There’s something special about an eclipse. As I sat cross-legged last night on the little stretch of pavement running from our apartment building down to the sidewalk, watching the strange red shadow gradually—imperceptibly—move in to swallow our moon, I was reminded of the startling event with which Susan Beth Pfeffer’s novel life as we knew it opens:

It was like a big block party. The houses are so widespread on our road, you couldn’t really hear anything, just a general happy buzz.

When it got closer to 9:30, things got really quiet. You could sense how we were all craning our necks, looking toward the sky. Johnny was at the telescope, and he was the first one who shouted that the asteroid was coming. He could see it in the night sky, and then we all could . . .

And then it hit. Even though we knew it was going to, we were still shocked when the asteroid actually made contact with the moon. With our moon. At that second, I think we all realized that it was Our Moon and if it was attacked, then we were attacked . . .

But the moon wasn’t a half moon anymore. It was tilted and wrong and a three-quarter moon and it got larger, way larger, like a moon rising on the horizon, only it wasn’t rising. It was smack in the middle of the sky, way too big, way too visible. You could see details on the craters even without the binoculars.

A lunar eclipse is a normal event; nothing like the life-altering, never-to-be-forgotten moment Pfeffer’s character Miranda describes in her May 18 diary entry. But there’s something of the same feeling to an eclipse nonetheless, with neighbors out and chatting quietly, up and down the street. A sense of suspense, a hush; a breathless silence, as clouds scuttle along between the object of so much rapt attention and our attentive selves; and then a collective sigh of relief, as the object breaks free from the obstruction and once again shows its face to us.

I don’t have any worthwhile pictures of last night’s eclipse to share, but I do have pictures of something even more special: the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, which I flew home to observe. After driving north for a couple of hours—from my parent’s farm, up into the path of totality—we made our way to a rural county fairground just in time for the sky to darken. Cloud-laden and drizzling, conditions were not ideal for observation. But when the sun went black, we could feel it. Here are my mother and a friend, taking in the moment:

two older women standing beneath a dark sky

And, here is how the rural county marked the occasion:

fireworks exploding along the horizon, underneath a cloud-laden sky

I don’t have a picture of my dad to share, although he was with us; which might have contributed to the weight of the day, its feeling of significance. He is old and medically fragile, and doesn’t generally leave the house. He had already sustained brain damage by the time of the eclipse, and continued to battle memory loss. But despite all this, he maintained enthusiasm throughout the drive, and even rose early without complaining: an event about as rare as the solar eclipse itself, cutting a swath—with the path of its totality—through the northeastern tip of the state of Kansas.


John Bellairs

John Bellairs is, hands down, my favorite author of literature for children. I can and have read his three main titles (The House with a Clock in its WallsThe Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring) over and over: both as a child looking for adventure, and as an adult looking to feel the sheer, unadulterated happiness of life in New Zebedee, Michigan yet again. A number of spin-off titles—some coauthored with Bellairs, or written by different novelists altogether—are also fun, although not quite as good. I checked these out of the public library a few years back and enjoyed reading through everything I found, but don’t remember many details.

What I did not find, back when I was reading my way through the Bellairs section of the public library, was the one novel he wrote for adult readers. Of course! No librarian would park this title on a children’s shelf. Within minutes of discovering it on a list of novels by Bellairs, however—just about a month ago—I had ordered an inexpensive copy. And last week, I was able to spend holiday hours immersed in a somewhat more tangled, but oddly parallel, grown-up version of New Zebedee.

This book was originally published in 1969 by MacMillan. My copy—published by Ace, in 1978—is beautifully illustrated by Marilyn Fitschen. A sketch of the main character Prospero’s house, opposite the book’s title page, strongly resembles Jonathan Barnavelt’s New Zebedee mansion. I’m not going to open the book and reproduce what’s inside. However, I will share this edition’s front cover, illustrated by Carl Lundgren:

cover image of a wizard in a purple robe over a tombstone, reading from a book
Ace Books, 1978

The first thing I noticed when I started reading this book was the way Bellairs uses language: breaking all the rules I learned back in my MFA days (show don’t tell; less is more; too many adjectives will weaken your writing; etc.) and just piling words up, one on top of the other, to create verbal texture. It’s as though each word is an individual stitch in a complex, densely embroidered garment—not particularly meaningful on its own, but pleasing to both ear and mind when taken in alongside other, equally insignificant word-stitches. This is word candy, at its finest:

He lived in a huge, ridiculous, doodad-covered, trash-filled two-story horror of a house that stumbled, staggered, and dribbled right up to the edge of a great shadowy forest of elms and oaks and maples. It was a house whose gutter spouts were worked into the shape of whistling sphinxes and screaming bearded faces; a house whose white wooden porch was decorated with carved bears, monkeys, toads . . . a house whose steep gray-slate roof was capped with a glass-enclosed, twisty-copper-columned observatory. On the artichoke dome of the observatory was a weather vane shaped like a dancing hippopotamus.

