#4 The Strain

Cover of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's "The Strain"

Cover of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's "The Strain"I’ve just finished this in the last five minutes, so my thoughts haven’t fully gelled.

I found The Strain as a TV show on FX, where Guillermo del Toro’s involvement instantly had my full attention. I loved the show, so learning there were books (!) that came first was immensely exciting.

On holidays, my children know I want books. For my February birthday, my son asked what was on my list. I mentioned The Strain and he presented me with the whole trilogy. He likes matching sets, he explained, and was concerned I wouldn’t be able to find the same edition later.

If you’re a fan of the show, there are character absences to get used to – Dutch, easily understood, and Eichorst. No Eichorst, taunting Setrakian as A230385? But he too is unnecessary in this new but older scheme of things.

There are several shifts and losses here – Setrakian from a God-fearing teen to a man who knows evil roams the earth with little to check it, Eph Goodweather from a doctor who heals to someone who must rearrange his notion of death and learn to kill. But I’m early into the tale, and these explorations are best saved for when everything has unfurled.

This book taps into the most exciting part of dystopia – when the world is crashing down and those left are still trying to figure out the new rules. In this case, there is someone who believes he knows the rules, but even he does not have all of the information needed.

You know how when you finish a good book, you wish it hadn’t ended, that there was more? That’s what’s so great about trilogies. I’m picking up the next one in just moments.

Yay for another library!

Little Library on a wooden post in Bay City, Michigan

I first saw a Little Free Library downstate when I was taking my dog for eye specialist appointments. Bay City, Michigan, where I live isn’t small by some standards at just short of 35,000 residents, but it’s safe to say that most trends show up downstate first and then trickle upward.

I LOVED this idea, so much so that on one of my last trips to the area, I made certain to contribute some books. I also wanted to host a library, but not all my home’s residents were keen on inviting traffic to the yard.

Bummer, I thought. Bay City could use this.

Needless to say I was quite excited to spot one the other day as I was driving down Center Avenue. I knew immediately what it was:

Little Library on a wooden post in Bay City, Michigan

It’s at 2600 Center Avenue, just two houses off the rail-trail, so an excellent location. But its contents seemed a little sparse:

Closeup of contents of Bay City Little Free Library

Easy to solve. I gathered five contributions without even dipping into storage:

Covers of five books

The storage and gardening books I got from a friend who was cleaning out a parent’s house; the first I won’t use after all and the second covers information I have in other books. The “last suppers” was interesting but I won’t reread it. The Barnes & Noble edition of Frida Kahlo I also am done with, but I’m hanging on to the Dali book.

I’m most thrilled to get my talented friend Karen Totten’s work into someone else’s hands. I wanted to give some poetry away and wasn’t sure what I could part with, then found I somehow had two copies of this chapbook.

My husband had seen me leaving with books, so when I returned he was surprised to see one in my hand – Marie Kondo’s tidying cult manual. “It’s a library,” I reminded him. “I’ll read it and return it.”

I’ll probably send it back with some paper friends.

UPDATE, April 10: We get one in our neighborhood! I contacted the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy, which tends Discovery Preserve a few blocks from my house, to see if they would want to host a library. Turns out they’re installing one on Earth Day that was donated by the Bay County Library System and Bay City Noon Rotary Club, and plan to stock it initially with field guides and nature-oriented books for people of all ages. So now I can adopt that one.

#3 The End Has Come

Cover of The End Has Come

Cover of The End Has ComeI can think of few things I have loved reading this much.

The End Has Come is the final book in the Apocalypse Triptych edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. I think I stumbled upon it when I was looking for other work by Hugh Howey, whose Wool is among the best books I have ever read. (The followups, Shift and Dust, were not as tightly written but still satisfying additions to the tale.)

They had me at “apocalypse,” because post-apocalyptic dystopia is one of my two favorite genres (horror is the other).

The premise for this triptych is fascinating. To begin with, the books – The End Is Nigh, The End Is Now and The End Has Come – explore not just what happens after the apocalypse (volume III), but before and during it.

Covers of The Apocalypse Triptych

I was intrigued because I hadn’t read much about the lead up to an apocalypse. The genre slants much more toward, “Oh wow, we’re here. NOW what do we do?”

