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There were many things that got stalled or pushed to the back in the last year. For many of us, reading was not one of them. In fact, a good book was often a saving grace.

I thought to share with you some of the best fiction I read, often historical, starting back from the end of 2019. These books came from several sources – the library; some I purchased online; books purchased at past annual county library book sales; and my own collection.

Here is the best of what I read from late 2019 to present:

Whistling Past the Graveyard – Susan Crandall. This is certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Told in first person by a sassy, red-headed nine year old, Starla Claudelle, it takes place in 1963 Mississippi at the height of segregation. Being raised by her overly strict grandmother while her father works out on the oil rigs, Starla wants nothing more than to find her mother in Nashville, whom she believes left to become famous and then reunite her family. Upset by a turn of events, Starla decides to run away to Nashville on her own. She is offered a ride by an older black woman, traveling with a white infant, unaware of the dangerous implications of this situation. Whistling Past the Graveyard is a story with deeply felt characters set against the backdrop of the Deep South at a time in history that Starla only begins to understand for what it is, as well as what family can really mean.

One page in, and I was totally hooked.

Shutter Island and Mystic River – Dennis Lehane. If you want two stories you can’t put down … Shutter Island was a book sale pick, and in it I discovered a writer with an excellent capacity for writing tense, fast moving prose with twists and turns at every corner. This story takes place in 1954 when a detective and his partner come to Shutter Island, home for the criminally insane, to investigate a patient’s disappearance, and where we soon discover nothing is as it seems. Later in the year, I read Mystic River, a psychological thriller about three boys growing up as friends, approached one day by a man in a car. One boy gets in; the others do not. And something – never fully articulated – terrible happens. Fast forward to adulthood, and this plays out in a harrowing series of events. (p.s. the movie is also excellent.)

Lehane is a terrific writer who keeps you on the edge of your seat, no matter the subject of the book. There is no doubt that I will pick up another of his novels in the future.

The Alice Network – Kate Quinn. Historical fiction taking place in the times of both World War I and World War II, The Alice Network is based on the true story of a group of women spies of the same name who, at tremendous risk, infiltrated the Germans to save lives in the most daring and heroic of ways. This is Goodreads’ initial description of the book, and as apt as I could write, “In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.” Please read the full review and you’ll know why this was a book I could not put down. It’s truly exceptional.

Had I not borrowed it from the library, it would be sitting in my bookcase of books that I would read again some day.

Forever – Pete Hamill. This is a masterful book — on the one hand, a magnificent love letter to New York City and all it’s history; on the other, the story of a young man in 1700’s Ireland, Cormac O’Connor, whose parents were killed by a wealthy lord. Added to the mix, we have some magic of the old religion, which allowed Cormac to live forever if he never left the island of Manhattan and successfully avenged his parents’ deaths. This is not a casual, lightly read book, but one that spans centuries as we follow Cormac’s life from childhood to an America at the moment of its birth. From the slaves in the ship’s hold that he saves and befriends through the politics, greed, and buried secrets of New York right through to 9/11, this is a story of great knowledge and depth. Pete Hamill has written Forever with such compassion. It was a long read, but I was sorry when it ended.

The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes. More engrossing historical fiction set in the Depression era in Kentucky. A small group of women who, for different reasons, join together, following the exhortation of Eleanor Roosevelt and her traveling library campaign to bring books to people who had no access to them, but who wanted to read or learn to read. Alice Wright, disillusioned in her new marriage to a distant husband and dealing with a controlling father-in-law, joins with Margery, founder of the group. Margery is strong, outspoken, and independent, and is soon joined by three other women, forming The Pack Horse Library of Kentucky (the real name of the library). The women repeatedly faced danger traversing the rugged landscape by mule and horseback, sometimes from the people who lived there, as well as from men in their lives who would control them. Their loyalty and friendship, finding true love, and always following their mission of bringing books to people in remote areas makes for a rich and rewarding read. An unforgettable story.

Nemesis and the Swan – Lindsay Bandy. This is mature and sophisticated YA, taking place in the French Revolution. Helene d’Aubign, an aristocrat of 19 years old, writes from her cell in a Paris prison. Her diary alternates with her story of being influenced as a young girl by her governess to become a revolutionary and to seek true love at a time when girls were only allowed arranged marriages. Forced to flee Paris as violence breaks out, Helene searches to find the answers to an intricate family mystery involving love and murder, somehow tied together by two unique, painted pins of eyes surrounded by gilt and pearls. She longs to return to her home and the jeweler’s apprentice she’s fallen in love with. When, in disguise, she finally does return to Paris, she finds everything she knows is changed or destroyed. But to make matters far worse, she is being sought – and is soon arrested – by those who suspect her true identity, which will sentence her to the guillotine.

