Midwestern Gothic Issue 23 (Fall 2016)

Midwestern Gothic Issue 23 Fall 2016It’s that time of year, when Midwestern Gothic goes all nonfiction for an entire issue. It’s flooded from cover to cover with essays and creative nonfiction inspired by the Midwest.

This time around, it’s a little more unique. It’s our last quarterly issue! Next year, we’re going semi-annual, and also featuring nonfiction in every edition of the journal. We’re super excited to be able to share some amazing nonfiction work on a more regular basis, and also a little nostalgic at the change. The magazine has looked a certain way and come out on a certain schedule for over five years. But now we’ll be able to share the beauty of the Midwest in new ways, and also create more room for MG Press titles, which we’re also super geeked about.

To commemorate the event, I’ll share an excerpt from one of my favorites from Issue 23, “Off Trail” by Dave Essinger, about a Midwesterner doing a trail run in the Montana Rockies.

The end-all be-all goal for the typical road marathoner is the Boston Marathon, and that summer I was training obsessively to qualify, because it’s the one big marathon you can’t just sign up for. For decades Boston has been limited to those who meet tough age-based qualifying times at another marathon, and I needed to take a good twelve minutes off my previous best time to make the cut. I’d started a very aggressive training plan; Alice was already easily qualified by the women’s standard, and I was determined not to have to navigate our daughter’s stroller through the epic Boston crowds of spectators while Mommy ran the race.

Twenty miles of treacherous trail was no part whatsoever of this training plan. So what exactly was I doing on this trail, on this mountain, a thousand miles from home, with an ankle growing plumper and more purple by the minute? A road-runner perilously far from any road? What part of me had thought this would be a good idea, or a fun thing to do?

Trying to answer takes me back at least ten years. I had lived in Bozeman, more by circumstance than by design, for a few months after college, and had heard of this “insane race over the mountain, that’s like fifteen miles, and everyone who finishes is just all beat up, as in, bleeding everywhere.” Naturally, my reaction then was, I want to do that, but being in rotten physical shape at the time (college the way I attended it will do that to you), and not suicidal or at least not that energetically so, I thought nothing more of it then.

Shop for Midwestern Gothic Issue 23: Fall 2016 Now!

Thank you, Everyone

Thank you all so much for supporting my 24-hour walk for 826Chi.

This idea started off as a “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” and has turned into $1700 plus for a great charity that helps kids learn how to be more confident in communicating their ideas and turning intangible thoughts into something in the real world.

I’d like to say I’m surprised by how much the campaign earned, but I won’t, because I know I’m friends with some incredible people. Thank you, thank you, and if 826 shares anything with me about how they use the funds or what projects spring out of it, I will be sure to share.

Another bonus to this campaign – my feet didn’t fall off! I’m attaching my FitBit screenshots so you can see what I did during the 24 hours yesterday.


Here’s my activity graph from walking 24-hours. I’m surprised that my pace didn’t really seem to slow down when I was walking. I felt like I was going much slower. Lots more breaks in the 2nd 12 hours. 😫


Star Wars: Chewbacca and Princess Leia Review

Star Wars: ChewbaccaStar Wars: Chewbacca – 2 of 5 Stars
Headed into this book, I was curious to see how they’d treat dialog from the titular character. It seemed like it’d be tough to keep the signature wookie roars and not have it get in the way of the story.

Turns out, that’s just what happened.

As a secondary character, Chewie’s dialog is both endearing and comic relief. We can fill in the blanks for him, or let whoever he’s sharing the scene with translate for us. In a main character role, it gets a little repetitive when Zarro, the plucky girl Chewbacca befriends, has to hold up both ends of the conversation.

Plenty is lost in translation, however. For instance, I had to re-read the first few pages a couple of times to figure out why Chewie was even helping Zarro with her plan to escape the larvae mines with her father and eventually prevent the Empire from gaining a foothold on her planet.

Chewie never really gets elevated above hired muscle status – he’s big, hairy, and knows how to fight. That’s about it.

Star Wars: Princess LeiaStar Wars: Princess Leia – 4 of 5 Stars
Leia’s one shot takes place immediately after the medal ceremony in Episode IV, where we find out helping to destroy the Death Star isn’t quite enough to earn a woman respect, even in the Star Wars universe. Her people think she’s an “ice princess” because she didn’t shed a tear over Alderaan, or even her mother and father’s death.

Leia’s struggle to embrace her heritage and win over what remains of her people serves as the main arc of the comic, as she travels the galaxy to find pockets of Alderaanians before the Empire can hunt them down and wipe them all out.

Some are naïve and lost in their new harsh world. Some are cynical and racist. Some are mixed race, and unsure about their identity.

This was probably one of my favorite entries into the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It explored how Leia balances her sense of duty, femininity, desire for adventure, and royal upbringing in a practical way that’s messy and imperfect. You begin to see how these types of experiences help shape and transform her into General Organa in later episodes.

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24-Hour Walk for 826CHI

“I wonder how many steps I could take in one day?”

The first time that tangent popped into my head while walking around New Zealand, I didn’t think much of it. But it kept nagging me. So I asked, “Why not?” and decided to actually do it.

