Search This Blog

Monday, November 27, 2023

Dear Faraway Friends


Sunday, November 26, 2023


Those of you as far from me geographically as Seattle, Washington … Tucson and Dos Cabezas, Arizona … northern and central Illinois … and, coming closer, Kalamazoo, Michigan … all of you are in my thoughts today, but Leelanau County and Traverse City friends seem “faraway,” too, as the first real snow accumulates in the yard and on the roof of my old farmhouse. I’m not feeling isolated. Cozy, rather. It’s so lovely, after a busy week, to have a whole day at home, me and Sunny Juliet, with nowhere else we need to be. -- Wait, wait, wait! I did not mean to forget those in Minnesota, New York State, the U.P, and Brazil!!!


Did I say it was a busy week? Monday was a trip to Traverse City for new snow tires. I took Frederick Franck’s Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing to read while the tires were being mounted, because just reading Franck’s books is a meditation -- actual drawing practice that much more so, however, and something I want to get back to this winter. Tuesday I cut a tiny little pine tree and took it to the bookstore, then cancelled agility class for Sunny and me, needing those four hours at home to mix cookie dough and shop for Thanksgiving. Wednesday was my day to decorate the bookstore tree, along with accepting deliveries of new books, and that evening I began preparations for the next day’s dinner. 

Like Charlie Brown, I love my little tree!

Because Thursday, of course, was Thanksgiving! A different kind of holiday for me this year, as I fixed turkey dinner for a friend and took it to his house to share the meal with him. This man was like a brother to the Artist for many years, they were that close, so I would tell people, “He’s like my brother-in-law,” and now he has forgotten the Artist and had no clue who I was, either. He knew me a few short months ago, but when I arrived at his house on Thursday afternoon, having called the previous Saturday to tell him I would be coming, he asked, “Do we know each other? Do you live around here?” When I reminded him it was Thanksgiving, he was astonished. Still, he was pleased to have company, and his appetite was good. It was strange to be with someone so familiar to me, whose house is so familiar to me, as well, a friend with whom the Artist and I shared many holidays past, but for whom I am now become a stranger. How much more difficult it must be for family members in such a situation….


Friday evening was a cookie baking session with my friend Susan, accompanied by lots of visiting, naturally. (Susan and I shared happy memories!) Then at last came Saturday! Horses in Northport! (Sadly, for me, on a shorter loop this year that did not include Waukazoo Street, but I think that was to avoid long wait times for all the families who wanted the horse-drawn village tour.) Activity gatherings and open houses all through the town! And at 6 o’clock, Santa turned on the tree lights. What a day!

Carolers at the bookstore

Darkness falling...

Fire truck in front of bookstore, blocking traffic...

Passerby stopping to admire artist Deborah Ebbers's work...

Crowd awaiting Santa and tree lights...

Our beautiful village tree!!!

So you see why I was ready for a Sunday of rest!


After busy days all week I turned at bedtime to re-reading: Ellen Airgood’s The Education of Ivy Blake and Walter Mosley’s Walkin’ the Dog. Two very different works of fiction, but both favorites of mine, with characters I love and satisfying but not simplistic conclusions. Writers whose work means a lot to me. Another comforting young person’s novel was Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake. Enright really knew her botany! Then, beginning Friday night, came a first-time read, The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, by Alexander McCall Smith, Not one from any of his series but a stand-alone tale from World War II England and Germany -- and not sugar-coated, either, but still, in the most difficult decisions his characters must make and in the complicated emotions they experience, delivered with Smith’s characteristic gentle wisdom. Peter Woodhouse, by the way, is a dog….


Now two nonfiction books, both begun but neither more than one-quarter read yet, await. Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose, needs no introduction or explanation. The other, Beyond the Outer Shores, by Eric Enno Tamm, is the story of the man who inspired Steinbeck’s “Doc” in Cannery Row, and I’m learning a lot more about Steinbeck, too, namely, his friendship with Ed Ricketts and their collaboration on tidewater collecting expeditions. Fascinating. 

