This is a shameless attempt at self-promotion which I generally loathe. It’s very difficult to know how to weave into everyday conversations, “So, I wrote this book and you should, maybe, if you think you have time, possibly, maybe, check it out?”
Also, I don’t know what to say because…I could tell you that the book is fun and fast-paced and has fun characters and a unique style…but I wrote it and what else am I going to say? Instead of trying to convince you why you should read it, I’m just going to tell you about why I wrote it and then you can decide from there.
I teach. I’m a high school English, creative writing, and journalism teacher. Four years ago, I taught a reading intervention class for kids who were at-risk for not passing their state reading exams. The class was fun and I loved it and I got to convince non-readers that reading is awesome and then I helped them find books. As a matter of fact, I credit that class with me being able to meet my 80 books goal since 3 days a week we did nothing BUT read and I had to model that behavior. 🙂
During that class, I had a student named Kevin who refused to read anything I gave him. I tried. I really tried. He told me he liked post-apocalyptic books and so I tried to introduce him to a few, but found zero success. After one particular epic failure, Kevin said to me, “I bet even YOU could write a better book than this.” I’m certain that the comment was intended to be an insult, but I took it as a challenge. I had Kevin write me a list of what his ideal book included. Then I tried to write that book.
He wanted death, destruction, “complicated” evil people, gross decaying bodies, zombies, action, cliffhangers, no romance.
My new book Virulent: The Release, which is book one in a three-part series, tries to meet those criteria. As the creator of this book and the people in it, I chose to deviate from Kevin’s original plan, but he’ll just have to deal with it. Spoiler alert: There are no zombies. There might be romance.
The book took two Nanowrimos to complete and then several more months of revisions and editing. It’s been nearly four years in the making and I can’t believe that the book is finally out there for people to check out. I’ve learned a lot about writing a book from start to finish, including, but not limited to, the idea that you have a plot outlined when you start: My plot was pretty organic. Things happened and I would write myself in a corner and then say, “I don’t know how to get my characters out of this. Let’s. Try. Again.” I set out to write a book Kevin would read and ended up writing a book that I would want to read, which isn’t so bad.
Who knows what will happen next? Early praise has been positive…and I’m too fragile to deal with crushing rejection, so I might just stop looking at reviews and pretend that it stays that way forever. I do know that I have a small following of students who adore Lucy King and Grant Trotter and the rest of the characters in Virulent and can’t wait to see how their story ends. Today at school, I read the prologue of Book Two to my group of students who finished Book One and they squealed with excitement…which made me feel like a famous author at a book reading (that’s what I pretended in my head anyway).
If YA post-apocalyptic literature is your genre or if you just want to check it out, you can find it here:
The Kindle ebook is only 99cents (but only for a little while longer! I’m rolling it out at this price and then bumping it to 2.99, so get it now for the discount).
The paperback will be out by the end of the month. And you will be able to grab it anywhere books are sold!
I do have to add: I used writing this book as an exercise in my creative writing classes to model revision; I used it in my English classes to model writing fictional narratives; and I used it in all my classes to get reluctant readers excited about reading a book FIRST. If you’re an English teacher who loves to write, I can think of no better way to combine the craft of teaching and the craft of writing than to start a book. There were many moments that a scene or a character or a plot hole became a class collaboration. People keep saying, “How did you find the time?” I never found time, I made time; and I made it part of the things I was going to do anyway! Want to get kids excited about reading and writing? Then BE excited about reading and writing. My students feel like they can also own the excitement that comes with publication and that is the best part of this entire process.
It’s December 1st. The first day of our advent calendar brought my boys the message: “Go and pick out new Christmas books!” And Elliott jumped up and down, saying, “I’ll treasure this note FOREVER!” then carried it around in his pocket throughout of whole book-shopping experience.
The boys each picked their new Christmas book to add to our collection! (And in full-disclosure: Isaac originally picked an Elmo book that sang Christmas songs, but we steered him away — our Elmo Halloween book with its different door-bell chimes is annoying enough. Once he realized he wasn’t coming home with Elmo, he grabbed this next and we ran with it. Quickly.)
Elliott wanted “The Gingerbread Pirates” by Kristin Kladstrup and Isaac got “Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus” by Chris Plehal and James Berhardin.
“The Gingerbread Pirates” is fun because it’s operating on the premise that Santa is a cannibal. Although, that severely disturbed Elliott upon reading it fully because he was OVERLY concerned that Santa was going to eat the cookies despite their protests. (Spoiler: Santa exercises self-control.)
And the illustrated version of the famous SUN letter of the 1800’s is really quite beautiful and it includes the original letter and response in the back — which reduces me to tears every time I read it because I am an emotional sap. So, “Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus” is a great little pick and I’m glad Isaac discovered it…even though he really wanted Elmo. (I think the illustrations and story are from an animated version of the story that was released a few years ago which I am not entirely familiar with.)
Thanks for letting me update! (I suppose now the suggestions are at 27!)
This is easily my favorite time of year. October through December 31st cannot be topped. My husband and I are celebrators — half of our garage is storage for our Halloween, Fall, and Christmas decorations. The other half is board games.
