Keeping Up With The Times

Because I was obsessed with fashion as a teenager, everything about New York City fascinated me. To my young self, NYNY represented the pinnacle of culture and coolness—jazz clubs, sunglasses, taxicabs, skyscrapers, Central Park, The Plaza, Vogue and Bazaar magazines, Women’s Wear Daily, and, of course, the New York Times. To my way of thinking, people who read the New York Times were the chicest, most intellectual people in America.

Someday, I thought, I’ll be a smart, sophisticated person who dresses fashionably, travels by jet airplane, and reads the New York Times every day!

Thanks to digital publishing, I now start my day with The Times.

First, I vanquish Wordle and Connections, then move on to the Spelling Bee, which I play with my son-in-law Eric, an amazing speller. On our own, we work our way up to Genius, then merge our lists. By collaborating, we regularly achieve Queen Bee status.

At the Times website, I pick and choose from the Top Stories lined up under the masthead, then read my way down to lesser stories, to Culture and Lifestyles, Cooking, Wirecutter, Opinion, Arts, and all the rest.

I don’t think I’m all that smart or sophisticated, but I’ve learned a lot from reading the Times. Via an article two or three years ago, I found out about Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College. Richardson writes a daily Substack column called “Letters from an American.” Reading her letters has broadened my understanding of American history. Her deep dives go way behind the headlines. She’s a professional historian. She knows what she’s talking about.

Earlier this month, when the Arizona Supreme Court allowed an 1864 law banning abortion to be reinstated, Richardson’s letter explained that the law, written when Arizona was not yet a state, was actually designed to reign in a lawless population of men. The law addressed dueling and prohibited cutting out tongues or eyes, slitting noses or lips or rendering useless someone’s arm or leg. It defined the age of consent for sexual intercourse as ten.

After the Arizona Territorial Legislature adopted this Code of Laws a man named William Howell had brought with him to the gathering, they granted a member of the body a divorce from his wife. Next,

they established a county road near Prescott. After that, they gave a local army surgeon a divorce from his wife.

If you’d like to read everything Richardson had to say on this topic, here’s a link to her April 9 letter.

You can subscribe to Letters From An American for free, which I did for a while, or you can upgrade to paid for $5 amonth (worth it!). You can’t subscribe to the New York Times for free, but that’s understandable. They have legions of reporters and photographers all over the world that have to be paid, plus a newspaper to print.

I’d be a lot happier with the Times if more quilting-centric words were accepted in the Spelling Bee, words like faille, mola, and batt. I guess they’re not 100% smart.









Thank You, Lesley Nneka Arimah

This winter, I discovered I can hold a paperback book open in two hands and read it while walking on my treadmill at 3 mph. Podcasts (and audiobooks) are good ways to neutralize the boredom of walking on a looped conveyer belt in a boring basement, but I love the printed page and am always wishing for more time to read. Reading while exercising feels like the epitome of multitasking.

Among the titles that got me through the dark months were ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr, STILL TRUE, by Maggie Ginsberg, and THE KEEPER by Kelcey Ervick. All three were excellent, but I generally pushed the STOP button when the treadmill timer hit the thirty minute mark. (“Let me outta this basement!”)

Then I cracked open WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY, a collection of short stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

I met Lesley in person three years ago, when she was a presenting author at the 2021 Washington Island Literary Festival. I serve on the lit fest committee, and was lucky enough to sit next to her at the Friday night welcome dinner. As an unpublished novelist, I am shy around successful young writers like Lesley, but she was super nice to me, even though I’m old enough to be her grandma.

Her generosity—toward me, and everyone—made me an instant fan. Her presentation Saturday, during which she read an excerpt from her collection, made me a fan of her writing. I purchased WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY on the spot from Deb Wayman, proprietor of Fair Isle Books, Washington Island’s fantastic, tiny independent book shop, and Lesley autographed the title page for me.

(An aside: avid readers will understand why WHAT IT MEANS remained unopened for so long. Our to-read shelf is always piled high.)

As I walked, reading Lesley’s stories, I’d be deep into one, glance up at the timer, and find I had gone way past thirty minutes. For a week, each afternoon, instead of saying to myself, “I guess I’d better get down to the basement,” I thought, “Oh yay, more Lesley.”

In, “Wild,” one of my favorite stories (they are all my favorites), a misbehaving American-Nigerian teenager is sent by her at-wit’s-end mother to spend the summer in Lagos with her aunt and (also teenaged) cousin. Arimah’s blade-sharp prose shows us the gulf of disparity in the two mother-daughter relationships at the same time the protagonist is discovering it herself. Along the way, we get snapshots of social norms within educated Nigerian society.

NPR praised Arimah this way: “She crafts stories that reward rereading, not because they’re unclear or confusing, but because it’s so tempting to revisit each exquisite sentence, each uniquely beautiful description.”

Forty-something Lesley was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria, among other locations. She lives in Minneapolis, and according to her website, “is working on a novel about you.” I hope it’s in print soon!


Leslie’s autograph (and illustration of a man falling) on the title page of her collection

New To Temecula

Before Julie Silber told me about the sewing and quilt history retreats Leah Zieber holds each year in Southern California, I had not heard of Temecula. Google showed me that the town of almost 111,000 is east of the Pacific Ocean, kind of between Los Angeles and San Diego. Thanks to Julie, I’ll be flying to San Diego next month to hang out near Temecula with quilt history enthusiasts—including my daughter Mary Fons—and maybe finally finish that hand appliqué project I plan to take with me.

Last fall, months after I signed up for the retreat, I read an article in the New York Times that sent me to my local bookseller, Brick Road Books here in Winterset, Iowa, to order a copy of a novel called RAMONA, written by Helen Hunt Jackson, published in 1884.

The article was about an original oil painting by famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth. Purchased at a New Hampshire thrift shop for $4 in 2017, it had sold at auction for $191,000.* The artwork, which depicts what appears to be a tense conversation between two women, was an illustration for Jackson’s novel. I was intrigued enough to want to read it.

As it turns out, Temecula, and the Temecula Indians, are key elements in the story of RAMONA. Ramona is an orphan, half Scottish, half Native American, raised in the home of the wealthy and powerful Mexican landowner, Senora Morena. The Senora treats Ramona fairly, but because of her prejudice toward anyone with Indian blood, cannot love her. The Senora and Ramona are the women in Wyeth’s painting.

Jackson’s writing is highly romantic, with lots of author intrusion, a narrative style that probably would not find an agent or publisher today. Though I rolled my literary-snob eyes from time to time, I read Ramona’s saga avidly. I also dug further into Helen Hunt Jackson’s personal story.

Jackson started out as a poet, but late in life became an advocate for fair treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. Government. RAMONA dramatizes the heartbreaking story of the Temecula Indians—as well as the less-heartbreaking but still sad story of how after the Mexican-American War, the U.S. annexed the lands of wealthy Southern California Mexican ranchers and Catholic missions.

Jackson began writing RAMONA in 1883, completed the manuscript in three months, and died not long after the book was published. The novel has been reissued 300 times and has never been out of print. One reviewer wrote that UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and RAMONA “are the two most ethical novels of the nineteenth century.”

About 50 pages into RAMONA, I wrote Leah Zieber an email, asking if she knew of Hunt’s novel, if people in the Temecula area are aware of the book’s history and popularity. She directed me to the website of the annual dramatization of RAMONA, an outdoor play that is in its 101st year.

*The article I linked to is the first of three in the NY Times. The bidder reneged, but a new buyer eventually emerged. Read about that here.

A Prizewinning Debut from 2003: THE KNOWN WORLD

Some people think it’s wrong to write in books, but I’m glad my daughter Mary, who gave me my copy of Edward P. Jones’ THE KNOWN WORLD, wrote the date of her gift on the title page. In 2003, I was on a mission to read as many Pulitzer Prize winning novels as I could, a project I eventually gave up because so many of them were such huge downers. THE KNOWN WORLD sat on my shelf, unread, for over fifteen years.

I scribbled (in pencil) in THE KNOWN WORLD, too, on the blank page just inside the back cover. I had to, or I couldn’t have kept the novel’s cast of characters and their relationships with each other straight.

The story, set in 1855 in fictitious Manchester County, Virginia, revolves around Henry Townsend, a Black slave owner, his family, his 33 slaves, and the handful of white people that enter their world. Henry dies, at 31, in the first chapter.

That free Black people might have owned slaves prior to the Civil War had never occurred to me, which is not surprising, as I am dumb about a lot of my country’s history. I assumed Jones did years of research in order to accurately address this topic, but I found a 2012 interview in which he said he made most of the brutal details up.

I highly recommend THE KNOWN WORLD. Jones’ writing is dense, visceral, Faulkneresque (I’m not the only one who thinks so), beautiful, masterful. As a fiction-writer myself, always struggling with point-of-view (POV), I was struck over and over by the author’s ability to switch POV not just chapter to chapter or scene to scene, but within paragraphs, successfully.

Jones, 72, doesn’t have a website. His Wikipedia pages is short on information. THE KNOWN WORLD, his only novel, won him the Pulitzer Prize at age 53, in 2004.

PS According to info on the back cover of my paperback copy, the image on the front is from the Eudora Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, reprinted by permission.

Meet A Giant Octopus

Often, when I’m well into a really good novel, thirty or forty pages from the end, eager to find out how the author will tie up the multiple story threads she (or he) has spooled out in the early chapters, I pause, saving the denouement for the perfect reading moment

I purchased Shelby Van Pelt’s REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES at Fair Isle Books & Gifts (one of my two favorite book shops)* on Washington Island, WI, on a Wednesday afternoon, on my way from the ferry dock to our vacation cottage over on the east side, opened it the next day, and read steadily.

By Friday, when family members arrived to attend a memorial service for Valerie Fons, my former sister-in-law and oldest friend, I had reached that sweet spot in Van Pelt’s delightful debut. Tova Sullivan, the story’s 70-year-old protagonist, had become my friend. So had Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living out his life in a glass tank in the Sowell Bay Aquarium (where Tova cleans nightly) in the fictitious small town of Sowell Bay, Washington. (Tova saved Marcellus’ life on Page 8, and their relationship had grown from there.) Thirty-year-old Cameron Cassmore, another primary character, had made one poor decision after another in chapter after chapter, but seemed to be turning his life around. The mystery surrounding the death of Tova’s son Erik decades ago was on its way to being solved.

I could have excused myself from my houseful of guests, holed up somewhere, and read my way to the end, but I set the book aside.

On Saturday, I was absorbed in my late, longtime friend’s memorial service, my daughters’ and other friends’ and family members’ memories of an avid reader, writer, athlete (who set several kayaking records), and mother. After the service and before the funeral dinner, we walked the short distance from the church to Schoolhouse Beach. An elite kayaker put his boat in and paddled a wreath of white roses and orchids out into the lake. He tossed some of Valerie’s ashes into the air. They sparkled in the sunlight as they drifted onto the water.

By the time my family and I returned home, I was not feeling good for much, but there was REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, resting on an end table, my bookmark between Pages 308 and 309.

I tucked the book under my arm, positioned a lawn chair beneath a tree in the back yard, and with sunlight dappling through the branches, Lake Michigan lapping the shore, I reentered the lives of Tova, Marcellus, Cameron, Avery, and the other colorful, believable characters Van Pelt created. As I hoped it would, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES satisfied my story-loving soul, and even more, made me glad to be a member of the human race.

Van Pelt is one of the authors who will be featured at this year’s Washington Island Literary Festival, September 21-23. She’ll conduct a workshop, “Unusual Voices, Odd Perspectives” on Friday, September 21, and will participate in Saturday’s author panel at Trueblood Performing Arts Center. I’m sure she’ll read an excerpt from her excellent debut, and I hope she will describe what she’s working on now. To register for this year’s literary festival, click here.

*My other favorite book shop is Brick Road Books in Winterset, Iowa.


The cover of Toya Wolfe’s debut novel, LAST SUMMER ON STATE STREET, tells us Wolfe grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side, so it was no surprise to find the story set in Chicago’s notorious projects. The book opens in 1999, when protagonist Fe Fe (Felicia) and her pals are twelve years old, and the building they live in, 4950 State, is about to be torn down.

I grew up in in Houston, in a neighborhood called West University Place—modest, safe, and white, graduating from high school thirty years before Wolfe’s story begins. Out of curiosity, I did some internet searching, and learned that Houston had public housing back then, and still does, but Houston’s apartment complexes look nothing like the high rises described in Wolfe’s book.

