Books: Turning Homeward, and Knocking On Heaven’s Door

Today, in typical spring-in-the-Rockies fashion, the weather pivoted 180 degrees from yesterday’s sixty-five and sunny, into freezing rain, mist, sleet, snow, and then steady rain again. When I walked to the Post Office just a few minutes ago, the temperature was hovering just above freezing, and the cloud-blanket was beginning to clear, revealing new snow on the hillsides just above town. 

This kind of weather that makes me want to curl up on the couch and read. With that in mind, here are capsule reviews of two books that crossed my desk recently. The two are very different: one is memoir/nature writing of the best sort, thoughtful and insightful, and the other is crackling good fiction. What they share is that both books stretch boundaries, shift perspectives, and teach us things we didn’t know we needed to know. Which is what makes each a great read. 

Turning Homeward, Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, by Adrienne Ross Scanlan

As a girl growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Adrienne Ross Scanlan watched her father with the other men at Temple Zion, white prayer shawls over dark suits, “swaying and chanting their prayers.” At home, she watched a different kind of movement as the tremors and other neuro-motor impacts of Parkinson’s disease robbed her father of the ability to “rise from his Naugahyde recliner, walk into a room, hug his daughters, talk and laugh with friends…”

After her father died, Scanlan, by then an adult, sold her belongings, quit her job and moved West for a new start. She wound up in Seattle and began searching for her own form of healing in volunteer work to help restore the region’s iconic salmon runs. She understood it as a way to practice the Jewish tradition of tikkum olam, a term that translates as ”repair of the world.”

Turning Homeward chronicles what Scanlan learns about the complexities of both mending the world and living as a thoughtful and conscious human being. Her meditations on the meaning of tikkum olam, and the meaning of restoration in nature and in daily life apply to all of us. How can we as fallible human beings live with our flaws and the hurts we intentionally or not inflict on each other and the world? How do we live with the knowledge that even at our best, we cause pain and suffering, simply by being? We all eat, for example, and in the doing, we consume other lives. Even if we eat a purely plant-based diet, we eat plant embryos as we consume grain and beans, and plant flesh in roots like carrots or leaves like spinach. How do we atone for those impacts, unwitting or not?

For Scanlan, the answer is in practicing tikkum olam, consciously working to repair the world in whatever form we are called to:

The call to repair is genuine, arising from our best selves, I like to think, the part of all of us capable of acknowledging the harms we’ve crated without shrinking away in guilt or fear. There’s no end to the damage we caused, just as there’s no end to our curiosity, our capacity for good work, our intelligence, and our compassion. The reasons for despair are everywhere and profound. What’s lost does matter. So does what’s still here and what’s still possible. … Tikkun, I’ve come to learn, isn’t identified by intentions but by the impact of what we hope are reparative actions.

Turning Homeward is a work of thoughtful atonement. Scanlan writes honestly and tenderly about what has not worked in mending her life, and the lives of salmon and urban streams, as well as what has. And out of despair at the havoc we have wreaked on this earth and each other, a quiet sense of hope grows in her words, the kind of active expectation of the results of conscious work that can in fact, lead to mending the wounds of the world and we humans.

Knocking On Heaven’s Door, by Sharman Apt Russell

Clare breathed in the smell of blood. Sharp, metallic, in the air, on her skin. She slipped her knife into the space between the joint and bone of the mare’s hip—a small young female but still too much meat, more than enough for their next few days of hunting. Tonight she and Jon would feast on the rump with garlic and onion, some saltbush leaves, perhaps a mint paste… Clare felt happy thinking about her dinner. She felt…lust. A fervent yearning. Her mouth filled with saliva. A violent tenderness. Her heart expanded, blossomed, pressed against her ribcage so that she mewled without sound, kittenish. She slunk forward, barely in control, through the grass…

No, no, these were not her thoughts. 

“Cat! Cat!” Clare yelled and stood, dropping the knife, picking up her spear from the bloodied ground.

It is the 23rd Century, about 150 years after a supervirus has wiped out almost every human being on Earth. The few survivors have recreated a “utopian” paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle imbued with animism, informed by New Physics, and linked by solar-powered laptops (solarcomps) via the worldwide web.

Clare and her tribe live in New Mexico, moving with the seasons, feasting on abundant plants and wild game, and celebrating the cycles of nature. The only animals they do not hunt are the “paleos,” once-extinct Paleolithic species reintroduced before the virus, creatures like the saber-toothed cat who intruded into Clare’s thoughts and nearly killed her and her hunting companion at the beginning of the book. Many paleos are telepathic; as Clare says, “How could you hunt someone you could talk to?”