The year Elliott turned one, I was feeling particularly crafty during the holiday season and I made (handcrafted with linen and felt) an advent calendar for December 1-25. Our advent calendar has pockets for each day and we insert cards that have instructions for that day’s Christmas/advent activity. Our advent cards run the gamut between events (go to zoo lights, watch the Santa parade on our block, walk the living nativity, see Santa), activities (watch a Christmas movie, enjoy some cocoa, decorate the tree), to service oriented activities (buy a gift for Toys for Tots, give a gift to World Vision, make cookies for the assisted living center down the street). For two years, the advent was mostly for me and Matt to enjoy. But at three, Elliott was capable of looking forward to the advent and this year he is beside himself with excitement.
Books play a particularly important role in our advent activities. One of our advent days is dedicated to sitting by the fire, eating s’mores, and reading Christmas books.
Another activity is that we get to go to Powell’s Books as a family and the boys get to pick out a new Christmas book to add to the (ever-growing) pile.
For us, the books stay out from the time we decorate to the time we take our decorations. We know of some other families who wrap up a book for each day (December 1-25) and the kids get to open a book every day. I love both approaches. Our friend Sunshine is starting this tradition with her niece — buying her 25 influential/important/amazing books to open during those 25 days and each book has a note about why she is receiving it! Those books will surely be treasured forever and ever.
My boys love books. It is something that we have fostered and will continue to encourage. Elliott just started reading The Magic Treehouse chapter books. Isaac demands to be read Goodnight Gorilla and his Sesame Street books every day for hours at a time.
So, this year was especially exciting as we broke out the Christmas books and set them up by our fireplace. It was such a crazy-amazing-giddy-thrilling moment that we could not wait a single week for S’mores and books by the fire and we were forced to move our tradition forward. As we snuggled around our fireplace, books within reach, chocolate and marshmallows making sticky messes, I looked at our collection of books and felt all warm and fuzzy. We have well over 25 books — some classics, some newer additions — each one special to our family and each one read multiple times by eager children and adults alike.
Starting a Christmas book advent is a wonderful thing. If you want to go the route of opening up a book a day, I have compiled a list of our top favorite 25 Christmas books (and as a nod to my Jewish grandparents — we have not forsaken Hanukkah books at our house or on this list). Maybe you’re just looking for some ideas to expand your Christmas book library! Either way, I hope you find something new and worth checking out — or that you’ll discover a long-forgotten favorite.
There is no order — I’m sorry. This blog post would NEVER get published if I forced myself to organize them into some sort of hierarchy. This book list is for all ages!
1. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg: This beautiful, timeless, gorgeously rendered story of a boy who rides a train to visit Santa Claus is not only a classic, but it gets the award for making me cry EVERY SINGLE TIME WE READ IT. Last year I hosted a Polar Express party and my father dressed up as a train conductor and read the story to fourteen pajama-clad children in my living room. The magic of this book is not-to-be-missed and it is a favorite for young and old alike.
2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: We have three of four versions of the Dickens classic at our house. A Mickey’s Christmas Carol Choose your own Adventure book is the current favorite with the 4 year-old, but the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his three visiting ghosts is a family favorite. I make a point to read this (short) novella every year. It’s a powerful (albeit heavy-handed) reminder of the importance of having a spirit of giving this holiday season.
3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss: The Grinch, Max, and the residents of Who-ville are fun and Seuss’ rhymes are silly to read out-loud to rapt children.
4. Olive the other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh: A dog named Olive hears the Rudolph song say “All of the other reindeer” and interprets it as “Olive the other reindeer” and dashes off to the North pole to help Santa! She can’t fly, so she causes a bit of a distraction, but her quick wit and doggie-abilities save Christmas.
5. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel: My scared-of-everything 4 year-old was tentative about the illustrations in Kimmel’s book until after we’d read it a few times. The goblins are a bit scary for the younger set, but the story itself is a wonderful story of triumph and classic trickery. Hershel must outwit the Hanukkah hating goblins if we wants to restore his village’s ability to celebrate. This book celebrates conquering evil with brains and wit. It’s a great addition to a holiday library and a great read for people of all faiths!
6. A Charlie Brown Christmas: Iconic tale of Charlie Brown running the Christmas pageant and adopting that depressing looking tree. We have three versions of this at home — a pop-up, a board book, and the traditional hardback tale. One might ask why you need three versions of a Charlie Brown Christmas and the simple answer is: shouldn’t everyone?
7. The Sweet Smells of Christmas by Patricia Scarry: Richard Scarry’s wife wrote MY favorite childhood book about a little bear searching for the smells of Christmas in this scratch-and-sniff adventure. My 1980s version STILL has the smell intact and the newer version we purchased last year is already losing its smells. So, if you can find yourself a vintage copy your chances to smell rich pine, cocoa and orange (I always got in trouble for licking the orange — but it smelled so realistic!), I’d scoop it up.
8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world” begins one of my favorite stories of all time. I was ten when I played Beth in the stage play of this book and had the opportunity to narrate the tale of these cigar-smoking, cussing, fire-setting hellions as they commandeer the church Christmas pageant. This is another yearly staple in my life. And I’m due to purchase another copy because I loaned it out and never got it back — one of life’s frustrating compliments.
