Tag Archives: reading

Help Yourself

I admit it. When I was younger, I used to read self-help books. You know the kind, ones with titles like Women Who Hate Women Who Love Men Who Love Women Who Hate Cinderella. Back in the day, most self-help books were targeted at women who wanted to know why their love lives were train wrecks or why their psychological conditions were train wrecks. (Apparently, they didn’t consider that their psychological conditions might be train wrecks because their love lives were train wrecks. But I digress.)

Nowadays, most self-help books are written for business leaders – excuse me, entrepreneurs – and have titles like Give Yourself the Power to Lead Right Now With Powerful Leadership Secrets From the Early Etruscans. The rest are some modern-day versions of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which I suspect the Early Etruscans knew something about too.

I don’t know much about business leadership except that I prefer managers who use a hands-off management style (for both business and interpersonal interactions). I also don’t know much about women’s love lives, except my own, which I don’t think would be appropriate for a self-help book. I do know a thing or two about psychological conditions and write about them every week in my other blog, Bipolar Me.

Nonetheless, I find myself in the perhaps-awkward position of writing self-help books in my guise as a ghostwriter. (Or disguise. I’m required by the company to use a pseudonym.) I haven’t tackled one on women’s love lives yet, but I have written a couple about life with pets, something kind of New-Agey about envisioning your future, and two sort of business-y ones about listening to your inner voice and setting boundaries. My latest endeavor, which I’m about to start working on, is a senior health book, about which I ought to know a bit more than I actually do.

Apparently, a lot of the books that people want to have written are some variety of self-help – parenting tips (titles like Why Your Teen Behaves Like a Teen and Why You Can’t Do Anything About It), investment advice (Become the Only Person in America Who Tries to Pay the Electric Bill With Cryptocurrency), and doomsday prepping (Apocalypse When? Build Your Own Bomb Shelter Using Wattle and Daub) being some of the most-asked-for topics. (Again, subjects about which I know nothing.) I put in requests for book projects with more mental health focus such as overcoming anxiety or dealing with your inner child. But no. I get inspirational titles.

I must admit, I hate inspirational books. If they’re not about succeeding in business without really getting a business degree, they’re about positivity.

What’s wrong with positivity? Well, first of all, it’s been hard for me to achieve for most of my life, seeing that I was diagnosed with depression for decades. I’ve never been perky and seldom gung-ho. In addition, I’ve always hated cheerleaders, both the pom-pom kind and the believe-in-yourself ones. I guess I just don’t believe it’s possible to think yourself to a better, more fulfilling life with daily affirmations that sound like something from Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (If I’m going to take advice from a bird, I’d rather it be a parrot. Although it could conceivably provide me with daily affirmations. But I digress again.)

In fact, I’ve been exploring self-help books that are about non-positivity (not that I’ve been asked to write any of that kind). But Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted author of Nickled and Dimed who died recently at the age of 81, wrote a book titled Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Another such book, which I’m reading now, is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. (Ehrenreich also wrote a book called Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, another one that I need to read, though probably not until I finish writing the self-health book.)

I sincerely do hope, though, that readers will get more out of the books I write than I did out of those that I read. I’d hate to think that all my good, if ill-informed, advice is going to waste.

Tip Jar

Choose an amount

$2.50
$5.00
$10.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Donate

Loving the Library

I love libraries. They and the books within them have shaped my life.

The idea of libraries went back, evidently, to ancient Assyria, but libraries in the United States caught hold in 1731, when Benjamin Franklin founded the Philadelphia Library Company with a bunch of his friends. I’m pleased to note that it’s still in operation today and has, as you might guess, many of Franklin’s papers and all sorts of historic books and manuscripts, including the Mayflower Compact and first editions of Moby-Dick and Leaves of Grass. The current collection is over 500,000 books.

I have a t-shirt that says “I Love You to the Library and Back.” That’s what I should have said to my father. Every other Saturday, the bookmobile parked in the Rike’s Department Store parking lot, and I got my reading fix. I almost always checked out Green Eggs and Ham, until my mother told me that I should get something else, too. (My mother once tried to make me green eggs and ham. It worked for the eggs, but not so much for the ham. But I digress.) My dad drove me to the bookmobile and sometimes even to a small library just a bit farther away. I brought home double armloads of books and started reading them on the drive home.