Ah, but it got EVEN BETTER! Adams explained in the introduction,

“But we were not content to merely assemble a triptych of anthologies; we also wanted story triptychs as well. So when we recruited authors for this project, we encouraged them to consider writing not just one story for us, but one story for each volume, and connecting them so that the reader gets a series of mini-triptychs within The Apocalypse Triptych.”

Many of the authors did just that. Some didn’t, and whether they chose to focus on the before or the after, they had thoughtful offerings. And the editors noted that it wasn’t vital to read all three books, which some people might find daunting; the authors filled in enough detail that you could pick up the second or third book and still make sense of the stories that were continuations.

Of course, the richest experiences were to be gained from reading each story triptych. This also made my reading much slower. I like to savor, not speed, anyway. But I found myself reading books two and three with their predecessors at my side, so I could refresh myself on the earlier chapters. And in the top right of each story title page, I inscribed Arabic numerals to notate whether there were parts 1 and 2, for example, or whether a story in the third book stood alone.

There are so many ways for the world as we know it to end. Disease, war, cosmic calamity, aliens, conspiracy. Or some combination, as Carrie Vaughn laid out so neatly in her standalone story, Bannerless:

“In isolation, any of the disasters that had struck would not have overwhelmed the old world. The floods alone would not have destroyed the cities. The vicious influenza epidemic – a mutated strain with no available vaccine that incapacitated victims in a matter of hours – by itself would have been survivable, eventually. But the floods, the disease, the rising ocean levels, the monster storms piling one on top of the other, an environment off balance that chipped away at infrastructure and made each recovery more difficult than the one before it, all of it left too many people with too little to survive on. Wealth meant nothing when there was simply nothing left.”

What keeps me tethered to this genre is the choices people make, the what ifs, the moral dilemmas, the swirling in the brain as I ponder whether I would have chosen the same.

I’m a huge Walking Dead fan, which puzzled my husband for a long time. “You know zombies aren’t real, right?” he said one day, I think in some frustration, because it wasn’t the only ZA show I watched (hi, Z Nation!). I told him he was missing the point: I didn’t care about zombies, which I knew to be a ludicrous notion even before Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out all the physiological reasons. They were just a story device, a trigger point. What kept me locked in was how people chose to live in these new worlds. That, he understood.

If you had the world to create again, or at least your corner of it, what would you want it to be – and why? That is the crux of this genre, and this triptych is overflowing with variant ways to explore it.

#2 Blood Percussion

Cover of Blood Percussion, a book of poems by Nate Marshall

Cover of Blood Percussion, a book of poems by Nate MarshallWhen I started choosing the first books I’d read this year, I quickly realized some of them would take a very long time – J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab, for example, which clocks in at 900-plus pages.

That’s a worthy inclusion, but no way could all 100 be that long because I have money to earn and other creatures in my life to acknowledge or they get cranky.

Around the same time I bought my first book of poetry in a long time, Neil Hilborn’s Our Numbered Days. He’s best known as the guy with the OCD poem on video, and I decided to buy his book. That put me on a mailing list for the publisher, Button Poetry. As publishers do, they hawked new products and offered specials.

Hey, I thought. Books of poetry tend to be short. I’ve hardly read any in years except for what my dear friend Karen Totten writes. I should get back to that. (And by “get back to,” I mean I wrote poetry for roughly a decade, even taking a few directed studies in college, before my last advisor inadvertently convinced me I had nothing to say. Maybe more on that another day.)

It was hard to tell much about the books, but among them I ended up choosing Blood Percussion by Nate Marshall. Turns out he earned his MFA from the University of Michigan, less than two hours down the road from me. But his previous world was nothing like that.

Marshall hails from Chicago’s South Side, specifically The Hundreds, a neighborhood label I’d never heard. The violence underlying much of his work is foreign to me. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like no matter how many poems and articles I read, no matter how many news clips and documentaries and movies I see. It’s not in my bones, and that’s a key difference.

His book gave me a window into his world. It’s a window from a high floor, not like being on a stoop. But his words are dramatic and uncluttered, cutting straight to the point without tossing aside his feelings. They’ll stay with me. I’ll share this book with others.

While poetry collections are brief – this one fewer than 30 pages – I don’t read them quickly. I read a poem or two, then lay the book aside. I want to absorb each message, not have them all wash together. If you choose to read poetry, I suggest the same approach.


#1 Zero History

Cover of William Gibson's Zero History

Cover of William Gibson's Zero HistoryFinally, after determining I’d read 100 books this year, I finished the first one today.

