings may be a little unexpected, a little quirky, but perfectly suited to each character. There is the laid-off project manager in “Better Homes and Gardens” who has settled into a job as a pizza delivery person. He runs away from his wife and two daughters and moves in with a young single mother who was also laid off from her job as a computer programmer. The main character in the story “Couch”, is a female therapist. The couch in her office, inherited from her grandmother, seems to be the key to her success of her business as a therapist, until it falls apart one day. She finds a replacement couch, which almost destroys her business, as it helps everyone who sits on it to feel better immediately, so that they only ever come to see the therapist once. She had promised the owner of the shop where she picked up the new couch to make a donation to an animal shelter in lieu of payment. When she finally goes to make the donation, low-and-behold, a new couch. Just what she was looking for.

Posted in Reading, reviews Tagged with: ,

Writers That Have Influenced Me

Head shots of five influential authors

Let’s not talk about how long I have been a reader. Suffice it to say that I have been reading most of my life, which is a very long time. For enjoyment, I read fiction, primarily mainstream or literary fiction.

I have read the entire “oeuvre” of many authors. When I find a book that I really like, I tend to read everything that the author has written. 

There are several authors that have really resonated with me. It’s usually a combination of subject matter, character, and writing style that draw me to an author. 

Ray Bradbury was the first author that really affected me. “Fahrenheit 451” was my introduction to Bradbury’s works. But it was his non-science fiction writings that resonated with me. Bradbury spent a key development period of his life in Waukegan, which at the time was a small rural town in northern Illinois. I spent most of my youth in a small town about 20 minutes west of Waukegan. Bradbury’s stories of growing up in rural Illinois in the 1920’s are timeless, and placeless. Growing up 30 to 40 years after Bradbury, I still readily identified with Bradbury’s young boy characters, their adventures, their feelings, and their growing up.

Being a child of the 60’s, of course I was drawn to Kurt Vonnegut. Like so many others of my contemporaries, I was attracted to Vonnegut’s ideas and views and his exposure of societal issues that still existed even in the supposed good times following WW-II. His cynicism was tempered with some love and hope for mankind, and the future. Vonnegut’s writing style stays with me to this day. His simple words, simple sentences, short paragraphs and chapters make the serious topics and ideas he dealt with seem easier to accept, if not downright obvious.

Richard Brautigan was another writer whose style really attracted me. As with Vonnegut, Brautigan kept his writing straightforward and simple. His books caught the zeitgeist of the 1960’s. They were based in normal everyday reality. But he expanded and stretched that reality mirthfully. He poked fun at the world and society, but with an underlying respect and fondness for his everyman characters.

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author who is close to my age. Although Murakami grew up in Japan, I can still understand and identify with his experiences growing up. His books, all of which take place in Japan, with Japanese characters, seem to be almost American, albeit with a metaphysical streak running through them. He really makes it clear that although we may have different physical characteristics and come from different parts of the world and very different cultures, that we are all pretty much the same underneath. We have the same likes, the same desires, the same fears, regardless of whether we are Japanese or American, or any other ethnicity or culture.

Richard Russo is another writer that is close to my age. What I like about Russo is that he writes books for grown men, middle aged and older, like me. I can appreciate books about female characters, younger characters, and characters of different ethnicities/backgrounds and orientation. But I can’t help but be drawn to books about “me”. And I like Russo’s writing style. His writing is very easy to read and lighthearted, helping his often serious subjects and messages to go down easier.

Well, that’s the five authors that have affected me the most with their body of work. There are many other authors that I read and reread. But these are the ones that I like to read for inspiration or when I am having trouble with my own writing. 

Posted in Reading, Writing Tagged with: , , , ,

Bogbean Cafe in Roundstone, Ireland

Bogbean Cafe in Roundstone, County Galway, Ireland

One of my Favorite Coffee Shops/Cafes

My wife and I have been to Ireland several times now. As we plan our next trip, my fourth, her fifth, I started reminiscing about the places that we liked best. One of these places is The Bogbean Cafe, in Roundstone, County Galway.

Roundstone is a small tourist town on the Wild Atlantic Way in County Galway, in the Connemara region of Ireland. As you drive down the narrow, twisting almost-two lane road to Roundstone, you come around the corner of Monastery Road. Roundstone Harbor is on your left. On your right, encroaching on the road, are a couple of pubs, a convenience store, and a butcher’s shop. Further up the hill across from the harbor are the hotels and nicer restaurants that house and feed the tourists that flock to Roundstone. Pressing against the street on the left, hemmed in by the harbour, is a row of connected buildings with a couple of pubs/restaurants, a small sandwich and pizza shop, and the Bogbean Cafe.