Later on, my father even drove me to the library downtown, where I could check out a particular record album I loved and could find nowhere else (I now have it on iTunes, but this was long ago). Libraries now have CDs and DVDs and video games and ebooks and sometimes even tools you can check out. They also have computers that the public can use for searching the online “card catalog” and for their own wants and needs. They have children’s summer reading programs, storytimes, and crafts.

My father wasn’t really a reader himself until he was laid low by cancer and couldn’t even get to the room with the television. Beth McCarty, a family friend and the “traveling library lady,” brought books to shut-ins and never failed to bring my father bags of the Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey and Foxfire books he loved.

When I was in junior high, I volunteered to work in the school library during my free period, shelving books. It was there I became acquainted with Robert Heinlein’s juveniles and Ray Bradbury’s short stories, beginning my lifelong love of science fiction. (I once was concentrating so hard on the titles that I walked right off the little stool I needed to reach the upper shelves. But I digress again.)

I spent my undergrad college years working in the grad school library, which had closed stacks. I was a page and retrieved books for people and sent them down in what was essentially a dumbwaiter. It was my first exposure to the Library of Congress classification system, though it wouldn’t be my last. I loved the job, since when there weren’t any requests, I could read to my heart’s content from the topics shelved on whatever floor I was stationed on. In later life, I also read while on duty when I worked at an unsuccessful bookstore.

By the time I was a young adult (though older than what is called “young adult” these days in terms of fiction audiences) I made regular trips to the library. I discovered Sue Grafton’s alphabet series while she was still only a few letters in. Another type of fiction that I explored was children’s literature. The library never made me feel silly about checking out Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. And I particularly haunted the new acquisitions shelf. I was always on the prowl for something I didn’t know about that sounded interesting.

I thought of the overdue fines I paid over the years as my little contributions to the libraries’ budget. (A much more substantial contribution to the Ohio libraries – over $600,000 – was made by comedian Drew Carey, who gave away what he had won on game shows, before he ever hosted one.)

Of course, if Ben Franklin were alive now (and I wish he was), the concept of libraries would most likely never have gotten off the ground. A place accessible to anyone where they could get books for free? Supported by our tax dollars? It’s hard to imagine that going through these days.

Anymore I think of librarians as a type of freedom fighter. They take access to books and the privacy of patrons seriously. Back in 2001, when the Patriot Act was passed, they refused to rat out their patrons based on what “unsuitable” books they checked out. Now, they resist efforts to remove books from their shelves based on the wishes of pressure groups.

At one point in my life, I seriously considered becoming a librarian myself. I sometimes still wish I had. I would be proud to join their ranks, even with the low pay, lack of funding, and political nonsense. It’s a job that needs doing, and always will.

(I’ll have more to say about libraries next week.)

Tip Jar

Choose an amount

$2.50
$5.00
$10.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Donate

What Good Is Fiction?

Nonfiction has purpose. It informs, educates, and illuminates. What does fiction do? Nothing but provide escape.

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as far as I can see. If there’s any time when people need escape, it’s now. I don’t have to detail the current political, social, and news situations to know that’s true. At times like these, who doesn’t want to escape to a desert island or another planet?

Actually, escapism has never been a bad thing. There are always things in life that need escaping from. At least there have been in my life. Misunderstanding, bullying, depression, loneliness – fiction helped me escape from these, from Green Eggs and Ham to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to A Wrinkle in Time to The Lord of the Rings.

Nor do you need high-brow fiction to provide escapism, though that is there as well. I’ve found escape in Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, a cozy mystery/adventure series with included travelogues. In fact, mystery books still provide an escape for me. And science fiction and fantasy, perhaps the ultimate escapist literature, still fill many spots on my to-be-read list, as well as my to-be-reread list. (The fact that I am friends with several sf writers is also a factor.)

I’ve had my innings with classic literature, it’s true, particularly in college, when I was an English major – though one of my favorite courses was children’s literature (aka kiddie lit). If you look at my e-reader, you’ll find Shakespeare and Cervantes along with Grafton, Heinlein, Dumas, and others.