Passages like this continue throughout the novel, as Bellairs wholeheartedly embraces the technique we used, in my MFA days, to call catalogue. And, his catalogues are the most colorful I’ve found. They never fail to surprise and delight, even when they are morbid in nature, i.e. catalogues of decomposition:

“Well, I haven’t been in this place for several months,” said Prospero. “There’s no telling what we’ll find.” He pushed the door open and a rank sweetish smell of decaying vegetables hit them. In the windowless earth-floored room were shelves into which blackened rutabagas were rotting, Mason jars filled with cloudy green dandelion wine, and bushel baskets of wildly sprouting potatoes. Here and there the walls were blotched with white and green fungus, and in a corner, cheesy green-spotted toadstools were squatting.

At ten-plus hours per day on my new job site, I literally don’t have time, during the work week, to write my daily postcards to Kansas. So, over the holidays, I copied every passage that struck my fancy out from the Bellairs book onto a separate postcard. My parents will receive the words of John Bellairs throughout the weeks to come, doled out at the trickling rate of one gloriously cluttered paragraph per day. I plan to intersperse these postcards with more ordinary correspondence—information about what I’ve eaten for breakfast, for example—in order to make the Bellairs-inspired cards last longer. They are of a higher quality.

Gorm, the “introspective magician,” at work in his private castle:

Prospero and Roger entered a dark echoing silo that seemed to be full of humming, crackling fireflies. The tower had only one room, and the walls, ringed by galleries at intervals, rose a hundred feet to the conical roof. In the great dark void above the wizards’ heads hung tiny galaxies, solar systems, and nebulae. Checkered, spotted, and marbled planets moved around flaring orange suns the size of Ping-pong balls. Multi-ringed Saturns were surrounded by clouds of pinhead moons, and three-tailed comets roared through spinning clusters of stars with a noise like toy locomotives.

Which self-respecting, Kansas-residing, retired schoolteacher in his or her seventies would not want to receive this passage—copied out longhand, by a sadly distant daughter—on the back side of a postcard?

A family thing

Noah’s Wife by T. K. Thorne

My schedule has changed, and I find myself stealing away with my book, when and where I can. The twenty minutes I spend over breakfast are my only constant. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to finish Noah’s Wife, by T. K. Thorne, last week. And, I’m grateful for these minutes, because without an alternative world to fly away to in my mind, burdens would feel so much more—well, burdensome!

I picked up Noah’s Wife because I knew that in it the main character, Noah’s wife Na’amah, has Asperger syndrome. The well-known resident of 221B Baker Street aside, adults with AS are rare in literature. So much emphasis seems to be placed on autism spectrum disorders in children that attention to the ways these conditions play out in adults, as well as in the families they lead, often feels like an afterthought. And yet, children grow up; every child with Asperger syndrome does, eventually, become an adult.

Such was the case with my dad—already twenty-seven years old when I came into this world and first got to know him. There was no manual on his condition available for us, back when I was a child; and, there were no words. His diagnosis came later, and I’m still trying to figure out what it means. Books like this are important to me; they’re the manual I’ve been looking for all my life. They’re proof that despite feeling alone for so many years—and despite the intensity of our isolation, as a family—our assumption that nobody else on planet earth could understand the way we lived was, fundamentally, wrong. Others have lived in similar ways, and experienced similar challenges, throughout history and prehistory. By setting her Asperger story back in the Neolithic—specifically, 5,500 B.C.E.—Thorne affirms the experience of autism as an ancient and integrally human experience: something that has likely always been with us, as a species.