Then, I had another idea–what if I wasn’t doing it just for the heck of it, but for charity? People do that all the time, right?

So that’s my plan. On September 24th (or the a backup date, if weather isn’t cooperating), I’ll walk out of my house at 5:00 a.m. and won’t stop until 5:00 a.m. the following morning. I’ll hike the Des Plaines River Trail, which starts and finishes right here where we live in Des Plaines, Illinois.

826CHIWhat am I walking for?
I’ll donate money and raise awareness for 826CHI, a Chicagoland organization dedicated to supporting students age 6 through 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, plus helping teachers inspire their students to write. They do workshops, tutoring, field trips, and publish books filled with the work of their students. At the end of a lot of their programs, a professionally designed and edited book is created, so these kids can call themselves published authors.

Midwestern Gothic worked with 826michigan to co-publish a book a year ago, and it was such a fantastic experience. Reading their work, seeing it take shape into Tell Me How It Was: Imagined Michigan Histories, and then hosting the launch party / reading was truly an honor to be a part of.

Why is this important? 826 is a national organization with many local chapters that teaches kids they don’t have to wait to have a voice.

Many of them will never call writing their profession. Some may not even like it. But the process of drafting a story, editing and polishing it, then crafting it into a physical object that exists in the real world teaches them what it means to make something out of nothing. It introduces them to storytelling–a skill that’s a huge advantage, especially in business.

The best thing about 826 programs is that it helps kids build confidence. Yes, they have something to say. They’ll have to fight and work to get it out into the world. But it’s worth it.

I’ll donate $5 per mile of my own money. If I manage to hit my goal of 80 miles, I’ll donate another dollar per mile on top of that.

Why am I posting this? If you’d like to help donate to this organization as well, I’ve set up a CrowdRise page that makes it easy to give any amount you’d like. They take a smaller portion of the proceeds than any other site, which keeps the focus on the cause. If anyone wants to walk with me for part of the route, I’d love to have company. Shoot me a message and we can figure out a way to coordinate.

Donate to 24-Hour Walk for 826CHI

Meditations, Anti-Fragile, and The Skeleton Tree: Rapid Fire Book Reviews

Meditations by Marcus AureliusMeditations by Marcus Aurelius: 4 of 5 Stars
This book is short, compact, and filled with so many lessons that a 2nd reading is probably necessary. Some lines need to be read several times in order to extrapolate their meaning and apply it to the here and now of your life. The letters penned by the aging Roman Emporer were never intended to be read by anyone. But this density also comes from clarity of thinking paired with lack of context. Some work needs to be done to connect musings from the battlefield to personal development, business, or whatever you choose to apply them to. But once you do, you’ll find the wisdom from hundreds of years ago is just as applicable today.

Anti-Fragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: 5 of 5 stars
If approached with an open mind, this book is one of the rarities that can physically shift your ideology and broaden your place on the political spectrum.

The main message of the book is that we need to build ourselves and our systems (financial, political, cultural, you name it) to be antifragile. Meaning, we embrace conflict and small shocks to the system, because it ultimately makes everything stronger. Delaying or trying to prevent these conflicts only creates negative “black swan” events, like the 2008 financial crisis.

The print is small, the book is dense, and some of the concepts are tough to wrap your head around. But nowhere have I seen the case for anti-interventionism and eliminating the tendency to fear failure so thoroughly and effectively argued.

The Skeleton Tree by Iain LawrenceThe Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence: 4 of 5 Stars
I received an advance review copy of this book from the author’s agent at the Chicago Women in Publishing event. When they described it as “Hatchet-like,” I was instantly positively triggered and would have bought it immediately.

While Hatchet sets a high bar, the Skeleton Tree carves out its own tale incorporating themes about family, boy vs. wilderness, and even elements of supernatural lore from the Pacific Northwest.

I enjoyed that the story balanced the line between giving the two shipwrecked boys just the right mix of luck, personal growth, and perseverance necessary to survive. The author believably set up ways for the boys to scavenge through junk on the beach, struggle to find food, and survive encounters with the wild.

I passed this book on to my son with little hesitation, as I know he’ll enjoy this archetypal survival tale with its own set of twists.

Book Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith2 of 5 stars

This was my first foray into the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, after checking out two of the graphic novels. Lords of the Sith takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, after the fist of the Empire has closed around the galaxy and the seeds of the rebellion are being sown.

This story is about Darth Vader’s reputation being born. People have heard the name, but have yet to take the measure of the man. Throughout the book, he accomplishes unbelievable feats with the Force, some with the aid of the Emporer. But since the Emperor only uses his significant power in secret, the credit for all of these feats serves to build Vader’s legend.

The entire book centers around a planned attempt on the Emporer and Vader’s life by a band of freedom fighters on Rythos. A remote spice planet that has changed owners often, but never had its own independence. The novel is a fast read, because nearly 75% of it is told at the pitched pace of the attack.

