Friday, November 17, 2023

Book Stack ~ October 2023

 A monthly post about what I've been reading.

January 2023

February 2023

March 2023

My books-per-month rate went way down between September and October, in part because I didn't have another week away at a residency and in (larger) part because I spent a lot of time binge-watching Ugly Betty. But somehow I managed to read three new releases, a possibly unprecedented occurrence. 

At the beginning of October, I participated in a book fair, and the author whose booth was next to mine was Rebecca Turkewitz, with her debut short story collection, Here in the Night, a delightful melange of spooky tales, which in an uncharacteristic move, I actually read soon after coming home with it. If you love short stories, you'll love this book. If short stories leave you vaguely unsatisfied, pick up this book--every single one hits that elusive short story sweet spot. 

I also read one more Mary Stewart, Rose Cottage, which was a nice, pleasant read but not very suspenseful--there's a sense of something amiss when the main character returns home to clean out her grandmother's cottage, but it ends up going in a very different direction than Stewart's suspense stories. 

I had the good fortune of attending a reading by my friend Melanie Brooks of her new memoir A Hard Silence in early October (and, again, read the book right away--perhaps I'm turning over a new leaf and no longer hoarding books before I get around to reading them!). It's about the corrosive nature of secrets--specifically the secret her family harbored for years about her father's HIV diagnosis, because of their (very rational) fear of the stigma they would experience. It's a heartfelt, moving, loving, beautifully crafted book.

Finally, I read Soil, by Camille Dungy, a gorgeous book (inside and out--I mean, look at that cover!!!) about turning a suburban lawn into a wildflower paradise, parenting during the pandemic, contending with nearby wildfires and other signs of climate change, grappling with systemic racism and the colonial history of agriculture, nomenclature, and taxonomy, writing about nature from a perspective other than the Lone White Male, and lovingly tending the land. I admire it so much, and it made me want to get my hands dirty, even though I'm the world's laziest garden (I really love that Dungy's primary garden focus is flowers--vegetables are secondary!).

Friday, November 10, 2023

Hearts Walking Around Outside Our Bodies


Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.

― Elizabeth Stone

I was in the shower when news of the Columbine shooting came over the radio. C came into the bathroom of our little apartment in Gardiner and said, "There's been a shooting at a high school in Littleton." My sister went to Littleton High School at the time. I had to rinse the shampoo out of my hair and scramble into a towel before I could come out and hear the details--different high school. Other people's sisters and brothers killed.

I heard about the Sandy Hook shooting on NPR over Saturday morning pancakes--my car at the time didn't have a radio, so I didn't hear the news on the drive home. I spent the weekend weeping and grabbing my kids, who were in second and sixth grade, to hug them at random times. I didn't know I'd been holding my breath until five o'clock Monday morning when a snow day was called and I inhaled deeply for the first time all weekend.

The call about Lewiston came Wednesday night. C's college, across the river from Lewsiton, would be closed the following day due to an "active shooter" event--at least sixteen dead, several more wounded. The next morning, eighteen dead and the shooter at large. Grocery stores and businesses around the state closed. The twins' colleges, more than an hour's drive away from the shootings, suspended classes and organized activities, because no one knew where the murderer was. No one felt safe.

Thursday and Friday passed in a surreal state of dread. There was no reason to suppose the shooter would find his way to our corner of the state--or our children's. Yet low-flying planes and helicopters passed over all day. What could they possibly see from up there? You know the rest of the story--they found his body Friday night. Self-inflicted gunshot wound. For some reason they always kill themselves after inflicting maximum damage on innocent victims, never before.

I breathed a sigh of relief when my kids graduated eighth grade. They made it through elementary school without being shot. And again when they graduated high school. We live in a country where it is an achievement to make it through thirteen years of school without being killed in the classroom or the hallways or on the playground by a man wielding a weapon of war. But getting through school does not guarantee our children safety from being blown apart by bullets fired from high capacity guns. There is still college, the movie theater, church, big box stores, concerts, night clubs, and now bowling alleys and bars.

I do not want to write about this today. I do not want to think about my children walking around as vulnerable as hearts outside of bodies. Of the child killed last week. Of the adults killed who were somebody's children. Of the children being bombed and killed and terrorized in Ukraine and Gaza and Israel. All I know is that until we learn to value life over death, human hearts over weapons of war, none of us will ever be safe. 

A version of this post went out recently to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. Subscribe here and receive a free PDF of my illustrated short essay "Eleven Ways to Raise a Wild Child."

*Header photo is an Andy Goldsworthy-inspired sumac leaf design by C, E, and Z, circa 2016.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Book Stack ~ September 2023

 A monthly post about what I've been reading.

I started the month with a week away at an artist residency, and I read so many books while I was there.


