Heart Stone Feathers

Word Nerd – Feather Finder – Heart Stone Hunter – Synchronicity Searcher Winging It While Lovingly Writing Through Life

Seven Down…Eight More Added To The Pile

Berkshire Books

It’s official. I’m in need of a book-buying intervention. I’ve read seven more books since posting my last review, but, last week, Tim and I went to a sale at the tiny library in Berkshire, New York where I bought the eight books shown above. Tomorrow, there’s another sale being held at the Owego library and they ALWAYS have good stuff. Oh well. Everyone has a vice and books are obviously mine. What I don’t spend on booze, cigarettes, shoes, clothes, etc. I happily put towards filling my bookshelves. And yes…I’m aware that I’m living in denial about them already being full, so perhaps an intervention won’t have much impact on controlling my obsession. Save your strength my dear friends.

In order to both catch up and to practice being succinct with my book reviews, I’ve posted my “star ratings” in the photo below, along with shorter-than-normal blurbs for each. The list contains three novels, two collections of short stories, and two non-fiction books. I hope you find something of interest to you.

Seven Book Star Review

“The Hours” by Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction, 1999) – I didn’t find the writing to be anything spectacular, but I enjoyed the unique way the author linked the three main characters, one of them being Virginia Woolf, the famous writer. Unfortunately, that connection never became clear until page 203 (and the book was only 226 pages long!). I wonder how many people quit reading before they ever reached that critical point. Maybe I missed some clues along the way, but I’m not willing to read it again to see if I did. I gave it four stars, but it’s a borderline three-and-a-halfer.

“One Writer’s Beginnings” by Eudora Welty (1984) – An autobiography written by the Pulitzer Prize Winner. As the dust jacket indicated, “she tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing.” It’s a little light on details, but it’s a nice read nonetheless. Good enough that I quickly snatched up her short story collection, “Thirteen Stories,” when I saw it at last week’s book sale.

“The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” by Heidi Durrow (Carnegie Medal winner, 2011)– Based on a true story that was interwoven with the author’s imagined story about the daughter of a Danish woman and a black American soldier and the challenges she faces growing up in Portland, Oregon during the 1980’s. Chapters are told from the rotating viewpoint of one of the main characters, a technique that I like as both a reader and as a writer. The ending left we wanting MUCH more though. Hopefully Durrow has a sequel in mind.

“Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories” by Flannery O’Connor (National Book Award Finalist for Fiction, 1966) – I’ve heard so much about this author – both good and not so good. This was my first encounter with her work and it’s probably going to be my last. Maybe it’s just this specific book (which was the one O’Connor was working on at the time of her death), but I quickly grew weary of the repetitive focus on children who had great disdain for their parents (which was usually just the mother as she was the only one left alive) and parents who outrightly disliked their children. The constant pejorative references to “Negroes” also made me very, VERY uncomfortable. I also found it interesting that an artist such as O’Connor also consistently portrayed creative people as lazy and/or crazy. Perhaps her writing is indicative of the era and environment that she lived in, but she’s just not my cup of southern tea.

“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit (2005) – I enjoyed Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” so much that I was willing to wait more than a year to borrow this book through interlibrary loan. (The first time I requested it, it got lost in the mail between the two libraries; the coincidence of that occurrence and the title was NOT lost on me). Unfortunately, it wasn’t worth the wait. It had its good moments, but not enough of them. Every other chapter was entitled “The Blue of Distance,” but that writing technique didn’t add to the flow of the book; in fact, it seemed to make it even more rambling. Granted, there were various themes such as music (punk, country) and location (desert, city) interwoven throughout the book, but the word that best summarizes this book for me is “disjointed.” I’m guessing that’s probably not the version of “lost” Solnit was hoping to convey.