Ricketts and Steinbeck on the Pacific shoreline, Enright delighting in her bogs. For me the natural world these days is snowy meadow, woods, and orchard -- 

And yet, although I could not possibly be more at home than here in my Leelanau farmhouse, it felt strange this month not to be crossing the country from Great Lakes to Southwest, as the Artist and I had done for several years and as I did once again last year with Sunny Juliet, from the north woods and Great Lakes to prairie to Great Plains to high plains and mesa lands and finally mountains. My little ghost town neighborhood, our “mountain family,” so far away! One friend there sent me a Thanksgiving video her son made of wildlife in their yard (deer, fox, coati mundi) and her house and yard and the entire ghost town from a drone overhead, a video I know I’ll watch over and over. The music with it is perfect, too.

Other years ... another life

But here I am in my own beautiful home place! And it is snowing! What kind of a winter will it be? I remember my first northern Michigan winter, Traverse City in 1970-71, when it was never not snowing, whenever I looked out a window, and the icicles grew like stalactites from roofs to the ground. Bundling up my toddler to pull him on his little sled to the tiny Oleson’s store on Front Street a couple of blocks from our house was an expedition that consumed half a morning! 


Whatever comes this year, right now it’s good to be in a warm house, looking forward to homemade turkey soup and meanwhile catching up on desk work and housework, with periodic breaks for outdoor dog fun. Winter is underway, my friends. And when spring comes again, we older ones will be looking back and saying that, in retrospect, winter flew by. I already know that will be true.


May everyone traveling today be prepared and safe, and may the freeing of hostages from Gaza continue with maximum happy results -- until all are once again home.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

From the Fringes -- Grateful

At some point in the life of this blog – and I can’t tell you the exact date when it began – I began to refer to him as “the Artist” rather than as “my husband” or by name, following a kind of minor tradition among bloggers, who often use first-letter capitalized common nouns to stand in for the names of steady partners who play a part in their stories. My point today is that until he died in early March 2022, I was married to an artist whom I called the Artist, because in my life he was the one who counted.


His studio and gallery, in the same building as my bookstore, had a separate entrance, but a doorless doorway connected my bookstore to his space. Nevertheless, on busy summer days, with people coming and going for hours through our respective domains, both of us living days brimful of talk and laughter with friends and strangers, along with sales of books and paintings, we might not see each other until day’s end, when at last we had time to share accounts of what had transpired in our side-by-side but separate realms. Both in those physical spaces and in our lives beyond Waukazoo Street, his art world and my book world intersected and overlapped and enriched our life together year after year. In this bookstore blog I called him the Artist. His name was David Grath.


The late years of our winter life (“seasonal retirement”), from 2016 to 2021, were different from summers in a Michigan tourist region. In a small rental cabin in a ghost town in the mountains of southeast Arizona we lived, as he described it to friends, “joined at the hip,” or, “in each other’s pockets.” Each of us had a corner of the cabin for reading and writing and thinking. Beyond that, the kitchen area was pretty much mine to arrange and reign over, while he was guardian and ruler of the television (with an antenna on the roof, several stations came in clearly) and DVD player, their remote controls a complete mystery to me, but we were within physical reach of each other more often than not. 

Early days in Arizona ...

... when our spaces were yet spare.

Summers, we drove separate cars to work. Having me on hand next door to answer questions of visitors to his gallery, he was free to take leave whenever the spirit moved him – to visit artist friends in their studios; to take the slow “county cruises” he loved, soaking in the landscape for future work; to attend to little jobs that needed doing back at home. My summer days were spent on Waukazoo Street; his were there and elsewhere. 

Out on the town -- Willcox, AZ

Again, Arizona winters were different. With a single car between us, it was a rare day when one left the cabin without the other. Instead, almost always, after I returned from a long morning ramble on foot with one dog or the other (we only ever had one at a time, but two figured in those years of cabin life), he and I, usually with dog, would set out on the road, armed with water and snacks, books and notebooks and sketchpads. We might have a destination in mind when we left home base, but those days were always revisable, each one an improvisation. There were forays up to Tucson or into Santa Cruz County to see friends, as well as expeditions north to Safford on a favorite mountain road; the majority of our explorations, however, took place in Cochise County, our home base. The second year I worried that it would be old hat for the Artist, no longer an adventure, that he--not in love with Cochise County as I was--would find our surroundings boring. One winter after another went by, though, and we never exhausted the possibilities. Never got to Ramsey Canyon or King Ranch, for instance. Besides revisiting favorite places more than once (Faraway Ranch, for instance, in the Chiricahua National Monument; Turkey Creek Road; Whitewater Draw), we kept discovering unfamiliar and exciting places easily reached on day trips: a shortcut across the Sulphur Springs Valley or a back road to Bisbee, a new coffee house or junk shop or shady stretches of the San Pedro River that held running water.

