Beauty of a different sort

My earliest memories are of tree canopy and the smell of fresh cut grass, of singing sand and lapping waves and drizzly Sunday afternoons. I’ve never known a life that isn’t saturated with green, that wasn’t waterlogged.

My world, clothed in beauty–what I see when I hear the words, “And God saw everything she made, and behold, it was very good.”

Last summer when I traveled for the first time to New Mexico for a writing retreat, I allowed myself a few days of travel on my own to explore countryside I’d never experienced. I was enchanted with the wide open spaces and touched by a spirit (Spirit?) that blew in and out and around on the breeze. And I filed Santa Fe’s high desert beauty in my heart under “magic”.

How’s this for a driveway? Their home sits at the base of the Catalina Mountains

I traveled back to the Southwest in April, this time to Tucson, where my son and his family recently moved. And of course, they were the main attraction! But the country? It was no less breathtaking New Mexico.

Puzzle fun at the visitor center

When Grandma comes to stay only twice-a-year, the first day or two are best spent doing, to ease into the visit and get comfortable with each other again. So we played mini-golf and went out for a bento lunch and did some grocery shopping. Just down the road from my son’s house, the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Coronado National Forest is a fine place for exploring with a four-year-old. (It’s also one of granddaughter’s favorites!) The visitor center has a sweet little corner with books and wildlife puppets and crayons and puzzles–the perfect spot for some kid time–and we took a tram ride deep into the canyon. A saguaro forest covers the sides of the mountains, the Sabino Creek runs swiftly over the nine stone bridges we crossed–and dozens of hikers walked alongside the tram, trekking the four miles to the top on foot. The one-hour tour was just right for a precocious four-year-old. She listened and looked … and answered every one of the rangers throw-off comments as if a response was required. Ranger: “Is everyone loving this beautiful weather?” Granddaughter: “YES I am!”

The Sonora Desert is the most bio-diverse desert region in the world.

When work and day care sent the family their own ways, I drove out to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Every “What to do in Tucson” site I read before my trip rated this a Must See. And it was. A kind of botanical garden-cum-wildlife rescue-cum-nature preserve, the museum is spread out over 98 acres; walking paths cover over 2 miles. Very manageable even in the heat. I only spent about three hours at the museum, but I could have stayed the day. The docent-led tour I took to orient myself was a great place to start. (Plus I learned to tell the difference between cat prints and coyote, and distinguish cougar poop and from wolf–truly a life skill not to be missed!)

Barren … that’s what I expected of the desert–a dry, dusty landscape. It wasn’t. The desert was blooming with color and awash in dusky green. Every morning the quail and cactus wren and Gila woodpecker chattered, while hummingbirds flitted from tree to tree. The sky was clear and lapis blue, the mountains benevolent and watchful. Giant saguaros lifted their arms in benediction.

Beauty itself, wearing different clothes. And it was very good.

Looking forward, turning back: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

What I read

I’ve been glancing over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk for over a year now. The book’s cover showed up in New Yorker ads for a time and on my Amazon “Customers who bought this also bought” feed and on the digital galley platform to which I belong. I’ve passed it on the “We Recommend” table at the bookstore. Stopped. Read the cover blurbs about New York (I’ve never been), 1930s (not even I am not that old!), walking (on a good day, yes …) and just figured it wasn’t for me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish is everything I want in a good character: she is witty, perceptive, brutally honest, open-minded, and loyal. She’s also a bit tetchy. Yes, Lillian does traipse through New York City of an evening–New Year’s Eve, no less–but along the way she stops where she experienced some monumental shift in her eighty-four years. There’s the Back Porch, a corner bar where she stopped over the years for a cocktail and maybe a chit chat with the bartender. Delmonico’s, where she and her husband ate after the court date that finalized their divorce. Madison Square Park, where she lunched as a working gal and wrote her poetry. And Macy’s, where she took the U.S. by storm in the thirties, the much-talked-about copy writer, highest paid girl advertiser in the country with newspaper headlines to prove it. St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she arrived when life spun out-of-control.

