Books I’ve Read Lately (14 of Them)

Lately I’ve been finishing books I started reading in the last year or two — and enjoyed, but left unfinished. Today I’ll tell you about some of those, plus some books I finished more quickly, without leaving them to languish for months or years.

Meanwhile, the poster child for my problem is still unfinished: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (first published in 1862). I got about 150 pages in, loved it, and stopped. I recently restarted from the beginning. I’m further in now, but I still have over 1,200 pages to go; it’s the unabridged translation. I’m still loving it, but it’ll be a while before I can report completion.

Among the books I’ve finished, I read some just to read them. Others I read for research, because I’m attempting, as time permits, to learn the art, craft, and business of writing fiction. I enjoyed most of the books I list below in printed form and the rest as audio books.

After I decided this topic might make a fun blog post, I asked myself why I wanted to write it. There was time enough to wonder; some of my writing languishes unfinished for months, like my reading.

On reflection I don’t think my motive is to dazzle you with the breadth and depth of my reading; I know too many people who read far more than I do to be impressed with myself in this way, or to think you’ll be impressed. Besides, if I were trying to impress you, I’d probably exclude at least two or three of the books I’m about to mention. You’ll know which, I think, when you get to them.

It’s more a matter of my enthusiasm for books in general, for some (not all) of these particular books, and for people who read books. When I read a book, I want to talk about it. You’re welcome to join me.

For Latter-day Saints, the Temple Is for Life Outside the Temple (an essay)

Mount Timpanogos Utah Temple. Photo courtesy the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at churchofjesuschrist.org.

These thoughts are primarily for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who generally understand what we do in our temples and why, and how the temple connects to the gospel of Jesus Christ as we understand it. In case that’s not you, and you’d still like to make sense of the following, let’s take a few paragraphs first and try to give you a foothold.

The Temple: Quick Background

In ordinary times Latter-day Saints meet for worship every Sunday, on our Sabbath, in the local chapel. (Sometimes we call it a meetinghouse or simply a church.) There are thousands of them scattered around the world; they are thick on the ground in Utah suburbs and cities and parts of neighboring states. In the rural Idaho village where I spent my teen years, we had one post office, no stoplights — and three large Latter-day Saint meetinghouses, including two on the same road, a mile and a half apart.

We have far fewer temples in the world, only about 200. These are closed on Sundays. A Latter-day Saint will go to the temple for his or her own rites only two or three times in a lifetime.

I Made Muffins (a short story)

What would you say if you were standing at the front door of a nice guy you just met, and it was 6 a.m. and still dark, and you were delivering fresh baked goods he wasn’t expecting, but you hadn’t rung his doorbell yet because you hadn’t figured out what to say, and he opened the door and found you there?

I said, “Here. I made muffins,” and held out a paper bag with two large muffins. They were fresh from the oven.

He took it, smiling faintly. His eyebrows were all the way up to where his hairline might once have been. Now he had no hairline. But he could have looked quite a lot worse. If he’d had an oversized mustache, and little tufts of fur protruding from his ears and nose, he’d have looked like Mr. Nixon, my middle school principal.

That’s what I had thought at the Christmas Eve party, 34 hours earlier. Now I could hardly think at all.

The Old Man and the Chicken (a short story)

The tiny old barn had a sloping metal roof and walls made of scrap two-by-fours, laid flat, staggered like long bricks, nailed together, and painted barn-red on the outside against the weather. It had stood for 63 years and might stand as many more.

The only window was covered with chicken wire, because half the barn had long been used as a chicken coop. In winter, to conserve heat, the opening was covered inside and out with clear, thick plastic. It always came off in the spring, until one year the old man hadn’t bothered to remove it. He was too tired, and he knew he’d still be too tired in the fall, when it was time to put it back on.

The chickens would be fine in the summer heat anyway, he reasoned. He could leave both doors open during the day. The side door led to an outdoor run that was twenty feet square and fenced tightly enough to keep the skunks out. In front the inner door was a screen of sorts, a hinged wooden frame with more chicken wire. The solid plywood outer door was weathered but intact.