According to Wikipedia, the Robert Taylor Homes, completed in 1962, consisted of 28 virtually identical sixteen-story buildings, three per block, arranged in a horseshoe shape, on a three-mile stretch of State Street. Intended for 11,000 inhabitants, the 4,415 units at one time housed 27,000 people. By the time demolition began in 1998, the area was fraught with drug dealing and gang violence, plagued by addiction and poverty, with most of the residents subsisting on welfare.

A short, vivid Prologue describes the double Dutch rope-skipping narrator Fe Fe and other adolescent girls did that last summer. Wolfe uses this opening vignette to let us know Fe Fe “made it out,” of the projects, that she is an adult, living the type of life that allows a person to look back: After all these years, I can still hear their voices screaming, “First! “Second!” and “Zero no higher!” . . . The memories won’t go away; they’re proof that once upon a time, I lived in a brick skyscraper on State Street, in a place where stairwells filled with echoes of stampeding gym shoes and harmonizing winos.

What is wonderful about LAST SUMMER ON STATE STREET is the deft way the author handles point-of-view.

Wolfe’s masterful slight-of-hand is her ability to make us feel twelve years old, to experience life in the apartments, in the stairwells, and on the porches of 4950 through the eyes of an adolescent girl, to hear the gunshots and also go to church, and school, where FeFe’s beloved teacher Mrs. Pierce pushes her students (the girls, anyway) to make a plan for their future.

Here’s how Chapter I begins:

By the summer of 1999, me, Precious, and Stacia—all twelve years old—ran around in this tight formation, snapping through the block in neon colors like a school of tropical fish. Sometimes you’d catch us flowing through the masses of guys in white tees on a quick trip to buy candy from Ms. Rose, or at Food & Liquor.

Over the summer, as Fe Fe’s mother and other residents of 4950 struggle to find other housing (a feat that depends on being “lease compliant”), we experience the agonizing fate of Fe Fe’s brother, who, as a Black boy, is stamped from the beginning, their non-drug-dealing mother unable to keep her innocent son out of prison.

Fe Fe finishes high school, and she and Precious (her Seventh-day Adventist church friend) land at Oakwood, a historically Black college in Huntsville, Alabama. After that, they both move to Southern California for graduate work, and as Fe Fe enters her thirties, on one of her trips back to Chicago to visit her mother, she bumps into her past when she encounters Stacia Buchanan, once a member of the biggest drug-dealing family that lived in 4950, stocking shelves at a Whole Foods. Stacia (now a mother of five) forces into Fe Fe’s hands the journal she wrote in periodically in 1999. Eventually, Fe Fe reads Stacia’s journal entries (which appear in the novel), and learns more about what happened during the building’s last days.

In the final chapter, Fe Fe accepts a long-distance request from Stacia and returns with her and others to the site where the project buildings stood, to make a sort of peace with their memories. Their old school, DuSable, is still standing, in pristine condition, and still a high school. Only a select group of people know that it was once the site of many gang shootings and violent fights, Wolfe writes.

I had the pleasure of meeting Toya Wolfe in person this past September when she was one of the Washington Island Literary Festival’s five featured authors. I happened to make a cherry pie for the author dinner those of us on the committee hosted the night before the festival (a program of Write On Door County) began. There happened to be pie left over, and I sent it home with Toya. She returned my pie plate, and on Saturday autographed my copy* of THE LAST SUMMER ON STATE STREET.


*Purchased from Fair Isle Books.








Books & Movies: THE POWER OF THE DOG

Back in the 1990s, when TV screens were small and VHS tapes were the available vehicle for home movie-watching, I binged on a boxed set of LONESOME DOVE. I loved the story so much I drove to Barnes & Noble in Des Moines the day after watching the last episode and purchased a paperback copy of Larry McMurtry’s novel, which won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. McMurtry’s writing is fantastic, but I remember being disappointed any time book and movie didn’t match up. The filmmakers left out scenes in the novel I loved!

This past March, in order to have a reason to watch the Academy Awards, I streamed a few of the Best Picture nominees on my laptop, including THE POWER OF THE DOG. I was already a fan of actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Imitation Game), who plays the lead character in the movie. I find his non-traditional facial features—including his eyes, which, because of a rare condition of the iris, shift from green to blue depending on the light—mesmerizingly attractive.

The film, set in 1920s Montana, centers on wealthy ranchers Phillip (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank, brothers whose somewhat-strained and weirdly-close relationship is strained further when George marries widow Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst).

The pacing of the film is slow but gripping, the cinematography breathtaking, and the acting masterful, as Phil’s repressed rage finds increasingly cruel outlets. The drama shifts tectonically when Phil takes Rose’s greenhorn teenage son Peter under his wing.

I visited Chicago in May, when the movie was fresh (but not too fresh) in my mind, and my daughter Rebecca loaned me her copy of Thomas Savage’s novel.* The novel-to-film adaptation, as Rebecca reported, is quite close, plus months had passed since I watched the movie. Savage’s writing sometimes runs hyperbolic, sometimes melodramatic, but it’s overall great, and with the lavish cinematic version playing in my head as I read, I loved every word.

One of my favorite nonprofits, Winterset’s Iowa Theater (on whose board of directors I serve), is launching the Sunday Movie Club in September, and we’re kicking it off with THE POWER OF THE DOG.** The mission of the club is to screen recent Oscar nominees and winners that are less mainstream than The Iowa’s usual fare—not exactly art-house, but kinda sorta.

For $75 per year, members get admission to one movie per month (on the third Sunday) reserved seats, an Iowa Theater logo tote bag, and a lively, brief discussion of the film following the screening. The first installment is on Sunday, September 18, at 5:30, and Rebecca and I are leading the talkback afterwards. Find out more about the Sunday Movie Club and join here.

*Thomas Savage wrote over a dozen novels, most of them Westerns.

**THE POWER OF THE DOG won Best Direction for Jane Campion, who also wrote the script.

RAFT OF STARS by Andrew J. Graff

I picked up Andrew J. Graff’s novel, RAFT OF STARS kind of as an assignment. Graff is among the presenting authors for this year’s Washington Island Literary Festival, September 15–17. I serve on the lit fest committee and volunteered to write a review that will appear in Washington Island’s local newspaper, the Washington Island Observer. I drew RAFT OF STARS.

As a writer myself, I’ve been a frequent student at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City, home of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Graff, like many of my writing festival teachers, is a graduate of the two-year residency program,* so I opened his debut with enthusiasm.

In RAFT OF STARS, Graff takes readers on an often harrowing journey deep into the woods of Northern Wisconsin. Set in the mid-1990s, the story is told by three point-of-view characters.

The youngest narrator, Fischer “Fish” Branson, age 10, makes a snap decision in an impulsive effort to save his friend Dale, “Bread” Breadwin, from yet another beating by Bread’s abusive and neglectful father. Fish’s act of courage sends the boys on the run, their goal a reunion with Fish’s own absent father.

The second narrator is twenty-five-year-old misfit Tiffany Robins, a lonely young woman with abandonment issues of her own. Tiffany pays her rent by working the cash register at a convenience store two miles north of Claypot, Graff’s fictional Northwoods Wisconsin burg. An aspiring poet, she keeps the coffee fresh as she awaits the daily (nightly, usually) appearance of Sheriff Cal—forced to fill his cruiser’s tank every twenty-four hours because Marigamie County is so big.

Cal is the novel’s third narrator. A Texan whose post-academy job in Houston did not go well, Cal—like most of Graff’s characters—is on more than one quest. Professionally, he needs to find and save the missing boys before their raft goes over the massive falls at Ironsford Gorge. Personally, he’s searching for his true calling in life and doesn’t think it’s police work.

Non-narrating secondary characters include Fish’s wise, Korean-war veteran grandpa Teddy, his uber-religious mother Miranda, “Blind Burt” Atkinson, Cal’s dog Jacks, and a noncompliant saddle horse.

Graff evokes both the grandeur and danger of the natural world with beautiful, descriptive writing on every page:

The boys pushed their bikes along a ridge trail overlooking a moonlit river. The trail was soft with pine needles where it wasn’t riddled with rocks. The air smelled green, like ferns and cedar.

You can purchase Graff’s book—which I enthusiastically recommend—at your own favorite independent bookstore or my favorite, Fair Isle Books on Washington Island. Tell Deb Wayman I sent you!

*I’ve crossed paths with more than one writer who tried and filed (sometimes more than once) to get into the Iowa City program. It’s a big deal.

Patchwork & Prose—You Can Access the Party!

UPDATE! A recording of the delightful launch party for Patchwork & Prose is available free here. It’s loads of fun, and Yanks like me will enjoy it if for nothing more than listening to Jenni Smith’s and Kay Walsh’s lovely Yorkshire accents!

I’ve been a fan of Quiltfolk magazine practically since its launch. Owner Mike McCormick visited Winterset in 2016, and Iowa was featured in the second-ever installment of the ad-free, quarterly keepsake publication that visits different areas of the US in each issue.

My amazing daughter Mary Fons soon began writing for Quiltfolk, eventually serving several years as editor-in-chief. Now, she’s a creative director.

Mary has lived in the UK off and on recently, and I loved seeing her join the lovely Yorkshire quilter Jenni Smith for some literature-related projects involving Quiltfolk, Jane Austen, the Brontës, and (I think) Beatrix Potter. As a fiction lover, anything that combines narrative and quilting makes me happy!

Imagine my delight when Quiltfolk offered, “Patchwork & Prose, a Bookish Block-of-the-Month Program.”

Wow, I thought, there are enough quilters (like me) that adore novels and quiltmaking in equal measure to do something like this? I signed up immediately—even though I’ve never participated in a block-of-the-month program in my life. Just hanging around with other literary quilting nerds would be worth it!

Look at how the team for this program (which starts April 6) are identified:

Jenni Smith, the eclectic quilter
Kay Walsh, the cheerful bookworm
Mary Fons, the passionate quilt historian
Margaret Fleisher, the calm educator

Thinking back over my decades of teaching quilting classes around the country, for guilds and at conferences, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Faculty members and students were always talking about what they were reading, recommending titles and authors. Hard core quilters are often hard core readers. I knew this.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting Jenni in person. We were both at QuiltCon in Phoenix last month, and during our chat, I took the opportunity to gush about Patchwork & Prose. I told her I had signed up and that I couldn’t wait. The next thing I knew, Jenni invited ME to make a guest appearance. Wowza!

There’s a fee for the yearlong class, of course, but Jenni is hosting a free launch party tomorrow night (Saturday, March 19) from 7 to 9 EDT. She’s giving a tour of her Northern England sewing space (which she says she’s been tidying all week), and she’ll introduce some of the guests she’s lined up. The reminder (with Zoom link) that landed in my inbox yesterday included recipes for literature-themed libations (all with hilarious names) to sip during the party.

My favorite is the Turn of the Screwdriver.

Zoom in if you’d like to party with us!




Book Review: ORDINARY GRACE by William Kent Krueger

When I pluck a title from my stack of purchased-but-not-yet-read books (mostly fiction, generally soft-cover), I begin by examining the book itself. I study the back cover copy, the author’s head shot, the biographical note. I open the front, flip to the copyright page, find the publication date, glance at the dedication.

Many authors follow the dedication page with a quote (or quotes) from famous writers or thinkers.

William Kent Krueger, author of ORDINARY GRACE, gives us a line by Blaise Pascal,* then takes literary reference a step further, launching the novel with a Prologue written in the voice of the story’s narrator—a grown man recalling events from the summer he was thirteen. The narrator, Frank Drum, tells us that his father (who we soon learn was a Methodist minister) often quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus:

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I read the second sentence several times, thinking there had to be a comma missing between the words, “sleep” and “pain,” wondered what “sleep pain” could be, but didn’t google Aeschylus (whom I know practically nothing about) until later, when the quote, punctuated the same way, came up again toward the end of the novel. According to Goodreads, Aeschylus wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.**

What I liked about ORDINARY GRACE was the way Frank and his younger brother Jake constantly eavesdropped on the adult conversations in their world—a Minnesota small town in 1961. The summer remembered in the story is one of death and mystery, and the motivation of the boys to find out what is going on is plausibly and cleverly crafted. I also admired Krueger’s capture of the time period. I was twelve in 1961, and the details and settings rang true. (Except on p. 236, when “Jake flopped on the sofa and turned on the TV.” Unless he could reach the TV from the sofa, Jake would have had to turn it on before flopping, as remotes weren’t around until the 1970s.)

Krueger’s prose felt clumsy to me at times, but that may not be fair criticism. The adult Frank Drum telling the story never purports to be a writer. From the Epilogue, we learn he is a high school history teacher, a philosophical one who believes there is no such thing as a true event. “We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed.”

