That Teetering Stack of Books I Read in 2022 and 2023 (ish)

I love reading books, and I learned at least in time for graduate school to love writing about the books I read. My intention, these last two years or so, was to keep blogging about the books I read, as I had done sporadically for a while, then more methodically here, here, and here.

Those posts were fun to write, and they were well received, and the routine was simple enough. When I finished a book, I stacked it in a particular place until I had written about it here. Well, the stack has grow too large. I haven’t taken time to write about the books since September 2022, and I was playing catch-up then.

So today we catch up. I’ll list some books in passing but stop to chat about most, knowing full well I won’t do justice to any of them. Sixteen are fiction and grouped accordingly. Seventeen are nonfiction and separated into books about writing and others.

Christmasing with Preet (a Christmas short story)

There were 104 rooms – the sign called them “smart apartments” – in Verdant Meadows, the largest assisted living facility in town. So Alli made 104 identical holiday decorations to pin to the small, eye-level bulletin boards on the residents’ doors.

She worked for hours with her colored pencils, until she had drawn a poinsettia she could bear to have people see. She scanned it, arranged four identical images on a page, and added two words beneath each image in a legible but noticeably festive typeface: “Happy Holidays!”

She’d planned for the message to be “Merry Christmas,” but the manager of Verdant Meadows mentioned that about one in four residents didn’t celebrate Christmas. So she changed it. She didn’t want to offend a single person, let alone 26 strangers, with her signature good deed at Christmas. That would ruin the feeling.

She used her mother’s photo printer with a glossy photo paper, inspected each page for printing glitches, then meticulously cut the pages into quarter-sheets with a paper cutter. That way the cuts would be neat and the size uniform, and the decorations would stack beautifully until she and the other girls passed them out. She printed and cut one extra sheet, so she’d have two spares, plus one to keep for herself and one to enclose in her thank-you letter to the manager for giving his permission.

She’d been smiling ever since she finished her drawing. As her preparations neared completion, her smile grew. So did the warm Christmas feeling inside her. She wasn’t just using her artistic gift at Christmas, which was already a happy thing. She was also using her gift for organization to give her artistic creation to a hundred people or more – and to help the other girls get a warm Christmas feeling too, by making it possible for them to help her.

It was also nice that she could probably use this in the Volunteer Service section of her scholarship and college applications, and maybe some other things. But it was the feeling that mattered.

There Might Be Another Way (a short story)

Pia had slept as late as she dared on a Sunday. She slipped into a pew halfway up the right side of the chapel just as the bishop stepped to the pulpit to begin the weekly sacrament meeting. She’d looked almost human in the mirror before leaving home, which was pretty good, considering.

She listened conscientiously to the announcements, which had little to do with her, then sang the opening hymn, “Jehovah, Lord of Heaven and Earth,” with as much of her usual fervor as she could muster. Her focus drifted during the brief invocation by one of her neighbors. It drifted further during some quick items of congregation business. But she managed to keep trying, at least, to ponder the Savior and his sacrifice, as the deacons passed the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to the congregation. Everyone at church called the bread and water simply “the sacrament,” but in the privacy of her own thoughts she preferred the more solemn and evocative phrase.

The bishop announced the first speakers, a girl of about fourteen and an old man she’d seen on Sundays but didn’t know, and she drifted away again. She flipped to the Notes app on her smart phone, where she’d composed a sort of letter in the wee, desperate hours – a letter full of things she could never say or send to Doug, her back fence neighbor.

She saw him in his usual place, across the chapel, sitting alone, one row further back, in a heather gray suit (her favorite) and a gorgeous green necktie. She tried to envision him sitting with a wife, when he had one, but she didn’t know him then, and she’d never seen his ex.

She should have entered the chapel from the other side, even if it took half a minute longer to get to the other door. She could have asked to share his pew. He’d have agreed, of course – and she’d have been no more distracted than now. She should have left for church a minute earlier.

Doug’s posture was attentive, but she recognized the expression of a man who was somewhere else. He often looked like that, though not when he was teaching the adult Sunday school class or chatting with her afterward, and usually not in their occasional conversations over their common fence.

What she’d written overnight, as if to him, was unthinkable, but she couldn’t resist reading it again.

Beyond Ugly (a short story)

After 25 years it probably wasn’t even the same door, but it could have been. It led to the same school, the same fetid swamp of teenage cruelty. My grasping the handle unleashed a fresh deluge of memories. My arm trembled, and my knees went weak.

Obviously, the decision I’d been defending was a mistake. But it was also too late. It was too late not to go to my 25th high school reunion, because I was here.

I’d arrived in Stirton an hour early, having somehow missed the promised freeway construction delays. I freshened up in the tolerably clean restroom of a convenience store, then made my way to the campus where I’d spent the worst thirteen years of my education.

For the last half hour of my drive, my older sister’s voice in my hands-free car audio system had said pretty much what I’d told myself for weeks, even before I bought my reunion ticket online. Vicky and I were both right: “Kat, this is a bad idea.”

Stirton was a small town, where everyone knew everyone, and its only elementary school, only middle school, and only high school were right in a row, along one side of the state highway that doubled as Main Street. All three cinder block temples of learning had been built in the same decade, each just in time, give or take a year, for me to suffer in it.

Keep My Secrets? (a short story at Christmas)

I froze when Mom knocked. “Feel like driving to the airport?” she asked through my bedroom door.

“Why would I want to?” It seemed like a reasonable question.