As you walk into the Bogbean, you are greeted by the cheery round face and short golden blonde hair of Orla, the owner of Bogbean. Orla stands behind a glass counter to the left of the doorway at the cash register, which sits next to a plate or two of tempting freshly baked cookies. Typically, the seating area is full, or almost full, and on a nice day, there will be couples at small tables in front of and on the side of the Bogbean.

The Bogbean is a cute, little place, decorated in what I would call country/cafe cute. There is a bench, with scattered small square pillows, across the back wall. Three two-top tables stand in front of the bench, each with a chair or two. There is a bigger table in the corner, with three chairs around it to provide seating for five or maybe six people. There is a table with a small bench opposite the cash register, behind a small waist-high wall, with two more chairs. And there is a small, intimate table in the front right corner. Black and white photographs of the Roundstone area, taken by a local photographer, adorn the walls. Big windows across the front of the cafe and on the far side from the cash register and the white walls give the Bogbean a bright, light feeling that somewhat offsets the smallness of the space.

In addition to espresso drinks (nobody serves American type coffee in Ireland), a large assortment of teas, and fresh baked good, the Bogbean serves fresh, light food that is pretty typical for cafes in Ireland these days. The menu is maintained on a blackboard mounted on the back wall above the bench. For breakfast, there is the standard “Full Irish” as well as yogurt and granola, eggs, sausage rolls, and a fresh fruit dish. For lunch, of course there’s the ubiquitous vegetable soup, a quiche of the day, a sandwich or panini, and a fresh salad or two. Most of the items are on the light and healthy side.

The Bogbean Cafe is one of the main reasons that my wife and I like to visit Roundstone, in addition to the Roundstone Blanket Bog. The food and espresso drinks are good. But, what makes a coffee shop is the ambience. The cheery, friendly character of Orla is evident in the decor, food, and general feeling of the Bogbean. It’s a great place to sit with an espresso drink, or a cup of tea, and a fresh home baked scone while planning your day. Or for relaxing over a fresh light lunch after a morning of photographing the bog or maybe one of the nearby beaches.

Posted in coffee, Ireland, travel Tagged with: , ,

“Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery” by Mary Amato

Book cover for Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery
Book cover for Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery

I have an interest in old cemeteries – I love to take photographs of the old headstones, crypts, and monuments. And I used to drive almost past the Westminster Cemetery, the final resting place of Edgar Allan Poe, on my daily commute to and from work near downtown Baltimore, Maryland. So, naturally, I was drawn to Mary Amato’s novel, Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery.

The book tells the story of Lacy Brink, a 16-year-old “modern”. Lacy died unexpectedly and wakes up to find that she has been buried in Westminster Cemetery. Lacy is the first person to have been buried in the cemetery since 1913.While alive, Lacy would often go to the cemetery to be alone and work on her poetry.

Lacy finds that the cemetery is ruled with an iron fist by old Mrs. Steele. Mrs. Steele does not like Lacy and her modern look, her modern language, and her modern ways, and her son’s apparent infatuation with Lacy. Three violations of the arcane rules of the cemetery will result in Lacy’s “suppression” – having to remain underground at all times for eternity.

Amato is best known as an YA author. The themes in Open Mic Night should be familiar to YA readers. The conflict that drives the plot is the perennial struggle of youth to overcome the unreasonable rules and restrictions of the old fogeys. The is also the struggles of Lacy and her sister Olivia, who feels responsible for Lacy’s death, to come to grips and cope with Lacy’s tragic, early death. There is Sam, Mrs. Steele’s son, a want-to-be poet who died in the Civil War at the age of 17, trying to overcome his paralyzing lack of self confidence and shyness that stems from his mother’s overbearing control. And, towards the end, there is even the admission on the part of Mrs. Steele that she has long struggled with how to balance the need to maintain decorum in the cemetery without being too mean and overbearing.Open Mic Night is a fun, quick read. It is written as a play and is relatively short for a novel. But it is packed with plenty of conflict and interesting character development. Yet, I, as an old fart, with a not-so-old heart, I hope, can still appreciate the trials and development of the characters. The writing is smooth and the dialog flows well, even if it may not be entirely “period accurate” to the time that some of the characters. Author’s notes and asides deviate from the script format, but provide nice breaks and humor.

