What’s Next on My Reading List?

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 18, 2022. Click on blue lettering to connect to websites about the books, authors, and events mentioned.]

My non-writing desk

“What are you reading?” is one of my favorite questions. It gives me permission to talk about the books I’m reading and soon-to-be-read books that I have stacked on my non-writing desk, which functions as an extension of the nearby bookshelf. And, I love to hear about what other people are reading. It’s a good way to add more books to the stack on the desk.

I’m going to cheat a bit and answer this question two ways. First, I’ll discuss what I’m currently reading. Both books are my reward at the end of the day. I read the nonfiction book in front of the TV, so I don’t have to watch it. I like to sit in the family room with my husband in the evening, but our TV-watching tastes are not aligned. I read the fiction book in bed before I go to sleep. Second, I’ll discuss some books on my to-be-read list.

My current nonfiction read is Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin (2010). This is a beautifully written nonfiction book about the Mississippi River. The story starts in the 1700s, and I’m currently reading about events and life along the river in the 1800s. The Mississippi River, the star of the story, is complex and evolving, with a wide emotional range. The stories of the people who lived along the river and worked on the river are compelling too, but the Mississippi steals the show. I like this book because Sandlin’s writing is excellent and well researched. I’m learning so much about the river and how it worked and currently works as part of a large ecosystem throughout the middle of the United States. Unfortunately, I’m learning about how people have damaged that ecosystem. When I’m finished with Wicked River, it will have a permanent home on one of my many bookshelves.

My current fiction read is Saving the Scot by Jennifer Trethewey. It’s Book 4 in her Highlanders of Balforss series. I’ve read the other three books: Tying the Scot, Betting the Scot, and Forgetting the Scot. These books make me swoon, laugh, and cry, and I hold my breath during the engaging, suspenseful action scenes. Before I read these books, I hadn’t read a romance novel in over twenty years, and even then, I could count the ones I’d read on one hand. Trethewey’s books are different. True her characters are beautiful and handsome and brave and have fast-paced adventures on their way to true love. But her characters have human flaws and problems that make them endearing and relatable. And yes, the male characters do save the female characters. BUT the female characters save the male characters too. The females are intelligent, clever, resourceful, and brave, and they’re nobody’s doormat. The supporting characters are fully developed people, each with distinct personalities, who add to the enjoyment of Trethewey’s books. As a writer, I admire the storytelling and dialogue in these books. Her books entertain me and inspire me to be a better writer. After I die, my children will have to decide what to do with these books because I’m not giving them away.

Here are some books on my to-be-read list. I have lots of books that fit this category, but I’m going to limit my list to books that I plan to read in the very near future.

  1. We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz. This book is first on my list because I checked it out from the library. It made my list because I heard the writer speak at a virtual Author Chat sponsored by Honest Dog Books. (Click here to view upcoming Author Chats, which you can listen to from home.) Bartz is originally from Milwaukee, and so am I. Her book was a Reece Witherspoon pick for August 2021. (I also read the Peter Ash series by Nick Petrie. I have one of his books in my stack. He’s a Milwaukee native too.)
  2. My Father’s Keep: A Journey of Forgiveness through the Himalaya by Ed Abell. This book made my list because I’ve met the author, I like reading books that combine adventure with self-discovery, and I had a difficult relationship with my father.
  3. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George. I’m not a novelist, but I believe I can learn from George’s writing advice. This book made the list because I love George’s mystery series featuring Thomas Lynley. They are beautifully written: literary, suspenseful, and full of characters I care about.
  4. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Science is interesting, and I like memoir. I had a college professor who wanted to turn me into a biology major because I was so fascinated by my Intro to Biology course. I didn’t bite because I knew it would’ve been a mistake–the math would’ve doomed me. But I love reading about science, medicine, nature, and biology.
  5. Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner. This is a collection of short stories, a format that’s always appealed to me. I also write them, so I like to read short stories by other writers. I heard Orner talk at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book in the fall of 2020. The festival is normally held in Harbor Springs, Michigan, but it was virtual in 2020. I like short story collections because I can read a story or two, read something else, and then read another story or two.

I’ll stop here because I need to go read something!

My writing desk

Requiem for a Paperback

The book is dead, nestled among dried leaves and small pine cones, partially covered by the branches of a pine tree nearly sweeping the ground. Sun-bleached pages catch the light and bounce it like a beacon.

Broken open along the spine, its pages swollen by last week’s rain and snow are baked dry. Two pages fused together, blown vertical and dried by the wind, stand perpendicular to the ground, a gravestone for the book.

I walk past, but stop. I turn, and look. I debate.

The front of the book is mangled, its cover rolled under itself. A splotch of sky-blue color entices me to retrace my steps. I want to know its name, but I don’t want to touch the book. It’s a corpse.

I’m walking my dogs, so I juggle leashes and mittens, remove my phone from my pocket, and snap several pictures, like I do in cemeteries to record family grave markers.

Who did the book belong to? How did it end up on the ground? Did someone finish it before it was lost?

I crouch down next to the book, thankful it’s not mine.

Centered on the top of the left page, I read, Ken Follett.

