Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What I'm Up Against

First of all, thank you very much for the love and support regarding my dog's death. I knew it was coming and had time to prepare, but it's still hard, and the house is very quiet; your sympathy means a lot to me.

We're having a snow day in Bristol, since there is actual snow on the ground. This is the south. It makes more sense to us to occasionally shut down all schools and half the businesses than to invest a whole ton of money in snow removal equipment that we would use once every other year. Or so we tell ourselves. Sometimes I think most communities just calibrate themselves so that, whatever their typical weather is, they get a snow day once in awhile.

My sister in Wisconsin woke to a foot of snow and her kids didn't even have a delay. That may be the only reason to avoid Wisconsin--I love cheese and their summers are lovely--but it's a big one.

Anyway, it's a full-on snow day, with both my yoga class and Bristol Faith in Action closed. I got up early with my husband (it's one of his surgery days) so I could write before yoga and BFIA, and now it's 9:30 and I've pretty much written myself out for the day. Which is fine--I have lots of work to do.
The other day I was excited to receive a book I had to search for--it's called The Modern Neighbors of Tutankhamun, it's published by the American University of Cairo, and it's all about Qurna, the village near the Valley of the Kings.

On Monday, full of grief, I found it impossible to read this book. Yesterday I made some headway, but not much, and here's why. A sample quote:

"Rather than infer certain economic practices inside the Theban Necropolis from ethnically situated psychological characteristics, here we seek to describe Qurnawi behavior in non-racially conceived terms, instead looking at their relationship with the surrounding archaeological landscape as a formative element in the specific characteristics of Qurnawi agency and action."

In other words, we're not going to assume that all the people who live in Qurna are tomb-robbers, just because they're probably descended from Bedouins.  They lived near all these tombs and sometimes found stuff, and they were poor, can you blame them if they sold grave goods?

Really. Taken in context, that's what they mean.

The book is 499 pages long.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Strange Sense of Calm

I had to have my dog put down yesterday. It was completely the right decision, at the right time, but of course it totally sucked. I was able to have the same vet who castrated one of my barn cats on the tailgate of her pickup truck come to the house and do it there, so it was peaceful and calm, and, oddly enough because I've been dreading this day, that's how I feel today.

I've always written from home, but I've never been alone before today. When I quit my job as a research chemist to write, I was pregnant, and far enough along that the baby felt like a minnow fluttering inside me. (That baby lives in Chicago now, working his first full-time grown-up job.) By the time that baby went to preschool, twice a week, I was pregnant with his little minnow sister. (She's in Philadelphia, at college). By the time she went to preschool, twice a week, we had acquired Under Dog, a wiry terrier of limited intelligence but enduring dogged affection for his people. (Under died five years ago, at a very old age, following a stroke.) Eventually we acquired Under's consort, Sweet Polly, one of the gentlest dogs on earth. So while the children were at school, growing up, I would go to my office to write, and the dogs would follow. Polly liked the green chair or the window seat. Under sometimes curled up in the dog bed in the corner but was more likely to drape himself across my feet, to the extent that I eventually put a dog bed beneath my desk. (It's still there. I just checked.)

Polly snored loudly enough that sometimes I had to walk across the room and wake her, as I absolutely couldn't think with that much noise. Under barked whenever anything happened outside--the day the UPS truck chased two deer up our driveway I thought he would burst his brainstem--and Polly joined in if the threat seemed real.

Yesterday afternoon I felt very sad. I'd been feeling sad all weekend, knowing what was on the horizon, but I'd made my peace with it. It was sad, and right, and good. But I still let myself feel sad. My husband came home late, after basketball practice, but I thought to myself, if there's ever a day you're allowed to put on flannel pajamas at four in the afternoon, it's the day you euthanize your dog. So I did. Then I heard my daughter's voice. While she was home for Christmas, when we came in cold from riding and doing the barn chores, she'd say, "Mom, would you like a hot beverage?" and put the kettle on for tea. So I put the kettle on, and brewed a nice pot of herbal tea. I snuggled up under the floofy couch blanket, and drank tea, and read a book about the Holocaust because the one I need to read, about the village of Qurna in Egypt, was too technical for my sad brain.