Posted in Reading, reviews Tagged with: ,

My Favorite Coffee Shops in Santa Fe New Mexico

My wife and I just got back from a three week stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Whenever we travel, I like to check out the local coffee shops. I find it’s a good way to really get a feel for an area and the people that live there. And, as I explained to our landlord for the casita we were staying in, it’s not that I’m connoisseur of coffee, it’s more that I’m a connoisseur coffee shops.

 

We picked Santa Fe for our vacation this year as there was a photography workshop my wife wanted to take. Her being tied up with the workshop the first week gave me a plenty of time to explore the local coffee shop scene at my leisure. In the mornings, I would drop her off at her workshop and then head out in our rental car for a morning coffee and something to eat. I would go out sightseeing. Often I would have time to hit a coffee shop for a an afternoon pick-me-up before I had to pick her up from the workshop. This gave me plenty of chances to check out some of the local coffee businesses several times, and at different times of the day.

 

One of the first coffee shops I found was Capitol Coffee, on Old Santa Fe Trail. It’s located next to an upscale grocery store in a small shopping center at the intersection of Paseo De Peralta and Old Santa Fe Trail, just east of the historic area of Santa Fe. It was fine, as far as shopping center coffee shops go. Nothing special, but better than a generic Starbucks. They served a variety of locally roasted coffees had had a decent selection of pastries. It was a typical storefront, with big plate glass windows across the front, and bright fluorescent lighting. There was a counter at the back of the store with the standard curved glass display cases for pastries. There was plenty of seating at small tables on the right half of the store. The clientele was about what you would expect for a shopping center – husbands and wives, small groups of two or three people taking a break from shopping or working in one of the stores, the occasional mother with one or two kids in tow. Most everyone looked like standard suburban types, except for two men that came in together. One was a typical middle-aged man, wearing a coat and tie. I figured he was probably a shop owner in the shopping center. The other guy was a little older. He had a long, droopy mustache and big ten-gallon cowboy hat to go with the standard khakis and button shirt, kind of the cowboy Sam Elliott look. Most of the clientele stayed to drink their coffees, not tarrying too long. There were very few take-out orders. Nobody seemed to be a regular. And, outside of myself, I noticed only one other person with their head in a computer or tablet. Overall, Capitol Coffee seemed like an okay place to stop if you were at the shopping center anyway. But probably not someplace to drive to for your coffee fix or to camp out to use their WiFi.

 

A much better alternative, just a couple of minutes away, was Downtown Subscription on Garcia Street. Downtown Subscription is a combination coffee shop-magazine stand. It’s tucked next to local bookstore in a very tight parking lot, just off Canyon Road. Luckily, there is another more accessible lot one building away. The magazine selection at Downtown Subscription tends towards the arty side, befitting the shops location near the Canyon Road art galleries. There’s plenty of seating, both inside and outside, in a small enclosed garden area.Inside are 9 square, worn, blond wooden tables, rigidly arranged in a tight 3×3 grid. Each table has 2 wooden chairs, the same color as the tables. It reminded me of elementary school desks in their regimented rows and columns. There are a couple of other tables along one wall and a couple of high top tables to the side of the service counter.  There are a handful of umbrella tables and chairs in the garden area for those many beautiful Santa Fe days.

 

Downtown Subscription was probably my second overall choice for coffee shops in Santa Fe. The clientele skewed older than most other coffee shops that I have been to, more to the middle aged and older side. The patrons seemed to be evenly split between people with their heads buried in their electronic devices and groups of 2 or 3 leisurely conversing while enjoying their lattes. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. The coffee was good, but I had better in Santa Fe. The ambiance was okay. I liked that it was a more mature clientele and the people seemed relaxed, but the regimented seating bothered me. I kept waiting for the manager to come through and make sure that all of the tables and all of the chairs were perfectly aligned in the neat little columns and rows.

 

The best coffee that I had in Santa Fe was at Ohori’s Coffee Roasters, on Cerrillos Road. Cynthia, our Santa Fe landlord, had recommended Ohori’s Coffee Roasters. Ohori’s has two locations. One behind a Walgreens on St. Francis Street. The second in a set of small semi-industrial shops on Cerrillos Road near the intersection with Paseo de Peralta. Both locations are very nondescript and have very limited parking. I couldn’t find any parking at the first location, and so ended up at the Cerrillos Road location.

