This is my symphony

What I read & what I lived …

What I read

I put off reading Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (or seeing the movie) because Alzheimer’s disease is everyone’s worst nightmare, am I right? And I just didn’t know if my heart could take the Big Feelings I knew the story would stir up. But I’ve got to say, Genova handled a sensitive topic with incredible grace and never once gave in to the maudlin. Alice Howland is a Harvard linguistics professor who comes to realize, at fifty, that something is terribly wrong. She loses a word or a face here and there, misplaces names–but don’t we all?! Then one day she gets lost in her neighborhood on a run she has done daily–for years. None of the landmarks look even the little bit familiar, and she struggles to regain her bearing. Within days she is referred to a neurologist and it’s not long before her fears are confirmed: early onset Alzheimer’s. When the story focuses on the response of Alice’s family, friends, and colleagues it’s much as one would expect: anger, aversion, pity. But the writing soars as Alice’s memory fades and we see the world through her eyes. Her daughters become “the mother” and “the actor.” Her granddaughter’s playroom is “the room with all the loud seats.” When Alice follows her caretaker on a walk at the novel’s end she “didn’t want to leave, but the woman was going, and Alice knew she should stay with her. The woman was cheerful and kind and always knew what to do, which Alice appreciated because she often didn’t.” There is a kind of peace in Alice’s world–and while there may not be hope exactly, the fear of this horrible disease loses a bit of its sting.

My book club read this month was The Other Americans by Laila Lalami. We try to alternate reading fiction and nonfiction, and last month’s book was Jose Vargas’s Dear America about living undocumented in the United States. As its title suggests, immigrants are front and center here. The story is a multi-layered crime-mystery, love story, family saga. Driss Gerroui, who immigrated from Morocco thirty years ago, is killed in a hit and run late one night as he leaves the diner he owns in small town in the Mojave desert. His daughter Nora, a struggling musician, comes home to bury him and help settle his affairs, and in the process discovers a shattering family secret. Nora’s ambitions collide with her mother’s aspirations and she must decide to stay or go. Turns out there’s more than one way to immigrate–that sometimes our most difficult journey is coming home to ourselves.

Dystopian climate change novels don’t usually catch my eye. My all. time. favorite. is the young adult novel The Age of Miracles which I wrote about nearly ten years ago. (If you haven’t read it, you must–it’s that good.) But the blurbs for Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy were pretty compelling. “Instant bestseller.” “Poignant.” “Tantalizingly beautiful.” Franny Stone is on her way to Antarctica on a fishing vessel, following what might be the last of the arctic terns. Most bird species are extinct. The oceans are barren of fish. Even mammals in the wild have vanished. It’s us. We humans. Our greed finally destroyed the earth. An interesting premise, for sure. And while the writing is beautiful, I found it difficult to stay with this one. Franny is difficult to connect to. And unbeknownst to me when I chose the title, there’s the fact that the novel takes place (for the most part) on the ocean with all its endless tossing and turning and waves and storms and cold and …
“Thank you, Moby Dick,” she said with resentment. “You’ve ruined many a fine book for me.”

What I lived

There is no better time of year in my Great Lakes state than June. Days are warm; nights cool. My perennial garden is in full bloom and the pots of annuals haven’t yet gotten tired as they will in August. Birds. Fireflies. Oh my! I’ve got ‘summer’ on my menu and it’s chicken salad and asparagus and steak on the grill. And strawberries are in and there’s nothing better than a berry that is just a few hours–or minutes!–picked.

“The whole world is a series of miracles, but we’re so used to them we call them ordinary things.”

Hans Christian Anderson

Last week I went camping in a new spot: Sleepy Hollow State Park. What they say about the pandemic and RVs and campgrounds is correct: there’s not a spot to be found and if you do find one, be prepared to park cheek to jowls with big rigs and trailers. I was lucky enough to get a reservation the last week of school, so the campground was quiet and only half full, if that. I hiked and read and walked to the beach. I found a cute farm market and bakery. I read some more.

Close enough to heaven for me right now.

