Category Archives: Books

Harvest

The theme for November’s Story Slam at the Midtown Reader was “Harvest.” This was my submission, which I read yesterday. 

Four weeks before the house burned to the ground, we planted baby tomatoes in containers on the pool deck. This was to be our big-kid house, so we needed to do big-kid things like grow vegetables and keep the pool sparkling.

And we did. For four whole weeks.

The fire occurred on a hot, dry day at the end of June. A mid-afternoon lightning storm made the air crackly and the animals jumpy. A bolt from the blue struck the gable end of the house, entered the wiring in the attic, and lit all the paper insulation on fire. Within minutes, the top half of the house was alight.

All we could do was watch our house burn, and be vaguely grateful that we’d not yet upgraded our standard-issue IKEA furniture.

Every day thereafter, we visited the ruins. With the distinctive smell of house fire infusing our hair and clothes, I would water the tomato plants and my husband would scoop the leaves from the pool, which was quickly turning an alarming shade of green. After a week, tadpoles appeared in the stagnant water. We named them, collectively, Steve.

The tomatoes and Steve felt like the only living things left in our life. Flowers appeared on the tomato plants, and then tiny green fruits.

I watched. I waited. I talked to the tomatoes, congratulating them on surviving such a traumatic experience, encouraging them to grow. The potting soil smelled like burning insulation.

My husband talked to Steve, asking how their day was going, if they’d slept well. He offered to spend the night by the pool, to keep them company. We were both losing it – displaced, grasping for purchase in an avalanche of ash.

The tomatoes failed to thrive. The small green fruits refused to turn red or grow any bigger. I kept my vigil. This was, after all, my first attempt at horticulture. Maybe my tomatoes were special. Maybe they had PTSD. I sang to them, stroked the leaves.

One evening, we arrived as the sun was setting, painting the sky with fire above the charred trusses of our home.

Steve was dead.

The pool, now a deep olive, was completely still and littered with tadpole carcasses. My husband looked long and deep into the water, and then his shoulders slumped. The slump continued down his body until he was sitting next to the pool, head in his hands.

With a sigh, I turned to the tomato plants, which were sparsely decorated with stunted fruit.

The harvest took all of two minutes. I cradled the pitiful crop in one hand and sat down next to my husband. We stared at the water. The wind shifted behind us, bringing to our noses the faint scent of the fire. I wondered if I would always be able to smell it.

He held out his hand, looking for mine. Instead, I gave him half our harvest – four tomatoes the size of grapes. I wondered if they were safe to eat. I discovered I didn’t care.

I placed a tomato in my mouth and bit down until it burst. It tasted vaguely of tomato, but also of burnt metal and plastic, of ash and char, of futility and dejection.

I spit it into the pool, then took my husband’s hand and hauled both of us to our feet. With a nod, we threw the remaining tomatoes as far as we could into the yard.

We walked back to the car in the gathering darkness.

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NaNoWriMo

Deeeeeep breath.

For the second year, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month.

Last year, I only got 10,000 words down, which seemed like a huge failure. Obviously, I had a lot going on – we were gearing up to move mom over here – but since then I’ve felt like I had unfinished business. I told almost no one that I was writing, because I didn’t feel like I could complete the challenge.

This year, I’m going to finish. And I’m telling all of you, to hold myself accountable.

I’m writing the story of me and my mom over the last year, partly because that’s a familiar subject matter, and partly because writing it out is cathartic for me.

I’ve never written anything this long – my training and strength lies in short-form work. But this has already been a year of intense challenges, so why not try one more?

Here goes nothing.

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Reading Materials: October 2017

50. Demelza, Winston Graham (Library). This is the second book in Graham’s Poldark series, the basis for the current(ly AWESOME) Masterpiece on PBS series of the same name. I loved this book even more than the first one, partly because the characters are better-developed, and partly because this book got me through the first part of a rather awful month.

XX. Dragonfly in Amber, Diana Gabaldon (Library). I read Outlander a few years ago and hated it. Then I started watching the TV show and loved it. Torn by my feelings, I decided to give the second book in the series a try. This was foolish. The second season of the TV show is quite different from the book, and far better. When I got the “nearly due notice” from the library, I shrugged my shoulders and let this one go. ABANDONED at 40%. It pains me to abandon a book, but I’m also too old to stick it out for the sake of bragging rights. Or something.

On a more personal note, my brain has been mush for most of this month. My mother died at the end of September, and October has been taken up with her memorial service and selling her house. I will do better next month.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 43
Non-Fiction: 7

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Reading Materials: September 2017

Sorry this is late! I barely know what day it is.

44. Ross Poldark, Winston Graham. (Library) A friend recommended the PBS series Poldark to me, and I’ve become mildly obsessed. When I learned that it was based on a very popular series of books from the 1940s, I decided to give the first one a try. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It has aged well, and the writing still feels fresh and sharp. The story is set immediately after the American Revolutionary War, but it takes place in England, in Cornwall. This is a time/place combination which I had not spent much time thinking about, so I was glad for some historical perspective as well as a great story. I’ve already put the second book in this 12-book series on hold at the library.