9. The Berenstain Bears Christmas Tree by Stan and Jan Berenstain: This book is one of Matt’s childhood favorites. A tale of Papa Bear marching Brother and Sister off into the wilderness to find the best tree ever and running into Papa-Bear-esque challenges along the way. It’s now a current Elliott favorite and our vintage copy (a gift from my mother-in-law last year) stays away from sticky hands.
10. Santa Calls by William Joyce: I have no idea where this book came from. It just appeared in our Christmas books one year and I am fairly certain it was a gift from Matt’s brother Lukas, but I don’t know for sure. So, for now, it was delivered via elf to our house. It’s such a fun book! A little boy gets to adventure with Santa Claus and the ending (told through letters) is such a sweet surprise.
11. The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket: I love Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket. Love. Deeply. So, how could I resist this book told in his same voice. That conversational, educational, brilliant, occasionally irreverent voice. The latke is trying to explain his role in Hanukkah to Christmas decorations. It’s silly and hilarious — but also poignant as well (the combination is a duo that Handler has mastered). The idea that Christmas celebrators don’t understand the meaning of the latke and the power that it holds in the Hanukkah story is important. And in Handler’s hands, it’s amazing.
12. A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd: This book was made to sell to fans of the movie. It is all the best Christmas parts from Shepherd’s “In God we Trust, All Others Pay Cash” (a book I also own and would suggest reading). But if it’s that classic tale of Ralphie and his quest for that Red Ryder BB gun you’re after, then this is the book for you.
13. The Crippled Lamb by Max Lucado: A lamb named Joshua gets left behind because he is hurt and his pain is palpable in this gorgeously illustrated book by Max Lucado. This book tells the Christmas story with wonderment, while also dealing with other issues. The plans that God has in our lives and how even though someone may not appear to be “perfect”, they are a child of God.
14. The Father Christmas Letters by JRR Tolkien: The book, published posthumously, is a collection of letters Tolkien wrote to his children as “Father Christmas”. While the letters themselves may not be accessible for young kids, the occasional whimsy (a clumsy polar bear) and constant power of this book is timeless. Tolkien illustrated Father Christmas’ adventures as well. I just love the idea that Tolkien’s kids poured over these letters every year; their father writing for them memories and tales that sparked their imagination. (It is here that I give a shout-out to my mother-in-law, who may have been inspired by this book when she started writing Elliott this year as Mary, a Sugar Plum Elf from the North Pole. Mary is getting intel from “Hopey” our Elf-on-the-shelf, but her stories about the North Pole and Santa are riveting to Elliott. A special letter just to you from the North Pole? The magic is undeniable.)
15. The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore: Just needs to be on the list somewhere! A collection is not complete without it. We have a version that stays out of little kid hands for now — it’s a pop-up, paper cut version and it’s amazing. And the boys have a Sesame Street version and a Little Critter version. You can’t go wrong. Reading this book on Christmas Eve by the tree is a family tradition.
16. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: The Santaland Diaries is fantastic. I read it out loud to my creative writing students — yes, yes, I do. And they laugh and cringe and wish they could capture the personal essay with as much humor as Sedaris. (His recent transgressions with exaggeration notwithstanding.) There are a few other gems in this book, but it’s worth it just to own Santaland Diaries. Which might be the only book on this list not safe for all ages. But hey, adults need their own pile too.
17. Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney: The llama llama books are rhyming fun. And this book — with its message about how hard it is to WAIT FOR ALL THE FUN OF CHRISTMAS is a great reminder for children of all ages.
18. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree by Robert Barry: Mr. Willowby buys a too-tale Christmas tree and has to trim it up a bit. Then his smaller cast-off gets to visit lots of homes and help make Christmas special for a parade of others. It’s a classic!
19. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May: The story of the little-reindeer that could! I love the story behind this book. The author wrote it to give away to kids who came to see Santa at the now-defunct Montgomery Ward department store. If you want to read this story to your kids, you have to read the original!
20. The Trees of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco: This is a beautiful book that looks at the traditions of Hanukkah, but also looks at how we give to everyone around us in need — no matter what the person believes. A little girl is celebrating Hanukkah with her native Russian traditions — she goes to see her neighbors and all their Christmas decorations, but finds that they are ill and cannot decorate. The illustrations are exceptional and the story is beautiful too.
21. The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers: This version is one of the best — both for its simple storytelling and its illustrations.
22. The Christmas Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood: The Quiet Book is one of my favorites. The Christmas Quiet Book follows suit! Listing things that are “quiet” with beautiful, whimsical illustrations, this book is a must-have for any collection.
23. Bear Stays Up For Christmas by Karma Wilson: Well, bears hibernate and miss Christmas. But Bear wants to stay up so he won’t miss a thing! Fun for little guys and enjoyable for everyone, we adore the Bear books.
24. The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn: Do you have a question about Santa? Here’s the book with the answers. Combining scholarship, folklore, label and imagination, Guinn writes about Santa in this great chapter book. While not for younger kids per se, it might be nice to share as a family piece by piece as the holidays go on — reading bits here and there. It’s well-crafted and well-researched.
25. Room for Little One by Martin Waddell: This board book is great for little kids. Isaac carries this around with him and loves to look at the animals. It’s a great Christmas-gateway book; the illustrations are perfect and the story is simple and commanding.
Well, there are 25 books! I’m sure there are some GLARING omissions — I only had my own stash to pick from. And each year new options crop up! Go ahead — add your other suggestions here! What should people make a holiday staple?