I wish both Krueger and his protagonist (and Aeschylus) had been a little more generous with their commas, and I wish I had liked ORDINARY GRACE better. That said, I couldn’t agree more with Drum’s (presumably Krueger’s) stance on reality versus perception.

I have another Krueger title—THIS TENDER LAND—in my to-read stack, so in the future I’ll have another opportunity to decide what I think about this very popular, much published author.

*The heart has reasons that reason does not understand—Blaise Pascal

**I am still confused by the Aeschylus quote, and don’t understand the one from Pascal, either. If I am ever fortunate enough to have a novel published, the page following the dedication is going to be blank.





Hannah Fons Reads “A Christmas Carol” Today!

When my children were little, I (and others) read to them every day. When Hannah—four years older than Mary, seven years older than Rebecca—learned to read, she read to us.

Being sick in bed with a nasty ear infection or strep throat when you’re a kid stinks, but if your big sister is Hannah Fons, she’ll be at your bedside, reading The House at Pooh Corner, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic, or The Twits. What makes being read to by Hannah so special is how she “does the voices” in all the dialogue sections. She’s got a special knack.

When the kids got older, at Christmas time we all got into the act. We read “A Christmas Carol” aloud, passing the book around and all of us “doing the voices,” speaking in British accents that would probably make true Brits cringe.

For at least the past five Christmases, we have traveled to Chicago—where Mary and Rebecca live. Mark and I drive over from Iowa, and Hannah flies in from New York. A special treat each year is attending a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at The Goodman Theater. No matter how we experience the story, whether on television, in the movie theater, at The Goodman Theater, or in our own living room, Scrooge’s redemption moves us to collective family tears every time.

Alas, there is no Christmas in Chicago this year. The Goodman Theater is dark. Hannah is staying put in New York.

BUT HARK! Hannah has arranged to read “A Christmas Carol” to us, via Instagram Live, from her apartment in the East Village of New York, at 7 p.m. EST (6 p.m. here in the Midwest) on Christmas Eve. She’s practiced, she’s got it down to an hour and a half, she’s working on the lighting, and she’s tweaking her fake British accent.

I know there is a lot going on today, most of it virtual, but if you’d like to join the Fons family circle, and have an Instagram account, here’s how to do it: follow Hannah’s account @amazonesque, and look for her profile picture at the top of your feed tonight at 7pm EST/6pm CST. (It’ll have a colorful ring around it and the word “LIVE”.) Tap or click her picture to view the live stream!

If you don’t have an account, or would rather watch from your lap- or desktop, here’s a link with instructions:

PS Several of my followers who missed Hannah’s reading asked for a link. Hannah is a busy person, and as she mentions, because the storytime is a little over an hour and a half long it took some fancy footwork to get it in a deliverable form. Here’s what she wrote to me:

Hai Mama! A thousand pardons for not doi no this before – the video is so long, it took more than just a copy/paste to share it. I uploaded it to Vimeo, and made it public, so anyone with this link should be able to view it: 





What I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know About

No one would deny I know a thing or two about quilts.

Having learned to read before I started Kindergarten, I know a thing or two about literature as well. I went on to major in English in college, and earned a master’s degree when I was around thirty years old.

That I could exist in the spheres of quilting and literature as long as I have without running across or being pointed to Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” is astounding. Published in Harper’s Magazine in 1973, the story hinges on a dispute over which of two daughters should have possession of two particular family quilts.

I learned of Walker’s story serendipitously.

My daughter Rebecca and her husband traveled from Chicago to Winterset for Thanksgiving (after they, and my husband Mark and I, took tests for COVID, received Ns, and isolated for the recommended number of days beforehand). While here, Rebecca, a film programmer for movie theaters, was on a Zoom call with national-level colleagues.

The amazing antique Windmill Blades Log Cabin quilt I acquired in February hangs on the wall behind my desk, providing a great backdrop for pandemic-necessary virtual meetings. One of the people on the call with Rebecca, Clint Bowie, noticed Windmill Blades and asked about it. (Clint is artistic director for the New Orleans Film Society, and an avid quilter.) In short order, Rebecca connected Clint and me. A lively correspondence ensued.

I answered Clint’s questions on laundering vintage quilts in his collection. Clint shared a photo of his work in progress, a beautiful Lone Star. We also discussed the challenges of proper quilt display. In one email, Clint wrote:

We have so many: my husband comes from a line of quilters, as do I . . . We have one wall hanger, and an upright quilt rack but others are simply folded up and displayed in stacks . . . I’m often reminded of a short story I read years ago called “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, which details a scene between family members over heirloom quilts . . . It’s a beautiful story that I recommend if you haven’t already had the pleasure of reading it.

With a few taps on my computer keys, I soon did have the pleasure of reading Walker’s story, for free, courtesy of Harper’s archives.

The narrator of the story addresses the reader conversationally as she describes the much anticipated but ultimately brief visit her grown daughter Dee and Dee’s boyfriend make to her humble home. With magnificent economy of words, Walker exposes Dee’s snobbery as well as the crushing self-consciousness of the narrator’s other daughter Maggie. Nine short paragraphs in, we know that the narrator is a Black country woman with a heavy body, a slim budget, and zero illusions. Unflinchingly direct, she describes herself:

I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather.

Walker spools out the story in writing that made me feel as though I were a bird on a wire or a fly on the wall, observing the events of the momentous day first-hand.

“Everyday Use” would be a great read even if the disputed family heirlooms were not quilts—Grandpa’s cufflinks or the mantle clock, for example. But as a quiltmaker, the fact that the fight is over quilts as symbols of one’s heritage, made reading it (all three times!) pure joy.

Thank you, Clint Bowie!





Back to The Great American Read

Launched by PBS in 2018, The Great American Read was an eight-part television series that invited viewers to choose American’s favorite novel from a list of one hundred candidates. (The list was created through a survey of over 7000 people.) As an English major with a master’s degree in literature and someone who loves lists, I printed the roster and began egotistically checking off titles, only to discover I’d read fewer than half!

I was humbled, but since then have managed to increase my total by four. My book club chose THE BOOK THIEF, which got me to 46. I picked up THE CALL OF THE WILD last year after I saw the movie, which got me to 47. Now I’ve added two more, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, bringing me to 49.*

The protagonist in THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (by Zora Neal Hurston, published in 1937) is Janie Crawford—a descendant of both slave and master. The novel opens with Janie’s return to the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida (where Thurston grew up), eighteen months after running off with a younger man, Vergible Woods, known as Tea Cake. She walks back into Eatonville—where she had been wealthy and powerful—at sundown, dressed in overalls. Townspeople gossiping on their porches speculate about her judgmentally (because she went straight home without greeting them). Her friend Pheoby Watson declares she will “take her some supper.”

After Janie eats the plate of rice Pheoby delivers, Janie asks Pheoby to hand her a wash-rag so she can scrub her tired feet. Then, for nineteen compelling chapters, Janie tells Pheoby her whole life story, describing her first unhappy marriage to a dullard farmer many years her senior, her second marriage to a sharp-dressed, abusive operator, and her third to Tea Cake, her one true love. 182 pages later, Janie finishes washing her feet.

Janie stirred her strong feet in the pan of water. The tiredness was gone so she dried them off on the towel.

Much of the dialogue in THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is written in the African-American dialect of the story’s setting in the early twentieth century. Reading it takes getting used to but is fascinating. As she launches into her story, Janie tells Pheoby what she thinks about the gossips.

To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt.

The other great classic I’ve now read is A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith, published in 1943. This book’s protagonist is another fantastic female—Francie Nolan—but the book is full of amazing characters both female and male, including her mother Katie Rommely Nolan and Katie’s sisters, Sissy and Evy. Smith describes Francie’s marginally employed father Johnnie Nolan in this way: He looked like a handsome, devil-may-care Irish boy instead of the husband of a scrubwoman and the father of two children who were always hungry.

If A TREE were a newly published novel, critics would probably disapprove of the many side stories involving other colorful Brooklynites of the turn of the twentieth century—slices of life that don’t advance the main narrative—but I loved them.

One of the most hilarious describes Gussie, “a tough little hellion, with an overdeveloped underlip,” who, “had been born like other babies and nursed at his mother’s great breasts.” Gussie’s mother tries to wean him at nine months but the baby won’t stand for it, refuses a bottle, food, or water. His mother relents and nurses him to age two, when her milk dries up because she is pregnant again. For nine months Gussie drinks nothing but black coffee. When he sees his mother nursing his newborn little sister for the first time, he goes into hysterics and doesn’t eat for four days. His mother relents again, and Gussie “was like a dope fiend getting the stuff after a long period of deprivation,” Smith writes.

Gussie was three years old at this time and big for his age. Like other boys, he wore knee pants and heavy shoes with brass toe tips. As soon as he saw his mother unbutton her dress, he ran to her. He stood up while nursing, an elbow on his mother’s knee, his feet crossed jauntily and his eyes roving around the room . . . He looked not unlike a man with his foot on a bar rail, smoking a fat pale cigar.

If you want to find out how Gussie is finally weaned from mother’s milk you’ll have to dig into Smith’s wonderful book.

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN is the story of American immigrants and first-generation Americans as they learn to read, write, and find enough to eat in the teeming borough of Brooklyn, New York. Its 491 pages were an absolute delight. The edition I bought from my favorite bookstore features a wonderful essay by Smith’s daughter Nancy Pfeiffer, “Things I Want to Say About My Mother.”

*Yes, I’d love a perfect Great American Read score, but I know I will never read ATLAS SHRUGGED. Nor am I likely to open the science fiction titles like FOUNDATION, THE MARTIAN, or DUNE (my husband Mark’s favorite novel). I will not read GAME OF THRONES or FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY. Regarding FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY, my daughter Rebecca said, “Mom, you’d hate it. It’s full of typos.”












THE ASSIGNMENT, by Liza Wiemer

A simple drawing of students in a classroom—all but one seated, all but two with hands raised—illustrates the cover of Liza Wiemer’s novel, THE ASSIGNMENT. The title is stamped in bold red caps, the author’s name in smaller white type at the bottom. An additional line of copy, a question, is printed at the top: Would YOU speak up for what’s right?

I met Liza Wiemer at a Write On, Door County event last year, and we became instant friends. She was working on THE ASSIGNMENT at the time, and told me the true story that inspired the manuscript she was writing. High school seniors in an Oswego, NY, area school were asked to portray Nazis in a debate. The two sides would argue for the best way to eliminate the Jewish people. Two students refused to participate.

THE ASSIGNMENT is told from varying points of view, but chapter breaks with title heads make the transitions easy to follow. We go deep inside the minds of Logan and Cade, the two students who refuse to debate. We feel the pressures with which many of the other teenagers constantly cope. We spend time with teachers and parents as everyone in a small, tight-knit community with zero Jewish residents lines up on one side or the other of the issue as it goes viral.

Liza and I stayed in touch in the months following the 2019 Door County event. Her book was sold to Delacorte Press, a division of Penguin Random House, and her editor at Delacorte pushed her for changes she felt would make the book even more powerful. Liza, who lives in Milwaukee, wound up making her final edits at our cottage on Washington Island. She told me that honing her novel in complete solitude, looking out on the vastness of Lake Michigan, was an unforgettable experience.

I happened to be at the cottage in Wisconsin this past August, when THE ASSIGNMENT was released, and eagerly awaited shipment to my favorite bookshop, Fair Isle Books. In the meantime, I knew I would be driving back to Iowa before returning to Washington Island mid-September. Cleverly, I downloaded the book from Audible and listened to the spoken version during my ten-hour drive.

Writers are often urged to “raise the stakes” in the stories we write—to increase the dramatic tension as the plot unfolds. THE ASSIGNMENT is a novel in which the author continually ups the ante. As I drove through Wisconsin, crossed the Mississippi, and entered my home state of Iowa, I was emotionally moved again and again, my eyelashes often damp as I blinked away tears. At one point, I had to pull off the road to process my thoughts.

THE ASSIGNMENT is categorized as YA (Young Adult), but adults play key roles throughout, making the story compelling for any reader. The chapters dedicated to the teens will take you back to the halls of high school, where emotions, loyalties, and peer pressure reign.

The question posed on the cover, Would YOU speak up for what’s right? has stayed with me. It’s been decades since I was a senior in high school, and thinking back, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to speak up, regardless of the consequences, the way the young people in THE ASSIGNMENT do. Speaking truth to power is a challenge hard to meet, even as an adult.