45. Every Dead Thing, John Connolly. (Library) John Connolly frequently pops up on “authors you may like” lists for me, so I decided to give one a try. It’s set in New York and New Orleans, which appealed to me as well. I liked the book, although I guessed the twist pretty early on, and I got a little tired of Connolly’s insistence on detailing the weight/fitness level/attire of every character. I am not rushing out to the library to get the next book in the series, but I may pick it up later.

46. The Secret Diary of Hendrick Groen, Aged 83 1/4. (Library, book club selection) This was a hard book to read. My mother spent almost two years in an assisted living facility, and it was informational to read about nursing home care in other countries. But I just couldn’t get into this character. The book spends a lot of time discussing the merits of assisted suicide, which cut a little too close for me right now.

47. Phantom Evil, Heather Graham. (Library) I must have some Puritan blood in me, because I have very little tolerance for novels in which attractive-yet-broken people solve all interpersonal drama through mind-blowing sex. Or, worse, when two attractive-yet-broken people are put in mortal peril, and the first thing they do afterwards is…. you guessed it. Other than that, this story was good. It’s another New Orleans story, which you know I’m always down for. It seems to be based in part on the lore surrounding the Lalaurie mansion in the French Quarter, in that it features a big, beautiful mansion that’s haunted/cursed.

48. The Round House, Louise Erdlich. (Library) This has been on my to-read list for a while, so when I espied it on the library shelf I picked it up. It follows the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated on a Native American family. The writing was tremendous, the characters well-developed, and the plot was interesting. I enjoyed reading it.

49. Panacea, F. Paul Wilson. (Library) I have been a fan of Wilson’s since a friend lent me the Repairman Jack series, which is outstanding. This book is similarly engaging. It’s got Dan-Brown-style pacing. I read it during a very difficult week, and it managed to distract me for several minutes at a time.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 42
Non-Fiction: 7

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Reading Materials: August 2017

39. The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman. (Digital Library) I did not love this book. I appreciated that it was a true story, but there were just too many rabbit-holes. The author would introduce a very minor character, and then spend several pages giving that person’s biography. It made the story clunky.

40. Duma Key, Stephen King. (Library, Book Club Selection) I enjoy Stephen King books; I am not a fanatic about them. I read (and loved) The Stand, The Gunslinger series, and Bag of Bones. I have read many others, and liked them plenty, but King is not in my personal pantheon. That said, this is one of the better ones I’ve read. It’s a doorstop of a novel – nearly 800 pages – but it moves quickly and efficiently from one plot point to the next. I may have felt especial empathy for the main character because he searches for words in the same way my mother does. Most of the novel is creepy, but not outright scary – until you get to the last 25% or so. I stayed up late to finish it and then had nightmares. I’m sure Mr. King would consider that a compliment.

41. Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. (Kindle Purchase) In college, I dated a guy from rural southeastern Ohio. I spent a lot of time there, including a whole summer. Additionally, I lived for three years in rural northwest Alabama. Many of Vance’s observations rang true for me – hollowed-out towns with boarded-up main streets, hollowed-out people whose futures left when the plant closed. I loved Vance’s straightforward storytelling, which eschews flowery language in favor of the unvarnished truth. Sentences like “I watched my mom get loaded into a police cruiser” really don’t need embellishment to be disturbing. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time, since I heard an interview with Vance on a podcast earlier this year. I’m so, so glad I read it.

42. All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders. (Purchased) This was a summer reading selection at our (delightful) independent bookstore, the Midtown Reader. The description – Science vs. Magic! Romance on the brink of global catastrophe! – ticked all my boxes, but the book was not what I expected. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and have selected it for my own book club to read later this fall. It was funnier than I expected, though I feel its young adult category may be a stretch. It had some very, um, adult portions. I would not be comfortable with my 14-year-old reading it.

43. All Together Dead, Charlaine Harris. (Gift) Palate cleanser. Perfectly entertaining fluff. Great way to end the month.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 36
Non-Fiction: 7

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Reading Materials: July 2017

33. Bird Box, Josh Malerman. (Library) This was billed as a horror novel, but it was better than that label. It was chilling and creepy. It reminded me of The Walking Dead in that the main characters are facing a threat that is not actively malicious, but still very dangerous. I can’t even really explain the “monsters,” because the book never fully explains them. This is not a flaw – I think sketching them with a minimum of detail keeps the situation creepier. I enjoyed this read.

34. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, H.P. Wood. (Library) A pretty decent read about carnival workers on Coney Island at the turn of the century, and a young English girl who gets separated from her family and has to use her wits (and her newfound carnie friends) to stay safe. Meanwhile, there’s an outbreak of plague. This book was aggressively fine, but also reduced many characters to two-dimensional cutouts.

35. News of the World, Paulette Jiles. (Library) Despite the author’s incredibly annoying lack of quotation marks around all dialogue in this book, I really enjoyed it. Don’t dismiss it because it’s “a Western.”  For the record, I resisted reading Lonesome Dove for many years, because it was “a Western.” Shame on me. The writing is beautiful – expansive like the swaths of country it describes. This is a lovely little book.

36. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans. (Borrowed for Book Club) This book describes one woman’s personal journey from an evangelical upbringing, through a time in the spiritual wilderness, and finally landing in the arms of the Episcopal church. It is divided into seven sections, each named for one of the sacraments of that church. I enjoyed the writing, and the honesty with which Evans wrestled with her faith. My only complaint is this: When one talks about sin, and confession, it is traditionally understood to mean examining oneself for deficiencies and naming them before God. Victimhood, on the other hand, is devoted to examining and naming the sins of others. Too often in this book, Evans substitutes victims for sinners, and the only sin she names in herself is a tendency to dislike Republicans. For example, in a gathering she calls one of the most spiritually profound experiences of her life, a group of gay Christians tells their personal stories of persecution. These are powerful stories, and deserve to be told – but they are not confession. They are testimony, or witness. Anyway, this is a minor quibble with the book, which I overall enjoyed.

37. Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman. (Library, Book Club) I have always wanted to love Neil Gaiman. He has a strong cult following of people whose opinions I value. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it was…fine. I started Stardust, but some asshat had removed the last page of each chapter, so I abandoned it after a few chapters and never sought out another copy. I watched Coraline. This collection, however, was very good. It shows an excellent range of storytelling ability. I could probably do without the poetry, but only because it looked like artfully-arranged prose. I think my problem with Gaiman is that so many authors have derived from him that the original material seems a little cliched. I felt the same way when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an adult.

38. Sweet Bitter, Stephanie Danler. (Library) Critics of this book characterize it as “exactly what you’d expect from a new MFA graduate,” and they’re probably right. Nevertheless, I couldn’t put it down. It follows Tess through her heady first year in New York City, as a backwaiter at an upscale restaurant. Her life becomes a trainwreck – but one you can’t stop watching.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 32
Non-Fiction: 6

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The Sweet Smell of…Success!

A couple of months ago, I entered the Midtown Reader’s monthly Story Slam, but ALAS my tale was not chosen. I entered again in June, and my story was selected! Along with three other writers, I read my story (out loud! to strangers!) last Thursday night, and then sat through a Q&A with the audience. It was a ton of fun and I hope to do it again.

Here’s the story I submitted:

I am sitting on the floor outside my mother’s bathroom, a place I have occupied every Sunday evening since I was seven years old, grinding my teeth. Shortly after my dad had just about enough of my mother, she instituted “Sunday Night Spa,” which mostly involved putting on face masks, or playing with her makeup, or French braiding each other’s hair. When I was seven, this was a huge treat. Now that I’m sixteen, not so much. My mother will not allow me to make plans that conflict with Sunday Night Spa, and since I do not share my mother’s overriding interest in her own face, I sit outside the bathroom door while she dyes her hair or plucks her eyebrows or whatever. This is her idea of a generous compromise. Some nights she spends hours watching makeup videos on YouTube while I pray for an asteroid to hit the house. She can tell you all about sheet masks, but can’t identify which political party the President belongs to. Did you know you can contour your toes?, she’ll ask. God, her brows look amazing. 

The soundtrack for these Sunday evenings – and every other evening, for that matter – is a running monologue detailing my mother’s misery and bitterness at finding herself divorced. But in the last few years, the target of her ire has shifted from my father to me. When I finally hit puberty, my head transformed. Suddenly, I looked like my dad in a wig. His nose sprouted from the middle of my face, and my hair became thick, wavy, and unruly. My mother saw this as a calculated affront, like I made my face look this way for the sole purpose of tormenting her.

That’s when my mom started knifing me verbally. “You poor thing,” she’d say, “you got your father’s ugly nose.” Or “Why don’t you let me straighten your hair? It could be pretty like mine.” She offered to get me a plastic surgery when I turn 18 in a couple of years, and got very upset when I declined. The more she insults my father, the prouder I am to look like a dude in a wig. This drives her insane. I mean, more insane. My dad is just a regular guy, and I’m pretty sure the amount of time he thinks about my mother or their marriage is zero. He’s moved on in the last ten years. This also drives her insane. She’s marooned in the past – for her, every day is the day he left. The anger is always that fresh.

Even now, through the bathroom door, she’s offering to get me the same color hair dye so we can match. Remember when we used to wear matching outfits?, she asks. Remember when you loved me best? Remember when Daddy ruined the life we had planned?

She knows that I hate Sunday nights.

She does not know that I have substituted her hair color base for Nair hair remover.

It turns out that I have also had enough of my mother. I’ve had enough of being her therapist, her substitute spouse, her best friend. Over the last few weeks, I have been squirreling away my most prized possessions in my car. I’m 16, so they fit nicely under the piles of clothes and water bottles and books.

I’m going to my dad’s, and I’m not coming back.

In the bathroom, the timer goes off, and my mother turns on the shower. My heart rate picks up speed, my palms slick.

I hear the sharp breath before a scream.

I walk out.

 

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