A metal handle turned, hinges creaked, and the old man appeared in the doorway. He carried a tall, four-legged stool and a bulging plastic grocery bag that was starting to tear near the bottom.

“Just me, chicken. Where are you?”

Nine Roses and Three (a short story)

February 13

Dear Mary Beth,

I don’t know whether they have the same holidays or even the same calendar where you are – or if time means anything there at all. I’ve heard that it doesn’t. But it’s Valentine’s Day again here. Well, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.

I’ve been counting. Tomorrow will be the sixth Valentine’s Day since you left. I still love you, and I still miss you every day and every night.

I spent today making preparations. You can imagine how that goes at my age. What I could have done in half an hour before, without a second thought, took the whole day. It was exhausting, and there were some frustrations. But it was a good day, because I was doing it for you.

They don’t send out as many ads with the newspaper any more, or in the mail either. I guess everything is on the Internet now. Everyone is probably on the Internet too, except me. I’m too old to need an Internet. I’ll be 87 in April, but you know that already. You’d have been a youthful 83 last month, but you know that, too.

Unmanned (a very short story)

We were camping. My neighbor Joe and I didn’t want to be camping – that night or ever, really – but our ten-year-old sons begged and pleaded and even did extra chores, so we had to take them camping.

Overnight. In the mountains. Sleeping in tents. But not really sleeping. Trying to sleep.

It wasn’t all bad. The moonless night was warm and clear, and the thick blanket of stars we saw above us between the treetops was amazing. But for me – apart from the disorientation of being off the grid, with no Internet and no cell service – it was all about the fire.

The fire kept the animals away, or so I supposed – bears, coyotes, whatever. Somebody said there weren’t any wolves, but there were bobcats and mountain lions here and there. Eventually we’d have to put the fire out. I was more than nervous about that, but only a little afraid.

Joe was a different matter altogether. He was paranoid, neurotic – not in a clinical sense, perhaps, but not in a particularly manly sense either. Park him in front of a computer or hand him a golf club or make him give a speech in front of 5,000 people, and he was right at home. Take him into the mountains or onto a body of water, and he turned to pudding. Not one of your quieter puddings.

Falling Off My Shoes (a very short story)

When Mr. Bingham asked, “Why did Nixon go to China?” I kept a straight face and raised my hand.

He nodded to me. “Ms. Morgenstern?”

“To make American Chinese food great again?”

Others laughed, but he didn’t. “After class, please. Now, serious answer, anyone?”

I raised my hand. When no one else did, he nodded to me again.

“Why am I in trouble, but Mark isn’t? His jokes haven’t even been funny lately.”

I knew the reason. Mark Williams was the teacher’s pet.

Morons hooted behind me. Bingham pursed his lips. “Everyone, Monday will now feature a quiz. Fifty words on the significance of Nixon in China.”

Marie (a very short story)

I met Marie in the hallway after school. “The race is tomorrow,” I said. “We should sign up.”

“The three-legged race?”

“Yeah.”

Running the three-legged race together was what seventh-grade couples did on the next-to-last day of school, at the Outdoor Games.

For two months Marie and I had sat together at lunch, in assemblies, and on field trips. Being a couple was way better than her poking me in the back with her pencil in Algebra. I’d never been so happy. I had already prepared something to write in her yearbook on the last day of school – right after the morning movie, where I hoped to hold her hand for the first time.

“I’m sorry, Kenny.” Her big, brown eyes matched her words.

“You don’t want to race?”

“No, I do.”

“I don’t understand.”

I thought I saw her chin quiver, and she looked down. “I already signed up.”

“Oh, good. I didn’t know. Think we’ll win?”

I liked her blond curls, her sprinkling of freckles, and her smile, but she wasn’t smiling now.

“Not with you. With Bobby.”

Maybe my heart didn’t stop, but it started to hurt – for two reasons. The second one was, Bobby was my best friend.