I wound up purchasing not one, but six copies of THE ASSIGNMENT from Fair Isle. I’m keeping one forever, have given one to a writer friend, and three to educators I know. If you are currently an educator in a US high school, send me a note via the “contact” option above. Let me know if you could use this book in your curriculum, and I’ll mail my last copy to you.

PS Here’s a link from Fair Isle Books that will take you directly to the page where you can buy THE ASSIGNMENT directly from an independent bookstore.

Literature Lovers: Come (Virtually) to Washington Island!

If you read my posts regularly you know I love books and writing as much as I love making quilts. You probably also know I live in two places—Winterset, Iowa, most of the time, and Washington Island, Wisconsin, from time to time.

The annual Washington Island Literary Festival (WILF) is a celebration of books and writing, and I proudly serve on its selection committee. (In January, our festival’s “back office” relocated under the beautiful umbrella of Write On, Door County, a creative writing center located in Door County, Wisconsin, near the town of Fish Creek.)

As with so many events this year, months ago the WILF leadership team made the difficult decision to cancel our in-person event, convince our 2020 authors to pencil us in for 2021 (success!), and figure out what we could do instead. We decided to create a small buffet of online offerings for the weekend our event would have taken place, September 18-20. Among other presenters, three committee members will offer virtual workshops—poet James Scannell McCormick, writer Paula Carter, and me.

My session, The Novelist’s Survival Kit, Sunday, September 19, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., is a conversation with Write On’s wonderful artistic director, Jerod Santek, about the stamina required to start and finish a full length, approximately 300-page, manuscript (and I mean writing one, not reading one!).* Budding fiction writers or those who’ve always wanted to take a stab at The Novel will acquire tools that will help them stay the course; avid readers will get a fascinating glimpse into what we novelists go through to present them with a (hopefully) great read.

Workshops are free, but we are asking participants who can do so to pay $65 (or any amount they can, even if it’s only $10 or $20) to join. Register for The Novelist’s Survival Kit here.

To promote the virtual festival, various members of our team have recorded short videos of us of our work and have posted them on the festival’s Facebook page. Click here to watch me read a four-minute excerpt from my first novel, My Life with Shelley.

*My Life with Shelley is represented by New York literary agent Stephany Evans. I’m currently at work on a second novel, this one set in my own small town in Iowa in the late 1950s.

THE MOTHERS by Brit Bennett

A member of my Novel in a Year cohort (Marie Deaconu-Baylon) recommended Brit Bennett’s debut novel, THE MOTHERS during a class meeting a couple of months ago. Marie mentioned she knows Bennett personally, as they were undergraduates together at Stanford University in California. When recent buzz about Bennett’s second novel THE VANISHING HALF appeared in the New York Times, THE MOTHERS, happily, was already on my to-read stack of books.

A big decision every novelist must make is the point of view (POV) she/he will use. One choice is to have one of the characters in the book do the telling, in first person. Everything that happens in the story is filtered through that character. (Think of Ishmael in MOBY DICK.) Another popular POV choice these days is “close third,” also called “third person limited.” In the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling uses close third. Harry is “he,” rather than “I,”  but throughout, we stay in Harry’s head.

A story can also be told from multiple points of view. Authors sometimes assign alternating chapters to different characters, and the same story or parts of it are told from varying viewpoints. Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is a good example of alternating POV.

In THE MOTHERS, Bennett writes from a unique point of view, telling the story of Nadia Turner, Luke Sheppard, and Aubrey Evans through the eyes and ears of the church ladies (“the mothers”) at Upper Room Chapel, the church that figures prominently in all three protagonists’ lives. In this unique way, Bennett manages to pull off most challenging POV available to the writer—omniscience. The church ladies see all, know all, or accurately surmise it. They poke their heads up every so often to remind us they are there, then back off subtly and allow the story to drift forward, slipping in and out of Nadia’s, Luke’s, and Aubrey’s heads. Early on, the mothers comment collectively on the subject of men:

If we laid all our lives toe to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living, we have known men. Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger.

Bennett’s writing style is fluid, and was a quick, enjoyable read. The story contains youthful lust and love, painful losses, a love triangle, devotion, and mature love. If you’d like to acquire and read THE MOTHERS, you can purchase it in soft cover from my favorite independent bookshop, Fair Isle Books on Washington Island, WI.

Thank you, Marie, for pointing me toward this talented young writer! Bennet’s latest, THE VANISHING HALF sounds like an even more compelling read.






The dozen writers in my Novel-in-a-Year cohort at StoryStudio Chicago are all serious readers as well as writers. Over the past months, they’ve pointed me toward THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, THE IDIOT, THE AGE OF LIGHT, and now Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING.

HOUSEKEEPING was a finalist for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Robinson eventually won the Pulitzer in 2004 for her second novel, GILEAD. Unquestionably, she is a talented and important author, so I opened HOUSEKEEPING predisposed to like it. I found much to love. Here are two favorite sentences:

She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease.

It seemed as if I were trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich while hanging by the neck.

The story is set in a fictional western town (I thought Fingerbone was in Washington, but Wikipedia says Idaho), told in first person by protagonist Ruth. Ruth and her sister Lucy are abandoned by their mother Helen, dropped off when very young at the home of their maternal grandmother (whom they’ve never met) at a time of day their mother knows the grandmother will not be at home. Abandonment, natch, is at the heart of the story.

Robinson’s prose in HOUSEKEEPING is lyrical and poetic. Her descriptions of the landscape and the very atmosphere of the region are exquisite—evocative of longing, loneliness, and loss. The book is in fact long on such beautiful descriptions, and rather short on dialogue and action. It’s also long on philosophy.

I don’t mind philosophical musings in a novel, but I’d like the pearls of wisdom to come from discoveries the characters make during the course of the story. In HOUSEKEEPING, I often felt the philosophizing came from the author, not Ruth. From time to time, I was tempted to skip ahead.

I have other complaints about the novel, I’m sorry to say.

Early on, a passenger train plunges off a high bridge into a frigid, glacial lake. We are told (more than once) a porter and a waiter standing at the railing of the caboose survive, but we never learn how, or what they had to say about the experience. I reached the last page still wondering about the train wreck and the survivors.

Helen, the mother of the two little girls, after leaving them at the grandmother’s house, proceeds to end her life by driving off a cliff into (I think) the same lake. The mother’s suicide is treated as rather quaint, almost whimsical, with no clue about Helen’s reasons for abandoning her children. In the same way, Sylvie, the aunt who eventually steps in to look after Ruth and Lucy, is portrayed as quaintly eccentric. We learn that Sylvie has spent years “riding the rails,” but we never learn why she chose or was forced into a transient life. The girls’ other aunt, Molly, we are told early on, went to China to be a missionary, but she is never mentioned again.

In the end, HOUSEKEEPING annoyed me. Sylvie, the eccentric, transient aunt, is a hoarder and for the most part a terrible housekeeper. Her over-dreaminess and the general over-dreaminess of the novel made me want to grab a dust rag or a mop and do some actual housekeeping.

I think avid readers and writers like me should read prizewinning as well as best-selling novels. It’s our duty as members of the literary community to be fully educated about the fiction industry. I wish I had liked HOUSEKEEPING better, but I don’t regret the hours I spent reading it.



My favorite bookshop is Fair Isle Books on Washington Island, Wisconsin. Though the size of a small bedroom, Fair Isle is everything a bookstore should be. Its petiteness in fact makes everything simpler—one doesn’t waste time browsing through books one needn’t bother to read.

Proprietor Deb Wayman once emailed to let me know a book I had ordered was in. I responded I would pick it up next time I was on Washington Island.

“No problem,” Deb replied, I’ll put it on the HFIC shelf with your name on it.

I thought HFIC might mean “Hold for Incoming Customer,” but learned from Deb it’s bookshop shorthand for Historical Fiction, a genre I like to read from time to time.

My book club selected Whitney Scharer’s THE AGE OF LIGHT a few months ago, and it generated lively discussion. The novel is about Lee Miller, fashion model, photographer, and artist, whose life and work were eclipsed by her more famous lover Man Ray.

As a lifelong art enthusiast I had heard of Surrealist Ray, but not Miller, and a big part of what the book is about is what the art world is for women artists as opposed to male ones—in this case in Paris during the 1930s.

Miller was a complex person, as we all are, her complexities partly put in motion by parents who didn’t protect her properly as a child. She was possessed of superior intellect, formidable talent, grit, and beauty, her beauty often distracting others from what lay beneath.

After her young years as Ray’s assistant and girlfriend, Miller was a WWII war correspondent for Vogue, documenting the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just say the members of my club (all women) were morally outraged by a particular instance of betrayal of Miller by Man Ray. The betrayal pertained not their relationship as lovers, but to Miller’s work. As we talked about it all of us became angry and had to top off our wine glasses in order to settle down.

Shearer’s book is well researched, well written. I recommend it!


Movie vs. Book: Jack London’s The Call of the Wild

A week or so before “The Call of the Wild” (the movie based on Jack London’s famous novella) opened at the Iowa Theater here in Winterset, I happened to read somewhere that the dogs in the film are computer generated images.

“Gosh,” I thought, “couldn’t they have given real dogs gainful employment?” It seemed unfair for fake dogs to replace living, breathing (actor) dogs. However, as I munched my popcorn* in the dark, I was glad no real dogs had to even pretend to endure the hardships Buck and his co-dogs endured. As the story progressed in cinematic beauty, I knew I was being manipulated by those cheesy, glossy, CGI mutts, but I was thoroughly entertained.

I’m embarrassed to say I had never read Jack London’s THE CALL OF THE WILD, despite the fact I majored in English. I happened to be in Iowa City the week after I saw the movie, so I purchased a copy at Prairie Lights. Like the movie, the book is slightly—but only slightly—cheesy, and, honestly, a terrific read!

The movie people captured much of London’s content, but I feel they passed up the novel’s most powerful scene.

After several years of grueling labor as a sled dog, Buck is rescued from cruelty by John Thornton (played by Harrison Ford), gets much needed R&R, and regains his formidable strength. In the chapter titled “For the Love of a Man,” the bond between dog and human also strengthens, their means of displaying affection for each other described by London in beautiful prose. Thornton’s habit is to take Buck’s massive head roughly between his hands and shake it back and forth while calling his dog pet names that sound like cursing. Buck shows his love by taking Thornton’s hand in his mouth, closing his teeth upon the flesh hard enough make marks but not hard enough to break the skin, kind of a canine hug.

Later in the chapter, when Thornton and Buck are wintering in Dawson, superdog Buck earns sixteen hundred dollars for his beloved friend. Thornton has bragged in the Eldorado Saloon that his dog “can start a thousand pounds,” meaning Buck, harnessed to a sled, can break the sled runners out of the ice and pull half a ton of weight a distance of one hundred yards.

Once the wagers are in, the men pile out of the bar into the icy thoroughfare, and Buck is harnessed to the sled. The noble dog is excited, sensing something extraordinary is required of him. Thornton takes Buck’s head in his hands, and instead of cursing whispers, “As you love me, Buck. As you love me.” London writes:

The crowd was watching curiously. The affair was growing mysterious. It seemed like a conjuration. As Thornton got to his feet, Buck seized his mittened hand between his jaws, pressing in with his teeth and releasing slowly, half-reluctantly. It was the answer, in terms, not of speech, but of love. Thornton stepped well back.

London’s description of Buck’s victory is simply magnificent. Thornton uses the money to pay his debts and outfit an expedition deep into the Yukon to search for a fabled lost gold mine. The culmination of the story (which motivates Buck to answer the call of the wild) is far different and much more powerful than the one the moviemakers created. The movie version of the story satisfied me as entertainment, the book with intellectual and narrative depth. THE CALL OF THE WILD is only 80 pages long; I highly recommend it!

*Because of the COVID19 pandemic, The Iowa (like movie theaters nationwide) is currently shuttered, but its marquee is staying on.


Holden, Hamlet, and now Selin—THE IDIOT, by Elif Batuman

It’s been a long time since I read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, and quite a few years since I saw a performance of HAMLET, but as I entered the world of novelist Elif Batuman’s THE IDIOT, I thought frequently of the protagonists of both those classic works.*

What I remember about THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is how very young the young main character, Holden Caulfield, is and how agonizingly he wanders through the story, mostly alone, searching for meaning in life. In HAMLET, the Prince of Denmark is overwhelmed by the events surrounding him, and though he wants to, he cannot seem to act.