 

The clientele at Ohori’s Cerrillos Road seemed to be mostly office workers from nearby businesses. There was a nice diversity in the ages of the patrons. Some were in their 20’s, more in their 30’s, and a handful of middle-aged people. There was limited seating, a couple of small round tables in the small space in front of the counter. Each table had 4 chairs, but there was really only room for 2 or 3 people, at most, at each table. There was a short counter alongside one wall with a couple of stools. The place was busy, but not crowded, a constant flow of people coming and going. Most of the business was take-out. Of course, Ohori’s had free WiFi. But the sign on the counter with the WiFi password noted, “At busy times, please use at counter”. I only noticed one person using the WiFi while I was there, and they were sitting at the counter.

 

My go-to coffee is an Americano, black, no sugar. My Ohori’s Americano was one of the best that I’ve had, and certainly the best in Santa Fe. But I wasn’t really taken by the ambiance. Ohori’s seems to know and accepts its place as a carryout shop. All of their drinks were served in paper to-go cups. If I worked in the neighborhood, I would likely go there most mornings, and probably each afternoon for a cup, to go. And, maybe on days where I really needed a break, I settle in a chair at one of the one tables and quietly enjoy my coffee for a few minutes.

 

My favorite coffee shop in Santa Fe was, hands down, Ikonic Coffee Roasters on Lena Street. It’s located in a faux/used-to-be industrial neighborhood near the intersection of 2nd Street and Cerrillos Road. The neighborhood is now mainly hip, artsy, creative shops and businesses. Ikonic is located in a section of what looks like old warehouses or light industry shops that sprawl over a couple of blocks around a small parking lot. The building is sheathed in what is supposed to look like aged tin, but is more likely new aluminum distressed to look like aged tin.

 

Inside, Ikonic also sprawls around. There are two entrances, one off of the parking lot and one that opens onto a small courtyard hard along Lena Street. Coming in the parking lot doors, the interior space curls off to the left, in front of an large, old, unused coffee roaster. The roaster is tucked under a spiral staircase that leads off to nowhere, a closed-off second floor. There is a small cozy seating area next to the staircase, with a couch and two upholstered arm chairs around a low coffee table. Just past the little seating area, around the corner from the parking lot entrance, is the counter where you order.  A wooden counter with several bar stools extends from the ordering station, separating the kitchen and coffee prep area from the main seating area. There is a large rough cut wooden table with black slat back chairs running down the middle of the space. A bench runs all along the outside wall. Five or 6 small tables, each with a chair, face the bench.

 

One of my favorite things about Ikonic is that they have a good size menu for a coffee roastery. In addition to pastries, they offer standard breakfast fare of bagel sandwiches, omelettes, breakfast burritos, and of course, this being New Mexico, huevos rancheros. For lunch, they also offer things like lamb or salmon sliders, and a Korean Steak Bowl. And, in line with the youngish, hipster/artsy clientele, they also offer dishes like grilled cheese (either with roasted tomato, spinach, and pesto, or brie with a berry compote), organic ramen or quinoa bowls, and a plate of roasted vegetables.

 

The coffee and food were very good at Ikonic. But I really liked the clientele and vibe of the place. By the middle of my second week in Santa Fe, I was going to Ikonic pretty much every day. It was a comfortable place to work on my tablet computer, or to just people watch. Most of the clientele was young, 20’s maybe early 30’s. Maybe a third of the people were middle aged, especially on the weekends. People came mostly in two’s. I liked sitting at the large communal table in the middle of the floor, with my tablet computer and keyboard open. I could eavesdrop and make notes on several conversations at a time, to really learn what the area was like.

 

There is a second Ikonic location nestled in the Collected Works Bookstore on Galisteo Street in the historic, touristy section of Santa Fe. It serves the Ikonic Coffee Roastery coffee and the same pastries. Parking, being that the shop is located just a block or two from the historic Santa Fe Plaza, is limited. But there are a few big pluses for this location: it is part of a small, but packed bookstore, the coffee shop area isn’t very crowded, and the seating is very comfortable. And, it shares the same friendly, customer driven staff as the Lena Street Ikonic.

 

Posted in coffee, travel Tagged with: , , ,