What I read

For the past several years, the best sellers lists have been heavy with World War II fiction. Think The Tatooist of Auschwitz, The Nightingale, The Book Thief, All the Light We Cannot See. I’ve read and reviewed plenty on this blog. But when you read a lot there’s a kind of weariness that sets in eventually, and I feel as though I can’t read another.

So I hesitated when Friend Denice urged me to read Steve Kluger’s Last Days of Summer, first published in 1998. “It’s about a little boy in World War II,” says she. Another one? But “You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!”j and “You won’t be sorry!” she assures me.

And I did. And I’m not.

It’s true that the war is really just a backdrop to the story, at least for three-quarters of the novel. The real showstopper is Joey Margolis, a twelve-year-old who is a brilliant liar, too smart for his own good, and craftier than most at getting his way. Joey is New York Giants’ third-baseman Charlie Banks’ biggest fan–or should I say pest? His letters to the ball player are hilarious–“I am … dying from malaria. Please hit a home run for me because I don’t think I will be around much longer”–but the impetuous behind them, quite alarming: in order to avoid getting beaten up by neighborhood bullies, Joey wants Charlie to act as a buffer of sorts. Surely if the bullies know that the great Charlie Banks is Joey’s friend they wouldn’t dare terrorize him?

But there is so much more to Joey’s story. His father left, remarried, and has gone “no contact” in anything related to his son. Joey is a fanboy who idolizes President Roosevelt and corresponds with him on a regular basis, giving his unsolicited advice: lowering the voting age to nine, for instance. Joey repeatedly earns F’s in “obedience” on his report card. He is learning the saxophone and wants to be bat boy for the Giants. His Bar Mitzvah is coming up and who will stand up with him?

The novel is written with little narrative, and, instead, Kluger tells the story through letters, box scores, report cards, newspaper articles, and transcripts of Joey’s sessions with his psychologist Dr. Weston. So while WWII eventually rears its ugly head, this reader was anything but weary this time around. The Last Days of Summer is poignant WWII story told in a fresh and imaginative way.

House Girl by Tara Conklin (first published eight years ago) is another fresh look at another much-written about U.S. institution: enslavement. The story of Josephine, a seventeen-year-old house slave alternates with the modern day tale of a white lawyer, Lina Sparrow, who is working on a case seeking reparations for descendants of enslaved people. The two women’s paths cross as Lina seeks to find a class to be the representative in the class-action lawsuit her firm is about to file. Conklin uses Josephine’s much acclaimed–but unattributed–artwork to connect the past and the present and gives the reader an intimate look at the life of one young enslaved woman.

What I lived

Over the past year I’ve become quite the fan of used books. Yes. You heard that correctly. This former bookselling book snob has had no compunction buying a gently used book. I’m sure it’s related to my fixed income suddenly colliding with my voracious appetite for new reads. My two favorite haunts are the local institution Schuler Books (where I’ve also started re-selling my books for credit) and Bettie’s Pages. Bettie’s is by far the more endearing of the two. Set in the small town of Lowell, just east of Grand Rapids, it’s a small shop whose owner Nicole is passionate about books and is a social justice warrior. Her space is cozy and welcoming with wood floors, brick walls, and bomb-ass (does anyone even say that anymore?!) sidelines: expertly curated puzzles, stickers, socks, tarot cards, and–as they say–so. much. more. I try to stop by to browse whenever I’m in town visiting Friend Denice. (And I should note that both of the books I mentioned above came from Bettie’s Pages.)

A bird in the hand is worth …

Would it surprise you to know I am stitching up new critters? So while I’ve got stacks of Mr. Socks and Tiny Mice and Picnic Bugs, I’ve added a new one because, really, can one ever have too many critters to stitch? Meet the Merry Wobblers! These little tweeties work up pretty quickly and, after finishing a few, I’m finally getting the hang of it. I wait–sometimes impatiently–while I get the pattern down so I don’t have to think as I sew. It is then that the process becomes what I call stitching meditation.

The weather turned overnight into summer and you won’t hear any complaints from me. After seven long months of cold, rain, snow, and gray skies, my bones are finally warm and my heart is full. Friend Mary and I went camping last weekend and walked for miles in the sunshine. We talked for more hours than I have in the past year. And as fully vaccinated folks, we ate out. At a restaurant. Indoors, no less. Something we hadn’t done for fourteen months.