Selin Karadağ, the narrator of THE IDIOT (not the same novel as THE IDIOT by Fyodor Dostoyevsky), is also young. The daughter of well-educated, divorced Turkish immigrants, she is a freshman at Harvard University in 1995, when (as the back cover copy notes) email is new. As intelligent as Selin obviously is, she is nevertheless befuddled by much of what she encounters in her first year of college life. She struggles mightily to make sense of roommates, course instructors, Conversational Russian, fellow students, and most of all her attraction to Ivan, a Hungarian math major who is a graduating senior. One could argue that Selin, having been born and raised in New Jersey and done what it takes to get into Harvard, would be more hip and less self-conscious, but all I had to do was recall my own first year in college (1967, University of Houston) to instead think, oh, yeah, I felt that way myself.

I purchased THE IDIOT because it was described as hilarious by a member of my cohort at StoryStudio Chicago during a discussion about how hard it is to make humor work in a novel. Eager to see if I would also find THE IDIOT hilarious, I opened it on my train ride back to Iowa from Chicago earlier this month. The California Zephyr usually has a nut case or two onboard, and as I chortled my way across the prairie, sometimes laughing out loud, I glanced around my seat in the observation car to see if I was attracting attention.

Ultimately, not a lot happens in THE IDIOT, but Selin’s mordantly witty** observations as she wanders haplessly around the Harvard campus and Cambridge, visits Paris en route to Hungary for the summer, uses Beatles songs to teach English to children in a small Hungarian village, tries to understand her love or non-love for Ivan, and is painfully unable to express her feelings about almost everything, kept me entertained all the way to the end of the story, where, unsurprisingly, nothing much was resolved.

I found THE IDIOT a good read, Batuman an extremely talented writer.

*Intentionally, I didn’t consult The Oracle (google) for descriptions of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE or HAMLET to refresh my memory or find out whether any legit reviewers were reminded of their protagonists when writing my own review.

**I wish I could claim “mordant wit” as my own choice of words, but these two are also in the back cover copy. I could think of no better way to describe Batuman’s writing.



Each month, when the Novel in a Year cohort I’m part of meets in person in Chicago, we catch up with each other on how our work is going, critique excerpts from two members, and receive master-class instruction on craft from our terrific instructor Rebecca Makkai. Invariably, titles of published novels pertinent to this or that element of writing are thrown out by this very well read group of thirteen.

When cohort member Ryan made a pithy reference to John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (“That’s like the cider house without the rules.”), I remembered (vaguely) the film adaptation (1999) of the novel and later visited Irving’s Wikipedia page. On the impressive long list of his works are other biggies, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, neither of which—like THE CIDER HOUSE RULES—I had read.

Because CIDER HOUSE is set in the same time period (the 1950s) as the novel I’m writing, I ordered a copy. When it arrived, I was dismayed by its girth.

Advice books tell unpublished novelists like me we must keep our manuscript under 100,000 words (about 300 pages) if we dream of getting published. However, if you’re an established, popular writer like John Irving or Amy Tan (e.g. IN THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT), you can keep going as long as you want.* I knew the hours I spent reading Irving’s novel would be hours not spent working on my own book, but dug in, determined to absorb from a popular master every bit of writing insight I might discover.

The 602 pages of THE CIDER HOUSE RULES are packed with wonderful details, details that are mentioned over and over (and over) in one long chapter after another. Early on, we learn Dr. Wilbur Larch, the celibate obstetrician/abortion provider at St. Cloud’s, the orphanage/maternity home/abortion clinic in St. Cloud’s, Maine, is addicted to ether, and we are reminded of this a thousand times. That one of the two nurses at the orphanage (Nurse Edna or Nurse Angela, I couldn’t keep them straight) is secretly in love with Dr. Larch is established when she is introduced, but her unrequited adoration is mentioned again and again. (I got it! I got it!)

I feel like a jerk—a nobody writer criticizing a best selling novelist—but I found the text dense, the tone glib, the narrator intrusive, and an opening section that went around in circles (albeit entertaining ones) for many, many pages before the story took off.

All that said, the 1950s world Irving built felt a lot like the one I’m building in my own manuscript, which made me happy, though his characters are way more socially enlightened than mine. (Nary a whiff of racism arises among the apple orchard’s elite owners when white Homer Wells falls in love with black Rose Rose.)

The most valuable takeaway, though, was Irving’s handling of sex. THE CIDER HOUSE doesn’t contain steamy sex scenes, but a lot of sex happens in this story, and the sex that happens provides the narrative “turns” that send the novel in the next defining direction. Wilbur Larch’s only sexual experience gives him the disease that leads to his ether addiction and lifelong celibacy. Candy and Wally’s unplanned pregnancy brings them to St. Cloud’s for an abortion, and there they meet adult orphan Homer Wells, the book’s co-protagonist (along with Larch), the third person in the book’s love triangle. (One might argue TCHR is actually a love rectangle, Larch’s love for Homer the fourth post.) Candy and Homer conceive baby Angel in the cider house. Angel grows up and falls in love with Rose Rose, daughter of knife-wielding picking crew boss Mr. Rose, reshaping Homer’s position on performing abortions.

In THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, Irving treats the realities and results of sex straightforwardly, without flinch or gloss. Babies are conceived—in and out of wedlock—pregnancies are terminated or taken to term; some children are kept, some relinquished, some adopted, some not.

The novel I am writing, WINTERSET, set in my own hometown in the 1950s, also involves adultery, fornication, an unplanned pregnancy, a home for unwed mothers, and childbirth. Without setting out to do so—long before I picked up THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, I found myself writing about sexual circumstances that have defining consequences. These issues are germane to the story I’m telling, and I’m not shying away, either.

Irving inadvertently gave me license to keep doing what I’m doing, so hats off to him and Dr. Wilber Larch.


*IN THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT, 600+ pages; WAR AND PEACE (Tolstoy) is 1,225 pages.

SING, UNBURIED, SING: A Mississippi Journey

I’ve never lived in Mississippi, but my mother was born there in 1908. When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, she took my brothers and me “home” from Houston to Rockport, near Hazlehurst, several times. In my memory, only my mother is at the wheel, my father not in the car. Perhaps he couldn’t take time off work. Perhaps deep-South Mississippi was too foreign for an Iowa boy.

At one point in Jesmyn Ward’s road trip novel SING, UNBURIED, SING, a “tusked wild hog, big as two men and covered in black fur, darts from the woods and springs across the road, as light on its hooves as a child.”

Ward’s writing is vivid enough to transport any reader into this scene, but for me it was more than real. On the route through Louisiana and southern Mississippi, we often saw these terrifying beasts along the roadway. One time we had to halt on the blacktop, trees on both sides draped in Spanish moss, a wild boar the size of a propane tank in the middle of the road, his white tusks curled alongside his dark snout. He was unmoved by my mother’s honks or the shouts we offered through the windows of the station wagon, afraid to roll them down more than an inch. No other cars came from either direction. We simply waited until the animal decided to move.

Ward’s lyrical writing has been compared to Faulkner and Morrison by reviewers far more credentialed than I. Like Morrison and Faulkner, however, for me her prose is sometimes too fanciful. Her spinnings into abstraction, sometimes furrowed my brow and made me want to speed ahead to find something concrete—of which there was much. It’s not that I mind abstract storytelling, I just want the pretty words tied firmly to meaning, and sometimes Ward lost me in the ether.

Never a quitter, I always forge on to the last page of any novel I pick up to find out if the bad guys are punished and whether the characters I care about come out okay. In the case of SING, UNBURIED, SING, Ward satisfied me. Young Jojo’s dignified Black grandpa, “Pop,” the book’s moral center, though he loses much, stands as firm and reliable at the end as at the beginning, guiding Jojo toward manhood while his parents flounder, addicted both to drugs and each other.

I highly recommend SING, UNBURIED, SING, and plan to read Ward’s earlier novel, SALVAGE THE BONES, also set in Mississippi, in the near future.



I had not discovered Luis Alberto Urrea’s work until members of the Washington Island Literary Festival selection committee began looking at potential authors for last year’s event. Urrea’s collection of short stories, THE WATER MUSEUM, knocked my socks off, but we waited to invite Urrea until this year—as his work fit our theme, “Generational,” so well.

In August, in anticipation of the September festival, I bought Urrea’s latest, HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS, a delightful, colorful novel set in San Diego involving a final birthday party for a dying, once-powerful member of an extended Mexican-American family. I loved Urrea’s writing, but the large number of family members, including a “Big Angel” and a “Little Angel,” kept tripping me up, despite the author’s handy character chart, and so I paused in my reading.

At the festival itself, as Urrea answered questions about his life and work during the all-author morning panel, and especially during his solo time at the podium, I found him so entertaining, erudite, and wise, I wanted to try a different novel. Deb Wayman, proprietress of Fair Isle Books on Washington Island, runs a popup bookshop backstage during the lit fest, so I asked her to choose for me. She recommended INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, and I immediately got the author’s autograph on the title page.

I devoured INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH in three days. On the first two of those days, I was traveling by train from Iowa to Chicago for the September session of my “Novel in a Year” class with Rebecca Makkai. I’m one of those lucky people who has no trouble reading in a moving vehicle, so I read about the tiny village of Tres Camarones, Tijuana, San Diego, and other locations as the train sped—east on the first day, west on the second—through golden, ready-to-harvest fields of corn and soybeans.

Published in 2009, the novel features protagonist Nayeli (high school soccer star and karate expert) as she pursues a quest inspired by the movie “The Magnificent Seven.” She and her posse cross the border (several times) illegally from Mexico to the US to find homesick Mexican men who will come back and help repopulate their tiny, dwindling town, Tres Camarones (Three Shrimps) near Mazatlan. From Tres Camarones and along the way, Nayele assembles a truly memorable cast of characters for her “mission from God.” This outstanding book, published ten years ago, offers feet-on-the-ground insight at a time when immigration issues are constantly in the news.

Urrea has been described by others as “a literary badass with a heart of gold,” which I find perfect for the author who “read” a section from HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS from memory, neither hard or soft cover in front of him. I am now a total fan and have THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER, another of his novels, on order from Fair Isle.


Preparing for Jane Hamilton

Even if I weren’t a member of the Washington Island Literary Festival planning committee (and therefore extremely proud), I’d be super pumped about the lineup of authors for this year’s event, September 20-22.

Rebecca Makkai is returning, the first author to participate a second time in our festival’s young life. In 2016, she mentioned she was working on a novel set in Chicago in the 1980s, the novel that turned out to be the 2018 hit, THE GREAT BELIEVERS. Our other fiction presenters are Jane Hamilton and Luis Alberto Urrea. For nonfiction we have Scott Russell Sanders (actually both a fiction and nonfiction writer) and Paula Carter, and for poetry Bao Phi.

Jane Hamilton’s name was familiar to me, but I had not read her work until this summer. I purchased her newest novel, THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS from Fair Isle Books on Washington Island, but lucked into A MAP OF THE WORLD and WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG at the Winterset Public Library’s book sale earlier this year. Hamilton lives in Wisconsin, near Rochester, where her family owns and operates an apple orchard; all of her novels are set in Wisconsin.

A MAP OF THE WORLD is hard reading because the subject matter is so painful. A toddler drowns in a farm pond early on, and soon one of the main protagonists, Alice Goodwin, a farm wife who is also a school nurse (and who was babysitting when the child drowned) is accused by a student of sexual misconduct, arrested, and put in jail. The death of the child devastates Alice, and Hamilton does a masterful job describing her suffering and the chaos of the family when she is wrongly accused. Everything is such a big mess for the Goodwin family, sometimes I didn’t want to read about it, so making it to the payoff ending was a challenge.

THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS, a coming-of-age story, was a delight. Hamilton is a master at showing us life on a farm through young eyes. To Mary Frances “Frankie” Lombard, the farm and orchard are her entire world. An observant kid, she picks up on the many conflicts between the family members who jointly own the farm. Reading THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS takes you back to being young, when you heard a lot of things said by adults you only vaguely understood. The farm and the nearby town are populated with richly drawn, quirky characters that I, as a Midwesterner myself, found believable. Hamilton’s prose made me laugh out loud many times.

I hope to also read WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG before I see Jane Hamilton in person, but I’m next opening Urrea’s HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS, since he’ll be on the stage at Washington Island’s performing arts center as well. His collection of short stories, WELCOME TO THE WATER MUSEUM, is fantastic.