I also baked a chicken, because it was a comforting dinner that required very little work on my part.

This morning I slept in a bit. Lately the dog had been sleeping in our bed. It was hard for her to sleep with her heart condition worsening, and it made her feel panicky unless she was with us--but she coughed and wheezed in the night, and the last few nights I'd woken several times to check if she was still breathing. Last night I woke several times, thinking, where's the dog?

But now it's morning. I'm writing in the complete silence of an empty house. It's not as bad as I thought it would be. I miss my darling Polly. I miss Under. And I'm okay with the quiet that surrounds me.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Shaking Down My Family Tree

The other day my daughter's friend came over with her laptop and her access to We had a bit of a field day. It was fascinating--to the point where both my husband and I are going to be copying out entries and sending them to our extended family.

I can't write about everything that amazed me--let's just say I found evidence of what had been rumors regarding a couple of family members--the people involved are gone now, but not that long ago, and their stories still don't feel like mine to tell. But a few other things were far enough back that I don't think it matters. One of my husband's way-back ancestors lived in central Indiana, and is listed as having had five children with his wife, and then nine more children with a Miami Indian woman. A written notation (on a census record? I don't remember now) says that he is "a great friend to the Miami." I should hope so.

It turns out that my children are a Son and Daughter of the American Revolution, as another of my husband's way-back ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. No one on my side of the tree had made it to America by that point--I can actually remember much of the generation that immigrated, and the last member of my family born in Poland died only last year. (I was so sorry she missed the Polish translation of The War That Saved My Life--she was literate in Polish, and would have loved it.) We found a copy of a ship's manifest listing my great-grandfather as a passenger--his name in America was Walter Guernewicz, though I called him Dziadek, Polish for grandpa. Family legend says that Guernewicz was a misspelling picked up at Ellis Island, and there in the records we could see it--both spellings of his last name, as well as the Polish spelling of Walter--which now, away from my daughter and her friend's computer, I can't remember, except that it made perfect sense. He went by Walter Guernewicz in his daily life, but on his marriage certificate, written after many years in this country, he spells his name the Polish way.

Walter was 19 when he boarded a ship called the Amerika. He settled in Gary, Indiana, and worked in a steel mill until an accident there blinded him. My mother remembers him as stern and somewhat dour, but when I was small and visiting his and Babcia's tiny house, I would climb onto his lap. He would run his fingers very lightly over my face, smile, and say the only English word I ever heard him say. "Pretty," he said.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year

I've never really understood the big deal about New Year's Day. Some of my friends really love it, see it as a sort of cosmic do-over, a fresh start, a chance to resolve to be better.

I pretty much see it as  Monday. If pressed, I'll add that it's the day after my son's birthday (the moment he took his first breath, 23 years ago, New Year's Eve ceased to have any meaning for me either). It's the day I get to open my new Dilbert-A-Day calendar--my husband's given me a Dilbert-A-Day calendar for as long as I can remember, probably longer than my son's been alive.

Last year the only resolution I made was to finally go out to lunch with one particular friend. We kept saying we were going to meet for lunch, and then not doing it. I'm happy to say that not only did I keep this resolution, I made a habit of it. Lunch with XXX is now a Thing.

I have a book to finish in 2018. ("Finish?" my daughter asked, yesterday. "Finish, or finish-finish. Copyedited finish?") (Her Christmas gift to me was a t-shirt reading Unreliable Narrator. I loved it.)

The answer is, finish-finish. Yes, it is. And no, this book is not the third one about Ada. I can not promise a third book about Ada. A bad book would be much worse than no book at all.

Also, I'm sorry to say this, but the character who dies in TWIFW is dead. Dead-dead. I make up the rules for this particular cast of characters and it never once occurred to me that this person was not entirely dead, until I started getting conspiracy-theory letters from readers who were hoping, really hoping, that this character was not really dead and that in the mythical third book would walk up the cottage's front path to the amazement and heartfelt joy of all. (Please to note: I took the spoilers out. )

It won't happen. But thank you, thank you so much, for wanting it to. Your connection with all my characters, with Susan, with Lady Thorton, Maggie and especially my dear Ada, brings me both amazement and heartfelt joy.