Of course, our life together had not always been divided between Michigan and Arizona. Years earlier, before and following a spate of Florida winters (Weeki Wachee first, then Aripeka), we had stayed put, first in Leland, later in our old farmhouse between Leland and Northport. One year, snowed in for a week in Leland, we would walk “downtown” every day: Main Street, only two blocks from our house, had everything we needed--post office, bank, the Early Bird for coffee, the Merc for groceries, and the library on the other side of the bridge. Earlier still had been the Kalamazoo years. After we moved to the Leelanau Township farmhouse in 2001, winter was more challenging, but we still managed even when the power was out – once for four days. Our stove and fireplace worked on propane, and we had candles and oil lamps. “This is how old Joe and his wife lived,” he observed one of those cold, snowy evenings. Winters meant adventure at home.


But life with the Artist had always been an adventure. Short on money in Kalamazoo (“I’m tired of being poor,” my son complained, and my husband told him, “We’re not poor, we’re just broke”), we visited flea markets and thrift shops and had wonderful, far-ranging conversations over endless cups of coffee, our untethered imaginations reaching far beyond our physical surroundings. For every day of life constrained by finances, we had years of dream lives in which we created a combination tea shop and bookstore in Kalamazoo; raised shallots and rabbits in Leelanau County; lived part-time in Montreal; and furnished a pied-à-terre in Paris with finds from the Marché aux Puces de St.-Ouen. We never stayed in the cheapest U.P. or Wisconsin motel room without redesigning and refurnishing it in our combined imaginations, in case we were ever “on the lam” (don’t ask me for what!) and had to live in that one room. We “wrote” screenplays during car trips or, again, over coffee – that is, talked our way through the films as we invented them, committing nothing to paper but having a wonderful time envisioning the development of our stories on the big screen.


The artist’s life is not an easy one, nor is the bookseller’s life a road to riches, but the two of us were never in it for the money. For years I carried in my purse a tiny strip of paper from a fortune cookie (opened in spring of 1987) that read, “Your path is arduous but will be amply rewarded.” A forecast fulfilled: My path has been amply rewarded. (And yes, there were also arduous times.) My love and I made a rich life together, and my life alone continues to be enriched by what he brought to it, as chance encounters reveal more and more memorable stories people share with me about conversations they remember having with David. He had a gift for making memorable moments and hours.


Harlan Hubbard wrote of his life with Anna that they lived “on the fringe of society.” While Grath life cannot be compared to Hubbard life, in many ways ours also was lived on the fringes. Michigan, after all, is not either Coast. (“By the time an idea gets here from one of the Coasts, it’s worn so thin you can see right through it.” Someone I know quoted that to me. I have no idea who said it first.) My artist husband was not shy about saying that he wanted to create beautiful work. (To make art that shocked was never his aim.) I have written no books but have been faithful to this modest blog since fall of 2007. Far from the world’s power centers of art and commerce, we pursued work that felt valuable to us.


Well, now comes an unexpected postscript to the Artist’s life: The French translator of Jim Harrison’s work has unearthed two screenplay treatments, written in 1977, by David Grath & Jim Harrison, and the English pages have been translated and will appear in a new “omnibus” edition of Jim’s work from an imprint of Éditions Gallimard in Paris, the tentative release date November 2024. How thrilled the Artist would be! He had such a good time writing those treatments with Jim (neither ever sold, let alone produced), and to think they will be in a book published in Paris – he would be over the moon!


So that’s my news from Northport today. – No, one more piece of news, this one very local: Not only on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but every Saturday in December, from 3 to 6 p.m., there will be horse-drawn wagon rides through the village. The horses are Clydesdales, the wagon bright red and festively decorated, so December Saturdays in Northport will be wonderful days for residents and visitors alike.


And yet one more (last?) note. I’ve been writing Books in Northport since September 2007. If you enjoyed this post and have friends who might appreciate it, also, please share a link. Comments here are always welcome, too. Thank you for your support – for my blog and for my bookstore!


And Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Window on Waukazoo Street

Monday, November 13, 2023

And here is the envelope, ready to open --

Happy morning sight, courtesy of SUNSHINE!

My top nonfiction picks of 2023 -- so far (the year isn't over yet) -- are not rank-ordered or alphabetical, as I limited the list to four books. First is one I read most recently, but all four work together in my mind. Maybe they would do the same in yours.