(Pictured above, stone stacks on Schoolhouse Beach, W.I. WI)


THE GREAT ALONE by Kristin Hannah

My writer-friend Liza Wiemer gifted me THE GREAT ALONE after spending time last month at our cottage in Wisconsin completing final edits on her next-to-be-published YA novel, THE ASSIGNMENT. She found the solitude of Washington Island perfect for hours of intense work, and bought Kristin Hannah’s novel for me in hard cover from the island’s wonderful independent bookstore, Fair Isle Books.

I had not read Hannah before, and at first THE GREAT ALONE felt like a young-adult novel (not necessarily a bad thing) despite the book’s hefty size. That, and the story’s setting in the wilderness of Alaska made me slow to engage, though, eventually, I did. The author describes a family’s life on a remote homestead near Homer in the mid-1970s vividly, but as a lover of cloth napkins my reading-face often expressed revulsion, I’m sure. The near-constant darkness half the year, trips through the snow to the outhouse, catching and skinning fish to dry for the winter (which was described more than enough times), the scarcity of just about everything, depressed me. Throughout my reading, I was glad of my lifetime on the grid rather than off it.

Another turnoff was the 13-year-old protagonist’s crazy, abusive, survivalist dad. Yes, he was intrinsic to the story, but having recently read Tara Westover’s EDUCATED, spending time with another power-wielding patriarchal nut-job was at times almost too much. Ernt’s service in Viet Nam is blamed for his emotional problems, but we never find out whether he enlisted or was drafted (important, in my opinion) or precisely what happened to him there.

Hannah’s writing is intensely readable, though sometimes descriptions of hardships seemed repetitive. Enough happened in the story to ramp up the tension and send me racing through the final third to find how it all turns out in the end. By the time I reached the final page, young Lena, her mother Cora, and the cast of eccentric Alaskan characters were real enough to me, and, to my relief, the good people prevailed in this saga of life on the last American frontier.

Grateful to Be Educated

I was attracted to the strong cover design of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated when I first saw it in bookstores last year, but with an already tall to-read pile, I intended to wait for the softcover. Instead, when I stopped by the newly-opened Novel Bay Booksellers in Sturgeon Bay, WI, in June I plunked down cash for the hardcover. (Support independent bookshops!) The book is a good, though troubling, read.

I was lucky to be brought up in a home where the value of education was a given. My parents’ message was that a person’s key to success in life is the formal acquisition of skills for a satisfying career, plus other skills for one’s non-work life, such as hobbies. Books and classes are essential for these goals. I raised my own three children with this same philosophy. They all earned liberal arts degrees from the University of Iowa and all now have graduate degrees as well.

Not so in Tara Westover’s family. Raised by survivalist parents in the mountains of southwest Idaho, Tara was seventeen before she entered a traditional classroom, gaining college entrance by scoring high enough on the ACT, which she prepared for pretty much by herself. Before that, she was “home schooled,” though actual study in her chaotic home rarely took place. Now in her early thirties, she has a Phd. from Cambridge University and is estranged from many members of her family, most of whom have pseudonyms in her book.

As I read her account of her early life, I was struck by her parents’ anti-education paranoia, but even more by the jaw-dropping physical danger to which these parents, particularly the father, subject Tara and her siblings. Working on and around heavy equipment and with flammable elements and no protection in the junkyard the family operated, Tara and her brothers were injured all the time and treated only with homeopathic preparations compounded by their mother. Deep gashes, burned flesh, broken bones—somehow they managed the pain and carried on with the scars. The explanation, eventually, is that the father is mentally ill. Added to Tara’s ordinary physical danger is her terrorization by an older brother. She describes in detail extreme physical and emotional abuse, none of it sexual, which I suspect occurred as well even though it wasn’t mentioned.

I highly recommend this book, and I’d say the takeaway is that some people are just born wanting to know more and will surmount seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to educate themselves. Others are born thinking they already know everything. You will meet both types in Educated.



Because I pay attention to what’s displayed prominently on the fiction tables at book stores these days, I instantly recognized the turquoise jacket of Tayari’s Jones’ An American Marriage when I was helping sort books for the Winterset Public Library’s annual sale a couple of months ago. The novel was the Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick for February 2018, and won other accolades, I believe. I bought the hard cover copy for a song.

An American Marriage is a fast read, told in first person from three points of view—Celestial’s, Roy’s, and Andre’s—easy to follow because the narration alternates from chapter to chapter. Each character tells part of the story, as well as his or her side of the story, a wrenching tale about a young married couple separated when Roy is incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

Roy is not the stereotypical black teenager locked up for a drug offense. He’s a successful thirty-something Morehouse College graduate on the rise in corporate America, a handsome, thriving, business-suited guy. Celestial is a talented Atlanta artist raised in privilege by well-educated, successful parents. Andre is Celestial’s childhood friend.

Celestial and Roy have been married only eighteen months when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and Roy is accused of a rape he could not possibly have committed. Whether the victim is white or black we never learn—or I missed it—which is important because the book is not about race. An American Marriage is about what happens when circumstances get in the way of relationships between complicated, flesh-and-blood people, people who, importantly—like most non-poor people—have choices. We read on to find out whether Roy and Celestial’s union can survive Roy’s sentence of twelve years.

Jones’ writing is both fluid and solid, often delightful, and her characters rang true to me 99% of the time. In Roy’s sections, for example, I definitely believed a man was doing the telling. Celestial is an art doll maker. Her sewing techniques were described in a way that makes me think Jones is either a sewer herself or has an avid one among her beta readers.

For me, An American Marriage was good but not great—a novel I’m very glad I had the opportunity to read.

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s The Keep was recommended by one of my teachers in a workshop at this year’s University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The class was on point of view, and my teacher used excerpts from The Keep and another of Egan’s novels, A Visit from the Goon Squad, to illustrate shifting point of view in the novel.

Egan’s writing is jaw dropping good, which is stating the obvious, since Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. In The Keep, her ability to put me way, way, way inside the head of one character in particular, Danny, practically made my head spin.

I doubt I’m the first person to envision M.C. Escher’s artwork when following The Keep’s plot lines—the main and sub stories fold back and in upon themselves so seamlessly I became unsure which one actually was the main story, the one taking place in an ancient castle in an unnamed country or the one set in a prison.

In Danny’s story, the one in the castle, point of view is third person limited (mostly), told in past tense. With third person limited, the reader generally only learns the interior thoughts of a single character, but in Danny’s sections of the novel, a narrator busts in from time to time with comments such as “I’m taking a pause here to tell you Danny wasn’t listening.” The prison sections are in present tense, first person, with prisoner and budding writer Ray telling us what’s happening in the prison in (mostly) real time, but gradually we realize Ray’s the one writing Danny’s story, i.e., the intruding voice in the castle story is Ray, who’s in a prison writing class taught by Holly, a woman with her own backstory of crime and punishment.

Until I read the final section of The Keep, which is Holly’s, in first person, present tense, I was going to say reading the novel was like listening to an incredible violin cadenza, a tour de force of virtuosity that blows your mind until you realize you’re not crazy about the concerto itself. Holly’s thirty pages tied up loose ends in mostly satisfying ways, but my takeaway from The Keep still has more to do with the incredible way Egan told the story than the story itself, which is after all why my instructor recommended I read it.


New Acronyms + HELLO?

In the quilt world, common acronyms are FQ (Fat Quarter), UFO (Unfinished Object), QM (Quilt Market), and QOV (Quilt of Valor).

My new career in fiction introduced me to a whole new set of shortcuts. WIP is one’s Work-in-Progress—and (BTW) it’s not cool to refer to one’s WIP as a novel or a book. Until your WIP has a publisher, it’s a manuscript or a draft.

POV is the very important Point of View. Choices include First Person, Third Person Limited, Multiple (alternating), and Omniscient. In my WIP, I’m attempting omniscience—the most challenging of POVs due to potential head-hopping. Head-hopping (which doesn’t have an acronym, but should) happens when the writer switches clumsily from the internal thoughts of one character to another, losing the reader.

SF (Science Fiction) and YA (Young Adult) are genres, neither of which I know much about, but this morning I finished Hello?, a YA debut by one of my new writing pals, Liza Wiemer of Milwaukee, who I met this spring at the “Paths to Publication” event sponsored by Write On, Door County.

Set on Washington Island and in Sturgeon Bay, WI, Hello? follows the lives of five high school seniors. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I remember the emotions (often the most powerful of one’s entire life), and Wiemer captures them well. As for POV, she used five, putting me inside the brain (and heart) of each character in turn in alternating chapters. One girl’s POV comes through her poetry, which is private and closely guarded. The POV of Brenda, a playwright headed for writing school in New York (NY!) is handled in the form of an ongoing screenplay.

Though I’m not the novel(!)’s intended audience, Hello? kept me turning pages for two mornings and two evenings, anxious to see how the characters came to terms with their individual crises and whether the right couples would connect. Wiemer, a longtime K-12 educator and the mother of teenagers herself, writes plausibly and compassionately about kids with true love in their hearts and real issues in their lives.

My New Favorite Novel

Not long ago, I wrote about belonging to a book club for the first time ever. I love my book club in general, for many reasons, but specifically at this moment because of the book Luann chose for March.

I had not heard of writer Garth Stein or The Art of Racing in the Rain, though according to the cover it’s a New York Times Bestseller with over four million copies sold. All I knew before I started reading was that the story is told from a dog’s point of view, which sounded schlocky.

A couple of months ago, when I opened The Book Thief (also a NYT best seller), I was predisposed to like it, but didn’t. I opened The Art of Racing in the Rain predisposed to dislike it, and couldn’t put it down.

One day, the dog Enzo’s owner, a budding race car driver, forgets to turn the TV off as he leaves for work, and Enzo’s education begins, with The Weather Channel. Enzo tells us, “The Weather Channel is not about weather; it is about the world!” Watching The Speed Channel and racing videos with Denny, Enzo learns everything about Formula One driving and competition. In this beautiful book, the fact that Enzo has favorite actors and movies (Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Le Mans, Bullitt) is plausible because we know some dogs like to watch television, plus Enzo is a really smart dog.

Well into The Art of Racing in the Rain, charmed and often moved to tears, I began to worry. Would Garth Stein’s mastery of narrative carry through all the way to the end? Would the final chapters satisfy? Would the evil characters be punished properly? Would the ones I loved prevail? The answers were yes, yes, yes, and yes!

Luann chose The Art of Racing in the Rain even though she’d read it before, because Garth Stein will be among the presenters at the Des Moines Book Fair this weekend (March 30). Our club will hear what Stein and other authors have to say about their work. We’ll enjoy lunch together from food trucks participating in the downtown event. Likely to come up is that Stein’s novel about Enzo, Denny, Eve, and Zoe is to be released in movie form this fall, with Kevin Costner as the voice of Enzo. I’m skeptical anyone can do cinematic justice to the story, and I know Enzo would be, too.



While in Nashville recently for QuiltCon, I took a break from the convention center to visit Parnassus Books, the classy independent bookstore established in 2011 by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett. My sidekick on the pilgrimage was my new writing buddy Frances O’Rourke Dowell. Frances and I gabbed about books and writing (and quilts) all the way to Parnassus, throughout our time in the store, and back. We even conducted an impromptu counseling session for a customer searching for the perfect book for her club, unanimously recommending The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai.

One of the titles I purchased at Parnassus was My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (not the author’s real name, apparently). Set in the 1950s in a poor neighborhood in Naples, the story takes off when the two main characters toss each other’s dolls into a dark cellar. In early chapters, I was wowed by the way the narrative travels away from (and back to) its dramatic opening scene, something I’m trying to do in my own work-in-progress.

Gradually, however, I wearied of Elena’s and Lila’s ridiculously (to me) intense relationship, of their endless competition, of the many other, often interchangeable, characters both male and female, and especially of the posturing and trivial rivalries of the men. I’m not saying the author did not accurately describe life in the narrow world in which she grew up—I just found reading about it boring. Every character, young and old, seems stuck in the life of the neighborhood. Men and boys defend the honor of their wives and sisters, but beat these same wives and sisters when tradition calls upon them to do so.

The main question of this first of four volumes in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet seems to be, “Who will win the hand of Lila, the most beautiful girl of all?” Ultimately, I didn’t care. Here’s an excerpt, a scene just a few pages from the end, during the reception following Lila’s marriage to Stefano, the narrator (Elena) describing the guests: They would restrain their rage for love of Lila . . . but when she had left, with her husband, then a huge fight would erupt, and it would be the start of hatreds lasting months, years, and offenses and insults that would involve husbands, sons, all with an obligation to prove to mothers and sisters and grandmothers that they knew how to be men.