A widow whose young daughter died six years before, Clare has found comfort and meaning in teaching creative writing to students from around the world via the worldwide web. Now, one of her students, a younger man from her own tribe, has become her lover. Clare’s life seems settled, until she is assigned to serve as quest-guide to Brad, a “lab rat” and theoretical physicist who lives in the relative comfort of what remains of the Los Alamos National Laboratory complex.

Brad, who discovered The Theory of Everything and whose mathematics describes how life could exist in “quantum non-locality,” as holographic projections of actual cells. Brad, who has put off the required quest as long as possible, who prefers to think math in his office rather than hunt and sleep outdoors. Brad, who initially becomes interested in Clare simply a woman who might bear his children.

The quest the two set off on becomes so much more than a simple journey, bringing up classic conflicts: a life close to the earth versus a life of the mind, technology versus nature, organized society versus loners who live outside the culture, intuitive and sensory knowledge versus intellect, man versus woman. The story twists and turns through the landscape, through lives, through physics and Brad’s risky experiment to win Clare as his own. The choices the two humans make in the aftermath of that experiment will shape their future and that of their people.

Science fiction generally doesn’t interest me, but Knocking on Heaven’s Door sucked me in and kept me hooked, immersed in a culture and characters I hadn’t imagined I wanted to know. Sharman Apt Russell’s imagined future manages to be both utopian and also startlingly contemporary, relevant and illuminating to our lives and choices today.


Two excellent reads, thanks to two authors unafraid to reach deep, think way beyond the norms, and explore the world, in very different ways. Happy reading!

Books: Moonshadows and Almost Anywhere

One of the benefits of a gig as a book reviewer is the excuse to read widely–hence the variety of books in my reading pile in the photo above. (No one reviews for the pay, which is generally nonexistent.)  

Another is that reading with an eye to reviewing means I read more carefully, thinking about voice, language, rhythm, narrative, plot and character (for fiction), and other aspects of writing inform my own work. Each book I review teaches me something, helping me grow as a writer. 

I want to share with you two books I recently reviewed and loved. (The full reviews are published on Story Circle Book Reviews, where I have the glorious title of Science/Environment reviewer. Click the links to read more. Also, you can buy each book through the site, which benefits this non-profit dedicated to reviewing books for and by women.)

Moonshadows, by Julie Weston (A Nellie Burns and Moonshine Mystery)

My ideal mystery features a strong female character who has flaws but isn't jaded or hard; a challenging and realistic puzzle that sends our heroine on a transformative journey; a story that tackles difficult issues, and a setting so vivid it becomes a character. Julie Weston's Moonshadows delivers all that and more.

The story opens in winter with a solitary man in the snow. No idea of time or place. Just the man, the burden he carries, and the elements vividly brought alive:

Rosy sank to his knees, rolled his burden out of his arms. A crust blanketing the snow cracked and broke. The stalking wind threw solid pellets against his face, across his shoulders. No time. No shovel.

He groaned and leaned back. Slow down. Time made no difference now.

Eventually, sweating with effort, his burden buried, Rosy staggers through the blizzard toward warmth and safety:

Hillocks and humps of snow where the struggle began and ended remained. Half a dozen magpies poked and pecked like ghouls fighting over gristle. … The birds flew off, leaving scattered bloody patches, pinking and blacking the snow. With the coming of nightfall, winter would erase the fall of man, the craving, crying need of man. Rosy kicked the snow in a frenzy, hatred still simmering. Out of breath, he stopped and forced his legs to step and then step again.

A bottle of hooch and the devil called from Last Chance Ranch.

Into this tumult comes Nellie Burns, petite and a mite naive, but smart and determined. At 25, she is already an old maid in the eyes of her friends back in Chicago. Newly arrived in the wild Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho in the 1920s, Nellie is on a mission to make a name for herself as a landscape photographer. Like so many before her, she has headed west in search of fame and fortune—only instead of gold or land, Nellie seeks light and shadow.

That quest takes her to the small town of Ketchum and Rosy, the grizzled former miner whom Nellie's new landlady recommends as a driver into the wintry landscape to find the perfect place for Nellie to capture her vision of moonlight on snow. Rosy, with his face "split down the middle" and one eye blinded by a blasting cap in the mine, and his brown bottle of "hooch" on the seat next to him, seems like a risky chauffeur, but he is all there is, and Nellie is determined to capture the photos she can see in her mind. …

Moonshadows begins in a rush with that "stalking wind" and never lets up. This beautifully-told story will hook readers and keep them guessing until the end, which, in the tradition of all good writing, hints at a fascinating new chapter to come.

I can't wait to read Weston's next Nellie Burns and Moonshine mystery.

(Read the full review here.)