Unfortunately, that’s the novel’s primary weakness. When everything is frenetic and action-packed, nothing is. There’s very little character development (and what is there has little to do with the story) and a plot that’s fairly straightforward, (rebels attack, have to change their plans, fail, succeed, fail, succeed, etc.). Aside from being set in the Star Wars universe and being Star Wars action-porn, there’s not a whole lot to this novel.

Hopefully, my next foray into the universe will contain more than blaster fire and light-sabers.

Buy Lords of the Sith

Hiking Yellowstone National Park: Mt. Washburn & Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone is one of the crown jewels of the National Park System.

It’s the 4th most visited national park in the U.S., behind Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Growing up, I thought it’d achieved pop culture icon status, with Old Faithful making it’s way into countless cartoons, westerns, and vernacular.

I wish I couldn’t shake the bad taste it leaves in my mouth when I visit there.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful landscape. If national parks were a sampler platter, Yellowstone would be it. Vast meadows with undulating grasses. Craggy mountains rising above valleys scored into the earth. Bubbling evidence of forces simmering in the center of the earth. And of course majestic animals – thousands of bison and the titillating promise of elusive bear and wolf packs.

However, it’s next to impossible to feel alone in Yellowstone, especially during the summer.

Old Faithful has a schedule. Showing up to watch it is like attending a sporting event – good luck parking, navigating among the hotels surrounding it, and then finding a shoulder to peer over.

Old Faithful Yellowstone National Park

The Bison may as well be in a zoo. Spot one on the side of the road, and you’ll spot dozens of camera happy tourists with selfie sticks admiring the beasts.

Find a trail, and sojourn with dozens of others through the landscape.

It’s hard to escape the fact that Yellowstone has been designed as a tourist destination, despite the untouched natural beauty. In Yosemite, it’s escapable. Here, it’s a constant low hum underpinning your experience.

Mt. Washburn
Atop Mt. Washburn’s hikable 10K+ feet sits a fire lookout overseeing a significant portion of the park. Stare through the windows, and someone’s secluded home stares back at you. It’s sparse and has essentially no walls to allow whoever is inside and their partner unobstructed views of the park to keep an eye out for wildfires.

Mt. Washburn Yellowstone National Park

Every two weeks, a supply run is made, navigating the two-track that doubles as the trail for hikers all the way up the mountain. If there ever was a lonely existence, it’s this one.

On the way up, I stumbled into a herd of mountain goats grazing on the mountain slopes. They couldn’t have cared less about the dozen or so of us hikers who stopped to marvel and what was basically just another weekday lunch.

Grand Prismatic Spring
This popular Yellowstone attraction has a lesser known (and infinitely better) way to experience it. Driving up to the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot means you’ll fight for a parking spot and walk along a veritable conveyor belt of tourists past a steaming spring. The color is noticeable, but unimpressive.

Instead, stop at the Fairy Falls parking area and hike along the path for a little over a half mile until you see a series of paths heading up the hill on your left, and Grand Prismatic Spring on your right. A short trek up places you at a small clearing where you can see the spring as it was intended to be experienced – from above.

Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park

Hope for a day of partial clouds, so that you can watch the colors breathe.

I saw thousands of bison in Yellowstone. Everything from small herds just off the road, where you can step out of your car and really get a sense of the size and power of these creatures. And then driving through Lamar Valley, where an expanse between you and the mountain range can hold hundreds of buffalo. Drive a little bit further, and there’s another herd of brown flecks dotting the green pasture.

Bison Yellowstone National Park

It takes a little bit more work, but finding small moments like these are what makes it easy to see how Yellowstone is a crown jewel of the NPS. Even amid the hordes of tourists that are attracted by its beauty.

Happy Pub Day to The Good Divide!

The Good Divide by Kali VanBaaleMy first thought after reading the manuscript for this book was “I’ll regret it if we don’t get to publish this.”

Luckily, Kali VanBaale was just as excited to trust us with her work. After lots of time love and energy, thanks in no small part to Robert James Russell, as always, Michelle Webster-Hein, Jessica Dewberry, Lauren Crawford, and the rest of the Midwestern Gothic team, The Good Divide is finally able to be read.

In the lush countryside of Wisconsin, Jean Krenshaw is the ideal 1960’s dairy farm wife. She cooks, sews, raises children, and plans an annual July 4th party for friends and neighbors. But when her brother-in-law Tommy, who lives next door, marries leery newcomer Liz, Jean is forced to confront a ten-year-old family secret involving the unresolved death of a young woman.

With stark and swift prose, The Good Divide explores one woman’s tortured inner world, and the painful choices that have divided her life, both past and present, forever.

“VanBaale presents a vivid portrait of one woman’s lifelong struggle to find peace with what she has rather than what she desires. Fiction doesn’t get more real than this.”
Publishers Weekly

“[VanBaale] creates an intriguing story that handles difficult topics as well as a narrative of struggle and conflict in a skillfully crafted nonlinear timeline.”
—Morghen Tidd, Cultured Vultures

—Kelly Fordon, The Common

“VanBaale’s precise prose and esoteric Midwestern stoicism makes The Good Divide a delightful read.”
—Aram Mrjoian, Book Riot

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