Also, what’s with, “Translated from the Italian . . . ” on the title page? I mean, do we ever see, “Translated from the French”? “Translated from the German.”? What’s up with that?

Hanging Out with Michelle

Back in the late 2000s, a dream of Quilts of Valor founder Catherine Roberts was for our nation’s First Lady to make a Quilt of Valor in The White House. Since I was to be the nationally-known quilter who would keep the sewing machine threaded, I was the board member elected to write a letter inviting Michelle Obama, her daughters, and her mother to let me take them under my quilting wings.

Even though no sewing session at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came about, I spent a fair amount of time imagining what it would be like to sew with Michelle, in case it did. She seemed so down to earth, I felt sure I would not be intimidated. Having recently finished Becoming, I know I was not wrong.

Getting to know Michelle, her mom Marian Robinson, and daughters Malia and Sasha was fascinating and fun. I learned Michelle’s upbringing was much like my own, steered by parents who valued honesty, work, education, dignity. Later, as Michelle navigated her way through a public role in the public eye, she kept her own eyes focused on her children, as any caring mother would.

Becoming is not a sweeping, literary novel with high stakes and powerful tension, but a straightforward life story about a regular person whose path took her places she never dreamed she would go, something I can relate to, at a much lower level, as well.

I’d still like to sew with Michelle, teach her how to do a perfect quarter-inch seam, impart pressing skills, help her build that Quilt of Valor on a design wall. We could do it in Washington, Chicago, even Winterset. I’m available, totally.

Written by? Born in?

After viewing the Oscar-nominated film based on Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? I picked up the book that inspired the movie, a slim volume describing Israel’s short career as a forger and seller of letters written by famous people like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Israel was found out by the FBI and punished for her crimes.

As I read about the world of autograph and ephemera collectors hoodwinked by Israel back in the early 1990s, and enjoyed the wonderfully pithy, fake letters she wrote (reproduced as visuals in the book), I found myself nostalgic for pre-email days, when letter-writing was much more of an art. I recalled typing in the 1990s on my own personalized letterhead and the thrill of opening my mailbox each day to collect letters, both business and personal, written to me.

Email—which looks pretty much the same no matter who’s writing it—is unlikely ever to enjoy the collectibility of old, through-the-mail correspondence, which means famous people of the past (though deceased) squarely hold the corner on this particular category of pricelessness.

I remember similar thoughts when local doctors (GPs) stopped handling births (this also, perhaps, in the 1990s) in Winterset.

George Stout, leader of the famous WWII “Monuments Men,” came into the world in Winterset, in 1897, as did legendary screen actor John Wayne, in 1907, my father James Graham in 1921, and my own children in ’75, ’79, and ’82. Our town takes great pride in the accomplishments of its noteworthy native sons, honoring John Wayne’s birthday every year with a big celebration. Now, sadly, no one (unless via an at-home or emergency) is born here.

I guess it’s up to those who took their first breath in Madison County in the past (hear me, Fons kids!) to distinguish themselves and keep us on the map. Maybe it’s up to me to pick up a nice piece of stationery and write a pithy note—maybe to local friend Brian Downs, director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, who alway pens his thank-yous in ink.







Belonging: My New Book Club!    

At a holiday party in December, a new Winterset friend invited me to join her book club. In all my years of avid fiction and nonfiction consumption, I’ve never belonged to a formal circle of readers. Just being asked made me feel like I’d fallen in love!

January’s title was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in 2005, set in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. From the back cover, I learned Zusak’s novel spent ten years on the New York Times Bestseller List, that it’s been translated into forty languages, and that it has sold over sixteen million copies. Naturally, I was predisposed to like The Book Thief.

The deeper I got into the story, to my dismay, instead I found a lot to dislike, and I began to worry about the upcoming meeting, fearing I’d be a wet blanket or perceived as a literary snob if I criticized our hostess’s selection at my very first meeting. I felt like a kid asked to the cool kid’s birthday party, anxious to be liked.

I should have known better. Only one member truly loved the book, for reasons she described beautifully. Others were warm or lukewarm, and what a great time we had discussing the characters, plot, themes, and historical context. I love my book club!

My personal take on The Book Thief is that the story of Liesel, Rosa, Hans, and the other characters is a good one, deserving to be told; I just didn’t care for the way it was told. I didn’t mind Death as the narrator, but I disliked his jokey, conversational tone. I disliked the boldface, spoiler-alert “marquees” the author inserted throughout. I disliked what I viewed as sloppy writing, phrases such as, “the streets were like oil soaked pages,” and “the children’s smiles were like salt.”

In the end, though, as a novelist whose own novel may not ever see print, my heart was softened when I googled Zusak and found some interviews with him. He said when he wrote The Book Thief, he didn’t know if it would ever be published. He also said his goal was to write a book that would be someone’s favorite book. That’s totally legit. I’m just not that someone.

I’m hosting in February. I chose Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter!

Books Read by Others

On Christmas Day, after breakfast and gifts, my daughter Rebecca plucked Roald Dahl’s Matilda from the bookshelf and offered to read it to us. On the sofa, Mary was tying a quilt, Hannah lounging. Jack was tidying up the kitchen, and Mark and I were at the table, hard at the Christmas jigsaw puzzle.

Matilda is a fantastic story. Rebecca is a wonderful reader, as is Hannah, who took over for a few chapters. Both adapt their voices to the characters as they read, giving the story special life.

I recently I tried recorded books for the first time, listening to Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, and then Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, on my daily walk. I do two miles in about 40 minutes, the perfect distance for multitasking a couple of chapters.

The Girls Who Went Away (non-fiction) describes the experience of “unwed mothers” who surrendered their children for adoption during the post-WWII era before sex education and reliable birth control were available, when having a baby “out of wedlock” was socially unacceptable. Fessler took me inside the maternity hospitals of the 1950s and 60s, where girls sometimes gave up their newborns without holding or even seeing them. I’m working myself on a novel set in 1957—developing a protagonist who will refuse to relinquish her child—so absorbing this information as I walked served my research purposes. That said, I missed the satisfaction of holding Fessler’s excellent work in my own hands.

The cover of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation intrigued me each time I saw it on display or on lists of recommendations. Intent on using my early morning hours to write instead of read, I downloaded Moshfegh’s novel and listened to it on my next series of walks.

The protagonist (whose name we never learn) is a young, wealthy, Columbia University graduate who holes up in her apartment for a year simply to sleep. She’s enabled by a helpful quack who prescribes an incredible assortment of pharmaceuticals. I disliked our anti-hero immediately, and I have to give the actress who read part of the credit. Her deadpan voice perfectly captured jaded, privileged ennui.

I’m a Pollyanna who keeps reading even a bad book in hopes it will get better, so I stuck with My Year for miles of Winterset sidewalk, empathizing when the speaker described the horrible parents who clearly never wanted her, disgusted as she made more and more of a mess of the present, glad I wasn’t at home in my chair squandering my precious morning hours. (For a better story featuring a character whose life is a mess, read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.)

To my great pleasure, I was recently invited to join a local book club. January’s title is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Rebecca Fons, unless you would kindly pop home for a couple of days and read this novel to me, I’ll just do it myself.



Two Reads in Two Weeks: Honeyman and Atkinson

During my years as a business co-owner and continent-crossing teacher of quilting, consuming fiction was a luxury only intermittently enjoyed. I probably managed only a dozen or so novels a year, reading them during air travel before Internet access on airplanes made working possible any place, any time.

Now that I’m retired from Fons & Porter and pursuing my encore career as a novelist, I have not only time to read but also a responsibility to know what’s being published these days—which writers are winning those prizes (Booker, National, Costa, etc.) and what titles are getting on those lists (New York Times, Good Reads, Barnes & Noble, etc.). I’m loving catching up, literarily speaking.

During early chapters of ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE (Gail Honeyman, May 2017), I thought, “This is so predictable,” and I’m happy to report I was dead right about two important plot elements. That said, Honeyman charmed me completely, proving it’s not always the story, but the way it’s told, that satisfies. I was pulling for Eleanor throughout. If you like rooting for an antiheroine, novels set in places other than America (like Glasgow), and can handle fictional pain, you’ll like ELEANOR OLIPHANT, in pre-production for a film release in 2019.

The day after I closed ELEANOR OLIPHANT, I opened LIFE AFTER LIFE (Kate Atkinson, January 2014), the favorite novel by the favorite author of one of my favorite writer friends. Now I understand my friend’s position.

To say Atkinson is a fantastic writer is an understatement. Though I was totally immersed in the ongoing (and restarting) life of protagonist Ursula Todd, I could feel the presence of Atkinson as she so very, very deftly experimented with the “what-could-happen-next?” element of crafting a story. I felt her presence, yet I can’t say she intruded.

The first thing anyone who’s read LIFE AFTER LIFE is likely to mention is the book’s unusual structure, as Ursula Todd’s life starts and ends again and again, sometimes after only a few pages, sometimes after many. What makes this nontraditional structure work is Atkinson’s solid and brilliant narrative style. Each time we must take a flying leap in fictional time, the spot we land on is in the traditional English world of a traditional English family with its gardens, tea trays, and faithful dogs.

Now that I’ve started my own second manuscript, writing and researching each day, I may not be able to maintain the novel-a-week reading life I enjoyed during the months I spent acquiring my agent, but I can’t see myself isolated from other fiction the way I was the years I toiled on MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY. I’m a different kind of literary citizen nowadays. Stay tuned for future reviews.

THE GREAT BELIEVERS—Heart Wrenching, Hopeful

I was a fan of Rebecca Makkai even before I picked up her new novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS.

Makkai was a featured author at the 2016 Washington Island Literary Festival and taught a workshop in the boathouse on our property. I was traveling the month before, and I was delighted to find her short story collection LOVE SONGS FOR WARTIME in an airport bookshop. Intent on boning up, instead I was blown away. Her stories are some of the best I’ve ever read. Her novels THE BORROWER and HUNDRED YEAR HOUSE are good, too, but THE GREAT BELIEVERS is her best production yet.

Set in mid-1980s Chicago (and Door County, WI) and in current-day Paris, the story unfolds as the health crisis eventually known as AIDS begins taking its toll on gay men living and working in the Chicago arts and culture scene. In Paris decades later, the sister of one of the first men in the group of friends to die, now in her 50s, searches for her estranged daughter and grandchild, reconnecting with survivors of the AIDs epidemic she has not seen since her youth.

When stories about the deadly virus began to appear in national media, I was in my mid-thirties, living on a farm in Madison County (raising kids and writing how-to books on quilting), far from cultural centers like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco—but there were casualties in my industry as well. Quilters and non-quilters alike crafted panels commemorating their lost brothers, sons, and friends for the AIDS QUILT, which became the largest public art project in history.

I read THE GREAT BELIEVERS in five days, on my trip to and from New York—as if the reading experience were a set of parentheses around my journey to meet my literary agent. I started the book as my flight lifted off from Des Moines and devoured the last page back in Iowa, in Baggage Claim, as my suitcase made several trips around the conveyer belt. Through characters so well crafted they became real to me, Makkai wrenched my heart again and again as the circle of Chicago friends shrank with each death.

Many novels popular in recent years would be correctly described as “dark,” their protagonists victims of sinister, even depraved, antagonists. (I’m thinking of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, GONE GIRL.) The fiction I admire is of a different sort, the sort created by Makkai in THE GREAT BELIEVERS. In this magnificent novel, Makkai gives us characters whose loyalty to their friends elevates them, for me, to unforgettability. Their pain and loss, their love and loyalty, their nostalgia—all are part of the human condition. Makkai makes me glad, rather than ashamed, to be a member of the human race.

The Story, the Story, the Story . . .

As I become comfortable in what I consider my third career (quilting industry business owner first, nonprofit advocate second, and now, novelist), I think often of my early love of narrative, the joy I remember from childhood at the very concept of stories. That mere words are capable of creating people one can know, places one can be, boggles my mind to this day.

I recently dug through a box of memorabilia to find a photo I hadn’t looked at more than once since my quilting career began. There I am beside my mother Dorothy Graham as she reads to my brothers and me. My older brother (an athlete all his life) looks like he’d rather be outdoors. My twin (the contented one in the family) sits contentedly on my mother’s lap. But look at the little girl! Look at that face. How much more into a story could a child of three be?

I spent the past weekend in Chicago, enjoying StoryStudio Chicago’s first-ever writers conference, hanging out with writers including my Washington Island writer friend Mari Anderson and the wonderful Rebecca Makkai, whose latest novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS (book report coming soon) I read in five days, my heart wrenched repeatedly. I absorbed wisdom at author panels and learned more about the publication process during “How the Book Sausage is Made.” A highlight was confirmation from Makkai’s agent Duvall Osteen that my own agent Stephany Evans is top drawer.