Almost Anywhere: Road-Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense, by Krista Schlyer

Award-winning photojournalist and wilderness advocate Krista Schlyer was 28 years old, living in Washington, DC, and stuck in a disabling fog of grief after losing her husband to cancer when her best friend Bill—also her late husband's best friend—phoned and said, "We both need to get out of here. Way out."

He thought we should go out on the road, to all those national parks and wild lands, as many as we could get to for as long as we could manage to stay away. We'd go by car, sleep in a tent, eat cheap noodles and canned beans, whatever it took.

So the two bought a used Saturn station wagon (because it got good gas mileage and they could sleep in the back in a pinch), sold their respective belongings, and hit the road. With them they took Maggie, Schlyer's Corgi-Dachshund cross, the "cutest dog on the planet," who possessed a master nose for expensive cheese and an ability to charm anyone, even Bill. 

Almost Anywhere, Schlyer's memoir of that year spent searching for "a place to be both broken and whole at the same time," is a wry and lyrical contribution to the classic American literature of road-trip stories. It is a portrait of numbing grief gradually thawed by moments of heart-stopping beauty: the eerie call of a loon from a north-country lake; the passage of a herd of bison almost close enough to touch, the huge animals supremely unfazed by human presence. 

What lifts this tale above other journey stories is Schlyer's combination of honesty and humor, her ability to shift seamlessly from the grandeur of the places they visit to the mundane struggles of two humans with serious emotional baggage dealing with the less glamorous aspects of exploring America's wild places, from clouds of voracious mosquitoes to the chipmunk who stows away with them.

… My favorite parts of Schlyer's soaring book are the wry asides in present tense contained in her perfectly ironic footnotes, such as these from Roosevelt-Campobello International Park on the Bay of Fundy, the place where, Schlyer notes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then a failed candidate for Vice-President, decided to pursue a career in pubic life at the urging of his wife Eleanor, despite his advancing paralysis and the discouraging counsel of FDR's powerful mother:

Note to self: This significant chapter in history underscores an important truth in life. Fate can run you over and leave you broken, and in general there is nothing you can do to avoid it. But the decisions you make while lying in a mangled heap of human hamburger upon the insidious off-ramp of destiny, those decisions are all your own. Note to reader: Please do not assume for one minute that the lessons of FDR's courage and fortitude have permeated my skull at this point in the journey.

How could any reader resist a story that pins you through the heart with its exquisite truths and also leaves you rolling on the floor laughing? Almost Anywhere is not perfect, but it is a great read.

(Read the full review here.)

 Happy reading! 

Books: Braiding Sweetgrass and Grow

Take a peek at two books from my to-review stack that offer hope for the community of this earth–including we humans:

Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair. … Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you had forgotten.

Robin Wall Kimmerer opens Braiding Sweetgrass with this loving invitation to hear her stories and the wisdom she has learned from studying and teaching botany, from being a mother and from her Anishinabekwe people. Her stories weave a course in humanity we badly need right now. 

The theme throughout is reciprocity: The earth gives us so much—food, shelter, materials on which we have grown our culture and technology, whether the rare minerals required for the chips in our devices or the oil we consume. What then, she asks, do we give the earth in return? 

Each story offers a different answer to that question, beginning with this passage at the end of the Skywoman story in the first chapter, 

For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.

Which they do. 

The books I love most, the ones I read again and again, are the books that make me think, make me nod my head in recognition of something learned new or anew, make me laugh out loud or cry; that make dream. They’re books that enlarge the way I see the world, and inspire me to grow as a person. 

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of those books. Wall Kimmerer’s words give me hope for our future on this extraordinary blue planet—our home, battered as it may be. They make me believe that we humans can indeed learn to live here as if we all belong.

Read the full review at Story Circle Book Reviews.

When Stephen Grace climbs aboard Big Bertha, a repurposed garbage truck cruising the alleys of Denver to collect food waste for composting, he is a depressed guy in search of something to make sense of life after the death of a close friend. Working as “wingman” for a fledgling business of repurposing food waste as compost seems as good as any other job, Grace writes in his book Grow: Stories of the Urban Food Movement

I also wanted to figure out why my friends who’d purchased Big Bertha were determined to be part of a revolution that would change the way we eat, and perhaps more important, change the way we live. This made no sense to me, but after my friend Mostafa died, nothing else seemed to make any sense either. I decided to go along for the ride.

Mostafa is the “large-bellied” and “large-hearted” Iranian engineer who on hikes into the mountains above Boulder introduced Grace to food as sustenance for the soul. On their first camping trip together, Grace recalls, Mostafa produced a porcelain teapot and proceeded to prepare traditional Persian cardamom and saffron tea, after which came a feast,

shish kebabs with skewered cubes of steak flavored with Persian spices, chunks of pepper branded with char marks from the grill, sweet corn roasted over red coals, wedges of cantaloupe for dessert. 

