I love a good list. This one is especially satisfying, as it’s made up of books I already own and intend to read or reread before buying anything new.

  1. In the Unlikely Event – Judy Blume
  2. Deep Water – Patricia Highsmith
  3. Amsterdam – Ian McEwan
  4. Levels of Life – Julian Barnes
  5. Transgressions: Ten Brand-New Novellas – edited by Ed McBain
  6. The Best American Short Stories 2016 – edited by Junot Diaz and Heidi Pitlor
  7. The Candy House – Jennifer Egan
  8. My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh
  9. A Psalm for the Wild-Built – Becky Chambers
  10. A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay
  11. The Pull of the Moon – Elizabeth Berg
  12. Winter Solstice – Rosamunde Pilcher
  13. The Word is Murder – Anthony Horowitz
  14. Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock
  15. Affinity – Sarah Waters
  16. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy
  17. Crow Fair – Thomas McGuane
  18. A New Race of Men From Heaven – Chaitali Sen
  19. A Song of Ice and Fire – George R. R. Martin
  20. This Time Tomorrow – Emma Straub

It’s nice to see the titles together like this, because what usually happens when I finish a book is that I start casting about for the next one, going, No, no, no, as if I’m channel-surfing through my library. I need to be more organized. I thought if I set myself the goal of reading what I own, I can at least begin with a narrowed-down set of choices and avoid the dazed and dazzled experience of browsing on Amazon or at the local bookstore. Also, of course, it’s wasteful to buy a book and neglect the part where you actually read it.

So, here we go and I’m starting with the Highsmith. Domestic bliss from page one, in which the narrator describes his drunken wife dancing with another man: Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing.

Ooo, delicious. Pass the popcorn.

Be Little

I just finished a wonderful novel called Panenka by Ronan Hessian. It’s about a man whose life is defined by a single day, a moment of public humiliation after which his sense of himself and his inherent value are irreversibly altered. The self-loathing has made him chronically numb and laconic, so that even when he wants to reach out and connect with others, he can’t. He does learn, though, over the course of the story, and finds a way to understand that he is both loving and loved. The book is beautifully written, populated by rich characters and an earthy setting, and the dialogue has that scattered, off-the-nose quality of real conversation. If you haven’t read it and you’re looking for something good… You’re welcome.

The book got me thinking about the events that define us, those pivot points at which your perception of yourself becomes blurry then resolves to a new degree of clarity. I have had moments—small ones, on ordinary days—when I’ve realized, Oh, this is what so-and-so really thinks, this is how I’m talked about, or, Now I get it, the joke’s on me. My ego is not what you’d call robust, so finding myself disliked or apparently ridiculous is going to leave a mark. I’m a lot more reserved now in work situations. I keep to myself. I’ll give a little back to balance a shared confidence, but I don’t divulge the real stuff, and I maintain a battened-down status on my opinions.

It makes me wonder who I’d be if some key moments in my life had not happened. If that coworker had not screamed at me all those years ago. If I’d never caught the exchanged look between a therapist and aide, which plainly said, This chick is super weird. If my sister had never called me out for being selfish, if I’d never called my own sweet mother a bitch. Awful moments, all of them, and there are direct lines to be drawn from some of these incidents to my present state of being; every rehashed memory is another log on the dam, so that my authentic but flawed personality can be diverted and forced through safer terrain.

In many ways, my relationships have been improved by these conflicts. I’m more mindful now of my effect on other people, and I no longer assume I’m going to be able to make another person understand who I am or where I’m coming from. But there are taxes to be levied on every form of insight. Years ago I received a friend’s scathing and unsolicited review of one of my books, after which I felt bruised and misrepresented by my own words. Would I still be publishing if I’d never seen it? Would I have continued blithely onward, believing myself better than I am? And is the resulting reticence a net positive in my development as a human, or has it only held me back.

It’s hard to say, and probably a pointless exercise in any case. You can’t unhear a scream or unread an email. These little things matter, and they stay with us.

You probably have a few of your own.


Over the weekend I reorganized my bookshelves. I tend to leave books scattered all over the house—stacked beside the bed, assembled fort-like next to my favorite armchair, lying open on the kitchen counter or the ottoman, on my desk, in my desk, crammed into boxes and pushed to the back of the hall closet. There are probably books in the attic as well, now that I think of it. I’ll have to investigate. I’ve culled the herd over time, and as I do a lot of my reading these days on Kindle or via audiobook, it wasn’t a tedious job. I’ve got the novels all together on the top shelves, then short story collections and poetry, and below that the books on writing, on photography, on space, gardening, design, yada yada. I’ve got a shit-ton of cookbooks, which get a lot of play, and a few grim health-related books that have been touched only briefly, out of duty.

I’m not widely read and I’m okay with that. We can’t all be brainy. But I was disappointed in myself when I reassembled my shelves of fiction and poetry. So many of these have not been read, or were started and left unfinished. I have an awful habit of reading the books I like over and over again, even if the book is a mystery or thriller in which the ending is fixed in my head from the jump. I’ve been puzzling over this, trying to understand why I prefer a book I’ve read a dozen times over one that might offer fresh delights, a new voice, a cast of characters whose lines don’t spring immediately to mind like the lyrics of an old song. It takes a certain amount of willpower to start a new book, a lot of inner dialogue: Step away from the Binchy, for god’s sake, Averil. Take a risk, try the Ford, try that new Egan! And I know these other books are going to be good, so why the hesitation?