A new season. Pandemic relief. A fresh start.

I love my nest. The sunlight. The rocker I refinished nearly forty years ago. Amish rugs. Green kitchen chairs. My dad’s watercolors. Books. The antique trunk. Polished wood floors. Don’t get me wrong–if I had a million bucks, I’d make big time changes. But at the end of the day, my nest is my refuge.

Part of that is probably due to the fact that when I was young I was a bit of a nomad; by the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten houses. People always ask why and if I’m feeling kind I answer with a golly-gee smile, “Oh, my dad was a rolling stone…” (As in every family’s history, there’s always more to the story.) Marriage and divorce brought me six more moves.

So you might not think I would love Choe Zhoa’s Nomadland as much as I did.

It is a beautiful film, quiet and evocative. And while many reviewers (and their commenters) lament the film as “too sad”, I couldn’t disagree more. Rather, Nomadland is the story of people who–through no fault of their own–lived through some sort of loss, and by going on the road gain agency over their lives.

I couldn’t overlook the fact that so many of the nomads are women. Even more specifically women of a certain age. Women who, as they age, start to fade until they become invisible. Women who have worked hard their entire lives, made a home, raised a family–and at the end of the day receive a pittance in Social Security to see them through those golden years we Americans love to fantasize about.

Fern, the film’s main character, is grieving. Recently widowed, out of a job, and stripped of her company house after the gypsum mine closes. No one would deny Fern’s losses were great. But like so many of the nomads we meet in Nomadland she refuses to curl up like a pill bug and roll into a dusty corner. She takes to the road, reclaims the steering wheel, and determines the course of her life. She isn’t homeless, she is “houseless” and in so many small ways it’s clear her van isn’t a substitute for a home–it is her home: the Santa tchotchke, her husband’s tackle box-turned-cupboard, her autumn leaf dishes. There is still connection in her life: at Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, with girl friends, and fellow CamperForce workers. And it is all of her choosing.

I loved the scene where Fern walks through a campground with a sparkler and “Happy New Year” party hat. Sad, you say? I think not. Fern is making a life of her own, one that fits with her new reality. In fact, I resented her (almost) love interest, Dave, who seemed to be dangled in front of us as though he could be Fern’s way out of life on the road. Why is it we think that a woman needs to leave the life she has made for herself–solitary or unconventional though it may be–and attach herself to a man to experience happiness? (But, damn, that David Strathairn is fine …)

For several years I’ve followed Bob Wells’ Cheap RV Living and Carolyn’s RV Life, so the nomad life was not new to me. (“And both appear in the movie!” she fangirled.) At first I watched because I was preparing to buy a small trailer for summer camping in my retirement. But I found myself captivated by the life. Even a little envious. Could I make it on the road? Would I have the courage to leave my beloved nest behind?

I think about it often. I was married the first time at eighteen to a controlling man and married again in my forties to another. (Yes, I do see a pattern …) Like my favorite sociology professor used to say, a woman is only one man away from becoming homeless. For many reasons, I feel that possibility keenly.

One of the final scenes in the movie stays with me because it felt so close to home. Fern returns to her empty house in the abandoned town and walks through, much like a prospective buyer would. After visiting every room, she walks out the backdoor, into the yard, and through an open gate that leads to the road.

For now it’s enough for me to know my trailer stands ready; the gate, open. And I can walk through anytime I want to.

Or need to.

About six months pre-pandemic (for how long, I wonder, will we orient ourselves with that descriptor?) I picked up my needle and thread and started stitching. I hadn’t done any stitching for years–decades, even–and suddenly, here I was again, surrounded by fabric and embroidery thread and wool felt and bamboo hoops. Maybe it was a kind of retirement right-of-passage, who knows? I finished a few projects and that was that.

And then 2020 reared his ugly head.

Almost immediately, I turned back to textiles. I wove on a little lap loom. I embroidered. I cut out Tiny Mice and Mr. Socks and Picnic Bugs. I made needle books. I spent hours making little piles of fabric on my sewing room floor. I went down the black hole that is Etsy and bought up wool felt and hand-dyed wool squares. I eventually discovered that stuffing my critters with carded wool makes for an infinitely more sensual experience than polyfill.