After Moustafa died of a heart attack while climbing Quandry Peak, Grace went into a tailspin. The wingman job with Waste Farmers gave him a paycheck, a reason to get out of bed everyday, and perhaps more importantly, to be curious about the world again.

Inspired by Big Bertha and the mountains of stinking food she collects—“Forty percent of food in the United States is thrown away and ends up rotting in landfills.”—Grace begins to search out pioneers in Denver’s urban agriculture movement, driven to understand their passion for food and life. 

By the end of this fascinating and compelling journey through a movement determined to redeem blighted city land and lives, Grace has found a measure of redemption in his own life. Read Grow, and you’ll find yourself inspired too.

The full review will appear in the Winter issue of Rocky Mountain Gardening

Books: Three Novels by Three Talented Women Writers

Over the past few months, three novels by women writers–all set in the greater Southwest–have landed on my reading stack. The three are very different stories, but all feature strong female characters and evocative stories and landscapes. They’re all very much worth a read!

Bittersweet, by Susan Wittig Albert

Bittersweet is Susan Albert’s 23rd China Bayles mystery, a series based in the fictional Texas town of Pecan Springs, at the edge of the Hill Country. The story opens in the fading daylight of a November evening when a single-engine plane with an expired license touches down at an isolated airstrip owned by two brothers who are illegally importing black-market white-tailed deer to turn their family land into a trophy game ranch.

Their actions set this absorbing story into into motion, derailing the quiet Thanksgiving China had planned at her mother and step-dad’s nearby place, and throwing China and her friend Mac, a Texas game warden, into the world of big-game ranching, animal-rights activism and drone surveillance. Along the way, the two women deal with murder and other mayhem, and come to know each other and themselves better.

What makes Albert’s novels stand out in the world of series mysteries is their strong sense of place, tight plotting, and the authentic way her characters interact, learn and grow in each book. Plus the way Albert educates readers about contemporary issues without preaching.

Bittersweet shines as well for Albert’s deft use of multiple points of view—alternating chapters are told by different characters. Each voice contribute to what we know (and don’t know) about the action without interrupting the tension or the flow of the story.

If you haven’t met China Bayles, the hard-charging trial lawyer turned herb-shop-owner and stepmom, Bittersweet is a great place to start. It’s Albert’s best mystery yet.

Teresa of the New World, by Sharman Apt Russell

Sharman Russell is best-known for her creative non-fiction books, including Anatomy of a Rose, a lyrical and eye-opening look at the sex lives of plants, and her most recent, Diary of a Citizen Scientist. Teresa of the New World is a brilliant departure, a classic journey story told through magical realism.

The novel tells the story of the fictional mestizo daughter of Alvár Nuñéz Cabeza de Vaca, the real-life Spanish conquistador who is one of only four survivors of a Spanish expeditionary force of 300 men who landed in Florida in 1528.

Cabeza de Vaca’s eight years as a captive of the Native American tribes, then a trader and healer, and finally, a conquistador returning to Spain come to life through the eyes of his daughter, the little girl who grows up listening to the voices of plants and earth and animals. Early one morning, her charismatic father sets off to walk to New Spain, taking Teresa away from her family and tribe.

That leaving begins the young girl’s wanderings—across the continent and through cultures and diseases that are wreaking havoc on the Native world Teresa was born into. The journey of this mixed-race young girl, abandoned by her father and searching for a home and a place to belong, will absorb and enchant readers.

Return to Abo, by Sharon Niederman

If you’re looking for a novel about interesting women set in a starkly beautiful part of rural New Mexico, Niederman’s first novel won’t disappoint. It’s another journey story: Maggie, who grew up on a hard scrabble ranch in central New Mexico, the girl who made good as a journalist in faraway San Francisco and then lost heart for her work and ultimately, her stellar job, comes home for the funeral of her mother’s ranch foreman, Elias, the father figure of her childhood. Maggie ends up staying to care for her mother (who of course does not want Maggie’s help) and for the ranch itself.

The crackling energy of the characters makes Return to Abo a good read: Maggie’s punk and multiply pierced teenage daughter, who arrives after being kicked out of the prep school her father enrolled her in; Maggie’s lost high-school love, the Mayor of the small town; and the wonderfully eccentric and resilient collection of old ladies who form Maggie’s mother’s bridge group; and the spare and entrancing New Mexico landscape itself. 

Happy reading!

