Monthly Archives: March 2013


My Indie-Visible soul sister, author Stephanie Naman, has tagged me to nominate five books for the Alternative Booker Award, for which she has been nominated  (! To qualify for the ABA, a book must have given me hours of pleasure and be one I’d recommend to my friends.

I’m reserving separate space for books of the middle-school years that qualify for the ABA, because they’d fill three blog posts. Today, I’m listing one book from my childhood and four from adult reading years. Read them and weep! And Christina Mercer, Chelsea Starling, and Kat Wilder, how about nominating five of your own?

Five of my favorite books seem to be about journeys.

Text and illustrations by Mariana


My mother used to take my siblings and me to the Sheffield Village Public Library every week to pick out our reads for the coming days. Every few months, I’d bring home Hotspur, the story of a toy horse who leaves the shop to see the world. Little Hotspur’s chutzpah convinced me that all things are possible—he dreams of joining a carousel, and by the gods and goddesses he gives it his all. First published in 1952, and long since out of print, Hotspur is a book I’ve never forgotten nor seen since those days in Sheffield Village. I don’t have a picture of the cover—yet—but I’ve just ordered a first edition from Abe Books, and when it comes I’ll add the real cover graphic (if it has one!) to this post.

A River Runs through It
By Norman Maclean


This tale of a fly-fishing family in love with the Big Blackfoot River in Montana and the passages they endure captured my heart in the 1970s. First I read about its release in Esquire magazine in the public library in Grants Pass, Oregon, then I immediately checked it out and and gobbled it up. Even then I was writing the first character sketches for Junction, Utah, and it occurred to me that Maclean had succeeded in doing what I aspired to do—write a great American story.  I’d already decided to include two brothers in mine, and of course so did Maclean. A book composed entirely of intelligent sentences and pure love of a time and place.

Cold Mountain
By Charles Frazier


Long before there was the over-the-top movie adaptation (which does, nonetheless, have one of the best goodbye kisses every filmed), there was Charles Frazier’s beautiful, moody tale of a soldier going home. Traveling with Inman on the backroads through a war-torn South feels like taking a real-time, epic journey all your own. Some readers have told me they couldn’t read farther than the first pages of this book—I couldn’t stop reading from the first line. Every fall, just as I watch The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis to celebrate another year’s passing, I pick up Cold Mountain to re-enter that blue, hilly world.

Animal Dreams
By Barbara Kingsolver


My awesome sister, Jennifer, has stood in line to get me signed first editions of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels since she lived near the fabulous author in Tucson in the 1980s. Although The Bean Trees takes a classic road trip and could possibly qualify for my journeys nominees, my favorite Kingsolver is Animal Dreams. A disenfranchised heroine, a town in trouble, a meant-to-be love interest, a coming of age—what’s not to love? When I wrote Junction, I knew it would have these elements, too, and a heroine who searches for herself away from home. Any time I got a bit stuck in my novel writing, I pulled Dreams off the shelf and read the inscription my sister patiently waited to get: “Dear Rebecca, I used to be a scientific writer who dreamed of writing novels. Good luck, courage, and sweet dreams.—Barbara Kingsolver.” If you want to have a good life, you’ve got to have good dreams.

Moby Dick
By Herman Melville


The ocean-bound inspiration for my essay collection on rivers, Reading Water. Thank you, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, for assigning Moby Dick in American Romantic Literature at Mills College, 1993—otherwise it’s unlikely I would have read it with such deep understanding. It’s a story wherein a big fish leads a boatload of men to their doom, but not before the author has lovingly described every piece of the boat, every role of the ship’s mates, every cell of the whale, every social issue of the time (through metaphor). A fully realized, moving book, one I will always have on my shelf.


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Lake County, California: Controlling Wildfire.

Lake County, California: Controlling Wildfire.

My first blog post for My Big Career themed blog on the Indie-Visible website was one part comment on writer’s block, one part comment on the stultifying heat of fire season in California. It came to me in the form of a poem, inspired by the work of James Tate, author of return to the city of white donkeys and other books. To celebrate fire, and to observe the end of the wet season in California, my thoughts turn to the drying up of creeks and rivers and the role of fire in our arid-land lives. This is in tribute to the month of March, as well, when the rainy season is sometimes gloriously renewed!