I stitched. I turned. I stuffed. I stacked fat quarters one on top of another. I stitched enough that my stitches–finally!–seamed along in a (fairly) uniform manner. Needle work filled the hours at the beginning of the Great Pause when we were restricted from everything except a quick trip to the grocery store.

Each grandchild got at least two Tiny Mice. Two Mr. Socks. Even Tiny Bunnies come Easter. I added little jackets to each Mr. Socks I made–more color! more stitches! Then the critters started to stack up in my project bowl. On the bookcase. At the foot of my sewing chair.

The question family asked most often was, “What are you going to do with them?”

Shrug of the shoulders. (Why do I need to do anything with them?)

“Are you going to sell them?”


“Start an Etsy shop?”

Uh …

And then I started working up a power goddess art doll pattern–I call her a taliswoman–and realized she was pretty unique. Maybe I could sell her and use the extra cash for those bits and bobs that a fixed income doesn’t account for. Friend Denice saw some potential–and her opinion (she is a quilter extraordinaire) holds weight. I planned out my assembly line. Started to multiply how many I could finish each week. Went online to look over the application for the Artisan Market at our local farmer’s market. I stitched up some prototypes to create a template I found pleasing …

And then.

Some pull and tug that felt oh-too-familiar. And oh-so-uncomfortable. The hectic pace of a busy career. Juggling housework and kids activities and a husband who liked an active social life. Feeling torn in different directions. A to-do list a mile long. Prep quickly and efficiently. Git ‘er done. Move on to the next thing.

I thought I left all that behind?

My life in retirement has been something of an exercise in living well. Setting aside time for quiet and contemplation. Writing my life. Clearing space. Paying attention to my body’s needs. Getting plenty of food for my soul.

I resent the fact that in order to have value in our world, there is pressure to “do something” with one’s creations. Doesn’t the very act of creating have value–without any expectation or objective attached?

I trust myself to know that stitching itself is enough. Colors and patterns are enough. All those tiny backstitches? Enough. I stitch to bring me back to myself. Stitching as moving meditation.

All I need to center is a needle and thread. And that’s enough.

What I read

Friend Mary all but shoved this book into my hands: “You’ve got to read this so we can talk about it.” Not a bad recommendation, I’d say. And Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book gave me much to think about. There’s racism, for one. And bias, ethnic discrimination, and privilege. Which, I’ve got to say, sounds very antiseptic compared to the gut-punch the novel delivers.

Ogden and Kitty Milton have got it all. Wealth, education, and social cachet. They are white. There is tragedy in their lives, as in all families: when four, their oldest son falls out a window to his death. Their daughter has epilepsy. Ogden and his best friend Dunc Houghton are marked by what they experience in Germany as Hitler consolidates his power.

But overall, it’s a good life. The couple raise three children–Joan, Evelynn, and Moss–who experience All The Best that their parents can offer. There are private schools, housekeepers, clubs. The opera. The art museum. And rules, of course: “Enter every room with a smile. Speak to everyone, regardless of their place, as another human being … so as to create an atmosphere of goodwill around you … when one has money, one ought never talk about it, and one out to think about it as little as possible.” Evelynn is the child who embraces the Milton ethos, where Joan (due, in part, to the fact that because of her epilepsy she decides not to marry) and Moss (a musician at heart trying to please his father by joining the family firm) chaff against its confines. Joan falls in love with a Jewish man and Moss with a Black journalist, but is their free-thinking enough of an antidote to the racism that poisons their privilege?

The Miltons also owned an island (yes, an entire island) off the coast of Maine where the family has summered since the Thirties. And it’s on this island that the story pivots when Len Levy, a Jew, and Reg Pauling, a Black man, attend a family engagement party in 1959. Right on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Let the secret-keeping commence.

Now, nearly sixty years later, the Milton grandchildren must decide if they can afford to hold onto the island after the trust money runs out. The problem is that they each read their family history differently, and the decision is muddied as family secrets come to light.

So is Crocket Island an albatross? Or an anchor? As in so many families, the answer to hard questions depends on who you ask.