Fiction, like nonfiction, can inform, educate, and illuminate as well – spark thought and inspire to action.

Take Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In that book, it’s poetry (another “useless” pursuit) that helps the protagonist understand the value of literature and the futility of trying to suppress it. It’s still extremely relevant, considering all the book bannings lately. Or take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as appallingly relevant as the day it was first written. Or The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, which has the first contact with an alien civilization being made by Jesuits. If that’s not thought-provoking, I don’t know what is.

There’s also historical fiction, which, while not always totally accurate (we have nonfiction biographies and autobiographies for that), speculates about the inner workings of famous people’s psyches and posits reasons for how they lived. Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are two examples.

Then there is fiction about fiction and books that provide escape for the mind that cannot be found anywhere else. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one such. John Irving’s The World According to Garp is another famous example. With books like these, one can delve into the mind of the creative person who provides escape for others.

Of course, nonfiction can be escapist as well. Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars provides an entertaining history of the space program, but also NASA’s current exploration of the possibilities of, well, going to Mars. Now that’s escapism – but not fiction. Histories can whisk us away to another time and place with explorers who climbed Mount Everest or charted the Amazon. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries can take me right out of a sweltering day and make me feel the freezing air and hear the buffeting wind of Antarctica.

I will admit that there’s a lot of nonfiction on my e-reader – including true crime, science, biographies, adventure travel, language, and mental health. But it’s fiction I return to again and again. I recently read a beloved novel that I hadn’t read in at least 40 years, and I still remembered not only the plot but also lines of dialogue. And I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction too, which provided mental escape of a different sort.

So, what good is fiction? Even if it’s only escapism, it’s extremely valuable and not to be sneered at. At its best, fiction can make one’s interior world more vibrant, more fascinating, and more meaningful; and the world around us more wondrous, more exciting, and more entertaining. That’s enough of a recommendation for me.

Help me satisfy my reading jones!

Choose an amount

$2.50
$5.00
$10.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Donate

Adventures in Ireland, Part One: There and Back Again

No. This wasn’t us. Not hardly.

Our recent trip to Ireland was a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. Ireland is a marvelous country and our time there was sublime. But getting there and back was ridiculous.

It all started (or didn’t, actually) when we got to the airport in the evening to discover no one was behind the airline counter. A few phone calls later, we discovered that the airline had changed the flight time – back in December – and we never got so much as an email from them about it. So we missed the flight to Ireland by approximately four hours.

There were no other flights out that evening, though they had one the next day. Unfortunately, since we were officially no-shows, we had to rebook and pay more money. I spent considerable time on the phone with our bank and credit card company too, trying to shift money around so we could still go.

We had already stowed our car in the non-airport long-term parking and didn’t feel inclined to retrieve it and go back home. So we had to get a hotel room and spend the night. Even that was a trial. None of the hotels that had vacancies had shuttle service to the airport and one of them didn’t even have hot water. So it was Uber for us both that evening and in the morning. At last we got on our way, but we had missed one day of our vacation, spent it in a Best Western instead of an Irish bed-and-breakfast, and already cut into our less-than-extravagant budget.

When we finally arrived in Dublin, we rented a car and set off to our first hotel. The vacation company had booked us into swanky hotels for the first and last stops, presumably on the theory that we’d be exhausted at those points. We didn’t stay in Dublin, because I was dubious about driving on the left in a big city the first day we got there. Instead, we went to the Dunboyne Castle Hotel, which is a little bit away from the city and just as impressive as it sounds.

Our first real b-n-b was in Donegal, and it was in many ways my favorite of the places we stayed. Brook Lodge was a regular house with a comfy bedroom (and en suite bathroom, which all our accommodations had) and a lovely woman who cooked us breakfasts while we watched and Dan chatted with her about gardening.

Our first real stop was a ditch on the way to Brook Lodge. It was 11:00 p.m., we were spent, and we ended up on a one-lane road that stopped at a cattle gate. We managed to get turned around, but went off the side of the road. Fortunately, we had a small flashlight with us (Girl Scout training came in handy there) and Dan took off down the road to find some help. I waited with the car.