Whatever this day means to you, I wish you a good one.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Quick Update

Very quick, because I can hear that my son's upstairs in the shower (his bathroom is directly above my office) and when he's done we're going shopping. I was trying to work on my novel, but have given it up after about 50 words and several internet excursions, one of which was actually research. (Arabic boys' names that American children can pronounce: go!)

People keep asking me if I'm ready for Christmas. It's a common enough phrase--are you finished buying gifts, sending cards (I don't send cards anymore), wrapping gifts, cooking, traveling, receiving travelers, whatever it is you're doing? No one means, are you ready for the holy day? Are you ready for hope in the midst of the darkest part of the year? I'm being a little philosophical here--it's the mood I'm in--but I like to think I'm mostly ready for both. It's been an odd year, but a very good one. My son's home now, and my daughter comes home tomorrow. I know we won't always get this much time together, as they continue into their adult lives, and I'm grateful to the point of driving them crazy. Yesterday I was Facetiming my daughter, who's immersed in final exams, and she said rather bitterly that it was amazing how I could hover from more than 500 miles away.

It's a skill I've honed.


I am behind on my thank-you notes for everyone who has sent me books. Books, books, books--it's been amazing. Really, really, good, and I'm really, really, grateful. I've decided to make this a full-time project--I'm in the very beginning stages of creating a full-fledged charity to put more books into the hands of low-income Appalachian schoolchildren. I'll keep you all updated as that proceeds, but for now--the library in the afterschool program is looking awesome. I'm about halfway through the weeding and I've gotten about half the new books onto the shelves, and they're being checked out and read, which is awesome. If you see on my Amazon wishlist some stuff that doesn't look like Quality Children's Literature--say, for example, Fly Guy, which I have no objections to but which isn't on my personal top ten--some of those are specific requests from the children.

The other afterschool program now has a lot more books that reflect the diversity of the students there. The elementary school has a lot more books.  There is a lot of work to do--and honestly, a lot more places to put books--but what's happening so far is tremendous, and it makes me very, very glad. And also hopeful. So there. I guess I am ready for Christmas.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

Today a friend thanked me for posting the titles of books I liked on Facebook. I was actually already thinking about doing a book list blog post, so here you are.

Two years ago I started writing down the titles of every book I read all the way through. For 2017, so far, I have 196 books. Not bad considering that the first few months I was hampered by a concussion and the last few by a book tour. If I counted partially-read books there'd be a lot more. I'm not going to list them all. I see that I started 2017 with a run on bodice-ripper romances by Jo Beverly--no shame  there, but you can find those on your own.

Anyway here are my favorites. I mostly didn't put the author down when I wrote the list, and I'm not going to go searching for it, but I will put the genre after each book.

Mayday  (middle grades)
Freedom in Congo Square (picture book)
Refugee (middle grades)
*The Haunting of Falcon House (middle grades)
*Midnight at the Electric (young adult)
Radiant Child (picture book)
the Maisie Dobbs detective series, all 13 of them (adult)
Olive Kitteredge (adult)
Wolf in the Snow (picture book)
*Textbook, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (adult)
*The Pearl Thief (young adult)
The Other Boy (middle grades)
The Jane Austen Project (adult)
The Poet's Dog (middle grades)
The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (young adult)
Jane Austen at Home (adult non-fiction)
*All's Faire in Middle School (graphic novel, middle grades)
*The Hate U Give (young adult)
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook (middle grades)
*One Crazy Summer (middle grades)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (young adult)
*Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (young adult)
*Evicted (adult non-fiction)
*Dear Martin (young adult)
*Long Way Down (young adult)
The Night Diaries (middle grades)
Heating and Cooling (adult non-fiction)
*The 57 Bus (young adult)
La La La (picture book)
Piecing Me Together (young adult)
Ms. Bixby's Last Day (middle grades)

I only selected books I really liked. I left off mass-market adult paperbacks, like Jo Beverly. I read a lot of books for research this year and I'm not listing any of those, either, although I quite enjoyed most of them. If I dislike a book I don't finish it unless I'm reviewing it and have to. I didn't really read that many picture books this year, but when I did I read really good ones. I made a conscious effort to seek out more middle-school and YA books with non-white narrators and was really happy I did. I don't have a lot of diversity in the adult novels I read, and that's something I'll work on in future.