And that’s how we learn her story. At each stop Lillian reflects on her life–and also meets someone in the present with whom she can connect. Because even though Lillian is eighty-four-years-old, she is forward thinking. We learn that her early life is by turns tragic and comic; her life now, a dance between reaching out and turning inward. As the night creeps closer to 1985, the reality of having one foot in the past, and one in the future becomes oh-so-poignant, and Lillian welcomes the time when the future is no more, when the end will arrive:

“The future and I are just about even, our quarrel all but resolved. I welcome its coming, and I resolve to be attentive to the details of its arrival. I plan to meet it at the station in my best white dress, violet corsage in hand …”


What I lived

I started Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at home on my bed, tucked in snug, everything around me dear and familiar. I finished it on an airplane returning from a visit with my son and his family.

And there’s nothing like a visit with one’s distant children to look back over life, even if only the motherhood part. (Although, truth be told, distance provides space to think about any number of life’s conundrums.) I did some things right. And some things pretty crappy. I wanted my family to be just. so. I wanted to get it right. (And you wouldn’t be inaccurate if you read “controlling” there.) I pushed and prodded at times when I should have offered a hug and one more episode of Power Rangers. I was a hard taskmaster when I should have let the dishes wait until morning. I accepted no backtalk when I should have let my chicks puff out their feathers a bit.

Somehow we survived and somehow we are reasonably amiable.

But Lillian’s experience is now in my field of view. Yes, the future is still out there a ways before I meet it, God willing, and knowing that means I have some time. Time to reach out while turning in. Time to figure out how I’ll “meet it at the station”. Time to figure out what I’ll leave in my wake.

Once Upon a River: review

Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Simon & Schuster (December 2018)


It was a dark winter night. The solstice, to be exact. A man, face battered and bloodied, bursts in the door of the Swan Inn holding a small limp body. He collapses. When the village nurse Rita Sunday arrives to care for the man, she first checks the girl. No pulse, skin pale, pupils wide. Rita announces the poor girl dead–drowned in the river Thames, most likely–has her carried to an outbuilding to await burial, then turns her attention to stitching up the man.


No stranger to drowning deaths, Rita senses something is not right when she returns to tend to the child’s body. She tries to put together the circumstances which led to both the man’s injury and the girl’s death.

And then “the corpse opened its eyes”.

From there, Diane Setterfield’s latest novel Once Upon a River is off on a meandering tale of mistaken identity and longing and lost love.

What makes it all the more delicious is that the story pivots around the 600-year-old Swan Inn which is where one goes for storytelling in the village of Radcot. Each evening, villagers gather to listen to tales. Storytellers hone their craft at the Swan, coached and critiqued by other raconteurs, even arguing over ways to enliven the telling of a story. In her own telling, Setterfield mirrors those storytellers of long ago and the lilt of the dialog, the turn of a phrase, the twist and turn of the plot–all lend the novel a kind of fairytale charm.

So we have the story of Mr. Vaughan and his beautiful wife Helena, who mourn their firstborn, a daughter stolen away in the night only two years before. (Can the child possibly be the Vaughan’s lost toddler Amelia?) We learn of Robert Armstrong, a freed slave, and his crippled wife Bess–of their wayward son Robin and the granddaughter they’ve never met. (Or perhaps the girl is the Armstrong’s granddaughter Alice?) And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper who lives at the edge of the river’s flood plain in the Basketman’s Cottage, frightfully abused by a con-man and swindler and still grieving over the sister she lost those many years ago. (Is it possible that the little girl is Lily’s sister Ann?)

I liked The Thirteenth Tale, but with reservations. We won’t even talk about Bellman and Black. (You can read my review here.) But Diane Setterfield has created magic with River. If you love Gothic, if you’re drawn to enchantment and all that is delightful–it’s not one to miss.

The Half Brother: review

The Half Brother
Holly LeCraw
Doubleday (2015)

Holly LeCraw’s novel The Half Brother is one of those family-with-a-secret-sagas and a story of forbidden love.

And then it becomes something more.

Charlie Garrett is the son of a single mother. The father he never knew died, ostensibly, in Vietnam. Then his mother married the wealthy Hugh Satterthwaite when he was ten, and life changed forever. Charlie went to a private school, moved into a big Tudor home in Atlanta, went to Harvard. And Nick came along–his cherished half-brother. Athletic, charming, and loved by all. So different from the bookish, self-conscious Charlie.

half brother

But Charlie does just fine after all. He graduates from Harvard and gets a job at the prestigious Abbott School, a prep school in Massachusetts. At twenty-two, as young men often do, he became besotted by the charismatic chaplain, Preston Bankhead. Charlie was drawn to Bankhead’s picture-perfect family: three blond boys, a pretty wife, a beautiful young daughter. The Bankhead’s lived in a rambling old home that bubbled over with life.