Within half an hour, Dan was back with a great couple who drove us and our luggage to Brook Lodge, then came back the next day to pull the Toyota out of the ditch and magically remove the dent so that Hertz wouldn’t make us buy a whole new car when we turned it in.

(The Tom-Tom GPS that came with our rental car was useless and for most of the trip we used Google Maps on my phone. Dan did the driving as I was too nervous to do it, and I did the navigating as he wasn’t able to do both at once. But I digress.)

It was another ridiculous story when it was time to return to Ohio. When we went to catch our plane (after far too long driving around the airport trying to figure out where to leave our rental car), we arrived at the counter only to find that we couldn’t board the plane. Naively, we had thought that our COVID triple-vax cards would be sufficient for travel to the US as they had been going to Ireland. But no. We needed an antigen test. Since the testing site was in another part of the airport and our plane boarded in 30 minutes, there was no way we could get the test in time. There were no other flights that weren’t booked solid for four more days.

I got on the phone with the airline and spent a good hour and a half with them trying to figure out a solution. Eventually, we achieved one. There would be a plane that we could take – from Dublin to Newark and Newark to Chicago and thence to Ohio. And it wouldn’t take a four-day wait. Only two.

Again, we had no choice but to find a hotel room. And just as the flights were booked, so were most of the hotel rooms. We found one that had two rooms left and quickly snagged one. (It was an accessible room, with all kinds of extra equipment in the bathroom. We didn’t need the pull cord for the nurse, but some of the other accommodations proved handy because my husband and I are somewhat mobility-challenged. But I digress again.)

So we spent two days in a Dublin airport hotel, except for taking the hotel shuttle to the COVID testing site at the airport. (Need I say that we both tested negative?) I suppose we could have taken buses to explore the city, but by that time we were both beyond fatigued and demoralized, not to mention out of money. We spent the time playing Mille Bornes, which we had for some reason brought with us, and reading and playing solitaire on our Nook e-readers. And trying to get a charging cable for my phone in case I needed another marathon session with the airline. The hotel provided one. They kept the cables people had left behind for six months, then handed them out to anyone who needed them.

We were enormously relieved to get home and retrieve the kitties from the vet where we had boarded them. We immediately started saving to go back to Ireland, though with a few lessons learned.

There’s lots more to tell and show, but I’ll leave the more sublime parts of the story – and the photos – for next week’s blog, when I’ll no doubt digress again and again. More sublimity and more ridiculosity to come…

Help me pay for my Ireland vacation!

Choose an amount

$2.50
$5.00
$10.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Donate

We Were Girl Scouts Once … and Young

Yes, I know. The main thing that most people associate with Girl Scouts is cookies. And those are certainly one important part of the Girl Scout experience. But they’re far from the only thing, or even the most important.

Officially, cookie sales promote goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. All the money raised stays with local councils and troops. Nowadays, Girl Scouts no longer sell door-to-door as we did back in the day. Instead, Scouts do phone and online selling, or set up tables in front of stores and in parking lots, often waving signs to attract buyers.

I was a Girl Scout from Brownies through Seniors. And yes, I sold cookies. (Many scouts had their fathers and mothers take the sign-up sheets into work, where coworkers often ordered their goodies. My father wouldn’t do it because, he said, he worked for a government institution and it wouldn’t be proper. But I digress.)

Although the activities that cookie sales funded were many and varied, my favorite – even more than earning merit badges – was camping. I wrote about camping a few years ago. As I described it:

There we were, bedding down on sleeping bags in our tents, the cold, hard ground only a layer of canvas or plastic away. When we sprang out the next morning, our lithe teen forms dressed in green shorts and Vibram-soled boots, we hoisted our backpacks and hiked over hill and dale and rocky trails, singing optimistic songs and breathing deep of the fresh air. We ate granola as we walked.

Later that day, we built a fire and sat upon logs, tree stumps, or little water repellent squares while our dinner cooked slowly, smoke curled around our heads, and mosquitos had their meal before we had ours. Then it was more songs, jokes, stories, and talk till it was time to pour water on the fire, make sure the ashes were cool, and return to our sleeping bags, where, after hours more chat (not the electronic kind, either) we dozed off.