Last Wednesday I said goodbye to my almost thirteen year-old Pom/American Eskimo doggie named Einstein. He was old — he hated the kids, although he tolerated them, and for the past month had taken to spending the entire day out in the rain, refusing to come inside until I came home from work. He peed on every rug we owned; he had kidney and liver problems. And yet, I thought, he’s old, yes — but we have years left with this member of our family. Years.
So, on Tuesday evening when I popped him in the bath, my boys flanking my side, armed with shampoo and eagerness, I was aghast as I realized that it was not mud coating his thick fur, but blood. I ran water over his white coat and rusty red blood seeped into the bath water, turning everything a soft pink. I then noticed the blood on his mouth. He was bleeding and when I tried to see what was happening in that mouth of his, he whined at me and pulled me away. He was in pain. And I panicked. I scooped up Einstein, wet and stinky, with one hand and Isaac in the other and popped them in the car. I yelled at Elliott to find his shoes, while hunting for the diaper bag. Elliott, sensing my fear and stress, collapsed to the floor and started sobbing, “But I don’t know where I put them!” he cried looking up at me with understanding: Don’t yell at me mom. I’m scared too.
I called the veterinarian on the way. We have an appointment right now they said. Hurry. And I hurried. Elliott without shoes. Me without a diaper bag. No collar and so subsequently, no leash.
In a swaggering parenting maneuver, I had built up the doggie bath as a joyously exciting moment. “Aren’t you excited to pour the shampoo?” I squealed in my best positive-Polly-impersonation. Both boys seemed to still be reeling from the abrupt shift of it all. When we arrived, a young twenty-something receptionist looked at me — I had a dog in one arm, a baby in the other, my red sweater soaked with wet dog and blood. “Did you have an appointment?” she asked.
“I just called,” I answered in one breath while using my foot to barricade Elliott from tearing around the room. “A doggie,” he said. “A kitty! Look mom, toys for Einstein!”
Another receptionist leaned over. “I thought we’d put her in the open spot,” she whispered. Clearly this was the woman I had spoken to on the phone — who sensing my panic, accommodated me without a second-thought.
The first girl rolled her eyes. I looked at her caked on make-up, her ill-fitting scrubs. She shook her head at me. “She didn’t book you in and now we’re full. Sit and maybe we can see you.” My temper roared like an ocean between my ears. If I had available hands, I might have leaned across the desk and shook her. This girl — barely out of high school — was ignorant of my plight. Ignorant and unsympathetic. I steeled myself up, retreated to the hard benches, clutched Einstein and sat my kids beside me. We read pilfered books from the car — Goodnight Moon and Berenstain Bears Go to Camp — like a mantra.
When they finally saw me, my kids were hungry and they had depleted their good behavior reserves. Inside the exam room, they wanted to look at every brochure; Elliott played “vet” and took notes on the different animals. “This animal is sick. He has a tummy ache. This kitty needs a hug.”
But I just looked at Einstein. His dark eyes pleading with me — he was afraid. I put my hand out and he feebly licked it. I could not be a good mom to everyone in that moment. When the vet arrived and gave me the grim news, I could not process. Elliott was flailing on the floor, angry that I was not allowing him any more brochures. Isaac was hungry and kept asking for milk and crackers. He screamed and hit me, giant tears streaming down his face.
“Einstein is mostly blind,” the vet said. I hadn’t known that. I started to cry. “And he has a massive infection in his mouth. It could be simple. But it might be cancer. That’s where the blood is coming from — the mass is just open and bleeding. He needs major oral surgery. Remove all his teeth, take a biopsy of the mass. But the kidneys and liver function are challenging. ”
Elliott bawled about dinner. Isaac sobbed into my shoulder.
I made an appointment for a week later for surgery. The doctor shoved expensive antibiotics into my hands and clapped my shoulder sympathetically. “Do you need some help?” she asked. I shook my head. But that was a lie. I needed help. I needed to feed my kids and put them to bed; I needed to clean the blood out of my bathtub. I needed to call my husband and discuss what would happen next. I needed to hug my dog. The dog we purchased in the middle of a Fred Meyer parking lot — a woman who scammed us by peddling “full bred Pomeranians” and said she’d come back with papers, but never did. But I didn’t care. I had never owned a dog before and didn’t know anything about training him — he ate all my leather shoes and peed everywhere; but I took him to my college classes. He’d sit on my lap and I’d pet him while I discussed the importance of Virginia Woolf.
Years later, I ran into a girl who had been in my Russian Literature class. I forgot her name. She forgot mine. But she lit-up when she saw me, “Hey! I know you! How’s Einstein? That was one cute dog,” she said.
Later that night, I sobbed into my pillow.
Everyone I talked to said the same thing: Einstein was old. Blind. Deaf. Probably had a cancer. He’s definitely in pain. He’s going to lose all his teeth. He has kidney problems. Liver problems. He doesn’t like the boys being loud — his quality of life has decreased. It’s his time. Let him go.
To punctuate the news, that night Einstein didn’t move from his spot on our rug — refused to eat and drink and pooped and peed himself. He couldn’t even open his mouth to give me a lick. I left for school that morning knowing that when I came home, I was taking him to the vet for the last time. I know that there is judgment there — I judge myself. Why not spend every penny in the world for one more year? Why not?