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being

Writing and Living “Not Too Small”

At Kent Haruf‘s memorial service in Salida a few months ago, the Wyoming writer Mark Spragg told a story he had heard Kent tell that struck a chord with me. I recently found that story again in “The Making of a Writer,” a memoir-essay Kent wrote for the magazine Granta.

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being–we surely miss him here in Salida.

I want to share the story with you because it’s a powerful example of how the small things in life can teach us lessons so big that we may miss them if we’re not paying attention. And it’s so characteristic Kent, quiet, modest, deep and absolutely right.

Kent was, he writes, teaching in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (my undergraduate alma mater, though I was there a decade earlier), “living in a trailer court in a one-room trailer.”

Across the road from me in the trailer court was a family who were all mentally disabled. Darrell and Retta and their little boy, Kevin. I used to help them a little by driving them to the grocery store and to their appointments with Social Services. On one of these trips, Retta said to me: “Well, Keinnt”–she always called me Keinnt–“Well, Keinnt, what do you do for a living?”

And I said: “I try to help students learn how to write better.”

And she said: “Well, Keinnt, Darrell says I write too small.” She thought of course that I was teaching penmanship. Which, in truth, probably would be more useful than trying how to help anyone learn how to write convincing lies and literary fictions.

Kent goes on to say, “Now for the last thirteen years, Cathy and I have been back in Colorado [his home state], in Salida, and I wrote Eventide and … I wrote this new novel Benediction, working out in my writer’s shed in the mountains, heeding my hours, and I feel as if I’ve been very lucky in my life.”

Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize

And here’s the kicker that arrows right to my soul:

And I want to think, as Darrell warned Retta: over the years I have tried not to write too small, and I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either.

So that’s my new resolve. In addition to living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand (a line I adapted from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song), I want to write and live “not too small.”

It’s an aim we could all adopt. The world can surely use more not-too-small minds and hearts.

Writing: Postpartum Shift

If you’ve ever finished a big project of whatever sort, one that took months or years, and required a kind of intensity and focus that left you feeling hulled out at the end of each day, you know something of what I’m feeling after sending my new memoir, the story I call Bless the Birds off to my agent last Monday.

The first "spring" bud on the cyclamen plant on my windowsill, finally beginning to open.... The first “spring” bud on the cyclamen plant on my windowsill, finally beginning to open, its petals unfurling like my postpartum creativity….

The feeling is something like postpartum blues, that sense of emptiness when the work (or baby) that absorbed you from within begins its journey outward into the larger world. It’s still yours, but no longer exclusively and no longer inside you.

Bless the Birds isn’t out of my life or my hands entirely. I still need to do some fine weaving, adding ordinary details and working threads of themes all the way through the larger manuscript. Nothing major, but important for the finished story nonetheless.

And after my agent reads and approves of the manuscript, then comes selling it to a publisher. Somewhere down the months, I’ll be working with that editorial team; the manuscript and I have a journey and more changes ahead.

Already my relationship to the work has changed. I can feel the inner shift; the story is no longer contained inside me, absorbing my attention in small and large ways over the course of the day.

I’m still thinking about it, just not every moment. And now I’m thinking about other writing too, specifically the feature article I promised to Rocky Mountain Gardening by (gulp!) March 1st, and beyond that, a bigger project. For the first time since I began work on Bless the Birds, I’m thinking seriously about the next book.

Part of my front-yard meadow (plus a drive-wheel from an old steam-powered pump Richard collected for a sculpture) drifting over with snow this afternoon. Part of my front-yard meadow (plus a drive-wheel from an old steam-powered pump Richard intended to use in a sculpture) drifting over with snow this afternoon.

Which is why on this snowy evening, I’m on the couch getting ready to pick up Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wise new book, Braiding Sweetgrass, first on my to-read list as that next book takes shape in my mind.

And I’m listening to Lyle Lovett’s “Natural Forces” CD, hoping that some Texas two-step will warm things up here in unusually frozen south central Colorado.

The world outside is white with wind-driven snow and a temperature of nine degrees F, down from the day’s pitiful “high” of 13 degrees. Yesterday afternoon, it was 52 degrees and sunny, and I was outside in a sweater, installing solar-powered landscape lighting.

I think I have climate change whiplash.

And yes, climate change is one of the themes in that next book, which may be called MEADOW, What I Learned About Healing Ourselves and the Earth From the Industrial Property No One Else Loved. It’s the book about plants I’ve been thinking about writing for most of my career. (No pressure there!)

Blessings to you all, and thanks for walking with me on this journey we call life….

A very much younger me, thinking about plants and the communities they weave as a field biologist in northwest Wyoming. A very much younger me, thinking about plants and the communities they weave as a field biologist in northwest Wyoming.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press

Reading List: Books on Nature, Cancer & Caregiving

Welcome to my every-so-often mid-week posts highlighting books on my reading stack. Some are books I’ve sought out, some come to me for review, and others are gifts.