That was, indeed, one style of camping we did. We also went to official Girl Scout camping facilities instead of state parks. I have vivid memories of those adventures, some terrific and others less so.

There was one decidedly memorable state park trip. We set up our tents, which we shared, four scouts per. After dark, we settled in our tents to tell stories and jokes. The girls in my tent read aloud from the book The Hobbit, to the glow of flashlights, lanterns, and the occasional candle (one thing we had learned was how not to set one’s tent on fire and what to do if we did).

A sudden storm came up and turned violent, with rivers of rainwater flowing through our camp, and indeed through our tents, our candle threatening to sail away. As we read the book, we were at a passage describing a storm rife with heavy wind and rain. Every time the storm in the book became more severe, so did the storm in our camp. It was eerie. Eventually, we decided we should stop reading before we were completely washed away. The next morning we had to cope with damp sleeping bags and muddy ground. But that’s what we did. We were scouts.

Other memories were less dramatic and less pleasurable. There was the time we ate “brontoburgers,” hamburger patties wrapped in bacon and then in foil and cooked in the embers of a dying campfire. The next morning we learned a valuable lesson about the inadvisability of eating meat that was less than thoroughly cooked.

Official Girl Scout camps had large tents on raised wooden bases, so we didn’t have to worry about rainwater. We had camping names like Rover and Binky and ones based on the Lord of the Rings (Strider) or MASH (Trapper, Hawkeye), which were popular at the time. We learned songs (some of them from Free to Be (does anyone else remember that?), as well as traditional songs that must have been around since the invention of scouting (“Make new friends, but keep the old./One is silver and the other’s gold.”) The best times were when we became camp counselors, in charge of younger scouts for a month at a time.

Those were the days, never to return. But now some of my sister scouts are grandmothers and I buy my cookies from their offspring.

Tiny Little Type

We’ve all heard and, I hope, know and live by the advice to always read the fine print. Generally, that refers to contracts or other official documents we must sign.

Well, that’s all well and wonderful, and certainly good advice, but the problem remains as to how we are to read that fine print. I know my eyes are aging (quite possibly faster than the rest of me) and reading fine print does not come as easily as it used to. Even the recent bump up in the power of my glasses and the enhanced bifocal lenses have not helped me read ingredient labels or the 800 numbers on insurance cards and the like.

What to do?

First, you can give the document (or whatever) to another person and let them read it to you. My husband exists for this purpose (among many others) because he is nearsighted. I am farsighted and so have especial trouble reading the fine print. (If we had ever had a child, I maintain that the far- and nearsightedness would have canceled out and she or he would have had perfect vision. But I digress.)

Then there’s the ever-useful magnifying glass. Except try to find one when you need it. “Reading glasses” that you find in drugstores are no help either. Would I wear them over my prescription glasses or under? Reading glasses certainly wouldn’t address any of my other eye problems such as crossed eyes.

There is a trick I learned just the other day. If you are trying to read the prescription number on a bottle of pills, for example, simply whip out your camera (easier to find than a magnifying glass), take a quick snap, then use the camera to enlarge the image. (Of course I still always ask the pharmacist if next time, could they please use smaller type? They never get it.)

But you can’t use that trick in every situation, I guess. There’s no use taking pictures of every square inch of a road map and blowing them up, for example. For that you do need the magnifying glass, which I can guarantee is not in the glove compartment of your car, along with the gloves that aren’t there either. Or a road map with larger lettering, which would be twice as hard to refold.

For everyday reading, you can use large-type books, which I refuse to be seen with, or a computer that will enlarge your screen. This only works on certain devices, though. Thankfully, my e-reader is one of them. I can bump up the point size till there’s only one word on a page.

Still, my farsightedness does come in useful for small type that is at a distance from me, such as on the television. (I could probably read the pill bottle if my arms were longer. Say, about two feet longer.)

There are some interesting things in the fine print on TV. There’s always the “Drink responsibly” warning that’s in type as small as that on road maps. (Does anyone really think that those messages actually cause someone to forego that fourth beer before they drive home?) And there are the disclaimers that the person in the ad does or does not really have the disease the medication the commercial is promoting.