My big goal for the residency was to figure out if I still have the interest and motivation to work on a project that I've been thinking about and nibbling at over the course of nearly two decades, which is to put together a compilation of writing and biographies of women who write/wrote about motherhood and nature. So several of these were books I'd collected over the years in hopes of finding writing that would be applicable to this project and either hadn't read, hadn't finished reading, or had read in a different context. These were:

Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera, a diary-style accounting of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, with a lot of literature and art intertwined as well as earthquakes.

My Garden Book by Jamaica Kincaid, a collection of essays about gardening, plants, and colonialism.

Parrot's Wood,= by Erma Fisk, an amusing and grueling account of a month in primitive conditions at a bird refuge in Costa Rica by a retired woman who got involved in ornithology and bird conservation after the untimely death of her husband.

The Curve of Time by M Wylie Blanchet, charming and often harrowing tales of navigating the coast of British Columbia in a small boat with five children after the death of the author's husband.

Shaped by Wind and Water by Anne Haymond Zwinger, reflections on a life of nature writing from a week at an artist residency.

The Natural World of Louise Dickinson Rich, a three-part account of the author's life in three zones of New England: the Piedmont of Massachusetts, the North Woods of Maine, and the coast of Maine.

I also had time for fun reading and kept going on my Mary Stewart streak, with My Brother Michael and Nine Coaches Waiting, both fantastic examples of the romantic suspense genre, as well as The Wind Off The Small Isles, which had a great setup and then sort of fizzled for me. I guess it's good to know that even a supremely talented writer sometimes swings and misses.

When I returned home, I read Rooted 2: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, an anthology in which my essay "Faith in a Seed" appears, which was edited by Josh MacIvor Anderson and came out from Outpost19 books this summer. 

I admit to not always being a good literary citizen when it comes to reading the words that share pages with mine in an anthology or journal, but I read this book cover-to-cover and it is filled with beautiful and brilliant essays about trees. I would highly recommend it even if I wasn't featured inside.

Finally, in what is becoming a September tradition, I listened to the audiobook of the newest Richard Osman, The Last Devil to Die, and then I re-listened to the earlier volumes and then the new one all over again. I love these books. They're smart and funny and clever. 

But I've had a couple people tell me they couldn't get into them (one as a reader and one as a listener) and that they got confused by the number of different characters and points of view. So, be warned about that. I've also been binge-listening to the Maintenance Phase podcast, which has made me much more aware of and sensitive to anti-fat bias and weight stigma, and so listening this time around, especially to the first book, I felt a little cringey about the way the detective Chris thinks of his own weight and the way his side-kick Donna nudges him toward using the stairs and not eating junk food. So be warned, these books aren't for everyone (then again, what book is?).

Friday, October 13, 2023

A Room of My Own ~ For Reals this Time

Before we built our house, I had a dream of a little room just for me where I could read, write, knit, sew, make art, and do yoga. But we didn't put a room like that into our house, and if we had it would have become a bedroom for one of our kids when we jumped from one two three in one fell swoop.

Over the years, I've tried to carve out a little bit of space for me here and there: a corner of the living room, (which I've frequently reorganized and rededicated to writing and other pursuits, and corners of my bedroom, where I kept my sewing machine and one writing desk or another.

A gallery of these various corners:

Looking at these little writing spaces lined up like this, they seem so sweet and cozy, which they were in their own way (at least when I had them all tidied up and in photo-worthy condition), and they served me well. I wrote my zines and my blog in these spaces, I did my masters degree and my master naturalist program. I wrote my book! (Technically, I wrote my book mostly on the couch, but the desks are necessary for holding all the supplies and materials for the writing.) But there's no denying it was crowded and cluttered, and the more I added to my repertoire--illustrating and researching and juggling multiple projects--the more crowded and cluttered it all got. I never gave up on that dream of a Room of My Own.

So when Z and E went off to college last month, I wasted no time in moving into the room that had been M's when he was small, and then all three boys' room after the twins were born and then just the twins' room after M moved to the basement and then just Z's, after Z moved E to the basement.

There's room for a futon/guest bed, my dollhouse, my sewing machine, a table on which to make art, bookshelves, and, most importantly, a desk at which to write. I can move from one project to another without having to move all my books out of the way to make room for my laptop, or put away the art supplies in order to sew, or set aside the notebook and laptop in order to have room to paint. I can even leave my yoga mat set up, which is a good way to ensure I actually do yoga.

It gets tons of natural daylight, especially in the morning (which makes it a challenge to photograph). It is also very, very purple (the color E, Z, and I compromised on when we repainted the room a few years ago--one of them wanted black and the other hot pink), and I'm not likely to have the energy to repaint it anytime soon. On the bright side, this mosaic shelf I made from pieces of broken Fiesta ware that have amassed over the years looks fab on the purple wall. I'll be adding more orange accents to offset all that purple.