The first one straddles the zone between science writing, nature journal, and memoir. That reach makes for a fascinating read.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press

Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World, by Sharman Apt Russell

Russell has always been a thoughtful writer, able to examine issues as diverse as ranching (Kill the Cowboy) and hunger (Hunger: An Unnatural History) with balance and clarity. Diary of a Citizen Scientist is her immersion into the world of those passionate amateurs who, by volunteering for research projects from astrophysics to molecular biology, are reshaping both science and how we know the world. In this, her most personal book, Russell’s writing ranges from thoughtful examination to luminous revelation that reads like William Wordsworth or Annie Dillard, the soul shivering with ecstasy:

“…I feel a joy here. I feel that brightness in the veins, in the chest,” Russell writes, describing her first collecting trip searching for tiger beetles, third-of-an-inch-long carnivores that feed as ferociously as lion packs. “I have a purpose here, surrounded by water, by light. I put down my pack with its bear spray and collecting boxes and sandwich, and I feel light and easy, and I swing my collector’s net just a little, like a flag.”

Diary of a Citizen Scientist is a journey narrative, a chronicle of a search that changes the author along the way. It’s not quite memoir, but it is that compelling. (Read the full review at Story Circle Book Reviews.)

The next two books relate to Bless the Birds, the memoir I’m deep in revising.

The first book simply appeared out of the blue in my mailbox; the second has been on my shelf for years.

Waking Up Dying, by Robert A. Duke (Good Enough Publishing) Waking Up Dying, by Robert A. Duke (Good Enough Publishing)

Waking Up Dying: Caregiving When There is No Tomorrow, by Robert A. Duke

Waking Up Dying is a candid exploration of what happens to two lives when a diagnosis of a frightening and terminal condition–in this case, brain cancer–comes out of the blue. Duke is a retired communications professional, his wife is a journalist; they’ve traveled the world together, they’re not helpless or stupid. Still, they have to fight for appropriate treatment for Sharleen, wrangle with insurance companies to have that treatment covered, and somehow take care of each other in the grueling unwinding of Sharleen’s life. The account of their journey is packed with useful information for anyone navigating our country’s often-byzantine health care system.

The Caregiver's Choice, by Elaine Long (iUniverse) The Caregiver’s Choice, by Elaine Long (iUniverse)

The Caregiver’s Choice: Find Strength and Serenity By Changing Your Mind, by Elaine Long

The fourteen chapters in this slim book by award-winning novelist Elaine Long offer advice, comfort and wisdom to those of us who unwittingly become caregivers for the people we love. The Caregiver’s Choice is a personal look at what Long learned in the decades she cared for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s Disease, and also Long’s husband, who had a heart attack in 1996, and died of lung cancer in 2003. During those years, Long realized that the choice in caregiving is deciding accept the role in a way that doesn’t make us crazy or break us, but allows us to learn and even find the joy our work. I dip into The Caregiver’s Choice whenever I want to remind myself of how to survive the caregiving journey with my sense of humor and my sanity intact.

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being

RIP Kent Haruf–Novelist, Neighbor, Friend

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being Kent Haruf, 1943-2014

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, beloved teacher and all-around wonderful human being died this morning, three months shy of his 72nd birthday. He had just finished copyedits for a new novel, Our Souls at Night, scheduled for release next year.

Kent’s novels reach to the heart of what it means to be human, the stories told in prose so spare and quiet the phrases linger in the soul after being read. Washington Post writer Mike Rosenwald calls the fictional town of Holt, on Colorado’s windswept eastern plains, the setting for Kent’s trilogy of Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction, “his version of [Faulkner’s] Yoknapatawpha County. It was as real to him as the world he lived in — maybe more real.”

Plainsong, the first book in the Holt trilogy Plainsong, the first book in the Holt trilogy

Kent’s bone-deep knowledge of the sweep of the plains and the lives spun out in their isolated expanses comes from growing up there among people like his characters. He writes their lives with compassion, understanding our capacity for grace even, or perhaps especially, in the hardest of times. Their lives sing hymns of grace.

My friend John Calderazzo, writer and faculty at Colorado State University, remembers hearing Kent read a memoir passage from West of Last Chance detailing with loving humor the spread of food at 1950s-era church potluck that featured quite a few varieties of Jello.

After the reading, John writes, “I told him that the facts, the intense focus, and the precision of the details of time and place reminded me of James Agee’s A Death in the Family (my idea of one of the greatest memoirs ever written). He got this very slow deep smile, and he said that Agee had been his model all along and that no one had ever “caught him” at it. … That was a lovely moment, and that is how I will remember him separate from his wonderful work.”

