Tag Archives: books

Beginning the Year with A, B, and C

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some books on my nightstand

A brand new year. New expectations; new promises to myself. A new journal to keep track of my life…or to keep my life on track, I’m not sure which. It will be filled, soon enough, with resolutions, plans and good intentions, and a number of graphs, lists and charts to record my progress…or lack thereof. I start by noting accomplishments and memorable things from the year just past.

For that, I page through last year’s journal. It is a wealth of information, often discouraging and sad. I can see, for instance, that, though I devoted lines each month in my “Habit and Activity Tracker” to “weights,” “yoga/pilates” and “walk,” I fulfilled those goals only a tiny fraction of the times planned. I did better in other areas. I rarely missed a scheduled work day. I posted a blog twice a week, occasionally more, almost without fail. I read every single day. From the pages I devoted to “Books I Read, 2018,” I see that I completed thirty-three books last year.

With that in mind, I’m going to start this year off on a positive note, focusing on the books I am reading right now. It just happens – coincidentally – that they begin with the first three letters of the alphabet.

Atomic Habits by James Clear is the perfect book to have first on my reading list at the start of a new year. So far, it has given me such confidence that change (improvement) is possible, that I have put off all my usual resolution-making until I finish this book. Clear suggests that it is not helpful to focus on goals; we should, instead, focus on “systems,” the behaviors that will help us get to the results we want. “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” Systems are the steps you take to get the desired outcome. This is a highly technical – i.e.: lots of graphs and studies – but very easy-to-read book. I’m thinking it just might change my life!

Becoming by Michelle Obama. My daughter and I were talking about this book just before Christmas. “Do you have it?” she asked. “No,” I told her, “I’ve seen so many good, in depth interviews with her, I feel kind of like I know how it goes. Maybe I don’t need to read it.” That wasn’t quite true. I had seen many wonderful interviews, and I was telling myself that it was unnecessary to invest in another freshly published hard cover book right now. However, when I received the book on Christmas Eve – a gift from that same wily daughter – I was thrilled! I’ve only just started it, but Michelle Obama is an extremely engaging writer, and I’m thoroughly enjoying her book!

Calypso by David Sedaris is the third book I’m reading right now. My two daughters and I met in Lansing last year, to see Sedaris at the Whiting Auditorium. I’ve loved his books, and his readings on NPR for years, and his talk there did not disappoint. To commemorate that special get-together, I got each of my daughters a David Sedaris book for Christmas. For Jen, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. I own that book, and re-read it whenever I need to improve my mood. I can’t get through the first essay in that book without tears of laughter running down my face! I hope Jen likes it as much as I have. For Kate, Calypso. Because I had not yet read that one, I bought it for myself as well…an early Christmas present for me. Unnecessary, gift-wise, as I was very generously inundated with all kinds of wonderful, thoughtful presents, but I appreciate this book anyway.

So, A, B and C. I’m sure reading – my biggest success – will continue through the year. I can’t say if it will continue to follow the alphabet!

Artifacts to Memories: Things I Can’t Let Go

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There is a lot of stuff in my life. I was hoping for a more delicate term, but “stuff” seems apt. Gifts, purchases, hand-me-downs and inheritances. Sixty-four years worth of accumulated belongings. Enough to divide into several categories.

There are the things I hold on to for their sentimental value. Ranging from drawings and cards that my young daughters made more than thirty years ago, to photographs, to little gifts from friends and family, to my very first hard-cover chapter book, to my dining room table. The table was a junk store find that my Dad brought home, that was used as our clothes-folding table and extra-seating-at-holiday-time table for most of my life. Then, moved out to the garage, it was my brother David’s work and party table (the surface gained a few cigarette burns and saw marks from that phase), my sister Sheila’s table to relax with a book and a beverage…and finally my dining room table.

There are things I keep because they are necessary, or because they seem necessary to me. Most of my clothing fits this category…but so do many books, plants, baskets, candles, art supplies, art work, and a large collection of flat, round stones. I know there is too much. I go through periods of purging and paring down. These “necessities” are spared, because the thought of losing them gives me heart palpitations.