I wonder if I gravitate toward familiar titles because, like most of us, I read to satisfy a particular need, and for me that need is comfort. I want a book to feel friendly, safe, known. I want to spend time with the characters whose company I miss. Judith Dunbar, the sweet-tempered lead in Coming Home, Cathy and Tom from Scarlet Feather. Hermione Granger. Penelope Keeling. Anne Elliot. Hercule Poirot, and Chief Inspector Gamache, and little Julia What’s-Her-Name on the cusp of adulthood in The Age of Miracles. Even the horrible Humbert Humbert, if I’m being honest. I kind of miss the guy after a while and want to check in.

Still, it’s clear from my bookshelves that I’m missing out, and that part of me also craves the new stories. After all, I have bought them, brought them home, populated my Kindle with the ones that grabbed me or which were recommended at some point as being worth my time. I should read them. I’m going to read them.

I started buddy-reading a couple of books from my shelf: a new one, Panenka, which is great so far, and an older beloved Pilcher called The Day of the Storm. And for my 10-minute commute, I’ve got the audio version of Flowers for Algernon, which is new to me and wonderfully narrated in Charlie’s everchanging voice. After that, I might try something dark or pulpy—Sadie When She Died, maybe, or that Highsmith book called Deep Water. Oh, or I could go back to The Pull of The Moon, which I’ve DNF’d twice through no fault of the book. It was me, it was bad timing. I should give it another chance, because I adore Elizabeth Berg.

Anyway, there are options. I’ll report back.


The lovely video today is one my daughter sent me. It’s exactly like her.


The house is quiet. I miss the sound of quick little paws on the floor when I open the fridge or take down the leash from its hook. I keep looking for Henry, listening for his nose snuffling on the other side of a door. Henry was a dog who wanted to be part of things, who loved car rides and fireside naps and strolls around the neighborhood, who’d chase a ball for as long as anyone wanted to throw it. He was naughty, too, and had to be watched, and so I find myself still watching though there is no longer a need.

Our big dog is looking for him, too. He’s made of different stuff than the little guy. He’s handsome, leggy, with a rock-and-roll brindle coat and amber eyes, yet for all his good looks he’s a shy one. Mostly he likes being under the bed, though he loves a long walk and will float along beside me for miles with an easy graceful stride that couldn’t be in greater contrast to Henry’s jaunty step. His affections are quiet and his personality is reserved. His style is to lean his whole body in for a hug and remain there, unmoving, sturdy, his face pressed right up against you as though he’s looking for a way to be closer. Little kids are drawn to him, and when they approach he will brace himself, tail swaying, ears soft, and let them do whatever they like. He’s the gentlest dog I’ve ever known.

It was raining when Henry died, but after the vet left I went upstairs to get Oliver and take him for a walk. The sound of our footfalls seemed diminished, muted, and our pairing felt strangely lopsided without Henry at his usual post on my left. Yet the cold air braced me, the raindrops woke me up, and the exercise was a reminder of how necessary it is for me to play this nurturing role, to push through the tempting inertia of grief and look for sources of comfort and companionship. I’m so grateful we still have Ollie, who has always been the silent partner, thinking deep thoughts, as we like to say. He has let me cry on his shoulder more than once, but last night he called on us to rally, and loped around the room with legs splayed, rear end up, as if like me he’s experiencing these cycles of grief and absurdist comedy; I caught him sniffing Henry’s vacant bed this morning and sat down beside him to take it all in.

It’s hard to know what dogs understand. Hard to say what their experience of mortality and loss might be. I believe they live in the present better than most, so I’m trying to follow Oliver’s lead and allow the events of the moment to guide me. I have some projects at home to focus on, and cool damp walks to look forward to as spring approaches and the flowers start to bloom. There are tears left inside me and I know I’ll have to cry them out, but there is laughter already and joy ahead, too, and plenty of ways to share it.

So. We’re getting through this. And love is still alive.


Yesterday we put Henry down. That’s an odd phrase, as I see it written, as though he were a held object to be set aside, left behind.

He was suffering from spinal disease. For a while we held out hope, which spiked last Saturday until, in a moment of pure Henryish abandon, he slipped past me and raced down the stairs to see his dad. But that act of joy cost him dearly, because in the days afterward he was almost completely debilitated with unmanageable pain and an end to anything resembling happiness. He lost his appetite, his thirst. He wanted to be alone, instead of directly underfoot as usual. Every movement caused him to whimper with pain, and in his last days, even heavily medicated, he wandered around quivering and panting in an endless quest to find a comfortable position where he could rest. It was brutal. A heartbreaking thing to witness.

On Wednesday we lost hope. Every day seemed worse, every minute was hours long. The quality of eye contact between us had changed, and he refused to leave my side.

I called the hospice vet and made an appointment for Saturday, hoping to gather the family. Then, remembering how long those extra days would be for Henry, I rescheduled for Thursday afternoon.

The vet and her staff were lovely. Very gentle, very kind. Very patient with the floods of tears and all. Henry yelped at the first injection of sedative, but immediately afterward he hobbled over to the vet to apologize for having snapped at her, made his way over to me, then tried to circle back but buckled midway, half on and half off his blanket, and went to sleep.

There is an inherent nobility in animals when they have been mortally wounded. They go until they can’t go.

Henry died with his head in the palm of my hand. Put down, set aside, left behind.

I was his person and he was my steadfast friend.

Only one of us is hurting now.

Goodbye, Henry.