What I lived

I’m just starting to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. (Another book recommended by Friend Mary.) For months it’s rested with my bedside reading and for months I kept moving it to the bottom of the pile. I’m willing to face my own shortcomings in matters of race–at least I say I am–but it can be hard to look yourself in the mirror without makeup. And I think that’s what DiAngelo intends for me to do. As does listening to the Derek Chauvin trial over the past couple weeks, unable to deny the devastation my people have wrought. So when I read The Guest Book my white privilege radar was already on high alert; it can be so much easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye–even a fictional someone!–all the while ignoring the log in one’s own.

my works in progress …

And just as powerful a theme as race in The Guest Book is the whole idea of family secrets. Readers of this blog know I write about them quite often*. But that’s because I’ve seen firsthand their insidious effects: mental illness, substance abuse, toxic relationships, destroyed marriages, ruined finances.

But isn’t a secret what you tell your best friend when you are seven-years- old, hanging on the jungle gym at recess? Isn’t a secret is what you share with your favorite stuffed animal right before you fall asleep at night. What you shyly, tentatively, tell your first love. Secrets are sweet bits of ourselves that we lavish on those we love.

Talking about family secrets is nothing less than whitewash for something far more odious. People who wouldn’t dream of telling a lie, people who pride themselves on truth telling–they seem perfectly fine with family secrets. Why stir the pot? Why open old wounds?

What we forget is that even when one thinks the shit has been covered, it still stinks.

*Just a few of my ‘family secrets’ posts:

The Ninth Hour
The Winter in Anna
The Dinner
Sarah’s Key
The Two Family House

What I read

This month’s book club read is Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People and it will stay with me for quite some time. Imagine a bank robber at the end of their rope–no job, no apartment, worried about losing custody of their kids. Imagine a motley assortment of lonely hearts and misfits, held hostage after that bank robbery fails. All of them those ‘anxious people’, or, as the narrator repeats again and again, ‘idiots’. The novel is Backman at his finest, and his other characters–Ove, Brit Marie, Granny, Peter–would feel right at home between its cover.

The novel began a bumpy ride for me. I stumbled. I grew irritated. Something about the writing was off. And I was, quite frankly, tempted to quit. (Pssst. Don’t tell my book club!) Had Backman lost his touch? Was something lost in translation? But, oh, no, dear Reader. No. It is genius. So if you find yourself faltering for the first fifty pages, don’t despair. Your stick-to-itiveness will be rewarded.

Each of those misfits has a story–heart-wrenching, poignant, melancholy. There is sharp-tongued Zara, a banker tormented by her compulsions; Roger, the retiree drifting rudderless, and his wife Anna-Lena, who tries to fill that void. There’s Julia, pregnant and not a little overbearing, and her long-suffering wife Ro; Estelle, age eighty-seven, and lonely as lonely can be. Jim and Jack, the father-son police team, who take charge of the hostage situation, and sort it all out after. (Or do they?) And the bank robber turned hostage taker, of course.

But it’s in the coming together that each character is thrown a lifeline. Our modern problem, according to Backman, is that “most people never become individuals to us. They’re just people. We’re just strangers passing each other, your anxieties briefly brushing against mine as the fibers of our coats touch momentarily on a crowded sidewalk somewhere. We never really know what we do to each other, with each other, for each other.” And “the greatest loneliness in the world [is] when no one is walking beside you toward your destination.”

Turns out the greatest blessing is walking each other home.

What I lived

A couple months ago I met some folks–AirBnB hosts, they were. A lovely home in a beautiful setting. But, I was pretty certain, not of my political persuasion. My radar was fine-tuned, critical and ready to judge. It was, after all, a few short months after the election and only a few short weeks past the Capitol insurrection. Surely my judgement was justified …

But how foolish I was.

These kind people were among the most gracious I have ever met. They shared their life stories openly and freely. They welcomed me into their home with such sincerity, I felt like a distant cousin. We laughed. We sipped Kahlua. Sat by the fireplace and talked some more. They asked about my life at home and didn’t bat an eye when I told them it was complicated. We talked about our dogs. (Did I say we laughed?)