Then, there are the items I hold on to, because of an – often unrealistic – idea of the person I would like to be. A collection of beautiful yarn waits, in a basket with crochet hooks and scissors, for the day when I am transformed back into the woman I used to be: a young mother, making gifts and treasures from bits of yarn. Other baskets, boxes and suitcases hold fabrics, embroidery floss, needlepoint canvas, rug-making tools and accessories, and quilt squares. My life doesn’t have room for the activities associated with all of this “stuff,” but I can’t give up on the idea that it will.

That young woman that I was, along with a Katherine Hepburn/Jo March/Martha Stewart-esque vision of a person I would like to be are evident in excesses throughout my house, from bookshelves to closets to kitchen cupboards. I would like to be someone who drinks tea, does yoga, listens to cool jazz, wears hats, raises chickens, grows all of her own food, reads the classics, and hosts lovely dinner parties…including trifle for dessert. I am not, but many of my belonging would lead one to think so.

That is the crux of the problem, when faced with getting rid of things I don’t use. I love that young woman that I used to be, with a dozen projects going and a whole lifetime ahead to finish them. I can’t seem to let go of her, yet. I still picture myself with chickens and a big garden, doing yoga, jazz music coming from the stereo, James Joyce on my nightstand. Until I give up on the person I was, and the person I want to be, I can hardly give up her accessories!

 

Artifacts to Memories: Books, Bookstores, and E.B.White

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My dear friend, Mary Blocksma, has started a year-long memoir-writing project, and has generously invited others to join in.

I admire Mary’s abilities as a writer. Her background of writing scholastic literature, as well as her sense of fun, make her children’s books some of the very best. An education in library science and research shows itself gracefully – alongside her love of nature – in books about the flora and fauna of forests and shorelines. Her ability to put words together – in poetry or creative writing – often takes my breath away. Mary is also a skilled teacher and editor. This was an opportunity I could not pass up!

The method Mary is using for pulling out and writing about a lifetime of memories is genius: she uses objects collected or saved throughout her life as a jumping-off point. As a fellow “saver” (I shy away from saying “hoarder”) I know that objects are saved for the life events and heart-strings attached to them. Why not use them, then, for the memories that they hold? So, that is the premise.

Mary is calling her excavation “My Life as a Dig,” and has already, in this new year, written several lovely essays. I am planning to devote one of my writing days each week to the project, under the title “Artifacts to Memories.” And here I go!

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I was a twenty-four year old “re-entry” college student, already a wife and the mother of two young daughters, when I first entered a good bookstore. My friend Linda and I had driven off the campus of Mott Community College during a break between classes. Downtown Flint, Michigan was an exciting and welcoming place in the mid-seventies. Interesting shops and little galleries were tucked in among novel restaurants and bars. We were on our way to Hat’s Pub for lunch. Their julienne salad was a lovely mound of matchstick sliced vegetables, meats and cheeses; vegetarian pizza was piled high with alfalfa sprouts; the bohemian atmosphere of the place was always fun.

Walking from the parking lot to the pub, we came upon a little corner bookstore: Young & Welchan’s. We might have missed it, if it weren’t for the stacks of books organized in neat piles and rows on tables on either side of the door. Beautiful books! Hardcover books! Brand new! With price tags that stunned me: $2.95; $4.95; ninety-nine cents! As a student, I was spending a great deal of money each semester on textbooks; I was haunting the campus library for other required reading. As a fairly new (proud) member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, I knew the value of a hardcover book! I had never come upon “remaindered” books before. This was amazing!

There, like a gift from the heavens, was E.B.White. My English teacher had just been reading excerpts of his work! She had been glorifying him as “comparible to Henry David Thoreau,” and “one of the finest essayists of the 20th century!” And right here, in front of me, were Poems and Sketches of E.B.White and Essays of E.B.White…priced at $3.99 each. Even with my meager budget, I could manage that! I bought both books. That was the beginning.

Those two books were the start of a lifetime of accumulating books. I have a section on my shelves for E.B.White, others for Maxine Hong Kingston, Evan S. Connell and Annie Dillard. They sit among treasured individual books of essays or poetry. I have a nice selection of books on paring-down, cleaning-up, organization and simplification. I don’t believe any of that information applies to books!

E.B.White became – and still holds the position of – one of my most treasured writers. I have read, I think, everything he has written at least twice. His essays about life on a saltwater farm in rural Maine influenced my thoughts on farming, gardening and rural life. “Death of a Pig” is one of my read-aloud favorites. Without E.B.White, I doubt I would have ever ended up out in the country with a big garden, on Beaver Island!