Eventide, the second novel in the Holt trilogy Eventide, the second novel in the Holt trilogy

In my small town of Salida (population 5,500 people) in rural Southern Colorado, Kent Haruf was simply Kent, a regular at the coffeehouse, a patron of the library, an attendee of concerts and plays, a hospice volunteer, part of the Buddhist sangha, a neighbor, a friend.

He was modest, unassuming, funny, and wise. When he asked, “How are you?” he listened to the answer. Because he wanted to know. He cared.

After the love of my life, Richard Cabe, came home to hospice care for terminal brain cancer in fall of 2011, Kent and his wife Cathy stopped by one morning. Kent sat down next to Richard’s wheelchair, I poured him a cup of coffee, and they plunged into a discussion of the meaning of the Buddhist concept of metta, lovingkindness, in daily life.

An hour later, Richard was tiring and Kent got up to leave. After he put on his jacket, Kent kissed my cheek and whispered, “Thank you for letting me come. It’s an honor.” He came back regularly, and always thanked me for “letting him” visit.

Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize

Last Saturday, I walked to Cathy and Kent’s with a bag of scones warm from the oven. “Come in! Come in!” said Cathy. “Go on through. Kent wants to see you.”

Kent greeted me with a welcoming smile, showed me a copy of the cover design he had just gotten for Our Souls at Night, and asked me what I was working on. I told him about my aha! realization about my memoir-in-progress, Bless the Birds:

“I finally understood that it’s not about our journey with brain cancer. It’s about the choices we made that shaped us into people who could live that journey and face his death with love.”

Kent beamed and took my hand. “Yes! That is exactly why people will want to read it. You’ve got it now.”

I felt like I had just won the National Book Award.

My heart hurts tonight. But as I go back to revising Bless the Birds tomorrow, I will keep Kent’s joyous smile in mind. He was right: I do have it now (finally).

Thank you, Kent, for that blessing. And thank you Cathy, and both of your families, for sharing Kent. The quiet grace of his voice lives on.

Salida at eventide tonight.... Salida’s eventide as I began this blog post….

Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O'Connor

Two Outstanding Indie Books: Joe Potato, and Stories in Stitches

When I go looking for a new read, the proliferation of books is sometimes simply overwhelming. So when I discovered these two indie projects by authors I knew through previous work, I wanted to share them with you.

Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O'Connor Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes by Meriwether O’Connor

If the short stories in Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes don’t make you belt out at least one (perhaps astonished) laugh like the woman in the photo on the cover, you may need to take your sense of humor in for a check-up. Meriwether O’Connor knows and deeply appreciates rural Appalachia, its people and their no-nonsense and sometimes desperately hardscrabble existence.

Each character in these stories is someone you might meet there: vivid, unique and offering a wry and rooted view of life. And each has a recipe to share.

In this extraordinary collection, you’ll learn about apartment “rabbits” in New York City and how to catch and cook them, and meet Gardenia and the one unlucky squirrel that ate a hole in her trailer and thus became dinner. You’ll watch as a third cousin touches up the hair of his dead relative with black shoe polish at a funeral, and learn his recipe for peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches fried in a cast iron pot. (“Yes, you can use other metals, I understand, but what better skillet is there that can also be used in self-defense?”)

After reading Joe Potato’s Real Life Recipes, you’ll understand “local food” and Appalachian people at a whole new level. I’m not at all surprised that this collection was nominated for the Weatherford Award (yes, the one Barbara Kingsolver won for Flight Behavior). Or that Carolyn Chute, author of the best-selling novel The Beans of Egypt Maine, said about O’Connor and her stories:

VERY engaging style…Vivid characters…A strong writing voice like (this) is rare.


Stories in Stitches, Volume Three, by Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman Stories in Stitches, Volume Three, by Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman

Stories in Stitches is a collaborative effort between award-winning author and knitter Donna Druchunas (who wrote Arctic Lace, among other books) and well-known designer and knitter Ava Coleman. Stitches is actually a series of books on the stories behind the patterns of hand-knitted creations from dolls to socks and sweaters.

And I do mean stories: Volume Three, on patterns from World War I & II, tells the tales of both author’s ancestors, and thus of the people and culture involved in those wars. In “Dancing Stitches and Flying Fish,” a sock pattern and its history conjures a story that Donna Druchunas’ Eastern European Jewish grandmother might have told,

My grandmother sat at the foot of my bed when I was a little girl. Every night after she fluffed my pillow, tucked the blankets in around my neck, and kissed me on the forehead, she would settle in and tell me a bedtime story. Every night the story was the same.