I thought about the antipathy so many of us feel towards each other in the U.S. today. Especially those who aren’t in our tribe, who don’t share the same politics. We reject them out-of-hand, because, well … they’re wrong. I’ve come to realize when we put up those walls, when we stay in the mind ghettos we create, we miss getting to know some pretty great folks. That love might be the way out of this mess, after all.

Turns out the greatest blessing is walking each other home.

What I read

I’ve had some pretty good luck lately waiting out Amazon emails for Kindle deals. Day after day they show up in my inbox. And day after day I drag them to the trash. But those algorithms must snoop around in my Wishlist because every now and then they throw out an amazing deal. One of my want-to-reads for only 1.99? 4.99? Yes, please. The secret is in the waiting. Gentleman In Moscow has been on my Amazon Wishlist for a couple years, and while it was frequently featured in those promo emails a few dollars under the list price, I wait for the real deals. In the past month I was able to purchase A Gentleman In Moscow and The Overdue Life of Amy Byler–each, I think at $4.99.

Gentleman was everything I’d heard it to be and more. In 1922 Count Alexander Rostov’s property is reclaimed for the People and he is placed under house arrest courtesy of the Bolsheviks; the Metropol, that grande dame of a Moscow hotel, becomes his home for the next thirty years. His freedom and privilege stripped, Rostov moves to an attic room that has room for a bed and a desk and not much more. But oh, what a life he lives. The companionship and dear friends he makes. The daughter he adopts. The food! The wine! The work in which he finds solace. In so many ways the novel reminded me of the forced isolation of this past year–and Rostov’s equanimity makes me blush when compared to my own reactions during 2020’s restrictions. This was one book that I wish went on and on and on.

Kelly Harms’s Overdue Life of Amy Byler got a favorable review in Bookmarks and I’ve never been led astray by their recommendations. This was no exception and while I have some reservations, they are petty. Amy Byler’s almost ex-husband, three years gone, shows up on her doorstep one day and wants to make amends to their two children, 12 and 15-years-old. Amy has been the quintessential single mom, keeping her household running, working long hours, and, above all, making sure her kids are living their best life. (Or, as best as she can provide.) That also means Amy hasn’t seen the inside of a hair salon or a clothing store (other than Target) for all three of those years. Resisting the suggestion that Mr. Ex takes the kids for a week to reconnect, she gives in and sets off to a librarian’s conference in New York City. And that’s where the fun begins. There’s professional acclaim! A new friend! A love interest! Makeover! Sounds like a made-for-TV movie or a Amy Poehler romcom, right? I almost felt as if the author intended for it to be made into a movie. (Maybe that’s a thing with young authors today?) But don’t get me wrong. This was a fun read. And Harms got so much of Mom Life right it hurt. So enjoy–but fine literature it is not.

There’s always a clunker, though, except this one was all on me. I saw $1.99 for Chasing Fireflys–something about a journalist–something about uncovering the mystery of an abused and abandoned young boy. The cover was pretty. Good enough to give a try, for sure. And in many ways, the plot was worth the read. The characters were engaging. The writing was fine. But. Ugh. I didn’t look at the publisher until very near the end when a dying character whispered, “Baptize me …” and I muttered, “What the heck?!” Actually, I said something a little more salty, but it wouldn’t be appropriate considering the publisher was Thomas Nelson. Yep. Contemporary Christian fiction through and through. So suddenly the “fallen” woman drawn with sharp lines (adult film industry, drug use, AIDS) made sense. The two brothers–stand-ins for Jacob and Esau–made sense. Unc’s incessant moralizing–yep, it made sense, too. *sigh* The Christianizing was so heavy handed as to be off-putting. So buyer beware!

UPDATE 4/1: Maybe Amazon reads my blog, too?! Yesterday I got another TBR title from my wishlist for only $4.99–The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, who wrote the incredible Room.

What I lived

I clearly have a mouse infestation at my house!

I’ve polished off several of these little guys in the past week and a half and I am in love with the bright colors. What do you think? My favorite critter maker (as I’ve said on this blog more than a few times) is Ann Wood. You can read her blog and shop her wares at Ann Wood Handmade. The woman is truly an artist. I am a stitcher, no more. But stitching soothes my soul and makes my heart sing–and that’s all the justification I need.