Fire Season

Nothing spoke to me from the page
on a morning when the greens of ferns,
fir, and toyon added up to exactly
fifty-seven separate values, and the hammock
sat slack, outside. Nothing asked to be
brought into the world, though the
dull ache in my gut said I’d die
if I didn’t make something, didn’t
birth the new, fresh, and
original, something so startling
the human race would marvel that
no one had said it before.

The sirens will wail today, in fire season,
though they may be going to collect
the bones and flesh of those
whose lives have ended, rather than turning
hoses of river water pumped seventy
miles from the beds of coho whose

sleek bodies push no more toward
the source, which fails me today,
though you won’t hear me complain.

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There’s nothing like a friend’s memorial service to bring on a flood of nostalgia. All the old names, old faces, turning up and presenting themselves as if we’d never taken life’s many detours. Nostalgia—a familiar drug. We can try to walk it off, shake it off, sleep it off—or we can embrace its power, plunge in headlong for its full-strength experience. I haven’t often thought of nostalgia as anything more than longing, but “homesickness” is the word’s first meaning: “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some past period, place, or irrevocable condition.” Nostalgia is rooted in the Greek nostos, “to return home,” also from old English genesan, “to survive.” We’ve all heard of survivor’s guilt; there’s also “survivor’s longing,” perhaps easily as common.

Yesterday’s memorial to the life of Carrie Hansen in the seaside town of Aptos invoked my longing for not only our cherished friendship but also for the quieter, more spacious places in which we shared time. Her service in the light-filled church that she’d come to love was full of her friends from both the East San Francisco Bay Area, where I first knew her, and Aptos, where she and her husband Howard lived until recently. As a high-school student in Piedmont, I’d found her capacity for befriending people of all generations remarkable. She was thirty years my senior, but, as a volunteer librarian at Piedmont High School, she’d treated me as her peer. Then, coincidentally, she’d moved nearby when I was a college student at UC Santa Cruz, and we’d enjoyed each other’s company over tea in sandwich shops, or burrito dinners at my bungalow, or feasts she prepared seemingly effortlessly in her seaside home.

Carrie lived to 84 despite a diagnosis of multiple myeloma 13 years ago. She’d planned her own memorial service not just once, when she was given only months to live, but also a second time, a decade later. At the service we sang hymns she’d chosen, shared stories about her life, and listened to the ringing of the church bell once for each year of her life. Then, reluctantly, I said good-bye to her family and followed Highway 1 up through Santa Cruz.

The sea from which our friendship rarely strayed.

The sea from which our friendship rarely strayed.

Traffic and tourists overrun the town as they have for decades. It hasn’t been a rainy, sleepy, undiscovered place since the 1960s, when one bus per hour ran from downtown to the harbor. Today’s homes and shops were once something else—generally smaller and less flamboyantly painted—and there are now many more of them.

I recognized Carrie in many of the changed geographies. On that corner stood the bistro with little white-clothed tables where she and I shared a bottle of wine to celebrate my graduation. On that road, once rutted and potholed but now well paved and signed, I bicycled to meet her for a movie at a theater that’s now three times its former size. On that beach are scribed the perfectly aligned ripple marks in the sand, here today but not tomorrow, scattered with two-inch, rounded pebbles that she would have noticed and admired. In that fog bank settled the gray overcast that colored our days by the ocean, from which our friendship rarely strayed.

Irrevocable. That’s the nature of passages. Although I don’t want to return to the days of high school or college, I would gladly take up any magic wand that could bring Carrie back for one more beach walk. And I’d happily welcome back the drowsy Santa Cruz we knew and my open-hearted belief that we’ll all have enough time in this life with the people and places we love.

Carrie and I shared a passion for the writing of Ernest Hemingway and his homes, especially the mountains and rivers of Idaho. The words she chose before her death to end her inevitable memorial reflect her abiding understanding of Hemingway’s literary choices, too. We finished her service with a reading of John Donne’s poem, “Meditation XVII.” The lyrical lines connect us to each other as well as invoke the power of place. Carrie’s love for her friends lives in her awareness of the positive overtones of the death-knell: “ . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

I miss Carrie and the lamp she was in my life, and I know there will be no returning to our old homes and old times. As for nostalgia, I’ll ride it out whenever it comes. Homesickness, wistfulness, yearning—they are the price we pay to survive.


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