Bubbeh’s name was Tzivia, she would begin….

The flying fish sock pattern that inspired Donna's research into Jewish history. The dancing stitches sock pattern that inspired Donna’s research into one particular chapter of Jewish history.

You don’t have to be a knitter or a fiber person to appreciate the history and storytelling in this gorgeously designed and beautifully written series, or to understand how hand-made objects can reveal so much about who and why we are.

Opening page of one of the stories in Volume 3 of Stories in Stitches. Opening page of one of the stories in Volume 3 of Stories in Stitches.

As Ava Coleman writes in the Editor’s Letter,

We tell our stories so future generations remember. Sometimes that is so we don’t repeat the mistakes of past generations. Other times it is to share skills and ideas with our future generations. This issue shares a bit of both.


Traditional publishing offers a curated experience: editors, publishers and marketers select the books they think are good and publish them. Indie publishing offers a wide-open proliferation of voices and stories. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so much.

Until you spot a treasure among the multitude, like Joe Potato’s Real Life Stories and Stories in Stitches. These voices and stories simply shine.

Between Urban and Wild

Books From the Land

The past week was a hard one—one friend lost her adult son and another friend died suddenly. When life hurts, I am comforted by nature and the community of the land, hence this look at two thoughtful books grown with love—comfort food that nourishes mind, heart and spirit.

Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado

Between Urban and Wild Between Urban and Wild, by Andrea Jones

“I don’t think there’s a set formula for falling in love, but surprise, wonder, the invitation to thoughtfulness, and meeting the other on its own terms all have a part in the process,” writes Andrea Jones in “Love Letter to a Sewage Lagoon,” one essay in Between Urban and Wild.

I inherited much of my devotion to the mountains from my father, but Lake Powell [the ‘sewage lagoon’] provided me with the opportunity to discover the character of one small part of the world for myself. On the shores of that paradoxical desert lake, I learned what it meant to fall in love with a place. Love, of course, is seldom simple, and it wasn’t long before complications set in.

The complications to that childhood love for the wilderness of blue water set in a maze of pink and red sandstone begin with the fact that the lake is actually a reservoir, “a gigantic human artifact imposed on the red rock land.” And that it drowned Glen Canyon, perhaps the most glorious of the slickrock desert’s sinuous river canyons, and that the damming of the Colorado River to create the reservoir gravely harmed one of the West’s greatest watersheds.

Jones is the rare writer about nature and the land who loves deeply but is not blinded by her affection. Through Jones’ eyes, the West comes alive in luminous detail, and if our relationship with it is complex, contradictory, and sometimes heartbreaking, that gives her plenty to reflect on. Those reflections make Between Urban and Wild haunting and compelling, a book that lasts.

(The full review is posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

The Artist, the Cook, and the Gardener: Recipes Inspired By Painting from the Garden

The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener, by Maryjo Koch; design by Jenny Barry The Artist, the Cook and the Gardener, by Maryjo Koch; design by Jenny Barry

Just like a meal stimulates our senses and nourishes our bodies, the garden nourishes our spirits. Our mind’s focus on petty problems is pushed aside and is no match for the pondering of miracles found in a garden. … Walk into a garden and all five senses are aroused: from the fragrance and color of a flower, to the sounds of birds and wind, to the taste of freshly picked produce, to the feeling of moisture in the air or the soft leaves of lamb’s ears and the prickly thorns of a rose.

That sensual beginning gives readers a taste of The Artist, the Cook, and the Gardener, a lush book of recipes and art from naturalist painter Maryjo Koch, inspired by her verdant garden in the mountains of California’s Central Coast.

Open-faced Watercress Sandwiches with nasturtium flowers Open-faced Watercress Sandwiches with nasturtium flowers from the book

The book is arranged into chapters by types of dish—Soups; Salads; Sandwiches, Pizzas & Savory Tarts; and Sweets—interspersed with brief meditations on the seasons in the garden. The whole is generously and gorgeously illustrated with photographs by Koch’s daughter, Wendy Candelaria, a photographer, and paintings by Koch and her painter son, Jonathan. Recipes, text, images, font, and design are lush and stunning, appealing to the senses.

There is little so elementally comforting as preparing a meal using fresh ingredients grown and harvested with love. The Artist, the Cook, and the Gardener offers that kind of comfort, and clearly was a project that grew out of love—Koch’s love for her garden and food, and her collaborator, award-winning book designer Jenny Barry’s love for Koch’s art. We readers are blessed by the fruits of their work.

(The full review and an interview with Jenny Barry are posted on Story Circle Book Reviews, the largest site reviewing books for and by women on the web.)

Thanks to you all for reading along with me. I am fortunate to be part of such a nourishing community.