But first I should delay the opening of the envelope, shouldn't I? Quack on about the weather a bit, draw out the suspense? You already see by my opening image that we have sunshine this Monday morning in Leelanau County -- and what a lovely gift it is! I took time out from a big cleaning-sorting-reorganizing-decision project to hang laundry outdoors on the line and get Sunny up to the dog park in Northport after picking up my mail. On our way to the village, we stopped along one of my favorite back roads, too, but I'll save that image for the end of my post and use cloudier photographs between beginning and end to highlight the contrast. 

Tamarack on the first of November

But now -- the books!


Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, by Katherine May. 


Author Katherine May, though suspicious of groups, says she craves more and more being part of a congregation but doesn’t know where to start. “Nowhere has ever seemed to fit.” She doesn’t want to insult any religious community by making only a partial commitment, being a “wavering presence in the room,” and she is also “wary of stealing from traditions” and “cherry-picking the comforting parts of complex religious traditions – usually the aspects that tell us everything’s okay – and ignoring the counterbalancing obligations….”  But her strong sense is that we in the West have let ourselves lose childhood’s enchantment (“small wonder magnified by meaning”) by considering it “childish,” and let ourselves become indifferent to it. May wants enchantment back, and she courts it at the seaside, on hilltops, in the presence of stars and of fire. Who doesn’t want to be carried away, if only for a few fleeting moments? (Where do you court enchantment?)

Clouds, light, and color always enchant, don't they?

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, by Naomi Klein. 

At first Naomi Klein paid only peripheral attention to what she refers to as the “antics” of the “other Naomi,” but as Naomi confusion grew larger and larger, Klein gradually became obsessed with her double. You would be, too, if people kept attributing views to you that you had not only never expressed but never espoused! Klein is not, however, a shallow thinker, and her investigations went much deeper than the phenomenon of finding herself confused, on social media and elsewhere, with another writer with the same first name. “As I shadowed my double further into her world … I found myself confronting yet more forms of doubling and doppelganging, these ones [sic] distinctly more consequential.” In history, literature, and myth, a doppelganger is more than a confusing double. It can also be an unwelcome mirror, a warning. On social media, Klein points out, everyone presents a doppelganger of his or her real self, and while we in our 21st-century doppelganger culture are paying attention to one another’s doubles and perfecting our own, we are distracted from and neglecting to notice more important changes in our world. This is a serious book, but it also contains funny moments. It is personal and at the same time important. I highly recommend it. (Did you ever wish you had a twin?)

Can you tell them apart? They don't care.

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, by Susan Cain. 

This book by the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is probably not for everyone. Maybe there is no single book that would speak to all readers, but Bittersweet certainly spoke to me last winter with its meditation on “longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world,” and I don’t think it was only because grief had entered my life (although grief does have a way of cracking one open to small beauties and pains of everyday life, as well as to the feelings of others). But I can’t remember a time in my life without an acute awareness of passing time. “Always at my back I hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” were lines that seem to have been with me always. (I wonder if there is a connection between introversion and feelings of life’s bittersweetness. If Cain addressed that question, I have forgotten her answer. What do you think?)

Sunny loves tart wild apples, both for play and for snacking.


The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by Iain McGilchrist. 

When this dense, heavy book first came into my hands, I skimmed the brain science and impatiently turned to the second part, focused on history. On my next reading, however, I determined to read more carefully from the beginning. There is a lot of repetition (for emphasis, I’m sure, not for “padding”), and not only does McGilchrist convince me, but I now read and look back on past reading through his lens

For instance: 

(1) I see May’s search for enchantment (see above) as a longing to recover the right brain’s “desire or longing … toward the Other.” 

(2) Tempting as it is to see those lost in Klein’s “mirror world” (see above again) as suffering under enchantment, I see them more as people who have abandoned enchantment and ambiguity for certainty, the left brain’s rigidity not allowing anything into the picture that would cast doubt on what it already “knows.” 

(3) Even Cain’s “bittersweet” feelings, it seems, would be rejected by the left brain, whereas the right brain has always realized that “light and dark, birth and death – bitter and sweet – are forever paired.”