StoryStudio’s first conference was my own first experience at a gathering of writers. In general sessions, in the individual classes on my schedule, and even at the reading and literary smackdown at a neighborhood bar Saturday night, I took the time to scan the room, to get a good look at the other animals in my same zoo—other humans for whom the story is everything. Hopefully, some of them were lucky enough to have a mother like mine who (next to my father and us children) loved books better than anything. Whether or not they are lucky enough to have a photo like mine to prove stories thrilled them from the get-go, I know they see themselves in my face.



Like any self-respecting holder of an MA in literature, I lean toward the highbrow in my reading. This unwavering lifelong quest to improve my mind and comprehend the human condition has driven me through the pages of a number of extreme downer Pulitzer Prize winners (AMERICAN PASTORAL, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES). From time to time, though, I dip my toe into less “literary” works. (THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO trilogy, the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, and THE DA VINCI CODE come to mind).

CRAZY RICH ASIANS was the perfect palate-cleanser after my slog through George Orwell’s 1984. The snappy cover art of Kevin Kwan’s debut had caught my eye online and in airport shops, but I didn’t buy a copy until a few weeks ago, at Fair Isle, the fabulous independent book shop on Washington Island, WI. By then, movie buzz had begun, and I happened to run across a piece about the author in the New York Times. In the article, Kwan admitted he sold the movie rights for just $1.00, commenting, “I never thought my book would get published in the first place!” As a debut novelist myself currently fantasizing about publication, I was immediately in Kwon’s royalty-accumulating corner.

The narrative teems with incredibly rich and mostly shallow characters, relieved from time to time by a (more or less) rich person with his or her head screwed on straight. I learned a lot I didn’t know about Singapore and vicinity though ultimately I couldn’t find a character I could fully love in CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Predictably, the boy that loses the girl gets her back again, so no surprises. All that said, I’m glad I can now speak intelligently about this runaway best seller.

I caught the afternoon matinee yesterday at the Iowa Theater. As usual, I purchased a large popcorn only three-fourths full so there’d be room for my Junior Mints. Enjoying the satisfying blend of salt and sweet, I settled into my seat. By about halfway in, the depictions of excessive wealth became as boring as some of the excessively wealthy people depicted obviously were. Thankfully, the movie left out enough of the too-many characters from the book that we the audience could pretty much follow the plot, and the ending (the actual way the boy Nick got the girl Rachel back) was surprisingly powerful.

Congratulations, Kevin Kwon—your fun read is also a fun film!

Orwell’s 1984—Worst Beach Read Ever!

As a person who majored in literature both in undergraduate and graduate school, naturally I’ve read a lot. During my university years, for example, I did two full semesters of Shakespeare, a semester of Chaucer, eighteenth century poetry and prose, literature in translation, modern American literature, a semester of Faulkner, and an independent study on Hemingway, to name a few. How in my long career as a reader I avoided 1984 until recently is a mystery.

If I were the type to blame others, I could point my finger at my daughter Mary Fons when regretting the hours I spent with my nose in Orwell’s miserable narrative of future technological totalitarianism. Mid-June, she asked readers of her popular blog PaperGirl for advice on summer reading. She listed five novels she’d never read and invited her fans to help her pick. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I was definitely the one who suggested we read 1984 simultaneously so we could enjoy a highly intellectual discussion at some future time.

I had traveled from Winterset to Iowa City a few days early for a workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and went directly to Prairie Lights bookstore for a copy of 1984 so I could get started. Over several early mornings, during delightfully cool weather, I occupied a chair not on a beach, but on the balcony of the apartment where I was staying, dutifully plowing my way through the novel’s 278 pages, jotting observations on the inside back cover for our future conversation, all the while hating the colorless, boring, terrifying world Winston, Julia, and the other unhappy characters occupy. My only moment of joy was on page 241, where Winston is referred to as “the last man,” reminding me of Mary Shelley, whose novel THE LAST MAN (1826), set in the 2080s(!), is considered the first-ever post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. (Go, Mary, go!)

Mary (Fons) and I are both so busy these days, many weeks often pass between our phone catchups, and we always have so many topics to cover, the subject of 1984 only resurfaced recently, during a glorious week we spent together at the family cottage on Washington Island, WI, sewing and yakking all day long. “I didn’t read it,” she admitted. To my raised eyebrows, she responded, “I don’t like fiction.”

Mary, my dear, how wisely you avoided the torture that is 1984! I later cleansed my palate with Crazy Rich Asians. More on that true beach read in a future book report!


AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve always thought of myself as an avid reader, but during my very busy career years, time was scarce for one of my greatest personal pleasures. Once I “retired” in 2006, I gained time, but soon was pursuing my own literary project. I spent five years continuing my research on Mary Shelley and FRANKENSTEIN, studying the craft of fiction, and writing sometimes four hours a day.

Now that my MY LIFE WITH SHELLEY is a completed manuscript, I’m happily gobbling up novels, reading classics I never managed to get to, and immersing myself in contemporary fiction.

AMERICANAH, by celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a sumptuous read. In the story, circumstances bring Ifemelu from Nigeria to the US as a young woman, separating her from Obinze, her first love. Her struggles in America and her efforts to claim her own identity lead her to cut off communication with Obinze for many years. Obinze’s own struggles (perhaps more severe) in a hard hearted London are all the more difficult without Ifemelu’s empathy.

I knew practically nothing about Nigeria (ex., one in every five Africans is a Nigerian) before I went on protagonists Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s journeys. Adiche’s prose is an absolute joy to read. Her ability to move us back and forth in the timeline of the story amazed me. As the novel opens, Ifemelu is traveling from Princeton to Trenton, NJ, in order to have her hair braided in the proper African way for her return to Nigeria. From the hair salon Adiche transported me far away both geographically and chronologically (and back) but never once lost me.

I’m on to another book (MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Otessa Moshfegh), but I highly recommend Adiche’s delightful and subtly educational novel. You’ll be turning pages rapidly as you savor her prose.


THE DOLLHOUSE: Fun for Fans of NYC

The historic building that was once the Barbizon Hotel for Women is arguably a guest protagonist in Fiona Davis’ debut, THE DOLLHOUSE. If you’re fascinated (as I am) by all-things-New-York-City, you’ll enjoy a pleasant read.

Built in 1927, the 23-floor architectural gem on East 63rd Street once housed young women seeking their fortunes in the Big Apple, whether as models for the Eileen Ford Agency, budding journalists, or secretarial students at the Katharine Gibbs School. Nicknamed The Dollhouse by young men who dated the residents, the hotel was operated like a dormitory, with curfews, a dining hall, and strict rules of behavior. Today, one of the luxury condos in the repurposed building, a three bedroom, 3.5 bathroom unit, is available for just under $5 million.

Chapters of THE DOLLHOUSE alternate between 1952, the year shy, non-model-material Darby McLaughlin arrives from Ohio, and 2016, when journalist Rose Lewin occupies one of the fancy condos with her rising politician boyfriend, who shortly dumps her.

Awkward Darby, who’s come to New York for secretarial training, gets stuck on the Eileen Ford floor with all the beautiful girls—most of whom admit their actual career goal is to snag a husband. She has a rough time of it at first but is shortly befriended by Esme, a Puerto Rican elevator operator with big dreams, who introduces her to more colorful parts of the city like Lower Manhattan jazz clubs. At the Flattened Fifth, Darby meets Sam, the love interest in her section of the story. 

At the modern day Barbizon, Rose becomes intrigued by an elderly resident, one of a handful who still live on the fourth floor due to rent control laws, and pitches a story about them to her boss at the media startup where she works. The project puts her together with photo journalist Jason Wolf, who becomes her new love interest. The elderly resident at the Barbizon always wears a hat and a face-concealing veil and turns out, of course, to be Darby.

I thought the the author handled the chemistry in both eras well, and I kept turning pages to find out the truth beneath Darby’s veil and in just what way Rose was going land on her feet. Davis ties up the loose ends plausibly enough, keeping The Barbizon itself at the heart of both stories.



Words On Water

This year’s Washington Island Literary Festival (September 13-15) will feature authors and books focused on water, including Kirk Landers’ compelling novel ALONE ON THE SHIELD and Jeff Goodall’s relevant report on climate change, THE WATERS WILL COME.


One of my recent pleasures as a member of the author selection committee was to write a review of Jean E. Pendziwol’s THE LIGHTKEEPER’S DAUGHTERS for The Island Observer, Washington Island’s local paper. Pendziwol, an award-winning children’s book author, received both critical and reader praise for her debut novel for adults. The book is set both onshore and in the waters around Thunder Bay and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a locale described by Pendziwol as, “a mystical place, this peninsula, jutting out into Lake Superior; chiseled rocky cliffs and worn ridges, mysteriously carved by wind and rain and time, take the form of a giant slumbering in a cradle of icy water.”


Principal characters are Morgan, a lonely, angry teenager, raised by her late grandfather and now in foster care, and Elizabeth, an elegant, nearly blind resident of a pricey Thunder Bay retirement home. Morgan, caught red-handed graffiti-ing the facility’s back fence, meets Elizabeth by chance when performing required community service—scraping off her spray-painted artwork.


The vision-impaired Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily are the daughters referenced in the book’s title, their father in charge of the Porphyry Island lighthouse in the early decades of the twentieth century. A set of journals the keeper wrote while stationed on Porphyry falls into Elizabeth’s hands, and the relationship between the two women takes off as Morgan agrees to read the volumes of handwritten history to the blind octogenarian. The plot thickens when they discover that the journal from 1925–29 (the years covering the twins’ birth and early life) is missing.

Soon, Morgan’s unique musical and artistic ability point toward a deeper connection between the two women, and Morgan becomes Elizabeth’s rapt listener as the elderly woman recounts what she can remember of the “missing” years of her and her mute sister’s youth. The novel becomes a murder mystery of sorts when long hidden secrets are gradually revealed. As THE LIGHTKEEPER’S DAUGHTERS nears its end, the loose threads of Elizabeth’s and Morgan’s stories become firmly intertwined, speeding up the narrative as point of view alternates, reaching an ending that’s quite satisfying, even though I found myself jotting down a few notes to keep characters straight.


After writing my review, I browsed around the Internet for other readers’ opinions on Pendziwol’s book. Some took issue with young Morgan’s frequently vulgar language. True, Morgan’s sections contain plenty of f-words and s-words, but it’s important to remember we are often inside her head, looking at the world from her young and troubled point of view. Given her age and the modern-day setting of the exterior story, she seemed realistically drawn to me. Foul language slips out in front of Elizabeth only when Morgan is under stress, trying to protect her wounded inner core from further pain. Elizabeth never appears offended, and I wasn’t, either.

Lit Fest Reading

As a planning committee member for the wonderful Washington Island Literary Festival, I was on the author selection team, reading fiction works this past winter by several writers under consideration. Now that the slate of presenters is confirmed for the September event, I’m exploring titles that weren’t on my personal review list.

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ONCE UPON A RIVER is set in Michigan in the early 1980s, along the Stark River, a tributary of the Kalamazoo. Sixteen-year-old protagonist Margo Crane is a crack shot with a rifle, an experienced river navigator, and a fan of Annie Oakley. The death of her father shortly after the novel opens (not spoiling—his demise is right there in the cover blurb) sends her on a quest for her beautiful, absent mother. As any hero worth her salt should be, Margo is thwarted at every turn.

Campbell’s writing makes great reading. Her colorful, rough characters are well-drawn and dimensional, some of them almost Faulknerian, in my view, though Kalamazoo is a long way from Oxford, MS.

In her rowboat, Margo travels the Stark in both directions so many times the title might have been UPSTREAM, DOWNSTREAM, but Hunter’s writing is powerful enough to put the reader right on the water with our protagonist, who’s basically an abandoned child. Margo lives off the river and the land for much of the story, makes friends on both banks, and gets in such a heap of trouble my jaw dropped several times. She’s an authentic character, described by a capable, credible writer, and I found the ending truly satisfying (which doesn’t happen as often as I wish).

My only question was the about behavior of deer during hunting season. Bucks and does wandered frequently into areas of human habitation, as if inviting Margo to shoot them, which she does. In Iowa and Wisconsin, where I live, the deer we see everywhere the rest of the year vanish so profoundly on opening day we wonder if they received a memo.

That said, I liked Campbell’s writing so much I purchased her book of short stories, AMERICAN SALVAGE, for future reading.