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Book Diary 2017

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While I have seldom been able to sustain writing a diary for any considerable length of time, in 2017 I successfully kept my resolution of logging the books I read.

I didn’t invest in a fancy, leather-bound tome, but just picked up a nice small spiral notebook and put in notations of date completed, title and author, any comments I chose to make such as “bland & boring,” or “amazing plot twists,” or a lengthy observation of writing technique, and a one-to-five-star rating. Some titles received a page-long commentary, and several scored nothing more than date and title. I discovered gems. I reread old favorites. And I suffered through a few blah books that made me wish I had my money back.

Still, I kept with it from start to finish. Last night, I counted my entries and the total came to 73 books. Most of them are fiction, with maybe less than a half-dozen tomes falling into the nonfiction camp.

My goal was 100, but as in 2016, I fell short of that objective. Over the summer teaching hiatus, I did not achieve many lazy days where I could just recline on the sofa, sip cold lemonade, and read. That would have boosted my number, of course. And there were the few books that were dull or over-plotted or banal or less interesting than their cover blurb had promised. Those took sometimes as long as a week to drag through, longer than my average zip through a novel every two or three days. And there were a few books started but left unfinished, which I did not record at all.

I try always to find new authors, to sample books in genres I don’t normally read. Such discoveries keep reading fun and lead sometimes to serendipitous new favorites. However, such exploration happened less frequently than I’d hoped for. Given the death of all brick-and-mortar bookstores in my college town except Barnes & Noble, I loiter and browse less these days. I used to find many wonderful discoveries in the Hastings store. Likewise, at Sam’s Club the choice used to be small but excellent. (Lately, not so much.) In 2017, there seemed to be too many days when all I could do was fall into the battered old leather armchair after the dinner hour and reread a familiar author simply for the same sense of comfort as dunking a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich in a mug of hot cream-of-tomato soup.

Still, I found other ways to explore online. For example, I burrowed into a couple of books by Frances Gray Patton, most notably her novel, Good Morning Miss Dove, simply because I like the movie based on that work. During my childhood, I learned to watch a movie’s credits for the title of the book that inspired it. I would race to the public library and hunt in the card catalogue for it. In the days before DVDs or VCRs, and without cable, I found that reading such a book was a way to spend a bit longer with the characters, setting, or story I’d experienced with the film. Sometimes the book wasn’t in the library’s collection, but often it was. I discovered that some books were better than the films made from them, and some movies were a huge improvement over the book. I haven’t chased books this way in a long time, but watching Patton’s Good Morning Miss Dove brought back that desire. Finding a copy online was easy; however, the movie mirrors the book almost exactly word for word. To my disappointment, the novel offered me no additional depth or nuance. Still, I read some of Patton’s other novellas and short stories as well, just to give her a fair chance. Although I found her style to be clear and elegant, her stories carry a dated flavor, her wit is a bit too mid-century, and her topics tend to be too mundane for my taste. Miss Dove is by far her most outstanding character–so brilliantly depicted that I–no doubt along with many other readers over the years–find myself wishing I had had such a teacher in elementary school.

And of course, 2017 brought the obligatory annual books from authors I collect:  Ann B. Ross, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, Charles Todd, and John Sandford … to name a few. I decided to stop following Felix Francis, and so did not purchase his 2017 title. Ross’s Miss Julia series has had some stumbles and weak offerings in recent years, but 2017 brought a comeback in a stronger plot that made me glad I’ve stuck with her. I have long enjoyed Smith’s stories set in Botswana, but their thin story lines seem to become progressively wispier as the story action is increasingly overshadowed by his philosophical musings, and I am wondering how much longer I’ll race to pick up the next novel about Precious Ramotswe. Sue Grafton, alas, has recently passed away, and her children have decided not to attempt to complete the final book in her mystery series. Although she’d begun “Z,” work on the manuscript was interrupted too much by Grafton’s illness to have progressed far, and I applaud her heirs for not putting out an incomplete manuscript or clumsily patching one together that would be beneath Grafton’s usual standard. Charles Todd remains excellent. John Sandford continues to deliver exciting action and amazing plot twists, and his 2017 thriller was well worth the money.