Because ultimately that one more year would’ve been for me. It would have been selfish. I was not ready to say goodbye. I wished I didn’t have to. All I wanted was for Einstein to talk. To say, “I’m ready” or “Fight for me.” And I’d have done anything he wanted. But not knowing his language, I only had life clues — the refusal to eat, the pained movements, the cast of unknown health problems in front of us.
I cried the entire way to work — my eyes puffy. Everyone asked, “Hey, how are you?” in their chipper way and I broke down each time. I mustered up enough courage to discuss the state of my life with my newspaper staff. Each of them had a story to tell of loss and grief — their parents telling them about a beloved pet; the moment they realized that death meant you don’t come back. Several of them suggested books for Elliott. These teens were my support-net; bringing me coffee and hugs as condolences — telling me they understood, to go home. So I did.
When I got home, I half-expected Einstein to have passed on his own. In many ways that would have been easier for me. Because when I walked in the door and he greeted me with a kiss and a nuzzle, I felt guiltier. We drove to the vet and they put me in a nice room, with low lights. He bled all over their floor. All over me.
“He’s beautiful,” the nurse said as I filled out paperwork.
I could only cry.
Ten minutes later, I held Einstein, stroked his hair, told him I was sorry over and over, as the drug cocktail slowed his heart and took his life.
I wailed. And in an unsurprising cinematic twist, the rain poured down and thunder and lightning whipped through the sky.
I am not a stranger to loss — my cats Claude and Sammy (oh dear Sammy, a blog for another day), three grandparents, my cousin, my father-in-law, a pregnancy, a sister — but this one wrecked me because it was a decision I made. Because another life put his trust in me to take care of him and I feel like I let him down. I felt like I failed him. My mother said I was very brave. I had never felt so cowardly in my entire life.
At home, I had to wash Einstein’s blood off my floor. He had dragged himself to the water dish and there were blood smears from his bed to the kitchen. He bled on my rug. As I leaned over to wash it off, sobbing, I was reminded of Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking” — where she comes home from the hospital after her husband suddenly passed away and cleans up his blood off the floor. Which helped add to some perspective to my loss. Perspective, while in the throes of grief, is not reasonable to expect, but it is valuable. Husband and dog are not equitable. I understood that.
Then I remembered “The Dogs of Babel” by Carolyn Parkhurst — where a man is trying desperately to get his dog to talk so the dog can shed some light on his wife’s death. He believes his wife did not die accidentally and the dog was the lone witness.
“The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein — a book crafted on the premise that a dog is remembering his life on the eve of his death. There is comfort here because it is a dog who speaks.
This is what we really want. To know that the animals we care for are cognizant of our love. Dogs are not man’s best friend arbitrarily — they are historically and literarily powerful in our lives. We love them and they love us. And their deaths, inevitably to occur before us, are a gut-wrenching testament to that love. When we pass before our dogs — those dogs mourn us. Hachiko waiting at the train station, that picture that went viral of the dog beside his soldier-owner’s coffin. These images speak to us because they remind us that as much as we love our animals, they love us back.
The only people to belittle the mourning one feels after losing a beloved pet, is someone who hasn’t had one. Or hasn’t lost one.
My mother killed her dog on her sixteenth birthday. The day she got her license, she backed over her family dog — who loved to crawl up and rest in the wheel-well of their car. I loved to tell this story. It was such a great piece of family lore — a tale that signified teenage stupidity and such a juxtaposition of excitement and grief for her. But I’d tell the story flippantly. Using it, as daughters are wont to do, as a small dig, with an imbedded eye-roll.
One time, after regaling a group with this tale, I found my mom in her room, crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked and sat down.
“Please stop telling that story,” she sobbed. “Forty years later, I still haven’t recovered. It’s not just a little anecdote about my life. That was my friend. I killed my friend. It was awful and traumatic and I wish I would’ve never told you.”
Her words crippled me — struck me. Oh, how many times I had told it — how many times I had belittled her pain. I hadn’t lost a pet then. Einstein was still alive, licking my hand. I didn’t understand. To lose a pet is to lose a piece of yourself.
One friend told me that she feels we have animals in our life to remind ourselves that life is short and precious — to value the connections we have with people. I don’t know why our hearts are wired to love this way. All I know is that I’m brokenhearted. Pondering how to deal with this type of grief and process this loss.
If there is any indication of how things impact us, we only have to look to literature. We write about our relationships with our animals often. There are amazing books about the love of a dog. Memoirs. Fiction. It’s all there and it’s all indicative of how dogs wiggle into our hearts.
A Dog Year by John Katz
Pack of Two by Caroline Knapp
Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan and Bret Witter
Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
A Dog’s Life by Ann M. Martin
Huck by Janet Elder
You Had Me at Woof by Julie Klam
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
Dog Years by Mark Doty
A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
I miss Einstein. It’s been four days. I will miss him for a long time. I resisted to urge to fill our house immediately with canine love — God forbid I think that my darling puppy could be replaced. Losing an animal teaches us a lot about grief and loss. In many ways it prepares our hearts. When my son asked if Santa could deliver Einstein’s Christmas gift to heaven (“Does Jesus have a chimney?” he so aptly asked), I am not just dealing with my own grief when I answer him: “Yes sweetie. That can happen.” I’m speaking for all of us when we reflect on what we’ve lost and we wrap ourselves in the comfort that there is a chance for reunion someday.