“Nora Webster” by Colm Tóibín (Washington Post Book of the Year for 2014, New York Times Notable Book, and numerous other lists) – Having enjoyed Tóibín’s unique interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and his grieving mother in “The Testament of Mary,” I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, I didn’t. Nora, the main character, was accurately described on the rear book cover as “selfish…and blind to the suffering of her young sons (and daughters too, I might add), who have lost their father.” Within that same description, she supposedly also “has moments of stunning insight and empathy,” but I must have missed those. In the end, I simply grew to dislike her more and more as the story continued. That wasn’t the only problem with the book though. There was a level of vagueness surrounding the overall story that left me wanting and wondering. After having waded through 400 pages, I still didn’t feel like I knew much (if anything) about Nora’s mother and father, even though they obviously played a role in how she approached raising her own children. I never understood why she didn’t get along with her sisters, nor why Nora supposedly got along so poorly with her mother. Nora’s deceased husband, Maurice, is such a vague character, that he feels like a ghost in more ways than one. Even the sense of a time frame in the book came across as vague. As a writer, I know we’re supposed to “show, don’t tell” and to not insult the reader by providing too much information. It’s a fine line though and, in this book, it felt like the mark was often missed. (Fair warning for anyone contemplating reading “The Testament of Mary” – as a Goodreads’ reviewer said, “Both the Disciples and Jesus do not come off well in this telling by Jesus’ grieving mother. If that bothers you, don’t read this book.” I would agree with that pronouncement.)

“Midair: Stories” by Frank Conroy (1985) – A short story collection, all told from a male perspective. The first two stories (“Midair” and “Celestial Events”) really grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, two of the stories (both that were written in a letter format) left me confused and “Roses” actually managed to leave me feeling somewhat angry. The three remaining stories were “flat” and nothing that moved me. Not an author I’d heard of before and not one that I’ll likely read again.

The Gift of Five Death Wishes

Coffee Mug Barb

How can you NOT love a coffee whose reviews include such profound praise as “Best Bowel Movement EVER!” and “As soon as I get out of the emergency room, I’m going to get another cup.”

Pete Fountain is our Black Lab mix. What he’s mixed with we have no clue. Something that reduced his size to around 45 pounds, give or take a few. He was actually a stray that was named by the Kentucky shelter volunteer who found him wandering and who happened to love the Jazz musician with the same moniker. Tim, being the owner of a water gardening store, loves the fact that “fountain” is part of his name. I just love that he ended up as part of our family in upstate New York. How that happened is a long story, but the bottom line is that I’m pretty certain Pete is happy to be here too.

However, there is one thing that I know he hates. No, DESPISES would be the better descriptor. People who deliver packages to our front porch INFURIATE him. No matter where he is in the house, he always manages to hear the mail-lady, UPS man, or FedEx driver the second they pull into our driveway. Before Tim or I ever know what’s happening, he’s off and running full-tilt to the front door – barking so frantically he’s gagging on his own breath.

To make matters worse for the delivery person (unintentionally, of course), we have a couch located directly under the picture window that they have to walk past to get to the porch. Pete always manages to launch himself onto the top of the couch before they’ve even shifted into park. He runs the length of the couch as they hurl themselves past him and then he makes a return trip as he escorts them back to the safety of their vehicle. By the time they leave, Pete’s usually pretty entangled in the curtains and has left a trail of foamy spittle on each window pane.

Saturday, Pete and I were peacefully relaxing on the couch enjoying the heat from the nearby pellet stove. Unfortunately, our mail-lady attempted to quietly deliver a box while we were there. She never stood a chance. Luckily, I saw her coming, but I still didn’t have enough time to distract Pete before he woke up from his warm slumber. She did her normal “toss-tuck-and-run” as I waved to her with one hand (we haven’t had to sign for a package since Pete arrived on the scene in 2008), the other hand trying to keep Pete from slamming his 45-give-or-take-a-few-pounds against the windows.

The next step of this hate-filled routine involves having to wait a few minutes after the delivery person has left the premises before I attempt to go out the front door and onto the porch. Even then, I have to do some serious shape-shifting to slither through the narrow crack I give myself in order to keep Pete from shooting past me. At least when I come back in the door, I have a box to act as a shield against him. His attention then immediately shifts to needing to know what goodies await him inside the package.