I also dived into a few books from authors popular in past decades whose names have faded now: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Emilie Loring, Victoria Holt, Alistair Maclean, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Phyllis Whitney. It is interesting to occasionally wander among these former bestselling writers and see who I still find engrossing, who I’ve outgrown, and who is too dated now to enjoy.

During the recent holidays, I decided that I’m no longer going to care if I read a mysteries series out of order. Never mind all the series that I’ve enjoyed and tried to keep up with, only to fall behind. Just seeing a stack of unread books by the same author growing here and there has begun to feel oppressive, a silent rebuke to me for not keeping up. So I decided to throw off oppression and rebel. No longer am I going to put off such books for the day when I have the leisure–or determination–to read them in strict order. If a volume can’t stand alone without its predecessors to prop it up and force the plot to make sense, then too bad. I am going to just read them as and where I happen to pick them up.

Accordingly, I chose a book from Anne Perry’s William Monk series, one that surfaced while I was rearranging the living room to put up my Christmas tree. Although I stopped reading the series some years ago, back before Hester had married Monk, I caught up easily and found that despite Hester and Monk now being a married couple, it made little difference. Thanks to Perry’s deft descriptions or occasional lines of explanation, I was neither lost nor left floundering for understanding. With Jennie Bentley’s charming home-renovation mysteries, I’ve found reading them out of order only means that sometimes the characters are married and sometimes the protagonist is still planning the wedding. Not a problem. And with Carolyn Hart’s ghost, Bailey Ruth, I met that character for the first time in Merrily, Merrily Ghost, and didn’t mind not having begun with whatever story comes before. What a relief to get past such a silly little stumbling block.

As for what 2018 holds, I’ve already scribbled several entries in my book diary, and I plan to continue this habit of recording my reading. I have read two authors never tried before–Mickey Spillane and Susan Gloss–and enjoyed both enough to seek more titles. And I came across an early John D. MacDonald I hadn’t read. Hurray!

I hope you all are making resolutions to read more. And if not, why not? Even the pleasures of Instagram and Pinterest should not supersede books!

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From My Bookshelf: Beverley Nichols

Some years ago, back in the late twentieth century when I was an avid gardener and had not yet wrecked back or knee, let alone developed the revolting mold allergy that later drove me away from grubbing in the soil or concocting smelly brews for feeding rose bushes. . . back once upon a time, I stumbled across the books of an English writer named Beverley Nichols and discovered his passion for flowers and horticulture. His writing on gardens is lyrical and enchanting. He can wax poetic about the star-shaped blooms of winter jasmine or whip up a wickedly funny caricature of his neighbor and rival gardener, the terrifying Mrs. M.

Charmed by the accounts of his wonderful gardens, and already wild about growing roses, lilacs, and just about anything that bloomed, I devoured his garden writings, gathered inspiration, and redoubled efforts to create my own small plot of paradise here on the prairie. (Yes, this was the era when I was braiding the green leaves of spent daffodils and dreaming of the day when I would be able to afford a small dovecot and tidy paths paved in Connecticut bluestone.)

But the prairie is cruel to cottage gardens, and time has brought the brutal rose virus that today makes me hesitate to prune my surviving bushes lest I spread the blight and bring them all down. I now own raised beds and in-ground sprinklers, yet my landscaping has never looked worse. Neglect, relentless winds, bagworms, and dog excavations make my winter garden a sorry sight indeed. I know that it isn’t money that makes a pretty garden. Love and regular care are what’s needed most.

Yet I don’t much love what I have–so many awkwardly sited plants in such a poor composition–and I no longer provide the nurturing my struggling plants need. Plans for redoing the front bed coagulate in my mind, and then I sigh and let those fine intentions dissipate among the excuses:  no time, no funds to spare on paving stones, too hard to dig and move established plants, later after the writing deadline is met, later after the semester is finished, later . . . ah, too late.

However, just before Christmas I stumbled upon a copy of Nichols’s DOWN THE GARDEN PATH and bought it for old times’ sake. I thought I had read it, and perhaps I have, but when I sat down with it this week–after reading several mediocre mysteries–I found nothing familiar except the author’s adroit turn of phrase and his keen wit. The old charm was still there. I laughed aloud at the author’s confrontations with Mrs. M and his scathing attack on garden ornaments, especially cement cupids.

An ember of the old joy rekindled into a tiny blaze. So compelling is Nichols’s prose that I almost grabbed the pruning loppers and set outside to do battle with bramble and thorny twig.