With a richly articulated backdrop of the French Revolution, and the characters enmeshed in a family mystery, you couldn’t help but hope for Helene’s survival and an ending that seemed impossible.

The Mermaid Chair – Sue Monk Kidd. If you have read The Secret Life of Bees, you know Kidd writes with a truly exquisite use of the English language. The Mermaid Chair brings to life the setting of Egret Island off South Carolina where Jessie Sullivan has gone to tend to her mother, now suspected of severe mental instability after severing her finger. But the story is Jessie’s – she is returning to her childhood home of marshes and sea salt, egrets and a monastery where resides the Mermaid Chair. It is a story of love and disillusionment in her marriage, love and awakening with a monk questioning his own commitment, but most importantly, the search for her own self, lost over the years. Interlaced with the loyalty of longtime friends, a mystery surrounding her beloved father’s death, and the idyllic quality of Egret Island, Jessie’s story is stirring and engrossing. This is my own book which I’ve read in the past, and couldn’t wait to return to each evening.

Other notable books – I can’t review them all, but I can mention some other books that stand out from the many I’ve read in the past year+.

The Long Way, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses, – all by Louise Penny. This is the first series of novels I have ever read as an adult, and I love them. I began at the beginning, and am working my way through the series, always drawn in by Penny’s style, wonderful characters and mysteries, all set in her beloved Canada.

Twigs in My HairCynthia Reyes, friend and fellow blogger here on WordPress

Good Hope Road – Lisa Wingate

The Last Letter from Your Lover – Jojo Moyes

Flower Net and The Interior – Lisa See

With the hope that I’ve inspired a future selection or two, I wish you Happy Reading!

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The last nine/ten months have been incredibly challenging in all parts of the world as we confront an insidious danger, a new virus. Here at home, we can heap on top of the pandemic an election the likes of which we have never seen, and wish we had not. On a personal level, I have lived for one year now with my house for sale, never sure if I will be able to stay in my home, and top it with the cherry of a very intense, seasonal workload. This is just my variation of the theme; so many of you and those you know, and so many more we’ll never meet are struggling with your own form of stress. It’s been an increasingly easy time to feel adrift from our moorings and to be lost in the most immediate problem in front of us.

While shopping on a website for other than books, of course I decided to dip into that section. You know, just looking. What I found was the book I needed, which you see here. Because that is what has happened to me … in the stress, distraction, and exhaustion, one of the things to go was the time put aside for my spiritual self. This book was published in August 2020 and references the onset of the pandemic and the ramping up of the presidential election, so it’s very current. Even having read a small way into the book, I am feeling calmer and reassured of moving into a better direction. So there is that.

On other fronts, because it’s been a while since I’ve posted, I thought to share a few photos, and what’s been happening in this small part of the world.

Produce from the local farm in October – the last of the gorgeous Jersey tomatoes, new potatoes, and a mix of Gala and my very favorite Macoun apples.

It was Halloween. Trees were beginning to shed their leaves, just enough to scuff through for trick or treaters or whoever wanted to enjoy a walk through the neighborhood. This little vignette of fall brought a smile to see the little pumpkins on the fence posts, the mums, and in a time we need to believe in our country, our flag.

While searching for something else, I came across this photo of Claude. Although he is no longer with us, this just reminded me of how calm and Buddah-like he could be at times, in contrast to his being a total goofball the next. He is still very much missed.

Another photo I stumbled upon …  a clearing sky after a winter rain from a second story window, raindrops sparkling the screen. How lucky are we to have so many beautiful skies and sunsets in this part of my state.

In November I attended an online children’s book conference held by Rutgers University. Normally, the conference is several hundred dollars and limited in attendance due to space and the personal nature of the event, but with COVID, it was presented online with Zoom to hundreds of attendees for a pittance. Our keynote speaker, Sayantani Das Gupta writes a New York Times bestselling series of a brave girl named Kiranmala. Sayantani was quite inspiring. One of the quotes she offered in her talk was the above by Toni Morrison, both relevant and a reminder of the heroic writer in all of us.

I also took a screen shot of this quote by Ursula LeGuin because it just hit home. Made me remember that I am no small talent, nor are you. Sometimes we need to be reminded and luckily, someone comes along to tap us on the shoulder from time to time. This was a good tap for me … consider yourself tapped now, too.