Young & Welchan’s became the first “favorite bookstore” in my life. It taught me what to look for, in a good bookstore. There should be a wide range of books on many subjects, organized so that it’s easy to find an area of interest, and a literate staff to assist when needed. There should be benches and comfortable chairs for browsing…and browsing should not be discouraged. There should be coffee. And the entrance should always have neat piles and rows of good books at amazing prices…to welcome the uninitiated.

 

The 52 Lists Project #49

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List your favorite books:

I feel like I’ve done this list before, though it’s right on schedule, and the 52 Lists book does not repeat. It is definitely a topic dear to my heart, and one I’ve written about before. For this list, I’ll categorize.

Gardening Books:

  • Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katherine S. White
  • Weeds in Winter by Lauren Brown
  • Creating a Cottage Garden by Sue Phillips
  • Seasons at Seven Gates Farm by Keith Scott Morton and Mary Seehafer Sears
  • An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter
  • Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte
  • Grow Your Own Vegetables by Joy Larkcom

Cookbooks:

  • This Good Food by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette
  • Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant by the Moosewood Collective
  • The Supermarket Epicure by Joanna Pruess
  • The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo
  • Let’s Get Together by DeeDee Stovel and Pam Wakefield
  • An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler
  • Sweets for Saints and Sinners by Janice Feuer

Essays:

  • The Essays of E.B.White by E.B.White
  • Silences by Tillie Olsen
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • If It Fitz by Jim Fitzgerald
  • The White Lantern by Evan S. Connell
  • Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Trying to Save Piggy Sneed by John Irving
  • In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens by Alice Walker

Memoir:

  • Growing Up by Russell Baker
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
  • Let’s Not Go To the Dogs Tonight: an African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
  • Half-Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

Fiction:

  • All of the loosely related stories by Louise Erdrich, but especially Love Medicine, Tracks, The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, Four Souls and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
  • Just about any by Barbara Kingsolver, but especially Pigs in Heaven.
  • Everything I’ve read so far by Kay Atkinson, especially Life After Life.
  • All of the light-hearted mysteries by Laurie R. King featuring Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell.
  • Everything Alice Walker writes is golden, but The Color Purple is my favorite.
  • The same goes for Mark Twain, but I’d choose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn if I had to pick just one.

Miscellaneous Others from various categories:

  • Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
  • The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton
  • I Could Do Anything (If I Only Knew What it Was) by Barbara Sher
  • Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson
  •  The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke
  • Encaustic Painting Techniques by Patricia Baldwin Seggebruch

And, oh, there are other books on art, history, nature and health that have gone unmentioned. How have I not mentioned poets Marge Piercy, Caroline Forsche and Billy Collins? And all of the other writers of fiction that have meant so much to me? For this one day, this will have to do.

 

Reading Life

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I started with books that my sister, Brenda, brought home. She was one year older, and already in school. I could spell my name; I knew the alphabet and many of the letter sounds. I was anxious to learn the mysteries of reading. I would crawl under the kitchen table with a book and – with the quiet and privacy afforded in that space, try to unravel the puzzle. I remember great joy when the letter sounds worked together to reveal a word that I was familiar with. I remember crying in frustration when I couldn’t understand. Once, my mother crawled under the table, wiped away my tears, and explained that K-N-E-W was pronounced “noo,” not “canoe,” and that it did make sense when read that way.

Dick and Jane, of course, came next. Better books followed. I always read far ahead, so was bored with the in-class read-aloud sessions. I loved the library, right across the street from the school, and always brought home library books. Heidi was the first hardcover book I owned. Brenda had Little Women, and Aunt Betty brought us a stack of books that had been hers when she was a child, the rest of Louisa May Alcott’s children’s books, included. From there I moved on to Nancy Drew mysteries, then Agatha Christie mysteries and selections from my mother’s bookshelf. I loved White Fang by Jack London and was haunted by The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

As an adult, I went through a stage where everything I read terrified me: Jaws, Helter Skelter, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Alive. Then, taking English Literature classes in college, a whole new world opened up. Henry David Thoreau, Henry James, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. Modern authors: E.B.White, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Maxine Hong Kingston and others. I currently love Kay Atkinson, Louise Erdrich and Laurie R King, and am happy when any of them put out a new book!