As I cut open Saturday’s unexpected delivery, Pete started sneezing uncontrollably and I started involuntarily drooling from the smell that engulfed us like a tidal wave as it was released from the folds of tissue paper. It was COFFEE!!! Not just regular ole coffee, though. This was DEATH WISH COFFEE – marketed as “The World’s Strongest Coffee” and manufactured only three hours northeast of us. Five heaven-scented K-cups were lovingly tucked inside a monster-size mug (I’m guessing about 30 ounces). You can’t see it in the photo, but the inside of the carafe-masquerading-as-a-cup is a beautiful, glossy red (my absolute favorite color). That glorious smell mixed with such a luscious hue warmed me more than the pellet stove had managed to do all morning.

Never have death wishes been more happily received as a gift. Thank you to my dear cousin, Barb, who shares my infatuation with coffee, but who’s obviously far smarter than I am as she imbibes on decaf while I’m swilling caffeine until my heart threatens to explode (which usually starts to happen after only three cups – what can I say; my body is a freaking wuss).

Interestingly, the only thing I remember Tim mentioning to me after this year’s Super Bowl was over (he watches it mostly for the commercials and I happily don’t watch any of it) was the 30-second commercial that Intuit Quickbooks had “awarded” to a small business this year. That commercial was won by Death Wish Coffee. Of course, I had to immediately Google it and learn more about the company. I’m not a huge fan of strong coffee (flavored coffee has pretty much made me its bitch), but I liked that Death Wish supposedly wasn’t bitter and that it even had “subtle notes of cherry and chocolate.” I never really envisioned ordering it, but I sure was happy to see it in the box on Saturday.

Of course, being the wuss that I am, I made Tim try it first. I had two sips of it and was pleasantly surprised that it lived up to its description. The next morning, I asked him if he’d liked it and he unhesitatingly informed me that, “It cleaned me out good.” Hey – he shared it with me, so I just wanted to share it with all of you (you’re welcome!).

I still haven’t been brave enough to drink an entire cup by myself, but if and when I do, I’ll make sure I have the 9 and 1 already entered into my phone and my finger ready to push the other 1 at the first tremor of trouble. Until then, the other four K-cups are acting as potpourri for our entire house – and they’re in a sealed Ziploc bag – tucked away in a kitchen cabinet. Yeah…it’s THAT strong. I’m in Heaven and Pete doesn’t even know what he’s missing. He’s too busy guarding the porch from the next box-wielding intruder. Perhaps I should gift each of them with a Death Wish of the “non-furry” variety for all of the harassment they’ve endured over the years of delivering to us. If anyone deserves a stiff drink, it’s definitely them… 

Mudroom Update #3

Karndean Ashland

The flooring for the mudroom has finally been chosen and ordered. Tim and I decided on Karndean LooseLay in the Ashland pattern (the photo above shows what it looks like in someone else’s kitchen; unfortunately, that’s NOT our house). It’s described as “delicate oak grains coupled with a cool chalky washed finish.” If it works well in the mudroom, we might use the same pattern in the kitchen and front entryway. We used “regular” Karndean (in a bamboo-type design) in both of our bathroom renovations and we’ve been very pleased with how well it’s held up. Tim was also impressed with how easy it was for him to install on his own; he thinks the LooseLay variety will be even more user-friendly. It will take about a week for the order to arrive, but I’m hopeful that the next update will be the final one.

2016 Reviews: Book #10

Urrea CoverThe Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea (Named one of the Notable Fiction Books of 2015 by The Washington Post and listed on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists; the author was also a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his non-fiction book, “The Devil’s Highway”) – I’m so glad to not only have friends that share my passion for reading but that also share their recommendations and reviews. Without them, I’d likely never have crossed paths with this book. Thank you, Robin, for this one.

One thing I’m noticing more with all of the reading I’ve been doing lately is that there are books that simply entertain me (which is really no “simple” task) and books that manage to subtly teach me something, all while being entertained. I’m certain that’s always been the case, but I’ve never given it much thought until now. For me, this book of thirteen short stories definitely falls into the category of educationally entertaining.