After picking it up off and on since late summer, I polished off William Gibson’s Zero History. Yes, it’s a hard copy, as virtually all of my books are. I stare at a screen all day for work; for leisure, I turn it away.

But not off. One of the charms of Gibson’s work is that I need a dictionary at hand, not often, but enough to keep a browser window open. (My hard-copy dictionary is the Oxford, and it’s a bit clunky for quick use.)

This book is the sixth of his I’ve read, closing out a trilogy with Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. I’ve seen this set called more accessible, as it is set in roughly contemporary time, but I find I’m pleased to have started with the much more challenging Neuromancer and the rest of the Sprawl trilogy. If I hadn’t been exposed to all that glorious weirdness, struggling to wrap my head around a few things, I wouldn’t have gone so all in on the rest of his work.

That said, while I have four more of his books on my shelf, I’ll be taking a break. There’s some dystopia and horror calling, and even a bit of poetry.

Maggie dozing while I read

I’m reading 100 books in 2017

One of my bookcases

One of my bookcases

Late last year I decided to read 100 books in 2017.

It was an easy call. I love reading and always wish I were doing more. My family got me some amazing books for Christmas.

Perhaps most critical from a “why I really HAVE to do this” standpoint is my determination to write in a long, focused way. I have pieces and scraps all over the place. They need to come together. I need to make them come together.

You can’t write if you don’t read. I deeply believe this. Hence, the personal challenge.

It occurred to me that other people probably have had the same idea and yep, it’s been a thing and I just didn’t know.

If you’re taking up the #100books challenge, let me know, especially if you’re posting about it. I’ll link back and we can check in on each other.

I found the Mashable post “What happened when I tried to read 100 books in a year” first and liked the idea of offering a 1-5 rating for each book, so I may do that. The Autodidacts post “What I learned by reading 100 books in a year” goes more into choosing books that deepen intellect and broaden outlook.

I won’t be doing much of that. From where I sit I can see a Twain book and Lincoln biography that are on the must-read list, but I know the Vietnam War history next to them, while important, would derail me. Maybe in 2018 I’ll read one challenging book per month.

This year, expect to see a lot of horror and dystopia, my favorites. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments.

I have two books that I already have begun, but I’ll be counting them. One is the third in a William Gibson trilogy, and I’m less than one-quarter through. The other is a horror anthology of which I’ve read only one story for far.

As I finish them, I’ll post covers and impressions. Some will be books I’ve read straight through, but I anticipate that some will take several months of picking up and putting down to complete. I’ll note that, too.

I am loving this already. Happy New Year indeed.

Reigniting my love affair with horror

A dark room for some dark reading.
A dark room for some dark reading.

I picked up keys and was heading out the front door shortly after my husband arrived home. Courtesy of one of the boys, dinner already was ready, even though it probably wouldn’t be eaten for another hour and a half.

“I’m going to the library,” I told him.


Was this a trick question? “To get books.”

I know there are plenty of other cool reasons to go to libraries. In fact, the one I was heading to, Sage Branch Library, is hosting a 3D printer demonstration in a few weeks and I am so there.

Still, when I head to a library, usually with my daughter, I tend to come home with a stack of books. In that regard, I was fairly restrained in only coming home with five books.

The librarian noted that I had found something I had liked, but then hesitated at A Book of Horrors. “Ooh, I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I’d hear things going bump all over the house.”

I shook my head and smiled. “I’ve loved horror since I was little,” I told her. “It’s easier now that I’m not afraid of the dark.”

It was true. I checked out Hitchcock anthologies from the elementary school library. When I was a little older, I pulled a book labeled “ghost stories,” I think, off my daddy’s shelf and read George Langelaan’s The Fly on the couch in his den, in full light.

I was terrified. It haunted me.

Years later, I fell in love with H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a guilty pleasure, especially the stories that end in italics. And exclamation points! So often, the idea is better than the execution. But some of his ideas are so intriguing. And The Thing On the Doorstep jarred me deeply, frightening me for weeks afterward whenever I thought about it.

I love horror movies. But frankly, scaring people with pictures is child’s play compared to scaring them with words. There’s a holiday weekend coming up and a collection of horror tales sounds like the perfect companion.

The books I came home with:
A Book of Horrors, edited by Stephen Jones
The Memory Painter, by Gwendolyn Womack
Disclaimer: A Novel, by Renee Knight
The Fold, by Peter Clines
Black House, by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Feel free to share your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books or authors, or have suggestions for other reading.