But there’s lots more to learn – for example, the definition of perineum (aka “taint”) in medical commercials. And in case you didn’t know it already, you can learn that the car is driven by a stunt driver on a closed course. You can even find out what that liquid is they’re soaking up with the paper towel (150 ml of “green juice”).

One of my favorites is a commercial that shows a person falling down the stairs. The disclaimer reads: “This was not a person. It was a dummy we threw down the stairs.” That was welcome news.

My absolute favorite is an ad for chicken that offers “serving suggestions.” You know, like on the cracker boxes where the crackers are all Martha-Stewarted and the fine print says “serving suggestion” as if you intended to serve naked crackers to your guests. Well, the chicken ad showed: broiled chicken (serving suggestion); roasted chicken (serving suggestion); barbecued chicken (serving suggestion); and oops chicken – it fell on the ground and the dog was eating it. It still said “serving suggestion.”

If you can’t read these disclaimers on TV, just pause the program and rummage through your desk for that pesky magnifying glass. Or get your husband to read the fine print to you. He’ll feel useful, and trust me, it can be educational or at least worth a giggle.

Learning Things

This is a poster I have in my study. Lately, I have begun thinking that what it really should say is “That’s what I do. I read books and I learn things.” To put it simply, I wouldn’t know things if I didn’t learn things. And now I think the learning is perhaps more important than the knowing.

I had a course in grad school that was called Research and Bibliography. (We called it R&B.) We did the usual things you do as an English major – write papers about assorted literary figures, mostly. (I once did a paper on William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. I referred to it as my “Willie and Wally” paper. But I digress.)

The final exam, however, was not an essay test or another sort of normal academic exercise. It was, in essence, a scavenger hunt in the university library. Each of the seven or so students had her or his own personal set of questions and had to find the answers. The trick was, you had to know where to find the answers, not so much what the actual answers were. Each set of questions could be answered using the same reference books (this was before computers were available to anyone except the librarians), and students were allowed to point each other to the correct ones.

For example, a question might be “When John Milton used the word pandemonium, how long had it been part of the English language?” (Trick question: Milton invented the word. It means, literally, “all the devils.”) The answer could be found in a reference book called the OED, or Oxford English Dictionary. Another student would have a different question that also required using the OED. And you could say, “you’ll find that in the OED.”

In that case, the test was not at all about knowing the answers to the questions, but knowing – or learning – where to find them (something that we should have learned from writing our papers and bibliographies).

There are different types of learning. My husband learns mostly by visual means, absorbing information through television documentaries, for example. Some children learn their letters and numbers best by drawing them in a sand tray or fingerpainting them. For a while, these multiple styles of learning – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. – were a major influence on education, and teachers were encouraged to use a different style if a child wasn’t learning through the one that was normally used to teach. (They may still be. I haven’t done textbooks in years.)

So. I read books and I know things – but only because I learn them. I was reading a book about mountaineering, for example, and came across the word salopettes. I could tell from the context that it was an item of clothing, but I just had to learn which one. A quick Google and I learned that salopettes are to the French (and mountain climbers) what bibbed overalls are over here (only, presumably, down-filled instead of denim). It’s a completely useless thing to know – I can’t imagine it being useful even on Jeopardy. But it was fun to learn.

Of course, I’m not putting down reading or knowing. For me, reading is what comes before learning, and knowing is what comes after. And, for me at least, both are pleasurable occupations.

I wrote about learning a while back, and this is what I said about it:

I count a day when I don’t learn something new as a day wasted. I love it when I’m able to start a Facebook post with TIL (Today I learned) or “I was today years old when I learned that….” Learning is all around you. You just have to reach out and grab it!

That’s still my philosophy.

Mysteries I Love and Hate

Cozy mysteries are a thing, and I do not like them. As all my friends know, I am a mystery lover – I’ve even written one, which is now making the rounds of agents.

But cozy mysteries have gone too far. These are the kinds of mysteries that take place in bed and breakfasts or bookstores, that have chefs or weather forecasters as their sleuths, and exhibit little to no blood, despite the crimes. They are called cozies, I suppose because you can cuddle up with a cup of tea and read them, safe in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen.