As the days get shorter, the nights longer, we look more to light. I frequently have a candle burning, but this gathering of wolves is one of my very favorite pieces, the light so beautifully illuminating their faces. It’s only made of stone, but for me, it brings some deep-stirred memory of woods and the quiet footfalls of our lupine brothers and sisters.

And here we are today. I cleared my porch of fall decor in preparation of other lights of the season. I carried the two small pumpkins that sat at my door to the end of the block, over the grass and tracks, and tossed them onto the plateau of dried grasses below. It won’t take long for some of the local wildlife to discover them and enjoy a small feast.

Perhaps this meandering through photos has reminded me that even when we’re in tough times, there is still always much to be thankful for. For every obstacle or challenge, there is another way to look at it, a way to learn something we need to know. These, indeed, are gifts and my heart is lightened.

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Weatherbug tells me this morning’s chilly temperatures are right on cue for October. But Thursday, it was a warm and sunny 71˙. When I decided to go freelance over a decade ago, one of the reasons was to not only shed my wretched cross-state commute, but also to have the freedom to make my own schedule. And despite my annoying and persistent feeling that I should be at my desk from 9-5 for my clients, Thursday was just too wonderful to stay inside.

And so I walked. One of the interesting things about my little town is that it’s in a valley and doesn’t always have the same weather as the surrounding towns. Or the same seasonal appearances. Just now some trees are turning bronze, some shrubs, yellow. But for the most part, it’s very green in my little part of the world.

Beyond the few scattered leaves on the ground, and some dried weeds, you might think we were in early September. If you were to walk straight in what is almost a path in the photo above, you would come right up on the Delaware River. When I drove out of town last Monday, I was surprised to find that not only had the leaves turned color, but many of the trees were already bare.

Not here. As houses begin to be dressed for Halloween, we are still on dense green lawns surrounded by still-green shrubbery. Our little town has always made a big deal of Halloween. There’s been a parade down the main drag with floats and a couple bands, vendors, food stands, and kids galore in costumes vying for prizes. Needless to say, that will not be happening this year.

But residents are not giving up on the Halloween spirit, even if there aren’t quite as many decorated houses as I’ve seen before. And we neighbors are talking, reading online, about what we can do to make trick-or-treating safe for the kids … and for us. It won’t be the same as having little princesses and Frankensteins running up to our doors yelling “Trick or Treat!” but we are in different times.

This house always goes all out for the holidays. I mean ALL the holidays. This is the kind of decorated house that gets the little ones all excited. I am so glad these people have done what they always do. It keeps some sense of normalcy in our lives.

How wonderful is it that this is “normal” for my town! But what I couldn’t help but notice is how few people there were walking about. I’m sure there were more on the Main Street where the stores are, a walk of just a few blocks further. (It’s a pretty small town.) And where all the scarecrows are. I wanted to keep walking and take pictures of them, too, but I was doing my best to keep in mind that I still had work on my desk.

My walk takes me past this very old garage, which you may recall seeing in some earlier post. I am strongly drawn to this building, though I cannot say why. As often as I walk past it with a camera, today my phone, I will photograph it.

Maybe it’s the doors. The texture, the tone, their slightly ajar position. Or just the very old stone and cement the garage is built from. My town was established in the mid 1700’s, and went through several name changes, the first being when the mill on the river burned down in 1769. The town officially became a borough in 1911, its incorporation confirmed by the state in 1925. The population in 1920 was 656; today, it’s 1,233. 

This is the mill as I know it today. I’ve heard rumors over the years that a special committee formed to preserve it had plans for it becoming condos or an arts center. As long as I’ve been here, it looks like this. The stonework tells me the little garage, may have been built at the same time.

I returned to my work, renewed by the sunshine and fresh air. We need these simple things, and it’s important to remember to give them to ourselves. I have had a hard time writing, blogging, doing creative work, especially these last few weeks. I am deeply unsettled and fear for the future of my country. I feel compelled to keep reading the latest news stories, yet know I need to stop. I am reminded to move my focus away from what I cannot control. I’m trying. I know you’re trying. We all are.

So if a walk through town, taking pictures of my neighborhood Halloween decorations and what is our striving for normalcy amid so much confusion helps, then I’ll take it. Stay safe. Stay positive.

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That pretty much says it. Despite the fact that I am still working – and very thankful for that – and am hardly in need of things to do in any area of my life, my focus is, well … intermittent would be a good word. Some days are pretty “normal”, but at times there is a sense of drift that never used to be in my life until the Coronavirus blew into town.