We write because we have to

Once upon a time I interviewed (by phone) Dave Barry, longtime Miami Herald columnist, because he was coming to speak at an event in the town where I worked for the local newspaper.

He was disparaging hand-wringing, ego-driven “writerly processes” … to the point where he finally burst out laughing because his assistant wrote and held up a note reminding him he was talking to me because he would be speaking at a writers’ conference.

He had a point, though. It even was reiterated in, all of places, a recent TBS “Men at Work” episode (apologies and thanks to the very cool Danny Masterson), and it is this: WRITERS WRITE.

You can’t just have the idea(s). You can’t just want to do it. You have to have the compulsion.

And so here I am tonight, reaching out to a national blogger, saying, hey, I used to do some unpaid stuff for you, want this column? ’cause it’s banging around my skull and has to be put down, and maybe it would fit your audience.

If she says no? OK, it’ll go here on my blog, to a (vastly) smaller audience.

The point is, it is getting written regardless. Because I have this idea I HAVE to get OUT OF MY HEAD.

That’s what being a writer is, at its core. We’re surgeons, in so many ways.

Feed your head

My list of books to acquire from the local library is up to three index cards now. Yes, front and back.
My list of books to acquire from the local library is up to three index cards now. Yes, front and back.
My list of books to acquire from the local library is up to three index cards now. Yes, front and back.

An idle thought on New Year’s Eve turned into a model I actually can follow.

I had called to find out what hours Old Town Gym would be open on New Year’s Day, as management prides themselves on being open every single day, even if like on Thanksgiving, it’s just two hours. For New Year’s, there was a four-hour window, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

That’s when I thought, hey, I could go 365 days a year.

By mid-morning I already was questioning that plan, but I dragged myself over there long enough to do machine work. Then I started pondering what I really hoped to gain from the 365 notion.

As I told my son, the plan sounded great for alternate days – machine days. He understood. Like me, he hates cardio. I knew I would be unlikely to go over just for cardio.

But the germ of the idea remained. Maybe I could do SOMETHING every day. A little digging produced a home Pilates workout (although exercise #5 will be beyond me for a while) and a 30-day plank challenge. At some point I might add stretches, but this is enough for now.

That led to not a resolution, but a life shift I could truly embrace: exercising my mind and body every day.

The mind part is easy, because I have reading and learning to do on the way to writing a dystopian novel one day. Right now I’m going through material related to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the first required reading in a no longer available Canvas Network course on surviving a zombie apocalypse, brought to my attention by the nice folks who promote The Walking Dead. I was too focused on other things to participate while the class discussions were going on, but I snagged all the reading before the course disappeared from the network.

I also have an ever-growing reading list, to which I’m sure to add more from Dystopia.com’s book list. Finally, I signed up for another Canvas course, this one on sustainability, and I plan to participate weekly this time.

Body and mind. So simple, so vital.

My choices for the Three Book Diet

My choices for the Three Book Diet.

I’m late joining the Three Book Diet, but that’s because I was late stumbling onto it. It’s Chris Brogan’s brainchild, and essentially, you choose three books to read, reread and implement through Nov. 1, 2013. If you care to tweet about it, use #3BD.

I took a couple of days to ponder my choices, but I pretty much knew one would be about food and one would be about art. The third I knew instantly: Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, which I bought many years ago and never read.

I was born in 1964 so I had some exposure of Vietnam during the era, but it was glancing and sketchy, like huge headlines in the Louisville Courier-Journal about POWs, or my best friend Dee Dee being very worried in second grade about her dad, who was in this far-off place called Saigon.

To not know more about this war/police action seems shameful, and I aim to correct that this year.

The other two books will be part reading but part action.

Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef is a marvel. I was drawn to it because I imagined it would teach me how to think about ingredients and what I could do with them, not just how to follow recipes. It does that, with chapters devoted to single ingredients or trilogies, but what really sold me were the technique chapters. Braising! Finally this mysterious technique would be unlocked. As we use less expensive meats and traditionally challenging ones such as venison, this is something I need to master.

I also chose one of two anatomy guides for artists that I own. I settled on Gyorgy Feher’s Cyclopedia Anatomicae because it covers not only humans but also several animals — although sadly, not elephants.

If you’re following the Three Book Diet or decide to do so now, drop me a line and let me know your choices.