I confess (something I’m doing on here a lot lately, but, this time, I’ll simply blame it on being a Catholic during the season of Lent) – I’m pretty clueless about the Mexican culture. Maybe that’s to be expected of someone who grew up in a small northeastern town named Pine City and who hasn’t really ventured very far from that sheltered neighborhood. The fact that I spent a day in Tijuana, Mexico when I was nine years old (and yes…there are photos to document the occasion) obviously means nothing. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but whatever the reason, this book taught me what some people might consider “simple” things – or at the very least, things that a 49-year-old woman should already know. Things like the words “Chicanos” and “Mexicans” do not refer to the same group of people (I told you I was clueless – I thought they were synonyms!). It also had me Googling definitions for words like vato and güey. Don’t get me wrong, though – not all of the stories are rooted in Mexican culture. All of them, however, are well written.

Another thing I’m noticing lately is that there is no direct correlation between story length and greatness. Some of the best stories in this collection are the shortest. “Carnations” required only 321 words (yes…I counted) to not only create an impact but – within those few words – I learned yet another new one. “Brogans” – a word of Gaelic/Irish derivation that refers to a sturdy shoe extending up to the ankle. Who knew? Not me. And I’m Irish. And I own a pair of shoes that would meet the definition. (Obviously, I’m clueless about many cultures.)

I also can’t remember another recent book I’ve read that sent me on such an emotional roller coaster ride. I probably laughed more than I should have at “The Sous Chefs of Iogüa,” but I’m guessing that I cried bucketloads like most other readers probably did at “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses.” The award-winning story “Amapola” sent bullets through my older-than-I-realized heart with sentences like, “…most of us had no idea who Alice Cooper was. VH1 was for grandmothers…” and then later, “I got stamps and envelopes. I was thinking, what is this, like, 1980 or something?” Just when I thought I’d survive that unforeseen assault, along came the title story of “Welcome to the Water Museum.” Its futuristic twist (which I didn’t even detect until I was more than halfway through it) left me parched and pondering how real it could one day be, as well as how very soon that day could actually arrive.

In the end, it was 255 pages of time well spent in this reader’s estimation. If you’re interested, the first 15 pages of “Mountains Without Number” (the first story in the collection) can be sampled here. If you’re like me, you’ll finish the book in less than 24 hours and immediately go in search of more of Urrea’s work. (5 stars)

Noteworthy (No Matter What Year)

The two books listed below aren’t from my 2016 pile, but they’re ones I read so close to the end of 2015 and I liked them so much, I wanted to at least give them a mention. They’re also current releases compared to most of the books I’ve been reviewing lately, so I’m hoping they might be new (and newsworthy) to you.

Clegg Cover“Did You Ever Have a Family” by Bill Clegg (Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, National Book Award for Fiction, and Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction, 2015) – I confess that the reason I bought this book wasn’t because of the many good reviews it was receiving, nor because it was climbing up the best seller’s list (which it actually was and might still be doing). I simply purchased it because it appeared to be written in somewhat the same manner as the story I’m currently working on trying to create. I won’t torture you with the specific construction-related details, but it turned out to be a “close-but-not-quite” match. It did, however, provide me with a variety of additional ideas for my own tale. The other thing I should probably confess about this book is that it’s the first time I’ve ever had to keep a list of all the characters just to have it make sense (or to at least be easier for me to follow). My list ended up containing seventeen names, but I think there were a few more characters that had “bit parts” and I just never wrote their information down.

Each chapter is simply titled with the character’s first name. Some characters only have one chapter while the two main characters each have seven. Even a dead character gets her own chapter. First person point of view prevails in this book for all of the characters except the three main ones; their chapters are told in a more detached third person perspective which seems appropriate as they’re definitely “less intimate” people.

Another interesting detail that I didn’t even notice until I had finished reading the book was that there is no dialogue (none – nada) on any of the 293 pages. There are recalled comments, one-sided telephone conversations, and the like but nothing that I would consider “true dialogue.” Perhaps you’ll think differently.

Overall, I liked the book and the way it was constructed, but it wasn’t one that had me so intrigued I just couldn’t put it down. In fact, I wasn’t even surprised by the resolution of the “who-done-it” question as I had a hunch pretty early on in the book. I’m also not certain that all seventeen characters were needed to maintain the story’s integrity.