I know you are all experiencing this, too. I have yet to speak to anyone who isn’t dealing with some variation of this theme. As best I can tell, those of us who are creative have taken a truly palpable hit. I haven’t blogged in a month; I feel like I have little to say. Or perhaps I’ll just whine. So I started thinking in pictures. I went through the last few years of my photos and below you’ll find a little walk through my town, a little walk through summer. Hope this offers some cheer.

It was early spring, April 12th to be exact. The pandemic was in its serious upswing. I didn’t feel like walking that cloudy morning, but I did anyway. The streets were pretty empty. The flowering cherry trees were in bud, and I was cheered to see our flag, a colorful beacon on one of my neighbor’s porches. It was a comfort in a time that left us all unsteady on our feet.

Daffodils in bloom, the little entry area to the bridge freshly manicured and mulched, but still, it looked pretty bleak. A sunny sky would have helped. There were next to no cars on the road. Everyone was home, wondering what was next. And still, there was our flag, posted by my town, somehow a hopeful reminder – to my way of thinking – that we’d be OK.

My back porch last summer. It was the summer when I got all those amazing plants from Rice’s Market, pictured in a previous post – gorgeous coleus growing like crazy, stunning petunias and snapdragons. This part of the porch was quiet but pretty with pots of impatiens. This year? The porch has the furniture, but the plant market was closed, and I didn’t really have the energy/desire to pot plants anyway. There’s always next year, I thought. I am still surrounded by beautiful hostas, lilies, and hydrangea on the other side of the porch railings. I’m good.

Jazzy napping in a favorite sunny spot in the bedroom. The painted stool was one of quite a few hand-painted children’s items I’d made when living in Pattenburg a number of years earlier. My next door neighbor had converted what was once the town’s General Store into an antiques and collectibles shop, and she featured my pieces. I loved the painting and stenciling. Something I think about doing again, but …

It was a grey-ish day, but the cemetery at the Unitarian Universalist Church was tended so beautifully, it didn’t matter. It was very calm. Peaceful and pretty.

 

Another view of the Delaware River, separating New Jersey from Pennsylvania. I love this photo as much for the gleaming handrail of the bridge walkway as for the unusual cloud formation. When you live so close to a river, it’s hard not to take photos of it.

Did someone say Jersey tomatoes? New Jersey is The Garden State and this is tomato season! Those rich, red beauties put other tomatoes to shame, and make the best sandwiches anywhere. In reality, you don’t even need the cheese – just plain tomato sandwiches with a little mayo work, too. I literally just came back from a tomato run at Phillips Farms’ new farm stand with a bunch for the week.

Marilyn. Who can forget her? Here she is remembered in a retrospective of the works of Seward Johnson who founded and built the magnificent Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, NJ. His works are always on display, but friends and I made a special trip down for this exhibit which extended throughout the 42 acre grounds and inside galleries. Just do a search on this site for Grounds for Sculpture  (or start here) and you will be treated to both his works and those of many other wonderful sculptors. Johnson is known for his lifelike figures, especially those where he’s brought to life the famous paintings of the Impressionists.

 Hydrangea bushes are here and there all over the adjoining property, part of which surrounds my back porch. So lovely, here in pale green, slowly changing over the summer from snowy white to glowing rust.

The view at the end of my block. I am just 3 houses away from the Delaware whose many moods charm and inspire. This was from a previous summer, in her full green regalia. This summer, the area is overgrown, and the ability to access a nearer point as was possible in the past, is blocked; whether intentionally or not, I have no idea. So much has changed as of late.

Thank you all for visiting. For those whose blogs I visit regularly, forgive me if I have not stopped by in any sort of timely manner. I value what you add to my life and to life on the internet as well. I’ll get there. As I mentioned earlier, I am just all over the place, but you are in my mind and heart. Keep writing. Your words and images matter.

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A number of years ago, a dear and spiritual friend told me that at the heart of it all, there were only two emotions – love and fear. I considered it seriously, looked at it this way and that, and concluded she was right.

Much to my surprise, when I tore off the March 17th page of my Wayne Dyer daily calendar, I found this …

I would be lying if I said that I am not struggling with a newfound degree of anxiety and uncertainty in the face of this global pandemic, as I’m sure many of you are, and so many, many more beyond us. But it was a reminder to always keep our eye on the love, what we give and what we are given. Whether we feel the same as we always have or suddenly sink into panic and worry, we are loved.

However we may perceive that love or from whom – I am loved – you are loved. We’ll be OK.

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