I’ve read some of his books: Triple, Hornet Flight, Night Over Water, and Eye of the Needle—one of my favorite books. The snippet of sky blue on the cover tells me it’s not The Eye of the Needle. The blue is too cheerful, matching none of the cover art I’ve ever seen for that book.

My dogs stand at the end of their leashes while I stare at the book. Still crouching, I contemplate turning the book to read its title.

I let it go.

I stand, leaving it in peace, its fused pages standing perpendicular to the ground, a gravestone for the book.

Cold-Weather Book Buying during a Pandemic

Superior, WI, Monday, February 8, 2021, 7:00 p.m., -5˚F, Windchill -15˚

Cabela, 77 in human years, nestles on the right side of the couch. Ziva, 66 in human years, nestles on the left side. I’m 61, yep, in human years, and sitting at my desk, joining a virtual author chat hosted by Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin, an hour-and-a-half away.

Ziva (in front) and Cabela on a warm summer day in 2020.

It’s excessively cold outside, which explains why the dogs and I aren’t going for a walk. At our combined age of 204 years, our enthusiasm for walking at night in subzero temperatures has ebbed, so this evening we’re opting for warm intellectual stimulation.

We’re going to listen to two authors talk about their books set in immensely cold parts of the world, places that make the western tip of Lake Superior feel like a tropical vacation destination, even in winter. Miniature snowballs of marshmallows bob in a cup of hot cocoa warming my hands. On the couch the dogs remain curled up in heat-conserving positions. While other attendees join the author chat, I leave my seat to slip on a pair of thick wool socks over my flimsy book-themed socks.

Andrea Pitzer (Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World) lives in Washington, D.C., and Blair Braverman (Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube) lives in northeastern Wisconsin. Around another 140 people join the event. Miles and even time zones apart, we’re all together this evening listening to Pitzer talk about her narrative nonfiction book and Braverman talk about her memoir. Because both authors and the audience are having a good time, the authors, along with most of the audience, stay another fifteen minutes or so before calling it a night.

Superior, WI, Tuesday, February 9, 2021, 1:00 p.m., 3˚, Windchill -14˚

The polar vortex, having parked its big-mass front over much of the country, intends to overstay its welcome for at least another eight or nine days. In search of relief, I make plans to call Honest Dog Books and order both deep-freeze books from last night’s talk. (Books always make me feel better.) During this arctic cold front, I could read books set in warm locations, but I decide it takes daring to read books set in the Arctic where winter submerges itself in darkness. I’ll also need more hot cocoa, another pair of wool socks, and a flannel-backed quilt.

I could order the books via Honest Dog’s website, but I miss going into bookstores. I bypass technology, which allowed last night’s virtual gathering, considered futuristic when I was in high school, and call the bookstore.

“Is it okay if I order books by phone instead of using your website?” I ask.

“Oh yes, certainly,” the clerk answers.

I miss perusing locally-owned bookstores, places where the books I pile on the counter to buy become catalysts for conversation, places where clerks are as thrilled to talk about books as I am.

I order Icebound. And we discuss Pitzer’s research methods.

I order Ice Cube. It’s one of the clerk’s favorites.

I order The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. He wasn’t at last night’s author chat, but I’ve heard him talk about his book (another online experience). I don’t usually read young-adult novels, and I don’t read fantasy novels. But my pandemic-mode response to life has been to be more adventurous.

I order first one, then two, then three Valentine-themed packages of chocolates. The clerk and I chuckle each time I increase my chocolate order. (Chocolate also makes me feel better.)

The clerk and I talk for seventeen minutes. More than half our conversation is about books. After I hang up, I feel like I’ve had a near-small-bookstore experience. I smile.

Superior, WI, Thursday, February 11, 2021, 3:30 p.m., -1˚, Windchill -13˚

At three o’clock the mail arrives, and my nine-year-old granddaughter retrieves it.

“Nana,” she says, dashing up the stairs, “you got a package.”

My four grandkids, ages two-and-a-half to nine, know boxes arriving in the mail have potential.

As soon as I say, my books, the older grandkids lose interest.

I lift the books from the box and lay them on the kitchen table. The two-and-a-half-year-old, with the speed and dexterity of the Artful Dodger, seizes one and runs into the living room.

“This my book, Nana, this my book,” he says, with the cadence of a parrot.

“That’s Nana’s book,” I say.

“No, Nana, this my book. This my book, Nana.” He sits on the couch and looks at the cover.

He’s grabbed Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. I’m certainly not telling him the name of the book. In my mind I can hear his parrot-like repetition of the title. I can hear his parents ask me, What did you say to Charlie?

“That book doesn’t have pictures,” I say.

The mention of pictures redirects his attention, and he exchanges my book for a children’s book on the coffee table.

I retrieve my book and place it on my bookshelf. By six o’clock the grandkids will be gone. By seven o’clock, I’m planning on hot cocoa, a quilt, one of those deep-freeze books, and at least one piece of the Valentine-themed chocolates from my hidden stash.

[Check out Honest Dog’s upcoming author chats at http://honestdogbooks.com/events/]