Cover image of black mountains, blue sky, and a white bird
Chalet Publishers, LLC, 2009

This book retells the story of the building of the ark, and of the ensuing Biblical flood, through Na’amah’s voice. Set in Anatolia, or ancient Turkey, the novel revisits many points I first encountered a few years ago, in After the Ice: a Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC by Steven Mithin. In fact, Thorne’s work reflects Mithin’s presentation of the fertile crescent region of the Middle East so closely that I wonder if After the Ice might not have served as a resource for Thorne, during her writing process. The timing here makes sense, since After the Ice was first published in 2006, just three years before Thorne published Noah’s Wife. Common ground includes attention to the domestication of grain; reference to the regional practice, which Na’amah’s people reject, of burying the dead inside residential dwellings; and analysis of small clay—goddess?—figurines. As I recall, Mithin devotes a chapter to Göbekli Tepe, whereas Na’amah visits Çatalhöyük: mysteriously abandoned by its builders, prior to her visit, and already a ghost town.

Continue reading “A family thing”

An extended journey . . .

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Finally—after a long time reading—I finished this novel by Garth Risk Hallberg, published back in 2015. I wouldn’t have known about the novel if I hadn’t listened to Anne Bogel interview Seth Haines on her What Should I Read Next? podcast. But midway through the book, I began to seriously consider including it in my desert island survival lineup, alongside a complete Arabian Nights, the collected fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, and Les Misérables.

Actually, I finished the book a couple of weeks ago, but put off writing about it because—well, I just didn’t know where to begin. The thing is monumental; and not just in size. Reading is a visceral experience, a plunge into texture and culture too rich to track coherently. Narrative threads proliferate; managing them is difficult. Letting go, and riding the wave to its natural destination, seems like a better solution.

The wave is painterly. Here is its starting point:

photography of fir trees covered in snow
Photo by Trang Pham on

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That old story, again . . .

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Awhile ago, when I saw this on my local library’s recent acquisitions list, I knew I would have to read it. The story of the Trojan War seems to have developed into a personal reading theme for me this year; however, since this new retelling by Pat Barker was brand new when I first noticed it, I realized I would have to wait some time before getting my hands on a copy. And finally, last week, my name reached the top of the library waitlist and I was able to borrow this edition:

cover image of a draped female statue, stomach and legs only, in blue tones
Doubleday, 2018

Continue reading “That old story, again . . .”

Aru Shah and the End of Time

by Roshani Chokshi

In the last few months, I’ve read several books for children. But I haven’t found myself connecting in the same way I’ve connected in the past. Throughout my life, I’ve turned to children’s literature for comfort; it is, after all, designed to provide reassurance to young readers, to strengthen them in the face of a bewildering universe, and help them establish personal independence while at the same time navigating the tangled paths of friendship, family, and cultural identity. Literature for children is always optimistic; it has to be, since its readers’ lives stretch ahead of them. On an emotional level, its space is safe.

But for some reason, lately, I’ve been experiencing this space as oddly vacant. I’ve read some great books for children—including Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman—which I know would have thrilled me, even a few years ago. But now I find them strangely drab: lacking significant resonance. Are limitation, closing down, and ending more real to me now than potential, opening out, and beginning? Have I crossed a line in life?

Roshani Chokshi’s new book, Aru Shah and the End of Time, feels richer to me than other novels for children I’ve read this year: possibly because the Hindu mythological tradition Chokshi draws on addresses mid- and end-of-life concerns, despite a narrative thread designed to move in a different direction. Here is a picture of the beautiful dust jacket, featuring some of the creatures the main character, Aru Shah, encounters in her travels:

girl in purple clothes, surrounded by glowing mythical animals
Disney Hyperion, 2018

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A fun experiment at home

Carl Sagan’s emphasis, in the latter half of The Demon-Haunted World, on science education is inspiring. Since we don’t have children, much of what I find here is not directly applicable to our household; instead, Sagan’s comments on encouraging wonder send me back into my own childhood. One question in particular springs to mind, a question I never did manage to answer:

Why does yellow appear brighter, i.e. closer to white, than other colors?

This question has been puzzling me for as long as I can remember. Perhaps, I’ve thought many times, yellow is brighter because it falls in the middle of the visible spectrum . . . which makes it appear more like white, or like the full spectrum, than colors isolated at one end or the other. And, another question: is yellow really brighter than other colors? Or do my eyes, my brain, or some combination thereof only make it seem brighter?

I’ve been planning to use black and white film to answer question number two for at least forty years.

Continue reading “A fun experiment at home”