While I lived in Japan, my Grandpa Cohn adopted Einstein. When I came back, he refused to give him back to me. Not meanly, he just loved him. My grandpa and Einstein had a strong and unique bond. Right out of a movie, Einstein didn’t leave my grandpa’s side the night he died. And he could not be moved from the hospital bed, even after my grandpa’s body was gone. Even when Einstein came back to me, for a few years after that, I always thought that Einstein tolerated me because I was his first owner, but that he really just missed my grandpa.
So, there is comfort in this thought: I can see Einstein and my grandpa up there now — reunited and loving a life without pain and affliction — whole again.
I spent all this time building a relationship. Then one night I left the window open, and it started to rust.”
I have never wanted a lover. In order to have a lover, I must go back to the root of the word. For I have never wanted a lover, but I have always wanted to love, and to be loved.
There is no word for the recipient of the love. There is only a word for the giver. There is the assumption that lovers come in pairs.
When I say, Be my lover, I don’t mean, Let’s have an affair. I don’t mean, Sleep with me. I don’t mean, Be my secret.
I want us to go back down to that root.
I want you to be the one who loves me.
I want to be the one who loves you.”
Reading David Leviathan’s “The Lover’s Dictionary” — a book that explores one couple’s relationship with short (sometimes just one line) vignettes based on evocative words…traveling and exploring the world of love in short and brilliant bursts from A to Z. So, how could one NOT read this novel, in one sitting, with a bottle of Oregon Pinot A to Z. I mean. Really.
I’ve been lucky to have been loved and loved well in my life. Reading this book is an amazing reminder of the power, the luring quality, of a new, budding romance. And, swiftly — moving to the next letter — a reminder of the torture and anguish of one that is ending. I loved it and devoured it and felt myself reminiscing on all the people I can count whom I have loved and who have loved me in return and which letter reminds me of them. A bottle of good pinot will do that to you.
Isn’t this pairing divine? And hey…maybe it’s the wine…but I’ll try it too (reading as both a sensory experience AND a creative writing experience? Yes and yes, please):
You leaned in and kissed me on the cheek and whispered, “I think I’m falling in love with you. How can that be?” And you just smiled, smirked, your little dimple twinkling. “Some things are meant to be,” you said after a bit. “Some things are divinely inspired.” I nuzzled your cheek. “Are we?” I said into your shoulder and waited, with baited breath, to hear what you’d say. But you never answered. You kissed the top of my head and wound a piece of my blonde hair between your fingers, then you drifted off to sleep, leaving me with the heaviness of your body against mine and the worry that maybe you didn’t want to tell me the truth.
Can you tell I liked this book? I did. You can buy it — I did. But you could also go to a book store, grab a coffee, sit down and devour it in less than an hour. Either option works. But I like the idea of my money rewarding Leviathan for taking a risk — he’s often a risky, experimental writer. Some people might say ‘gimmicky’ — yes, occasionally gimmicky too. But gimmicky is only bad when it doesn’t work and HERE in this book, it works.
As I get older, I tend to try to protect my heart and mind by not subjecting myself deliberately to anguish. Youthfulness always seems to welcome recklessness in this regard. But now, I am too broken to sit and take in the ills of the world without them leaving an impression that is too difficult to shake. Parenthood has done this to me — the news is a harrowing exploration of how much pain I can tolerate. My husband will often warn me away from the day’s events: “Just don’t get on the Internet,” he’ll say and I will make the inventible choice to not listen to him and then find myself resisting the urge to ball up into the fetal position and cry for weeks.
The story — a year ago — about the man who died at the Texas Rangers baseball game while attending with his young son shakes me still. I cannot think on it without bawling. All the details to emerge; they are pieces of this world that are, occasionally, too much for me to take, to think on. To process. In the city where we live, a mother threw her children off a bridge a few years ago, killing one and injuring the other. And, of course, there is the recent tragedies involving children — the nanny in New York, the children swept away from their mother during Hurricane Sandy.
These are not creations — they are real life.
So, then, why should we subject ourselves to reading fiction that deals with pain and suffering? Isn’t life painful enough? And if we do, what do we have to gain by exploring death and loss and grief? What is the point of it all?
While reading on the Tin House blog, I stumbled upon a book that has piqued my interest as much as it terrifies me. It is called “Beside the Sea”, it is a book written in French, translated, and could be a good, quick choice for someone looking for a book for France. It is, however, a story of a mom who takes her boys for an amazing weekend of fun and games and sweets and joy — knowing that it will be the last weekend together. She is planning on taking their lives to save them from the cruelest consequence of being born: Growing up.
The very premise of this book is gut-wrenching and raw — tangled in fear and pain and anguish. Children in peril — what is more devastating than that? And at the hand of the one person on this earth that they are wired to trust? Who SHOULD have their best interests at heart? How. How. How can I subject myself to reading this book when I know that the conclusion will crush me? How can I pick up the book and allow myself to immerse my psyche in this world without being utterly changed by every word? I can’t.