Some Random Thoughts

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Not counting today, considering that I published a blog on December 31, 2015 (before the start of my year-long writing commitment!) and that February had twenty-nine days this year, I have posted a bit of writing 265 days in a row! I think I may finally have run out of things to say! At least it seems I am coming up empty this morning. I have nothing to offer but a few random bits.

  1. I finally got my SD card reader in the mail, and figured out how to get my photos from the camera to the new computer!
  2. After another rain, the blackberries are still ripening on the bushes. I went picking again yesterday, and put another two quarts of berries in the freezer.
  3. I enjoyed homemade flat bread pizza for dinner last night, topped with tomatoes from my cousin Bob’s garden, basil clipped from the plant on my counter, and fresh mozzarella. I cooked it on top of the stove in the cast  iron frying pan, so the crust was very crisp. I might make it again for dinner tonight!
  4. I washed my comforter and hung it on the clothesline to dry. That wonderful smell makes bedtime a sensory experience.
  5. One good thing about not having television is that I am not inundated with political commercials and campaign coverage.
  6. One bad thing about not having television is that I’m missing the new show pilots and premieres. This is my favorite time of year for TV.
  7. Though the days are still warm, there is definitely a hint of fall in the air.
  8. I am reading A God in Ruins by Kay Atkinson, Daily Rituals by Mason Curry, 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman and Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin.
  9. One good quote: “The greater part of happiness depends on our dispositions and not our circumstances.” ~Martha Washington

That’s it! I have nothing more to say today.

 

 

Some Things Change…

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Due to a bit in the news that caught my attention, about one of the members of Charles Manson’s “Family” being considered for parole, I am rereading Helter Skelter. I read it first in 1975, shortly after its publication, and only a few years after the crimes, trial and convictions that the book describes. Written by the prosecuting attorney, Vincent Bugliosi, I remembered it as a good – though terrifying – read.

Well, though I’ve read hundreds of books since 1975, have studied literature and creative writing and have honed my taste in reading material, it is still a good book.

It’s still terrifying, but I’ve gotten braver. In the same time period, in the early ’70s, that I read Helter Skelter, I also read The Exorcist and Jaws. I had made myself afraid of everything, from water to Ouija boards to home invaders. I’d wake my husband to investigate sounds in the night, while I quivered under the covers. My heart would race at an unexpected knock at the door. Nighttime visitors gave me nightmares.

I don’t remember reading about all the details of evidence, interviews and trial that the author lays out in Helter Skelter. It has been a long time; I could have forgotten. More likely, I think, is that I skipped over those parts forty years ago, to get to the action.

I do remember an entirely different perspective when reading that book for the first time: everyone seemed old. The prosecutor was middle-aged. The youngest of the victims was older than I was at that time. Of the “family” who committed the murders or supported the criminals, many were in their teens or early twenties. That was shocking to me in 1975, when I was twenty-three. It seems even more shocking now.

Last night, reading through a particularly haunting chapter, I heard a bang, then a whooshing, scraping sound. Though it made me jump, I got right out of bed to check into what was making the noise. A mouse. Caught in the trap by just one foot, he was racing through the kitchen, dragging the trap behind him. I snatched up the trap, released the mouse outside, washed my hands and went back to bed. No trauma, no pounding heart.

Some things, at least, have changed.

 

Traveling

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Yesterday was crazy.

My list was long and diverse.

I had to “copy and paste” several blog entries to Wordpad, and mail them to myself so that I could print them out when I was in town (I no longer have a printer). Then I had to take them to the Community Center to read them into a microphone, to be broadcast on our little radio station (WVBI…”the voice of Beaver Island,” found on Beaver Island at 100.1 FM, and worldwide at http://www.wvbi.net). My appointment was at noon.

By two o’clock, I had to be at the County garage, to catch up with the head of our road crew. I interviewed him for the news magazine, and wanted to give him the chance to correct any fallacies in the article before we go to press.

I had laundry to finish: dark clothes in the dryer to be folded; towels to be dried.

Clean house, keeping in mind that whatever I neglect will be there, a black mark on my happy homecoming, when I get back next week.