Until it didn’t.

Charlie finds himself pulled into the family’s drama. There’s a divorce. Cancer. Death. And an especially troubling? confusing? affair with that beautiful Bankhead daughter, May, nearly ten years Charlie’s junior. It is in the midst of that love affair, that a secret is revealed–one that would destroy May if she found out … and truth be told, nearly destroyed Charlie himself.

And what about Charlie’s half-brother, Nick? That golden boy. The humanitarian who, when he graduated Harvard, worked with NGOs in African and the Middle East–and who eventually came to teach with Charlie at the Abbott School. He, too, feels the pull of May Bankhead.

So you’ve got that. An intriguing family saga that is so well-written it just might be enough.

But for me, the beauty of The Half Brother was how finely writer Holly LeCraw drew her characters. We watch them turn those family secrets over and over, trying to make sense of them. Trying to squeeze out every last bit of the why and somehow still carrying on.

I’ve also not read a novel that so realistically caught the day-to-day of a teacher’s life–of the theatrics that take place in front of the class and the grind that takes place after. Of the multitude of actions and reactions a teacher must consider every waking moment.

LeCraw’s prose is lush, her description evocative. For the writerly, it is a joy to read.

And if you need a recommendation other than my own? I added the book to my wish list after hearing Nancy Pearl sing its praises on NPR’s Morning Edition way back in 2015. It was quite an under-the-radar list Pearl suggested that day–the same broadcast also gave me Etta and Otto and Russell and James and Unbecoming. Keepers all, dear readers. Keepers all.

Educated: a memoir (review)

Educated: a memoir
Tara Westover
Random House (2018)

I used to try to get my high school students (at least once a year and usually when reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) to think about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Most seemed to think that they were receiving an education in their daily classes. My contention was that they were getting their schooling. How they interacted and applied the ideas they learned, what they did with the information–now that was education. Too many people stop at schooling and call it education. And to be successful, I’m pretty certain you need both.

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is as good as every review you might have read since its publication in February. The book was my book club’s December pick and while it made for great discussion I couldn’t help but wish that it was required reading for every young person. Because only after she got her schooling did Tara become educated–in knowledge and understanding, sure. But also in love and life and what it means to persevere.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father dealt scrap metal, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. An older brother called Shawn in the book (many first names were changed according to an introductory note) physically and verbally abused both of his sisters. Tara’s ‘homeschooling’ consisted of learning to read and basic arithmetic, but by the time she was seven or eight, she was working in the scrap yard or helping her mother bottle tinctures. Her father’s fear that government agents were always ready to strike meant that Tara had a to-go bag under her bed, ready to flee to the hills. She had nightmares about the Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge incident. Tara Westover was sometimes hungry. She was often lonely.

At an older brother’s urging, Tara began preparing her escape at age sixteen–her goal, at first, was simply to teach herself the content she would encounter on the ACT. After two tries, her scores were college ready and she was accepted to Brigham Young University.

She left. And to say her adjustment was difficult is an understatement.

Tara lived in an off campus with two other girls and had little idea that people didn’t leave rotting food and trash on the counters with dirty dishes; that people showered regularly; that when they did shower, they used soap. She also had huge gaps in her understanding of the world and its history. Thinking she would ask questions, joining class discussion like the other students, Tara asked a professor what the word ‘holocaust’ meant on a lecture slide. The silence in the lecture hall, as they say, was deafening. But seventeen-year-old Tara had never heard of the Jewish holocaust.

Tara Westover not only succeeded at BYU–she went on to earn her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. She is an articulate and intelligent and amazing woman (just check out the interview links below). But always, always in those first years away from the mountain, she was dogged by a feeling that she was undeserving. That she was fraud. A cloud of shame shadowed every success.

How does one come to terms with a past like that? By making peace? Or cutting ties to a destructive family? How does a young person learn her place the world when she doesn’t know basic life skills, let alone
history? Spoiler alert (but not really!): the secret is in education.


Check out these interview links with Tara Westover:

Fresh Air (38 min.) audio
AfterWord (1 hour) video