One of my favorite books of all time is “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. And, as I’ve written, it is a book that packs an emotional wallop. When I reached Russell’s startling denouement, I bawled — it tore me up. I dreamed about it, obsessed about the ways it could have ended differently; I felt emotionally spent, wracked and wreaked and yet, it was precisely BECAUSE the book had this effect on me that I loved it so much.
In further exploration of “Beside the Sea”, the blog stumbles upon a lecture about how we can use literature to explore real-life tragedy and discuss it in a way that cannot happen otherwise. There is this quote by the lecturer that says: “Literature brings us to an acknowledgment of situations which I think that legal reports, media reports simply don’t do. This has really reinforced my impression that we need to engage on a literary level with these tragedies.”
Which would mean that literature is not only important to explore the things that make us uncomfortable, but necessary.
I do not have to be convinced in the power of a story. Literature defines generations and helps usher change; and according to this lecture, literature also helps us cope and deal with real-life tragedy by allowing us to access evil and pain from different perspectives. But at what point do you make the decision to allow yourself to live in the brain of someone who is going to murder their children? In the book “We Need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, you need to prepare emotionally for crawling into a world of darkness. It explores evil and child-rearing and responsibility. And it tugs on you in our most hidden and not-talked about places: What if I don’t love what I created? As a reader, it pulls you under — you drown in guilt and remorse and pain.
So, should I encourage people not to read it? Or should I demand them to.
I don’t know. Honestly.
But I know that as I weigh whether or not I should go seek out “Beside the Sea”, I have to establish for myself — am I at a place where I can allow myself into that mom’s head? As a mom of two boys, can I really walk her actions into my life forever? Or as a human being, should I face the demons and the pain and the fear straight-on and allow myself to mourn; allowing the fully-realized character to take a strong-hold in my life for a few short days, weeks, and maybe beyond? Will this book help me humanize people who take the lives of their own children? Or will it crush me too much?
This is a blog of questions, not answers. But I do think we should take the above quote to heart and ask ourselves if we are allowing our reading lists to reflect an engagement with the world that we normally steer away from. And, to that purpose, I suppose we must ask: Why do we read? (A question I pose to my students often.) Do you view reading as entertainment? Or do you rest in and seek out the transformative nature of books?
And if reading is supposed to be transformative, then, shouldn’t we allow ourselves to explore things that have the potential to be painful? Maybe. I think. Yes.
This January will mark the third anniversary of the book club I started. Saying “I started” is filled with all sorts of emotion, and I say it with only a small amount of ego.
Yes, I did start it. Meaning: I put out a call for people in my life who wanted to join together as readers once a month. And my friends – ranging from people I saw every day to people I hadn’t seen in years – rallied and responded with unbridled enthusiasm.
But while I may receive credit for starting this grand adventure, I cannot take credit for sustaining it. That is something we have done together – each of us – as a whole.
We met on a wet January evening at my house — all of us gathered together for the first time and me acting as excited host. But my nervousness was palpable. Everything I had was on the line here. These were my friends, people from my life – very few of them (with the exceptions of my school colleagues) knew each other – and I was cramming them all together in a room and asking for them to make instant connections. We do this when we start dating someone…introduce them to our friends and hold our breath. Like each other. Like each other. Like each other.
Even at that point in the process I had done a small amount of editing – inviting some and not others, looking at the group dynamic and making my predictions. To say that this group was calculated is not entirely dishonest. But it’s not entirely honest either. With care, I crafted, but then I had to wait and see. The best laid plans, as they say.
The energy that night was good. But tentative. We did not know yet who we were as a group; we had not yet defined our roles. There was some uncharacteristic wall-flowerness, episodes of too much imbibing, small moments of pretentiousness followed by someone else’s raw honesty. Judgments were forming, people were assessing, “Who are these people? Can I like them?”
We lost two members immediately.
I wish I could say that it didn’t hurt a bit, when my friends approached me, both with the excuse that time was this monstrous hurdle that could not be overcome. It was a reason I understood, even if my immediate thought was to assume it false. But “no time” is an unarguable reason. I couldn’t say, “Yes. You have the time.” I could not say, “Do you want to discuss schedules? Do you need me to itemize my day? How can you not have time for this?” And at that exact moment, what I really would have been asking was, “You don’t have time for me?” because I felt so much ownership at this point in the Book Club’s success.
But I said I understood. And they didn’t return.
Now, in many ways, those we lost, only after the first few months, are part of Book Club lore.
“Remember so-and-so?” we ask. “Oh yes!” is the reply.
Because sometimes we forget that it wasn’t always just us. Us: This group of women forged from a love of books has now become something so amazing and incredible that we are fiercely protective and loyal of what we have. Book Club started as mine, a project that I so desperately needed, a group to call my own. And now Book Club is a masterful demonstration of what can happen when strong women unite together in friendship.
* * *
“Oh,” one of my non-book club friends, an outlier, someone on the fringe of my life, says to me one day. “So, it’s not really a book club. You just sit around and drink and bitch and the one thing you have in common is that occasionally you read the same thing?”
I had been bragging.
That was my undoing.
Explaining the magic of my Book Club is not an easy task.