The closet is also a bit of a mess, with all of Z's stuff tucked away inside, as well as a number of children's toys (the wooden barn and blocks and things I can't part with) and books. I'll be sorting through the books this winter moving my fabric and yarn up from the basement and into the dresser. But, I'm in no rush to get to all that. I'm just enjoying having room in which to spread out and work and think. Virginia Woolf was right!

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Season of Change

August brought big, life-changing events--my two youngest kids went off to college; my oldest moved home for an indeterminate time; I had a momentous birthday. When the last Friday of the month rolled around--my arbitrary deadline for sending out this newsletter--I hadn't had time or headspace to work out how I felt about it all, and so had no idea what to write. And then I looked at the calendar and realized it wasn't the last Friday of August but the first of September, and I was off the hook. (I told you it's arbitrary.)

And now a month has gone by, and I still haven't meditated on what all this means. But here's how I'm feeling now. With regard to my kids at college: I'm happy for them, I'm worried about them, I miss them now and again, and I'm enjoying the peace and space left in their absence (especially Z's room, which I turned into my "studio" before the sheets had cooled). I wish they'd call home occasionally, and I wish I could turn off "nag" mode when I do talk to them. 

About the eldest child moving back in: It's nice to have him around. He's not much trouble, and he can even be helpful. Also he's messy and noisy, and I hope that the challenge of finding a job as a recent college graduate in what was supposed to be a high-demand and lucrative field is just a temporary hiccough and not a (further) sign of the decay of our society.

About turning 50: It felt exactly like every other birthday, which is to say, no different than the day before. It's only a big number on paper.

So "life-changing" is a little less seismic that the term suggests. But I do feel my life changing, as I move into what Mary Louise Kelley calls "the third act" in her book It Goes So Fast. As fate would have it, I began Act 3 in a way that I hope sets the stage for the rest of the play. 

Early this month, I had the good fortune of spending a week on a lake at an artist residency. It was the same place I'd stayed six years ago, although in a different cabin; my cabin this time wasn't as charming, but it was closer to the lake and so a fair tradeoff. My work wasn't as focused this time, either--planning a new project as opposed to major revisions on a first draft.

But once I got over the sensation that someone was looking over my shoulder tsk-tsking over my lack of productivity, I settled into a rhythm. I swam in the lake. I went kayaking. I climbed a mountain. I took naps. I stayed up reading till 2 a.m. one night and went to bed at 8 p.m. others. I chatted with artists and writers from the other cabins, visited my friend at the local library, and had a long conversation the owner of a nearby bakery who made the best croissant I've ever eaten. I read nine books, drafted an essay, made some final tweaks to the almost-finished draft of one book, and did some serious thinking and planning and even a little writing on the new book project.

And now I'm back home, and it's fall, that season of settling down to work. While I don't have a lake out my front door and I don't have the house completely to myself, I am working on making at least a little piece of each day into an artist residency--shut out the world around me and delve into reading, writing, and thinking, with a little bit of wandering and adventure, too.

A version of this post went out recently to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. Subscribe here and receive a free PDF of my illustrated short essay "Eleven Ways to Raise a Wild Child."

Friday, September 22, 2023

Book Stack ~ August 2023

  A monthly post about what I've been reading.

Usually I take a photo of the books I read on the last day of the month, so that even if I don't get around to posting about them for another three weeks, I at least know what they were. This time I forgot to do that and had to recreate the stack! Luckily I hadn't gotten around to putting/giving them away so I'm pretty sure this list is accurate.

After reading some heavy stuff about the former Yugoslavia in July, I had gotten onto a Mary Stewart kick for something light. I continued that streak into August with Madam Will You Talk, a fun and suspenseful romp through the French countryside (and the second of her books that I've read recently which not only relies heavily on characters smoking to give them something to do while they converse--to avoid talking head syndrome--but also to provide a significant clue to solving the mystery. Interesting how dated that device is now!). I also read The Stormy Petrel, which had such a great setup--a remote Scottish Island, two mysterious men appearing out of nowhere into the narrator's life (and cottage), and a whole bird-watching sub-plot, but I felt like she wrapped up the mystery too quickly and neatly, and while I support the instinct of using the rest of the book to resolve a conservation/land development/bird protection issue, it didn't make for suspenseful, or even all that interesting, reading. 

Back in the romantic suspense/romp through the countryside vein, I re-read (probably re-re-re-re-read) Elizabeth Peters's Her Cousin John, which has an alternate title in some editions of The Camelot Caper, because I'm interested in the caper as a genre (sub-genre?) and most suggested titles in articles about the style are by dudes. It's an entertaining and amusing book, and as a bonus it introduces a character who becomes a staple in the later Vicky Bliss series. I even found a scholarly article about it, which I also found entertaining, both the fact that someone wrote it and the article itself.