If you’re interested in reading an excerpt, the first twelve pages can be found on either Amazon or Goodreads (simply click on the “Look Inside” or “Preview” options on those links). You can also read a different fifteen pages here. (4 stars)

McCracken Cover“Thunderstruck & Other Stories” by Elizabeth McCracken (National Book Award for Fiction, Winner of the Story Prize, 2014, and listed on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists) – I seldom pay full price for a book (and yes – I realize how horribly blasphemous that sounds coming from someone who wants to be a writer when she finally decides to grow up). It’s not because I’m cheap, though. I just usually have such a large “To Read” pile that it’s no big deal for me to wait for it to become available at the library or to hope that I’ll get lucky and find it someday at one of the many book sales I go to each year. This collection of short stories, however, had me driving to a bookstore as soon as I finished reading “Something Amazing,” the first story in the book which can be found in its entirety here. I was hooked by the third paragraph that began with, “The soul is liquid and slow to evaporate. The body’s a bucket and liable to slosh.” To me, that’s an amazing sentence; to you, it might sound disgusting and you worry that I’m in need of some kind of a mental evaluation. FYI…people who’ve read my work have already told me that.

Elizabeth McCracken is yet another new writer to me, even though she’s written five books in the last twenty-one years. Once again, I have Sarah Selecky to thank for mentioning her work during one of our Story Intensive telephone conversations. I made note of her name at the time, but I never got around to researching her until just a few days before Christmas. Reading the online version of “Something Amazing” was like unwrapping an early present for myself. “Thunderstruck,” the final story in the book, was also chosen to be in the one-hundredth volume of “The Best American Short Stories.” T.C. Boyle, the editor of the 2015 edition, described the piece as one that “…seems like [a] compressed novel in the richness of [its] characterization and [its] steady, careful development.” I would definitely agree with that summarization.

Seldom do I find myself liking every short story in a collection, but this is one of those rare exceptions. For some readers, McCracken’s stories might not be as reality-based as they prefer, but, lately, I find myself drawn to things that require me to stretch my imagination. There’s also a flow to the way she writes that pleases my reading mind, as well as the way she describes things.

In a conversation/interview at the end of the book with fellow author Ann Patchett, McCracken makes the comment that “I’ve always been absolutely appalling about the future, but I sort of think that was my childhood religion. We were future deniers. You did your best in the present, which was all around you.” In a way, I think that might best synopsize the driving force of all nine stories. Fair warning, though. Death is the silent character in most of the stories (as it also is in Bill Clegg’s book, “Did You Ever Have a Family”). (5 stars)

More Treasures Unearthed

Steele Memorial Sale

Did I mention that this happened?
When Tim and I needed a break
from assembling and hanging cabinets,
we went digging for treasures last Friday at the
Friends of the Chemung County Library District Book Sale.

I didn’t even know it until the next day
that this pearl was still waiting to be discovered in the pile…

Atwood Signature

…a 1993 U.S. First Edition of The Robber Bride
that was signed by Margaret Atwood
on a Doubleday bookplate.

Mudroom Update #2

Mermaids Song Paint

As I mentioned in the last update, Tim wanted something in the range of “sea glass blue” for the wall color in our updated mudroom. He ended up choosing Valspar’s, “Mermaid’s Song.” To me, it has a slight greenish-blue undertone (and it also reminds me of liquid Imodium, but I mean that in the kindest of ways – I think).

Wall Color It looked even brighter once we had two coats of it on the walls. It was such a change from the dark cabinetry that had been in there, the first morning I came out and turned on the light to let the dogs out the back door, we were nearly blinded! I couldn’t find the light switch fast enough to ease our pain. OK – so I’m exaggerating a wee bit, bit it IS bright. The fact that we had just installed a new LED light in there might have something to do with it too. We went from a single 60-watt incandescent bulb (which is equivalent to only 630 lumens) to 1,400 lumens of output.