If you wax poetic long enough about something people either get tired and annoyed or they want to know why they can’t be a part of it. And is there ever an easy way to say, “I like you a lot…as a matter of fact…you’re amazing. But, you see, Book Club is mine. Not mine per se. But ours. Book Club is ours. And we’re not really…you know…taking new people”? No. There isn’t.
Because exclusivity sounds bitchy. And they are right – it does sound that way.
But bitches, we aren’t.
No we are teachers, counselors, librarians, stay-at-home-moms, vice-presidents of companies, and executive directors of non-profits. We waitress and run side businesses, we run marathons and do Cyclocross and Hood to Coast and play women’s football. We are single. Married. Divorced. Remarried. Engaged. We have kids. Step-kids. Adopted kids. We are childless. We are Christian and we are agnostic. We are quiet. We are loud. We are stubborn and we are easy-going. We are vegetarians. We are carnivores. We are amazing bakers and cooks – and I don’t think there is an opposite to that…I think we actually are all genuinely great cooks. We are voracious readers and sometimes readers. Our age range spans over a decade. We are tall, short, blonde, brunette, redheaded.
We are not casual heroin users, thank God. (And I apologize for an inside joke. About heroin. But I figured if I got one joke, it might as well be that one.)
In short: We are a varied group with different personalities and outlooks on life. And Book Club brought us together. We’d like to think that what we have is so profoundly special that it cannot be replicated, but we know that isn’t true. Yes, we appreciate its rareness, but we also know that we have a lot to teach.
We’ll start with what Book Club taught us.
1. What happens in Book Club stays in Book Club. (Except, I suppose everything I’m blogging about. But. Um. Sorry.)
Yes, yes, it’s trite and cliché and belongs to Vegas and Bachelor parties and there’s that Fight Club version too. But I think what it captures and highlights is a place to feel safe. We need a place to discuss our marriages, our children, work, our frustrations, and our in-laws. We need a place to finally tell someone about that drunken night in college without feeling judged and while also knowing that the world doesn’t have to know – what you share is safe here. YOU are safe here.
2. Admit you were wrong/an asshole/drunk/lazy/boneheaded.
We are not perfect people. We have baggage and vices and fears and worries. Some of us are kinda crazy (me) and neurotic and paranoid (me) and self-obsessed (ME!); okay, no, but we are HUMAN. And we say stupid things and wreck people’s houses (not me and also me) and sometimes throw Styrofoam balls at people’s heads and really hurt them (me). And sometimes we lie about taking the bar exam (me again). And our Book Club would have fallen to pieces a long time ago if we each didn’t say things like, “I was wrong. And stupid. And I’m sorry.” We each are all really good at admitting fault and saying we’re sorry. There’s no pretense here and no ego – we like each other too much to play games. When we screw up, we admit it. It’s a simple, but effective way to continue to like each other. “I’m sorry for eating all the faces off the owls.” (That one was not me. Finally.)
3. Talking about books is ALWAYS talking about life and vice versa.
As an English teacher, I try to explain this often – books provide a universal glimpse into people’s lives. So, when people try to get on my case for the percentage of time we spend talking about the books we read vs. the time spent talking about things in our life related to the books we read, I get all agitated. Books are about how we feel when we read them, what the language does to us, what stories they stir in us. When we talk about life, we’re still talking about the books – when we pause to tell stories, it’s still about the books. Our shared experiences during the weeks we are away from each other is the experience of reading something with someone else. And that, alone, can be good enough. Also, you can’t spend an entire Book Club talking about “The Woman in White” if only TWO PEOPLE read it. But you can shoot champagne corks out of the window on NW 23rd toward pedestrians and talk about THAT forever!
4. Book Club is not about meeting once a month. It’s about being there always.
In order to be a successful group, we need to be there for each other. During our tenure, there have been new babies, weddings, engagements. And we have encountered loss. Grief. Heartache. And whether we are rejoicing or mourning, we give. We give our time and our resources, food, and bottles of wine, and books and love. We give encouragement and advice and support. We care for each other like family – because we have become family. That’s how we look at it, how we thrive. Not just “good friends”, but family. We know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that in both joy and sorrow we have a group to call on for help. Again, there is comfort and safety in that – knowing that there are people out there who care, fully, completely, and without reservation. Some people THINK that they are like this — think that they give, think that they are supportive friends. No. I’m talking self-less…pure and simple. There’s a difference between just being a good giver and giving everything you have. We give everything we have. Happily.
5. Sometimes you need to play badminton while holding a glass of wine.
Or: Sometimes you need to laugh. And have fun and be goofy. If you can’t laugh uncontrollably – if the people in your Book Club haven’t reduced you to nothing but that primal fear of peeing your pants – then you should reevaluate your friends. It’s that calculated trifecta of intelligent communication and pure goofiness and genuinely taking care of each other. Which…I’m beginning to realize could be a good recipe for book club success. I could write a book about it! And my book would even include a little graphic.
Lastly, I offer you this picture of us on our LAST anniversary nearly a year ago with the author Deborah Reed.
When I told her, awkwardly, in correspondence that we were really an amazing Book Club, unlike any she has met, she said that was sure she’d love us! But I know she was thinking, “Sure. It’ll be okay, but it’s just another book club.” Deborah — an occasional reader of this blog — will be the first to tell you, as an outsider, that there is something special here.
I think it has to do with the triangle.
I’ll go trademark it now.