And because Easter is only a few days away, I thought a few Tiny Bunnies might be a nice twist on Tiny Mice. I took some leftover wood-grained fabric I bought long ago in a fabric bundle (and hid it because I thought it was gawd-awful ugly) Modge Podged it on a tissue roll and voila! A stump for a bunny home. These will be sent along in the car with three of my Littles who are traveling to Wisconsin this weekend. (No worries. Bunny #3 is in the works …)

What I read

A Pulitzer Prize is given “For distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” But I’ve found in the past ten years that the writing is often too … what? … for my taste. Too bleak? Too outre? Too “matter of the moment”?

Andrew Sean Greer’s 2018 winner Less is a breath of fresh air.

And because so much has been written about the travels–and travails–of our hero, the almost-famous writer Arthur Less, and because those reviews provide the critical analysis the novel deserves, I’ll leave you to peruse the Washington Post and The Kenyon Review.

Instead, I’ll tell you why I think Less is a dear good thing:

  • Our hero’s experiences and his reactions to life’s twists and turns, while far from my own (Less, after all, is a single gay man turning fifty), remind me that there’s a lot to be said for optimism–even the kind that seems ridiculous in the moment.
  • Less is one of the few literary characters of late who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
  • His throwaway observations are anything but. Less’s insights are spot-on and guffaw-out-loud at times. Make no mistake–the novel tackles issues that are anything but humorous. Adultery and AIDS and loneliness and aging. But a little bit of wit speaks louder than the longest sermon.
  • Arthur Less is endearing. (Does anyone even like Olive Kitteridge or Theo Decker?!)
  • I loved this guy, plain and simple. And you can’t ask for more than that.

And this …

  • ” ‘What is love, Arthur? … Is it the dear good thing I had with Janet for eight years? Is it the dear good thing? Or is it the lightening bolt? The destructive madness …’ “
  • ” ‘Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.’
    ‘Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out how to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.’ “
  • “We all recognize grief in moments that should be celebrations; it is the salt in the pudding.”

What I lived

It was a good day, last Friday. Sunny. Warm. Spring was in the air, as they say. After bemoaning the fact that, according to our state’s initial estimates, I’d be getting my COVID vaccination in late summer, the supply and distribution picked up pace and I got my shot in the arm. Driving to the pharmacy, I teared up and worried I’d be a blubbering mess when I arrived–but the excitement! the relief! took over and by the time I pulled into the parking space I was grinning from ear-to-ear and couldn’t stop.

I chatted with a couple others in line for their vaccines. Friday was the day the U.S. reached 100,000,000 shots in the arm and we were part of that moment, this little cadre of 60-something retired teachers thrown together by an online scheduling algorithm. Waiting, waiting.

Me: I’ve never been more excited to get a shot. And I hate shots!

Pharmacist: Yeah, this is a fun one to give.

So. The months of shutdown. Weeks of quarantine. Four COVID tests. A loved one’s COVID diagnosis. The days and days of fever and fatigue he lived with. The financial toll it took on my household. The isolation from friends and family and hugs. That huge weight of worry.

It’s over.

That little shot in the arm? It’s definitely a good dear thing.

What I read … and lived

I just finished Hazel Prior’s novel How the Penguins Saved Veronica–a sweet (but fairly predictable) tale of how Veronica McCreedy finds purpose and healing after a lifetime of sorrow and rejection. After watching a documentary titled Earth Matters, Veronica travels to Antarctica to observe the scientists studying Adelie penguins–with the intent of leaving her millions to their research endeavors when she dies. You can probably imagine their reaction when an eighty-six-year-old woman writes to announce her impending arrival and won’t take no for an answer. Veronica is a force to be reckoned with and the team can only hope that the harsh conditions will discourage her from staying.

Of course she stays. Of course she finds love and connection and meaning–old age be damned.