I've starred my absolute favorites, the ones that really stuck with me, that I thought about over and over again. Of those, my most favorites: Textbook. Amy Krouse Rosenthal was an intellect like no other, and oh, I miss her. All's Faire in Middle School. Victoria Jamison is so, so good at recreating middle school and giving us a lovable flawed character. The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas's startling debut. Worried it wouldn't live up to the hype, but wow, it did. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. This one's a couple of years old and wins the award for the book that surprised me the most this year. Meg Medina doesn't flinch. Loved it. The 57 Bus. Another debut. Dashka Slater's incredibly nuanced, honest reporting makes this perhaps my favorite nonfiction book ever, or at least, of my life so far.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

No Moore. No More!

I woke up in a sort of crummy mood this morning and stalked around the house muttering to myself about how first-world-privileged my issues were. The house is a mess and I've really not started preparing for Christmas, mostly because I was on vacation all last week with my husband, so you all can put the violins away, even those really tiny ones you play between your forefinger and thumb. My son doesn't know when he'll be home for Christmas yet, but he's happy about that--it's a long story, not mine.

My dog is dying. That's true, and I can't fix it. Also some people I love very much have very heavy burdens right now that simply can't be lifted, they have to be borne. So that's hard, and it's truthful, and those are legitimate reasons to be in sort-of crummy moods.

I opened today's Gospel in my email. The University of Notre Dame sends it to me every morning; I only read it sometimes. But today, wandering about my messy house with my ailing dog, seemed like a good one. And I read,"Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest."

No joke.

So that was good, but then the internet got even better. I opened Facebook, and my top post was from my dear friend and heart-sister Christa, who lives in Chicago. It said, "ALABAMA." And then a row of tiny hearts.

I don't have a political home--currently I pretty much dislike all politicians, and the only thing I'd absolutely vote for is term limits, other than absolutely voting that NO SEXUAL PREDATOR EVER BE IN A PLACE OF POWER AGAIN.

I mean, I know that's not realistic. As someone in my yoga class said the other day, there isn't an adult woman in America who hasn't been harassed at the very least. But for so long, sexual assault was discounted, disregarded, disbelieved. Unimportant. And finally, finally, that's starting to change.

Once, when I was already an adult, a friend told me how when she was a little girl, she stayed overnight at a neighbor's and the dad exposed himself to her. She went home and told her mother, her mother pressed charges, and the man was arrested. And I was dumbfounded. You could go to jail? Really? I knew that showing your naked penis to a six-year-old was bad, and technically against the law, but for someone to actually get called on it completely blew me away. I didn't know that was possible. I didn't believe it could happen.

And that was maybe ten years ago.

It's not a party thing. Trump was (is?) a predator and so was (is?) Bill Clinton. Bill Cosby, Dustin Hoffman--don't know how they voted. I read a syndicated editorial the other day, written by a woman, with the title "The Martyrdom of Al Franken." I assumed going in that the title was satire, or sarcasm, but no--the writer really thought that what Al Franken did was "not that bad." That's true in the sense that exposing yourself to a six-year-old is better than making a six-year-old beat you off, which is better than raping the six-year-old, but it's all degrees of stuff that is absolutely wrong, and I'm really proud to live in a place that is not going to put up with that any more.

My husband dislikes the amount of profanity used by my new favorite blogger, Katie at He thinks it overwhelms her message, which is mostly, quit assaulting women you assholes. I think it's the perfect amount of profanity, because after all these years, we are finally allowed to be angry. We are saying exactly what we want to say, because we finally, oh Lord, finally, can.

And predator by predator, we'll call them out, as much as we can. Our daughters won't have to be silent. Our granddaughters won't freeze in shock and horror. It won't be acceptable any more.

So yeah, I'm in a better mood now.