And the titles! Most of them are puns – usually lame – based on whatever setting they have. I just can’t bring myself to read something called Chilled to the Cone (bakeshop), Premeditated Mortar (fixer-upper), Absence of Alice (garage sales), or The Malt in Our Stars (literary pub). The “detectives” are never real police officers, obviously. And most often the (supposed) humor and (artificial) quaintness fall flat.

I must admit to reading several cozy series many years ago. These were usually ones that had a setting I was interested in or characters that were well-rounded and well-drawn, or contained cats (sometimes as the sleuth). Susan Wittig Albert did a series based on an herbalist. Diane Mott Davidson did a cooking series, complete with recipes that I never tried. There was a series, the Amanda Pepper mysteries, that was set in a Philadelphia prep school, and the Kate Fansler series, set in the English Department of a college.

One that I used to read devotedly, but finally gave up on in disgust, was Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries starring retired newspaperman Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum. (I also like Mikado references.) The first three came out in the 60s, but there was an extensive hiatus until 1987, when the series reappeared and continued yearly until 2008, with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers. I gave up in 1991, with The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, a dreary, supposedly amusing book set in the Potato Mountains, concerning a conflict between two clans known as the Spuds and the Taters. It was just too cozy for words.

Some writers are able to switch gears and write both cozies and grittier novels. Linda Barnes, for example, started with the Michael Spraggue mysteries set backstage at a theater but switched to the much more robust Carlotta Carlisle series when, as she said, Spraggue ran out of friends and relatives to be killed off. Carlisle, a former police officer, drives a cab in her off-hours but encounters plenty of hardened criminals and deaths. These I read whenever Barnes writes a new one.

The other cozy mysteries I read are the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. They are typical in that when you read them you know that nothing terrible will happen to any of the main or even subordinate characters (who are colorful, if unbelievable). The thing that attracts me about the Mrs. Pollifax books, other than the goofy premise that she is a grandmother who works for the CIA, is the extensive travelogues of wherever her handler sends her: Mexico, Albania, Turkey, China, Zambia, Hong Kong, etc. I find her novels soothing rather than irritating, the sort of thing I read when I’m stuck in bed with a really nasty flu.

Cozy mysteries no doubt have their place in the pantheon of mystery novels. They’re certainly popular, at least. But for the most part, I’ll take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski over Reel Murder any day. I want believable plots; well-drawn, interesting characters; crimes that make you care what happens; and real danger. Give me early Robert Parker (before he started phoning them in) or John Sandford or Laura Lippman or even the original Nero Wolfe series, for when I want vintage mystery fiction.

Of course, I read other kinds of fiction (Gregory Maguire and Handmaid’s Tale come to mind), but mystery novels hold a special place in my to-be-read list. Let’s not mess up the genre with The Good, the Bad, and the Lemon Tart.

 

1,000 Books

It goes everywhere with me. It carries over 1,000 of my books. It hands me the one I want at a moment’s notice. It keeps track of what page I’m on without a sticky note. It defines words I don’t know and tells me how to pronounce unfamiliar words. It allows me to sort my books onto different shelves for convenience’s sake and easily find books that I own or that are available in the bookstore. It’s my most faithful companion (aside from my husband) and the best tool that I own.

It’s my ereader, in my case a Nook from Barnes & Noble, though I’m sure Amazon’s Kindle and other devices do much the same things. I’ve gone through several iterations of the Nook device over the years and downloaded the Nook reading app to my iPad. When one gets low on juice, I simply switch to another while it’s recharging.

(Of course, I will need a way to convert all those ebooks to Kindle when the time comes and Barnes & Noble either collapses or stops supporting their own devices. I have a Kindle reading app on one of the readers because there was a book I dearly loved, Rift by Liza Cody, which B&N didn’t offer. But I digress.)

I usually keep two books going at once – one fiction and one nonfiction – and switch back and forth when a chapter or essay ends, or really, whenever the mood strikes me. I have a TBR stack as long as my arm, literally, but it will never collapse on me and kill me. I take my reading addiction wherever I go, never having to resort to reading the labels on ketchup bottles to satisfy my jones.