In a more serious but still thoroughly enjoyable vein, I read Hotel Cuba, the new novel by my friend and mentor Aaron Hamburger. It's based on the story of his grandmother's experience of emigrating from Eastern Europe to America via Cuba in the 1920s, when the US was not exactly welcoming of Jewish immigrants. Such an interesting peek into a slice of history.

In the nonfiction realm, I read Christian Cooper's Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a black Man in the Natural World, which delves into science fiction, growing up gay, Black, and nerdy, writing comics, traveling the world, and, of course, bird watching and the notorious events of the day on which a white woman decided to call the police on him for birding-while-Black, coincidentally on the same day George Floyd was murdered by white police officers. Fortunately  Cooper came out of the incident intact and has since gone on to host a National Geographic program and do other great things around birding and social justice, as well as write this book, which is super engaging.

And, finally, I finished reading Elizabeth George's first craft book Write Away, which gives very useful advice for crafting a novel in general (not just a crime novel), the most useful of which is: 

You will be published if you possess...talent, passion, and discipline.

You will probably be published if you possess...either talent and discipline or passion and discipline.

You will likely be published if you possess neither talent nor passion but still have discipline....

But if all you possess is talent or passion, if all you possess is talent and passion, you will not be published.

 Which is to say, sit your butt down and get to work!

Friday, August 18, 2023

Book Stack ~ July 2023

  A monthly post about what I've been reading.

Vacation Reads
Before we left on our trip to Slovenia and Croatia, I searched online for "books that take place in the Balkans" and came up with the first two on the list (as well as two from last month's list).

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obrecht. This book tells the story of a woman doctor from an unnamed city (presumably Belgrade) who travels to a coastal town in another of the former Balkan republics (also not named) to provide medical care in an orphanage. While she's there, she learns that her grandfather had gone away to a clinic and died, without telling his wife or daughter the truth about his medical condition (cancer) or where he's going. The narrator intertwines her experiences at the orphanage, including trying to help a group of Roma who are digging in the nearby vineyard for mysterious reasons, with stories of visiting the tiger house at the zoo with her grandfather as a child and then delving further back into stories of her grandfather's childhood and the escaped tiger that takes up residence near his village, and magical realism and folkloric elements become part of the narrative. It's a strange and beautiful book.

Mix Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Sefanovic. This memoir begins with the narrator taking part in a Miss Ex-Yugoslavia beauty pageant among the former Yugoslav ex-pat community in Australia and from there winds back through her childhood growing up in Belgrade and her family's emigration to Australia as tensions in that country rose in anticipation of war of the 1990s. While Stefanic didn't experience the war first-hand, it's still an insightful account of the experience of someone intimately tied to the place and a different perspective on NATO's role in ending that war--different from our own US roaring in as saviors story, and the collateral damage the wars had on the people living in Serbia who did not support Milošević or the ethnic cleansing.

In Croatia I visited a bookstore (okay, in both Slovenia and Croatia I visited a LOT of bookstores) and picked up the following three works in translation:

Take Six: Six Balkan Women Writers, edited by Will Firth. This collection includes stories, excerpts, and essays from six women writers who hail from six different Balkan republics. It differs from the previous two books, as well as The Hired Man, which I read last month, in that most of the stories don't focus on war. Rather, in a variety of writing styles, they delve into different aspects of everyday life of modern people, both tragic (drug use and death) and ordinary (falling in love), including a series of humorous stories that take place in ride shares and memoir vignettes by a teenager in a tuberculosis ward. 

In a Sentimental Mood by Ivana Bodrožić and Kindness Separates Night from Day by Marija Dejanović are both books of poetry translated from Croatian into English. I'm not a great poetry critic, but I enjoyed them both, especially Kindness.

When I got home, I immediately came down with a cold and spent three days lying around hydrating and not moving much, so I craved comfort reads and picked up a couple of vintage Mary Stewart volumes I'd ordered recently. Both Touch Not the Cat and The Gabriel Hounds have good gothic vibes, and The Gabriel Hounds has my other favorite suspense trope: travel to an exotic location (the desert of Lybia). They both also lean heavy on a trope favored by both Mary Stewart and my other suspense writer fave, Barbara Michaels: kissing cousins. The Gabriel Hounds is extra-squirmy, since the cousins' fathers are identical twins, which makes them, genetically, half-siblings. I don't know what it is with these authors, but they loved keeping it in the family. Is the ick factor of this a recent development in society and cousins getting together just no big deal in the sixties and seventies? 
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