The opening paragraph of this book, where he recounts how he read a newspaper obituary while traveling and immediately cabled an offer to buy the deceased’s country property, caught my attention at once. Because the day before I started reading DOWN THE GARDEN PATH, one of my favorite Internet sites had sent me notice of a Greek revival house for sale in Alabama. Built in 1875 and remodeled in 1892, the house–shown in a few meager pictures–set me ablaze with excitement. This, I thought, is my dream house! I have found it at last after a lifetime of yearning and hoping.

Alas, however affordable the house is, it is also at least a two-day drive away, which renders commuting to work impossible. Still, I felt the vines of temptation entwine around my brain and I let myself dream a little of chucking job, friends, community, and sanity and taking on a ramshackle, moldering house in another state where I know exactly one person. Furthermore, the house shows every evidence of lacking central heat and air. Heaven knows what the plumbing is like–if there is any. But my dream remains. Here, on the prairie, settled by wagon and land run, we have no houses built in 1875. So if I want Greek revival or Italianate architecture, I must go east.

And then I picked up Nichols’s book, where on impulse, whim, and reckless fancy, he sent a purchase offer by telegraph and bought his country cottage and garden far beyond where he lived in London. The timing of my temptation and his story seemed like serendipity at work. It seemed like a sign.

Here, I thought, is someone who did what he wanted to do. He dared act on his dream. He leaped.

So, perhaps, should I. Yet despite my artistic temperament, I don’t always let it have its way. And while I usually regret allowing my practical good sense to check me, I still go on indulging practicality perhaps more than I should.

Instead of phoning the realtor, I instead consoled myself in vicariously sharing Nichols’s  experience in having the opportunity and freedom to buy his getaway and develop his first garden as he wished. If I must immerse some of my dreams into the adventures of others, then so be it. But oh how I yearn to live as published writers could in 1930s Britain, when selling a few articles earned enough to purchase a country house. At least in the book’s pages, I could smile at the frivolity of putting umbrellas over foxgloves to protect the petals from being ruined by too much rain. And that sort of anecdote succeeded in distracting me from wild thoughts of should I call and buy the house sight unseen? Dare I ask the realtor to send more pictures?

Thanks to the Internet, which didn’t exist when I first read some of Nichols’s books, I have discovered that his writing career began with the publication of his first book PRELUDE in 1920. From then until his final book in 1982, he wrote over 60 books and plays, including the half-dozen or so garden books I knew about. There are mysteries and children’s books and travel books and biographies. Maybe I will sample and savor; maybe I will stick with the garden ones that are his best-known works. But if you would rather read about lovely gardens than break your back hoeing and weeding them, and if you want to enjoy prose in that lovely, graceful style that used to be so quintessentially English, and is now fading from newer publications, then give Nichols a try.


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In Search of a Giant

Some days, you think your morning is going to be yet another ordinary experience, and then–from the blue, bam!–a sentence rocks your world.

Today before breakfast I was reading the October issue of English Home Magazine because
1) They still have content, unlike all too many American magazines;
2) They still serve up huge, luscious photography instead of tiny, thumb-print sized pics increasingly prevalent in American magazines;
3) They still seem to believe their readers possess intelligence and education;
4) They are MAGAZINES, not imitators of blogs;
5) They usually ignite my imagination in some unexpected, serendipitous way.

While reading the Mrs. Minerva column–one of my favorite features within English Home, incidentally–I came across a nugget of sheer creative gold. It was a sentence casually suggesting that parents take their children to see St. Michael’s Mount. There, the author mentioned, you pause on the heart-shaped stone in the causeway to listen to the giant’s heart beating beneath the sea.

Whoosh! My imagination caught fire. I gobbled my breakfast, raced to work on my usual commute, fired off my usual pre-lecture emails faster than usual, and as soon as my first class ended, I switched on Google to run a search.

St. Michael’s Mount is located in Cornwall. The National Trust’s Website calls it “the jewel in Cornwall’s crown.” The Mount is a hill rising out of the sea just off the shoreline. The castle atop it dates back to the 14th century, although the site was an important port as long ago as the Iron Age and a chapel was built on the Mount in the 11th century. Also in the 11th century, a tsunami flooded the Cornish shore with the sea engulfing woodlands and creating the present-day configuration of the island.