She turned the knob but only cracked the door. “Because no matter how old you are, Mike, or how far away you go to school, I’m still your mother. May I open the door?”

I was home for the holidays, currently wrapping Dad’s Christmas gifts for Mom – which I was bad at, but he was worse. The real secret, if she could have seen it, was in my head. I was thinking about expanding the little business my parents didn’t know I ran at school, if I could do it without my grades slipping or someone ratting me out to the university. Demand exceeded my supply, even at the high end.

I buried the last unwrapped gift. “It’s safe.”

The door swung open. “Dad’s at work, Mallory’s helping me, I’m up to my armpits in cookie dough, and Jill’s flight lands in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, Kathy’s by the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck.” Her voice turned tired. “That’s why you want to, smart aleck. But mostly the mother thing.”

I smiled. “Okay already. You had me at tow truck.”

Her eyebrows arched. “Not at Jill?”

I shrugged. Jill was Kathy’s daughter, Kathy was Mom’s best friend, we were neighbors, and Jill and I had been friends since we were toddlers. We had one of those comfortable friendships you could pick up where you left off, after a month or a year. The thought of seeing her for the first time since last Christmas made me a little nervous, and our first minute might be awkward, but then it would be like old times.

“Thanks,” Mom said, and closed the door.

I was downstairs in ten minutes. It would have been three, but … Jill. A guy has to have some pride.

Her Voice (a short story)

There’s nothing like the sound of a mom reading to her children, when they’re your children too. It’s the exact opposite of their nightmares, the universal antidote to whatever imagined horrors the darkness may conceal. It works on me too, easing me away from today’s and tomorrow’s cares. And everything sounds better in Ann’s British accent.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. Read by Mum, for Jake and Amber.

“Once upon a time, there were four little Rabbits, and their names were…”

Jake and Amber are still young enough to enjoy snuggling in our bed for their bedtime stories, and they’re small enough to fit there between Ann and me. I’m in my pajamas because my bedtime is early too; I have to be on station by 5:00 a.m., almost an hour away. On work nights I hardly ever hear the end of the first story. I love falling asleep to Ann’s voice.

When it’s not a work night, I’m there for stories anyway. I love staying awake to her voice.

Sometimes in the middle of the night, half-awake for a fleeting moment, I’ll put my arm around the warm body beside me, and she’ll snuggle against me in her sleep and purr. At 3:45 a.m., when it’s time for me to get up, I try not to wake her, but she drowsily welcomes and sometimes returns a hug and kiss before falling back into sleep for a couple more hours.

I shower, dress, and pause for a moment in each child’s doorway, gazing happily on small, quietly slumbering forms in the pale white glow of the moon. Then it’s off to work.

That’s how things are for me at home, how they’re supposed to be. I’m not content with everything in my life, and I don’t always love a routine, but I love this one.

That is, I loved it until the storm came.

I Already Did (a short story)

Erin tried gently to pull me off the trail. It curved to the right; she wanted to go left. “Let’s go this way, Gary.”

The heavy overcast made it dark for late morning, but I’d have seen another path if it were really there.

We appeared to have the wilderness to ourselves for miles around, including the trail into the parched foothills, to what I thought was our destination. We’d hidden my scooter just in case, so no one would see it from the road, the trail, or the little parking lot.

“This is a perfectly good gravel path,” I said. “We’ll be less likely to meet snakes and other deadly things, if we stay on it.”

She smiled patiently. “Why is that?”

“Because things with claws, fangs, or big teeth know the humans use this path, so they probably avoid it. Unless there’s a bear waiting to steal our picnic basket.”

“I’m not sure it works that way.” She stared at the path, and her face darkened. “I don’t like this path. Too violent.”

I cocked my head and stared at her. “Too violent?”

“Look at all the little gravel,” she said. “You think it got that way on its own?”

“Got what way?” I rumbled. I loved her, weird thoughts and all, but today I was in no mood for crazy.

“All broken up, with sharp corners and rough edges. Imagine the violence required to turn ordinary rocks into this, so they can make a path out of it.”

I’d once heard a rock crusher at fairly close range. The sound was horrific, but it wasn’t from rocks screaming in agony or in fear of a painful death. You had to live to die.

“Besides, this path doesn’t go where we’re going,” she added, almost as an afterthought.

“Okay.”

We set off across the reddish ground, through the grayish sagebrush, toward a gap in the brownish foothills.

I Am Chuck Steak (a short story)

“It’s a meat market, Amber.”

My roommate’s face in the mirror looks a little hurt, because I’m complaining about church.

I’m in her room, tying one of my gym shoes, while she adds a little more curl to her long hair. I have a date with a treadmill. She has an actual date.

“The whole YSA ward thing’s a meat market, or just the pool party?” she asks calmly, not interrupting her work.

“The whole thing. The pool party itself is like the meat market’s huge Labor Day sidewalk sale.”

“Having a separate congregation for young single adults isn’t just about marrying us off,” she says, parroting the official line. It’s familiar, but I listen anyway. She always listens to me. “We get more opportunities for leadership and service, and the activities and programs can focus on our needs and interests.”

I cinch up the other shoe. “Plus we don’t have to go to church with all those women who have husbands and babies already, and be reminded that we don’t,” I add helpfully. Sort of helpfully.

“We don’t yet.” Amber’s an optimist.

“Right. Sorry. I shouldn’t complain. Again.”

She glances at me, smiling faintly, and turns back to the mirror. “It’s okay. I know you like it less than I do. But you’re still giving it a chance for a while, right?”