The paint had three days to dry before our Flow Wall cabinets – all 674 pounds of them – arrived last Tuesday finally having made the journey all the way from California to New York. I confess that Tim and I were a little nervous opening the first box as we had basically bought them “sight unseen,” other than just online. I can’t recall another time we’ve ever done that, especially for such a large purchase.

We both were very impressed with how well everything was packaged. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture to document it. Suffice it to say that nothing arrived damaged (except one measly bent screw, but they had sent us many, MANY extras) and each component had the appropriate hardware and directions packed with them to streamline the assembly process. Perhaps the best part though was that there wasn’t a lot of extraneous packaging that I usually feel guilty throwing out. Most of it actually went in our recycling bins once we were done.

Before we started hanging the pieces of slat wall and putting the cabinets together, we once again watched the YouTube video that had first convinced us to make our purchase. It’s only nine minutes long, but it did a pretty good job explaining how to assemble and install everything. Unfortunately, one of the few pieces of the puzzle they DID leave out ended up being something that immediately threw us off track. I’ll explain that in more detail a little bit later. For now, just notice in the photo below that we hung the slat wall pieces all the way to the ceiling. We had decided to do it that way as the walls in that room are only seven feet tall and we wanted to have one foot of extra storage space underneath the cabinets.

Slat Wall

Perhaps the most time-consuming part of the process for us was in simply locating the damn wall studs! We think our mudroom was likely added on as an afterthought to attach the house directly to the garage, so it quickly became apparent that things had been piecemealed together during that construction process. That meant the studs weren’t where they were supposed to be. Some were the traditional 16″ apart while others were 14″ or 17″. Even having a stud-finder wasn’t very helpful as we were trying to locate them over layers of exterior siding (that were no longer “exterior” but were now buried in the wall) and interior paneling. We ended up drilling a lot of test holes (it looks like Swiss cheese under that piece of slat wall!), as well as doing a lot of swearing (but not at each other).

Once we conquered locating the studs, it took us approximately ten hours (spread out over several days) to get everything assembled and hung on the walls. We have one more large cabinet still in the box should we ever need it, but for now, having space for our barn gear and the dog’s stuff is more important. Here’s what the room currently looks like (please ignore the fact that we still need to install new flooring)…

Small Cabinets Stuff

Small cabinets & the plastic storage bins they came with (along with our usual boxes of tissues, hand wipes, & winter gear).

Large Cabinets

Large cabinets & hooks for our barn coats & dog gear, with space below for our smelly barn boots.

What problems did we encounter along the way that we might warn others who are interested in such cabinets? As I mentioned earlier, hanging the slat wall all the way to the top of the ceiling was ALMOST a major disaster. Nowhere in the literature, nor in any of the videos, did it warn us to leave at least an inch (or two) of “access” above the top of the slat wall. That seemingly small gap is CRITICAL to be able to lift the cabinet over the slat wall “suspension clips” in order to hang the unit. It’s hard for me to describe it in words, but maybe the photo below helps.

Cabinet Gap

Based on where the brackets have to be hung on the slat wall and where the bar is that the cabinet is suspended on, you have to have room to lift the cabinet (which is NOT light) “up and over.” In the photo – it might not be obvious – but there’s only a finger’s width gap at the top of the cabinet and the ceiling. To say that Tim and I grunted, groaned, twisted, tweaked, and cursed like sailors to get each cabinet over those damn clips would be a HUUUUUGE understatement. BUT…we did it without having to remove and lower the slat wall.

Having learned our lesson on that side of the room, we hung the slat wall for the small cabinets on the other side with what we thought was an appropriate amount of space…N.O.T. We had forgotten to take into account that the “piecemealing” work of prior people had created a “sloped” ceiling on that side of the room which once again led to not being able to lift the cabinets at a sufficient angle to clear the clips. More grunting and a LOT more swearing. That side of the room also seems to have less “smooth” walls underneath which means the cabinets don’t really “flow” along the track very easily. Luckily, we don’t plan on moving them often, if it all! In the end, everything survived, including the two of us (and the 25 years we’ve invested in our marriage).