History is always fascinating to me, and although normally that alone would set my heart beating a little quicker, today it was the giant I wanted, the legend. Not tsunamis or granite outcroppings.

Turns out, this is where the legend of Jack the Giant Killer started. A giant named Cormoran lived on the Mount. Every day or so, when the tide ran out, Cormoran would wade ashore from the island and steal cows and sheep from the local fields. One night, while Cormoran slept, a boy named Jack rowed out to the island and dug a deep pit on one side of the Mount. At dawn, he blew his horn and woke up Cormoran. As the giant ran down the hillside, the rising sun dazzled him. He failed to see Jack or the pit and fell in or was bludgeoned in, never to trouble the village again. In gratitude, the village gave Jack a sword and belt, the latter embroidered with
“This is the valiant Cornishman
Who slew the Giant Cormoran”

When people ask me how I develop ideas into plots, this kind of thing is often how I start. A snippet, a fragment, a phrase comes my way and ignites my imagination.

Now, having spent my spare moments today reading the ancient nursery rhyme about Jack the Giant Killer and gleaning through several variations of the legend I summarized above, I have no intention of recreating the legend in some fantasy novel. Nor do I want to write it as a deconstructed fairy tale. Charles de Lint has already done a wonderful job of that with his Canadian story of a girl called Jack and boggarts who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

I’m less interested in the actual legend now that I’ve read it, and more intrigued by that image of a child pausing partway to the castle and listening to the shifting restless waves for a giant’s heartbeat.

The online site Ancestry.com says there’s a stone shaped like a heart lying on the path above the well. Generations of children have been told to put their hand on their heart so they can feel the giant’s heart beating. Uh, duh, I guess they will.

Somehow, I like the image of the child pausing on the causeway better.

Where will I go with that? I don’t know as yet.

Do I have a plot? Not yet. None of this is even a premise.

What grabs me is the innocence and wonder within a young child–one not yet spoiled by electronic toys and the endless pulses, beats, and yammer of our modern age. Modern parents cram young children’s lives with gadgets that fill in colors on a screen as the little one simply pushes buttons. No matter what the experts and toy designers may say, I think that such widgets and whizzbang boopity-boop on batteries succeed only in suppressing imagination.

But here is a little girl or a little boy, not yet caught by the ennui of modern childhood. A child clutching an adult hand, stopping obediently to listen. Can’t you see her face, eyes slightly unfocused in concentration before they suddenly flare in wonder? The child has heard it, whether that “it” is an actual sound or one born of sheer imagination. It doesn’t matter because in that instant, the child believes. And that, my fellow writers, is the enchantment.

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Cultivating Inspiration

Today, serendipity brought me to a book about Eudora Welty’s garden. It’s called One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place by Susan Haltom. Welty, who lived in her parents’ home for much of her life, apparently shared a love of gardening with her mother and drew a great deal of inspiration for her writing from the garden her mother created.


I’ve tagged the book for purchase on payday. Meanwhile, it set me thinking about how we writers find ways to feed our imaginations. If we don’t realize the importance of nurturing our creativity, then writing becomes harder and harder with each successive project.

Many years ago, when I was first starting my writing career, I was told by a British literary agent to buy the view that would inspire me to write. Heady stuff for a wide-eyed 22-year-old. At the time, I thought I needed to be a millionaire able to purchase my own island or a country estate in Virginia.

Now, I realize that an inspirational corner is all a writer may need. Be it a bed of flowers inherited from a grandmother, or a writing office furnished with beautiful antiques, or a comfy bedroom chair in a quiet area of the house with a window to read by and a little table at your elbow to hold a cup of tea–these small places of repose and grace can renew our wellspring just as effectively as hearing the surf pound a moonlit beach or gazing at a remote desert horizon.

Do you have a little corner for yourself? One that you don’t share? I think most of us had one as children–some retreat or special hiding place that we believed was ours alone. The treehouse in the backyard or the barn loft over horses munching hay or the soft quiet of the woods in autumn with hickory nuts falling.

Your inner child still needs a safe corner, a secret spot to hide in … or dream in. A place to regroup. If you’ve let others invade your place, make a new one for yourself. If you don’t have one at all, find it.

Don’t you think you–and your writing muse–deserve it?

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