The iPad with the Nook reading app may be my favorite of all my ereaders, because it allows me to switch to other apps, check my email, messages, and Facebook timeline easily. And it has a snazzy purple case. My second favorite is my Nook tablet, which allows me to do many of the same things and also has a nifty keyboard should I ever want to answer messages, though to tell the truth, I seldom use it. I got that feature so I could blog on the go, but the WordPress app seems unable to accommodate me. The tablet has a spiffy black cover with a magnet to hold it open or closed, and a hinge so I can set it upright should I ever decide to use the keyboard. My third ereader is a basic Nook that fits in my purse.

My husband insisted I get him an ereader too, though he hardly ever uses it. He got one that fits in his back pocket and is linked to my account so he can read any of my thousand books as well. I make sure to buy ones that he enjoys, like Slaughterhouse-Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Fanny Hill, and I introduce him to new ones, like Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

My one complaint about my ereader is that it does not do pictures well. Once I had a subscription to Barnes & Noble’s version of  National Geographic. The photographs that appeared there were less than impressive. You expect impressive photos from National Geographic. Even the pictures in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did not reproduce well. And the hand-written letters – I basically had to skip them, even though they contributed a lot to the plot.

Still, I am willing to overlook those flaws. As I get older and my eyes get worse (doc says I’m in line to develop cataracts), I’m going to need my ereader, where I can bump up the point sizes, more than ever. And purses large enough to contain them. Maybe I should carry a needlepoint tote like all the craft ladies I know – containing no yarn. Just 1000 books.

 

The Parents Who Didn’t Read and the Daughter Who Did

Everyone knows that the easiest way to raise a child who reads is for the entire family to read. The child should see the parents reading, lots and often.

But that’s not the way it happened in my family. Oh, my folks could read; they just didn’t.

I never remember my father reading anything when I was a child. He got his news from the television. He might thumb through an issue of American Rifleman at the car wash. But he didn’t read books while we were kids.

(Later in life, when he was bedridden with bone cancer, a family friend who worked for the library would bring him bag after bag of Zane Grey and Max Brand and Louis L’Amour novels, which he devoured. But I digress.)

Despite the lack of reading that went on in the house, there was always plenty of stuff to read. Little Golden books and Bible stories at first. I learned to read at my mother’s side, as she read storybook after storybook to us girls. Although she didn’t read for herself, she read for us.

My sister read some. Being a very literal person, every year she would start to read Under the Lilacs while sitting under the lilac bush in our backyard. (I don’t know if she ever finished it.) When she reached the horse-mad stage, she read Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and anything else equine-related she could get her hands on. Her reading tastes were largely satisfied with that.

I think the thing that turned me into the voracious reader I am today was not the example of my parents, but the sheer amount of literature that was available. Our parents purchased sets of children’s books. (I can’t remember what was in that series now besides Under the Lilacs and Uncle Remus Stories, which gave me fits with the dialect.) We had collections of Nancy Drew books and Tom Swift books.

My mother had a subscription to Reader’s Digest, but I don’t remember her reading it, or the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that sat in fat rows on our bookshelves. When we weren’t making Christmas trees of the magazines by folding the pages, I read them and the Condensed Books. That’s where I acquired my taste for true adventure, I think. It’s not that big a leap from “Drama in Real Life” to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I first discovered To Sir, With Love as an R.D. Condensed book, then devoured everything I could get my hands on about teaching, my career goal at the time.

We also made extensive use of the public libraries and the ever-awesome bookmobile, since my parents’ middle-class income couldn’t keep pace with my reading tastes. And there were used book stores, too, where I could swap a grocery bag full of books for another.

There was no way my parents could screen my reading matter, so they didn’t even try. I didn’t receive a very balanced reading education or a very sophisticated one. I read whatever interested me, from novelizations of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to histories of Russia. I discovered Dr. Seuss and The Hobbit and Erma Bombeck. “Serious literature” I got from school, but love for reading came at home.

Having parents that read is a good thing, and no doubt it does help turn some children into reading mavens.

But if you ask me, letting a child explore reading at her own pace and through her own interests can be as effective as any planned course of literature or example of parents perusing the Great Books.

It worked for me.