It’s been less than a week, but what do we think about them so far? Tim admits they’re much nicer than he actually expected them to be. I think they’re well-built and super-sturdy (especially after how much man-handling they’ve already endured from us). For obvious reasons, we both think the ideal place to use them is in a well-built room with nice straight edges and smooth surfaces. Would we buy them again, though? Absolutely.

As for what we still have left to do in renovating the room, there’s the floor replacement that I keep mentioning and we need to paint the two doors, as well as paint and rehang the coat rack that used to be by the garage door which will now only be used for our “good” coats (no longer intermingling them with our stinky barn ones as we so grossly used to do). Tim also keeps talking about doing some trim work along the ceiling, but there’s not much space (or need) for it (or so I keep debating). Time will soon tell who wins that debate. I’ll keep you posted…

Still Missing the Old Girl

Babe 2011

Yesterday would have been Babe’s 31st birthday. She only missed it by 146 days. I still tell Tim that I’m headed out to the barn to feed the “horses” and yet now there’s only Punch. His 34th birthday is in exactly 100 days. He seems healthy, but so did she (she was 26-years-old when the photo above was taken in 2011). I guess only the Universe knows what will happen between now and then, so we’ll just keep enjoying our time together, one blessed day at a time.

Simply Lost (and Book Review #9)

Barbara Newhall Follett

Barbara Newhall Follett – freckles and a feather quill pen.

(A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how many of my book reviews for this year would likely be for older books. When I made that comment, I had no idea just how old some of them would be.)

Try to imagine back to when you were eight years old. Try to imagine that you want to present your mother with a unique gift on what would be your ninth birthday. That’s right…your birthday, not hers. Try to imagine that gift as being a story – hand-typed over the course of three months on a typewriter your father had given you  – with a final word count of approximately 40,000 words. Try to imagine that story (which is really a novel at that length) – the only copy in existence having been edited by you for seven more months because your father thought it was worthy of being preserved in print – going up in flames the night before it was finally scheduled to be printed and bound. Try to imagine one final thing…spending the next three years of your young life trying to recreate the entire story from memory to finally see it released as a book by Knopf Publishing just several weeks before your twelfth birthday.

Raccoon CoverI have a difficult time simply trying to remember my life as an eight-year-old. Rummaging through an old box of papers, it looks like my best work at that age was a report about raccoons that I wrote as a student in Mrs. Pulford’s third-grade class. In it, I made such wise observations as, “Some people think raccoons are stupid…Raccoons footprints look like young childrens handprints (geez – I omitted both apostrophes)…It uses its feet to walk on…They are born with lungs.” Is there any wonder why I earned an “A” for such “brilliant” thoughts (envision a sarcasm emoticon here)? And in case you’re also wondering, my memory ages as I do, but I distinctly remember tracing a photo of a raccoon to create that fine piece of artwork you see; drawing was never in my artistic realm.

Back to the main story though. What I’ve described above is actually the true story of author Barbara Newhall Follett and her book, “The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There,” that was released to rave reviews in 1927 (yes – you read that correctly; eighty-nine years ago). A recent email I received from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) introduced me to Follett via an article that Lapham’s Quarterly published about her in 2010. Within such an essay, Paul Collins, NPR’s “literary detective,” relayed the sad tale about the child prodigy who published two books before she turned fifteen and who then disappeared in 1939 at the age of twenty-five, never to be heard from again. NPR’s five-minute-long radio segment provides a good synopsis about Follett’s life, if you’d prefer to listen to the quick audio version that can be found here.

The abbreviated written version is that Follett’s short life was filled with hardships she couldn’t have foreseen at such a young age. Her father was Wilson Follett, a well-known editor and writer of “Follett’s Modern American Usage,” a book that’s still published today. Her mother was Helen Thomas Follett, a travel writer who also published two books during her lifetime. In 1928, just weeks before Barbara’s fourteenth birthday and the release of her second book, “The Voyage of the Norman D.,” Wilson Follett left his wife and daughter for another woman. Helen and Barbara were tossed into almost immediate poverty.