Socrates and Plato prioritized ideas [of things] over “things themselves,” and while Hume declared that neither inductive reason, deductive reason. nor both combined were adequate to put together complete knowledge (implicit bodily/sensory/social background underlies all the rest, as Bergson and the phenomenologists finally realized, also), much of science to this day, and far too much of politics, continues to be ruled by the left brain’s hierarchies, rules, categories, etc. Even religious experience, when translated into theology and creeds, loses itself in left brain re-presentations of what was once known without mediation.

Leaves in the understory, overstory bare, sky cloudy

My favorite 2023 nonfiction list was longer at first, but I decided that these four will constitute my top recommendations for the year so far, because they came together for me, ideas from each strengthening and reinforcing and enriching ideas and thoughts from the others. I was reminded of my first semester in university, when everything I was learning -- drama, psychology, rhetoric, etc. -- seemed connected to everything else in a way that astonished and delighted me. 


I have yet to read either of the new books on private equity companies (my new self-study subject), books ordered for the bookstore and in stock now (one with “Plunder” as its title, the other with “plunderers” as part of its title), but one was featured in an interview on NPR with the author only the other day. 

There were also several other beautifully done and moving nonfiction titles in my reading since January. Among the latter group were: 

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts; Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, by David Abram; Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, by Andrea Elliott; My Venice and Other Essays, by Donna Leon; Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth, by Marcia Bornerud; The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, by Florence Williams; Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power, by Susan Page; and Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz. 


Every book in the longer list is worth reading, and as my short list is a highly personal selection, if my top recommendations leave you cold you may be more strongly drawn to titles in the unannotated list. Or perhaps you have (and I hope you do!) your own top nonfiction picks to share. Are there books of history, memoir, essays, science, politics, or economics that made strong impressions on you this year? Anything you wish everyone in the country would read? 

Glorious blue sky!

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Toasty Times Are Here

Beech leaves

First, fall color report: Red and orange and yellow are giving way to brown and gold. I’ve written here before, earlier this fall and in years past, that beech leaves in the fall make me think of buttered toast dripping with honey. Now that November is upon us, beech leaves are less yellow, more brown, and the oaks have turned a rich brown, also. Both oaks and beeches, especially the young ones, will hang onto some of their dark, papery leaves all winter.


Oak leaves in full sun do have a warm look, don't they?

The French have two words for brown: brun/brune (a hair color, for example) and marron/marrone,  used more often and also one of two names for chestnuts and the chestnut tree (which also goes by the name chataigner -- but see the blue box on this site if you want to increase your confusion), with marron also used as slang to refer to something strange or bizarre. C’est marron! If you want to refer to the color called 'maroon' in English, however, go for bordeaux in French. Like the wine. Oui, c'est marron!

-- Non, ce sont des chênes!

Lakeside oaks

Brown leaves, blue sky

With toasty colors outdoors, it’s time to reach for sweaters and comforters indoors, and I would willingly have sacrificed an hour of after-midnight dark on Sunday in order to have daylight seem to come earlier – I get confused by time changes -- but no! We were gaining an hour (of reading or sleep) to achieve the earlier morning light. (How we humans pretend! “It’s really 8 o’clock, but we’re pretending it’s 7 o’clock” is how I explain the time change to myself.) Earlier morning light is very welcome! Not so welcome is the increase in evening darkness, but next month we’ll turn the corner, I tell myself. It’s good that the equinox comes in December, so that each cold day in January and February we have a tiny bit more daylight.

There she is!

Meanwhile, only on Saturdays now is my bookstore open until 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, if there’s no one browsing at 3 p.m., I turn out the shop lights, lock the door, and go home to my dog, staying until 5 only on Saturdays. My bookstore was so busy last Saturday! I was surprised and gratified by all the number of visitors, browsers, and book buyers. Most of first two groups were also members of the third group, I'm happy to say.

Last week we had sunshine three afternoons in a row, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – and then again for most of Saturday! Basswood and black walnut trees in my yard had dropped all their leaves and stood bare, letting the sun reach accumulated leaves on the ground as Sunny Juliet and I enjoyed light and fresh air along with exercise. Every sunny hour this time of year is a gift. Soon the silver maple leaves will fall, carpeting the ground, leaving bare branches holding up the sky. (Monday: I think today's bitter cold wind will achieve that result!)

Meanwhile, indoors next to my bed these books await my attention: History of the Rain, a novel by Niall Williams; Lexington: The Extraordinary Life and Turbulent Times of America’s Legendary Racehorse, by Kim Wickens (this is a nonfiction account of the horse featured in the Geraldine Brooks novel); To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey From Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger; Meriwether: a novel of Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by David Nevin; and an ARC of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new novel, The Waters, due to be released in January. 