But what is it, I want to know, with the spate of crochety-old-folks-turned-warm-and-fuzzy novels that fill the shelves over the past several years? Think about it, Friend. A Man Called Ove. Miss Benson’s Beetle. Heaven Adjacent. The Clock Dance*. The Misremembered Man. Lucille Boxfish Takes a Walk. Harold Frye. Miss Queenie Hennesey. Olive Kitteridge. Arthur Pepper. Good stories all, yes. Characters worth loving, to be sure. But why are all these old folks so darn prickly? So dour and gloomy? And why is it that we’re given the idea that to die happy we must set off walking across the country or butterfly hunt in the South Pacific or fly off to Paris?

Is this how the world sees us?

I became a bit leery of these portrayals when I noticed that many of the writers themselves are not even pushing fifty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I understand that writers don’t need to experience a circumstance to write about it. Shakespeare didn’t need to kill a king in order to write Hamlet. Tolstoy wasn’t a woman in love, yet Anna Karenina is among the best. No, a writer’s task is to take us to places we’ve never been and show us a world we never imagined–to seduce us into falling in love with characters who live only on the deckle edged page.

I get that.

I don’t think it’s the Grand Adventure that bother me, but the fact that we are lead to assume that the Grand Adventure will save us. What I’m wanting are characters who mirror my own experience–and that of my friends–more closely. Characters who don’t waste seventy years of their lives walled off from others, stuck in their suffering. Characters who live with life’s dualities–connection and separation, joy and sorrow, plenty and want, success and defeat–and still manage to eke out some measure of happiness. But I’m guessing a story like that would hardly be a bestseller and there’s the rub.

But back to that book again–How the Penguins Saved Veronica? Get yourself a copy and enjoy. It’s a delightful read about a cranky old gal.

* Anne Tyler is an exception at eighty. So it’s probably no accident that her Clock Dance was one of the best portrayals I’ve read of an older woman coming to terms with her choices with equanimity, a woman who moves forward into the unknown and says, “There is no limit to the possibilities.” (Also interesting is that my thirty-something daughter’s reaction to Clock Dance was “Meh”!)

On my return trip, I was able to see the landscape of Oklahoma and Missouri which, on the way down, was shrouded in freezing rain and freezing fog. What did I miss in Oklahoma? Cattle. And range land. And more cattle. Along with dirt a shade of red I’ve never seen before. Reservation land always saddens me, and I thought of the Trail of Tears every time I read the signs: leaving Chickasaw nation; Entering Osage nation.

If you’re a con man driving a minivan and you approach a woman at a gas station asking for money because your laptop was stolen and you need to get to your grandfather’s funeral (huh?), and she politely tells you she can’t help you as she gets back in her car (after she notices your distinctive drinkers nose …) , it probably doesn’t help your case if you call her a bitch. I’m a firm believer in meeting ‘angels unawares’ but I doubt an angel would use such language. Just sayin’.

I lost my bank card in a gas station restroom–only discovering the fact a couple hundred miles down the road. On a whim, I checked the transaction online, looked up the address on Google, and found the gas station. I called. A big shout out to Kelly who is mailing my card to me. In fact, it just might beat me home. There are good people in the world, dear Reader. When your paths cross, remember to pay it forward.

Audio books. I’m just not sold. My son and his wife gifted me an Audible credit to bulk up my pretty skimpy Audible library. I tried. I really did. But I listen … and then look out at the countryside … and then my mind is off and running, and I have no idea what has transpired in the last fifteen minutes. Turns out I am quite comfortable with my own thoughts. How is it that I don’t get bored? I have no. idea. But driving seven hours a day, alone, with only the radio for company, is quite satisfying to me.

I’ve heard other Northerners say that the desert–with its sparse vegetation and dust and grit–lacks beauty. How far from the truth. It is different from the lush green of the Midwest, to be sure. But it’s different, is all. The desert is spacious and the plant life is startlingly beautiful. It teems with all sorts of critters and creepy crawlies: bobcat and javelina and roadrunner and jackrabbit and ground squirrels and lizards and birds, birds, birds. The quiet is astounding. And the sun in the springtime is a delight.

There is no greater joy than walking with a Little who stops to look out over that desert and declares, “I never pass up a beautiful view” or who pleads for yet one. more. game of Go Fish to “see who is the champion.” After 345, 689 games, I can assure you there is no champion in Go Fish.

Sometimes is it just as sad to return home as it is to leave.