Because, yes, I am traveling. I’m going to Connecticut, to introduce myself to my tiny new great-grandson, Lincoln, to see the parents: my oldest grandson, Michael, and his love, Samantha. Grandchildren Madeline and Tommy will be there for good company on the long drive. My daughter Kate and her husband Jeremy will share the driving, so I don’t have to worry about that.

Good thing, as I had enough to worry about!

I had to pack – secretly, so the little dog wouldn’t notice – clothes for this variable weather (which means layers!) that would be suitable for out to dinner or other excursions, comfortable for travel, plentiful enough so I won’t have to consider laundry and compact enough to fit into one small suitcase. Then, of course, there are the other rules for clothing: nothing binding; doesn’t make me look fat, or short; doesn’t make me look old trying to look youthful…but doesn’t look like grandmother clothes. Finally, everything must match, or at least coordinate, so that I can make last minute variations to planned outfits.

Then there is everything else that needs to come with me. Credit cards (check balances beforehand!), books, notebook, camera, sketchpad. Appropriate writing instruments. Yarn and crochet hooks, because I am at the last possible moment finishing a gift for the new baby. Medicine. Make-up. A special reminder to remember tweezers and the small magnifying mirror, as it is discouraging to have that annoying chin whisker make an appearance when I am hundreds of miles from home.

I had to spend time with sweet Rosa Parks, who will (my heart breaks) spend the next seven days in the doggie kennel. I had to give her lots of loving attention, without being so over-the-top that she’d know something was going on. Because I cannot tolerate those sad eyes, that reproachful stare…

I had to schedule my flight and call my sister with an approximate time of arrival. I’ll have an overnight at her house before we head out.

I had to take time to see Aunt Katie, to bring her up to date on my travel itinerary, get the car keys and last minute instructions.

I had to figure out my blog. At this time, I am toggling between two computers. The archaic one, that is about to become obsolete, is the one I understand. I can easily download pictures onto it, I know how to hook the scanner to it, and I can predict it’s behavior. The new one, which I’m sure is capable of doing everything the other one does, is still alien to me. I don’t know how to download photos from my camera; I’m not sure how it works with the scanner; the keys often seem to be a little bit off to the left. Foolish to pack two computers, when even one may not fit in the car for the trip.

I worried I wouldn’t find opportunity to write.  Do I want to pull away from rare enough time with loved ones to get my daily blog published? Do I want to shelve it for a week? The answer to both is NO! One solution I thought of was writing a weeks worth of blogs before I left. That might have been workable if I’d thought of it before my last – too busy already – day at home. So, I’m going to compromise.

First, I am putting the address series on hold until I get back. We’ll just pause, at Corner #16, with no great drama, until I’m back home. I loaded a bunch of photos to the WordPress site, so I’ll have access to them when I’m away. I am cutting corners: while I’m traveling, these 500-words-a-day are not going to happen. But I’ll still check in with a daily post.

So, that’s how yesterday went, full of worry and preparation.

Today, I’m off!

 

What I Brought

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When moving to Beaver Island for an imagined life of self-sufficiency, when leaving all that is familiar for a new adventure, when moving to homes that are fully furnished right down to the silverware, what gets packed? For this move, and others since, I found that what comes with you are the things that best define the idea of “home.” This is what we brought:

  • Clothes. Though packing time was used to weed out things that had been outgrown or worn out, if it was serviceable, it was packed. I filled and labelled boxes of off-season clothing, and used the suitcases for the things we’d need right away.
  • Toys and games. My daughters were three and six years old. They had accumulated quite a stash of toys, handed down from cousins or received as gifts from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They had a playroom in the basement with toy box and shelves filled with toys, as well as beanbag chairs and an indoor slide. In their bedroom upstairs, they had dolls and stuffed animals. On the shelf in the broom closet, Terry and I had a collection of board games, cards and dice. We had to be selective. The girls both chose their most precious things, and helped make decisions about what would be stored until we had a place for it, and what would be given away. In the end, we brought a good selection of games, and quite a few dolls and soft toys.
  • Books. When I first moved to Beaver Island, my collection of books was pretty small. I had only one cookbook then!  We had a small stack of paperback books: Alive by Piers Paul Reid, Jaws by Peter Benchley, and The Exorcist by whatever sick-o it was that wanted to scare the holy hell out of me with that one. I had once joined the Book of the Month Club, lured in at Christmastime by their “choose four books for one dollar” offer, but dropped the membership as soon as I’d fulfilled the required purchases. Other than the books I’d purchased as gifts, I added hardcovers of  Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Roll, Jordan, Roll: the World the Slaves Made. Linda and I, on our trips around Flint in between classes, had discovered Young & Welshan’s bookstore, with sale and “remaindered” books right outside the door. There I picked up nice editions of E.B. White’s work and a few other selections. Luckily, I had little expendable income, as I could have easily over-indulged! I had one small bookcase that my brother, Ted, had built for me in high school wood shop class; it wasn’t quite full. My daughters had more books than I did, and they treasured them all. Decisions were hard. We boxed up every single book for the trip to Beaver Island.
  • My Journals. I’d started a new one when we started talking about moving to Beaver Island. I would use it, I thought, to chronicle our changing lives. Also, stationery, stamps and envelopes. I was a good letter-writer, and my Mom had told me she was counting on it.
  • Art and craft supplies. Finished, framed art, we loaned out or gave away. I boxed up paints and canvasses for the trip. Pencils, charcoals and sketch pads came, too. The camera. My big collection of bits and pieces of yarn, and crochet hooks.
  • Plants. I had about a dozen large and healthy houseplants. They all came to Beaver Island.
  • Tools. I didn’t personally bring tools, but my husband had a good selection that deserved some space.

Those were the choices we made, when moving three hundred miles away from our families, and all the familiar landscape we’d known.

Books I Don’t Like

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I am reading Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. As I was browsing the bookstore in Petoskey last weekend, the owner walked by just as I picked it up. “That’s a great book,” he gushed, “I didn’t like the movie, and the next two in the series aren’t nearly as good, but that book is fantastic.”

I took it directly to the counter, with one other selection, based solely on that recommendation. I didn’t read the back cover, the reviews on the inside flap, or  even the first few sentences of text. That’s how much I trust the opinion of a book store owner.

That was a mistake.

It is a well-written book. It has grabbed and held my attention. If I walk away from it, I will be haunted by questions of how it all works out. I may do just that, anyway.

I do not like books that disturb my rest.

I don’t like to think of our human race as evil.

I like redeeming characters, and I expect a happy ending.

There seems to be a trend, lately, for books – movies, too – that place humans in awful situations, forced to do unthinkable things to survive.

It’s not altogether new. I am still haunted by books like The Grapes of Wrath, Sister Carrie and As I Lay Dying, all classics by revered authors. I still remember a couple short stories that were required reading in high school. The first was To Start a Fire, perhaps by Jack London, about a man dying in the frozen wilderness. The second was about a hive of bees, as it was attacked and destroyed by ants. I’m sure the writing was wonderful and the message strong, but they each left me horrified.

I have two books partially read that I had to put down just because I couldn’t take it anymore.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a science fiction book set in this country, in the near future, after a flu epidemic wiped out most of the population and some kind of nuclear incident poisoned the water. Roving bands of pillagers are a constant threat. It is filled with one heart-breakingly beautiful sentence after another. It is still not worth it. Not to me.

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue is set in 18th century London. A young girl is accosted on the street, becomes pregnant from the encounter, is kicked out onto the street by her mother, is gang-raped, contracts gonorrhea, is taken in by a prostitute who gets her started in the business…there is no way this is going to have a happy ending. Donaghue is a good writer with a strong feminist perspective. I have read and enjoyed many of her books. I could not finish this one.

Child 44 is set in the Soviet Union at the end of Stalin’s regime. Crime is “non-existent” except for crimes against the state. Everyone is afraid. Anyone could be the next one accused of disloyalty. Children turn in their parents, neighbors report neighbors, family  members turn on each other  to save themselves. It appears that there is a real killer out there, murdering children. To say it out loud, certainly to investigate, would be seen as treason. I’m learning a great deal. It is holding my interest. Still, it disturbs my sleep. I may have to set it aside as well.

I don’t mind strong subject matter. I can stand tension; I can handle a little fear. What I need, along with that, is a thread of humanity, a hero or two, the promise of something better…

Without something to save it, a well-written book is just not good enough.