The final eleven years of Barbara’s life included running away, being forced to spend the majority of her writing time as a paid typist during the Great Depression, and marrying a man whom she came to believe was cheating on her. On December 7, 1939, after arguing with her husband, she reportedly left their apartment with $30 and her notebook. There is no evidence of her existence beyond that date.

Why am I mentioning her here now, nearly seventy-seven years after her disappearance? Why have I given today’s blog post the title of “Simply Lost?” What’s the point of all these words lined up in neat little rows?

My own story – or at least the version I’ve been telling myself for decades – always included a work-at-home mother that forbid me to touch her typewriter as “it wasn’t for writing silly little tales” and a wanna-be-writer father who read the first diary I ever decided to keep when I was a junior in high school and who confessed his deed to me simply because he wanted me to know that “not every story should see the light of day, nor is every one worth the piece of paper you waste writing it down.” In the happier version of my rewritten life, I’ve always imagined that having a more supportive mother and father would have been all (or at least the majority of “all”) that was needed for me to be a successful writer by this stage of my life. (Interesting that, while writing this post, I received an email that made the following observation, “Success is not being done; not being complete. Success is still dreaming and feeling positive in the unfolding.” Perhaps it’s my definition of success that needs tweaking.)

The older I get, the more unrealistic I realize the stories are that I’ve created for myself. It took reading Barbara Newhall Follett’s short biography though to finally dislodge a major chunk of my own story’s slowly-crumbling foundation. My characters might have been real, but the plot was continually growing weaker and the protagonist wasn’t showing any signs of growth. As the author, even I was growing bored of the storyline.

So yes…you could say that I’ve been “simply lost” in pursuing my own writing for quite some time now. Not like Follett probably felt though. I don’t want to run away, as was the main theme for almost all of her written work. I also don’t plan on disappearing as she did.

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, but for the last several years, I’ve chosen a single word to focus on throughout the months. This year, it was going to be either “balance” or “reclaim,” but it appears that those words have quickly morphed into “simple” – especially as it keeps appearing here in my posts.

As much as I admire Follett, “the small typist [that – on her big days] clicked off fresh copy to the extent of from four to five thousand words…,” that will likely never be the reality of my writing world. Knowing that, I’m trying to define “simple” – at least as it applies to my current writing habits (or lack thereof somedays) – as “simply” continuing to show up and to write for as long as I can, as well as I can, and to not get bogged down in the numbers, the distractions, and any other false stories I might want to weave for my shortcomings.

As Wilson Follett commented in his daughter’s book, “One of the great objects of imaginative writing, I take it, is to have joy. Another, wholly separable from the first, is to learn as you go.” I’d like to believe that I’m not opposed to still learning as I go (even if it still involves when and where to use an apostrophe). In the end, maybe it really is about “balance” and “reclaiming” ones space in life. Maybe being “lost” isn’t always such a bad thing. Maybe being lost is how we find our truest self.

Eepersip CoverYou can download “The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There” in four different formats (i.e., PDF, ePub, Modi, and Word Document) by going here. Described as “an imaginative child’s name for the world of untouched nature – because that world is itself nothing but one clear window upon beauty, which is a child’s reality…,” you might want to begin by reading the section near the end entitled “Historical Note” that was written by Follett’s father. I think it helps set the stage for the fantastical land that his daughter has created. And if you’re curious about my “official” rating of the book…in comparing it to what I would expect a twelve-year-old to write, it would be off the charts, but I gave it “4 Stars” on Goodreads. Yes…it contains some potentially repetitious descriptions and not-so-realistic happenings (remember, it’s a child’s fantasy), but it’s also laced with lovely passages like this, “That night a bird of modest wood-colour, with speckled breast, sang of moonlight; and, rippling faintly, softly, came echoes from his silver-tongued mate. They sang, and they answered, and the moon-frost-tipped pines were quiet, and clouds floated near, snowy palaces of silence. Spellbound, Eepersip was borne away to fairy kingdoms where she danced – and where birds sang the only melody in the world.”

There is always a way…

Wings Climb

(Winged-climber created by Antoine Josse, a French Surrealist painter and sculptor whose favorite material to work with is plaster.)

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