I’m trying to save my reading of the Campbell book as a Christmas present to myself. Or maybe Thanksgiving weekend, if I can even wait that long.

The rest? I can’t say I’ll get through them all this month, what with the chance, as happens frequently, that something not in the stack will present itself and cut in line, so to speak -- an ever-present danger of owning a bookstore! After what seems like a lifetime of school and assigned reading, it still feels like a luxury to pick up whatever appeals to me at any given moment, and heaven knows we need little comforts and simple luxuries to keep us going, with winter’s dark and a strife-riven world pressing in upon us.


Previous post was my top fiction picks of 2023 from January through October, and next post will be top nonfiction. By the way, a handful of people left comments on my last post, but not a single one chimed in with a favorite novel read this year, and I know that some of you have read novels this year! One person left a new comment on a very old post, recommending a work of fiction from Scotland. Anyone else have recommendations? Anyone?

Another note, not about cold wind: If the only person who comes in the bookstore today was the one who wanted to tell me how much he loves Bonnie Jo Campbell's Q Road, my day was made!


Thursday, November 2, 2023

Repeats and First Times: These Are Mine; What Are Yours?

Last week in Traverse City --

Morning sunshine brought out orchard gold in Leelanau, as those cherry trees not yet bare of leaf burst into song. I burst into smiles myself when the sun came out, feeling as if an old friend not seen in ages had suddenly called my name from across the road. While the gold of the tamarack seems tarnished now, dulled from its brightness of only days ago, there is still a lot of yellow and orange and warm burnt umber in the landscape. I’ll add a few more end-of-October images as I go along so you can see what I mean.

Morning sun on Leelanau cherry orchard --

Tuesday of last week Sunny and I got to our new agility class for the first time, passing through a torrential downpour to get there. This week we had sunshine for the drive but a little scare with the tire pressure warning light in my car, necessitating an unscheduled stop at the tire shop. Sunny behaved beautifully! Not a single bark! I was so proud of her. When we got to class, though, my confidence for the sport was low, Sunny’s energy much too high, and she was so wild on our first turn through the course that she had to be put on-leash. By our third turn, however, she acquitted herself well, so I felt better driving home through snow squalls. Typical Michigan Halloween weather!

Sunny at Juniors -- being a good dog!

Halloween snow!


Seasons are repeats, though never identical from one year to the next. When I re-read a book, as I often do, each reading differs slightly from previous experiences, so that re-reading favorite books is always for me a rich experience. My focus for today, however, is on novels I read this year for the first time and thus, those at the top of my recommended fiction list from 2023.


What order should I use to present them? Alphabetical by author? By title? Chronological in the order read? In the order published? Considering and rejecting all these possibilities but also thinking that the order of presentation really doesn’t matter at all, I decided to be whimsical and list in reverse alphabetical order of author’s last name.

Asparagus in autumn is beautiful.

Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. I wrote a bit about this historical novel back in August, somewhat amazed at myself for reading it at all. In the past, I was not much of a reader of historical novels: I thought of them as genre fiction, somehow less than literary, but such certainly cannot be said of Yourcenar’s fiction (nor of many of the other historical novels I have recently found so engrossing). Nor was I ever drawn to the Roman Empire. But Memoirs of Hadrian captivated me. I read it in French and intend to read it again in English translation – and then probably again in both languages in my future re-reading.


Straight, Susan. I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. This is an amazing novel. ‘Amazing’ is one of those words I seldom use, as it seems used far too often for books, movies, ideas, events, etc. that are far from amazing, but Sorrow’s Kitchen, like Memoirs of Hadrian, is a tour de force. The main character, Marietta, is like no other fictional woman I’ve ever met before. Born into an isolated Gullah community in South Carolina, Marietta is physically and imposingly large, “blue-black” like her father, silently observant, and self-reliant. The course of her life, as is true of every human life, is in part self-chosen and in part shaped by circumstance, but Marietta’s response to circumstance is all her own. Many reviews describe as “lyrical” books that do not seem that to me at all. Straight’s novel is lyrical. It also rings true. Marietta is not an easy character to know, but as her essence slowly unfolds every reader will want a happy ending for her. Read this book!


Gloss, Molly. The Hearts of Horses. Back at the beginning of August, I wrote that The Hearts of Horses was the horsiest novel I had ever read. In that earlier post I also wrote of the Gloss novel (repeating myself here for those who don’t follow links), that The Hearts of Horses takes place in the period of World War I: “Although far from the fighting, some of the farmers and ranchers in Gloss’s novel are swept up in a jingoism that puts their German immigrant neighbors in peril. There is also discussion between the characters of the fates of the thousands of horses shipped over to Europe to become cannon fodder or shell-shocked survivors right along with the soldiers. The main story, however, takes place out West. It is no longer open, fenceless rangeland, but big-boned teenager Martha Lessen is determined to lead as free a cowboy life as she can and rides away from home to offer her services 'breaking' horses. Martha does not have much in the way of social graces, but, perhaps because she was so sensitive to the feelings of horses, she wasn’t bad at picking up cues about people’s feelings without having to have everything spelled out for her.” Like Marietta in Sorrow’s Kitchen, Gloss’s Martha is atypical of her gender, but she makes her own way, as does Marietta, and I loved this story, too.


Dorris, Michael. Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Why had I never read this novel before? When I look online now, I find that it is taught in university classes all across the country. Dorris was the first chair of Native American Studies at Dartmouth College but perhaps remembered most these days for having been the husband of Louise Erdrich. I won’t comment on any of that. I only want to say that this novel is beautiful and surprising. It could almost be described as three novellas, the first with a young woman as the main character, the second focused on the mother of the first, and the third going back to the Horse mother’s mother. Three generations, the youngest of mixed race, her father Black, mother Native American. Now there’s a problem, and I don’t have the book here to refresh my memory and can’t find the answer online: Is “Native American” as close as we get to First  Nation affiliation? Online search turns up the idea, sometimes in question, that Dorris was “part Modoc” on his father’s side. All we know of the three fictional characters in Yellow Raft is that their reservation is in Montana. But the novel can be looked at on its own, apart from all that (and the author’s suicide and so much that preceded it in his personal life), and my opinion of this book is that it holds up well as powerful fiction, each earlier generation shedding light on where the more recent finds itself. 


Brooks, Geraldine. Horse. Yes, another book of historical fiction, yet another horsey novel, but it wouldn’t get on my top fiction picks for 2023 for those reasons alone. Set partly in 19th-century America (the novels jumps back and forth between time periods), Horse tells the story of real-life Lexington, adding for the purposes of fiction an enslaved Black character and his free Black father, as well as a young mixed-race man in the sections of the book set closer to our own time. Brooks and Gloss write knowledgeably and convincingly about horses and no less so when it comes to their human characters. If you want a second opinion, one of my good friends here in Northport (an accomplished author herself) said that Horse was “the best book” she read this year! If you missed and want to read what I had to say about this novel in August, here is the link. 

And finally – 


Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. First a confession: I have yet to read The Handmaid’s Tale, though every year I swear that this winter I’ll finally get to it. It is not a matter of avoidance. Just hasn’t happened. But a friend brought me Hag-Seed, and because I have respect for her recommendations I sat down to read the book. Reading on the back of the book that the main character was reduced to a hut in the – was it woods? country? Whatever it was, that pulled me in, and I was immediately hooked. If you are a Shakespeare reader, if you have any experience with or love for live theatre, if you relish literary themes of betrayal and revenge, magic and illusion, you will be delighted with this story. About the title: "Hag-seed" is one of the epithets spat at Caliban in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," the play which forms the background and structure of Atwood's novel, life mirroring drama and containing drama of its own, of course. Absolutely brilliant. And entertaining!


There you have it, my top read-for-the-first-time novels of 2023, so far! There are two months left in the year, and more books await my first reading (including an ARC from an author who never disappoints), so I may be adding a couple works to this list before New Year’s is upon us. And really -- it is only coincidence that two of my top novels read this year could be called "horse books," given that very, very few novels for adults feature horses, let alone novels this good. It's also only coincidence that all but one book on this short list are by women authors. Another year it would have been different. 

Just because --

Next I suppose it would only be fair to name my top nonfiction picks. For now, though, what are your favorite novels from this year’s first-time reading? Note that they need not be newly published this year. Maybe you finally read a modern classic for the first time and would put that on your top picks list. Whatever your top recommendations are in fiction from your reading this year – that’s all I’m asking for today. 

Tamarack on All Saints' Day