Trying Something New: Reading List 2018


I love to read, always have.

As a girl I plowed through all of Louisa May Alcott’s novels and anything by L.M. Montgomery.  I devoured biographies of Clara Barton, Marie Curie, and George Washington Carver. I read everything on my shelf, on my older brother’s shelf, and on the acres of white wooden shelves that lined a wall in our home.

pile of books in shallow focus photography
Thanks to borrowing limits, my childhood bedroom did NOT look like this.

I checked out stacks of books from the school, public, and church libraries, and from the university where my father taught. And I used any spare moment to read.

I read the daily comics in the paper after breakfast. I read as soon as my schoolwork was finished, at night with a nightlight, in the bath, and even at the dinner table when I could get away with it.

Sometime around second grade, I developed a taste for mysteries. My brothers’ Hardy Boys books led me to  Nancy Drew. Then I discovered Trixie Belden, moved to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, then Wilkie Collins, Dorothy Sayers, and so on. These were the books I turned to for relaxed reading during summertime. Outside of assigned school reading, I didn’t read in any other genre.

Then, Life Happened

In the decade after college, I had five kids and my reading took a back seat. I did read a lot of quality picture books — and reread them approximately 1,234 times. As my children grew older, I revisited classics from my childhood like Black Beauty, Little House on the Prairie, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Any spare reading time was given completely to my old favorite: mysteries.

After a few years of this literary diet, my brain began to feel a little flabby, so every now and then I varied the genres I chose, and threw in some meatier options. A friend mentioned Outliers on social media so I read it and several other books by Malcom Gladwell. I reread Anna Karenina. (It was even better the second time around.) I branched out — and enjoyed doing so — but I still wasn’t fully satisfied by my reading.

The diversity was nice, but the choices were haphazard. If a title caught my attention, I would add it to my bedside pile. Otherwise, I fell back on old, easy favorites.


“I knew that varied and frequent reading nourishes good writing, so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening.”


I always had a vague mental list of books I wanted to read: books that were well-reviewed in various publications; books that friends recommended; books mentioned during an interesting radio interview. I would read a few each year, but always suspected that I could find time for more. And I knew that varied, and frequent reading nourishes good writing so I wanted to read more widely, but it just wasn’t happening. My habits weren’t leading me to the kind of reading I desired.

Making a Reading List

So, this year I decided to be more intentional about my reading choices. Instead of reading whatever title came to mind when I was ready to start a new book, I made a list of books I’d like to finish before the year ends. I divided the list into fiction, non-fiction, poetry, books related to writing, and books related to my practice of Christian spiritual disciplines.

I chose some books because I’ve wanted to read them for a long time. Others I had never heard of before I sat down to compile my list. My selections are influenced by my personal taste, what my older children are reading for school, Pulitzer lists, and friends’ recommendations.

Fiction Reading List: Classics, Contemporary, and Middle Grade

The fiction selections are a mix of classical (Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Macbeth by Shakespeare) and contemporary (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.) And, because I’m currently writing a middle-grade novel and I read aloud with three grade-school-aged children, there are several middle-grade books on the fiction list as well, including The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, and a biography of E.B. White.

Nonfiction Reading List: Biography, Criticism, and Poetry

A couple of my nonfiction selections are Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah Moore, Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist, by Karen Swallow Prior. My poetry list includes collections by Gwendolyn Brooks, Malcom Guite, and Li-Young Lee. DIY MFA, by Gabriela Pereira and On Writing Well, by William Zissner are two of the books I chose to move me forward as a writer.

Finally, I’ve selected several books and chapters from the Bible for personal study and reflection. In all, I’ve assigned myself over thirty books to read.

Will I finish my list before January 1, 2019?

I’m not sure it matters. But I do know this: steady, deliberate effort accomplishes far more than the slapdash approach I’ve taken in the past.

Anyway, finishing a list isn’t my goal.

I want a new habit of intentional reading.

I want a reading habit that will stimulate my thinking and feed my writing. Consistently working my way through this list will get me there whether I actually read every book or not.

 

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Do you have a personal reading list?  If it’s online, please leave a link in the comments. I’d love to take a look at it!

Want to see my full list?
2018 Reading List
Or you can use the 2018 Reading List menu tab at the top of my Home Page. (I’ll update the list as I finish each book.)

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Cure Homesickness: Write a Novel

Two years ago I began writing a story.

fashion woman notebook pen
Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

We had moved from our home on the central California coast to Virginia, and I was homesick for the mountains, the cool coastal air, the golden evening light–the familiar beauty of our former home. For several months, I used my writing to capture memories of California, fearful that I would forget the sensory details that photographs could not capture. I wrote essays, poems, short stories, and scribbled a lot in my journal.

The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

I even decided to try my hand at a middle-grade story for my children. Our former home with it’s three acres of old farm land, trees made for climbing, a creek, and fog rolling in from the bay each evening was the perfect setting for adventure. It would be a gift for them and a creative exercise for me.  The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

Soon I had a collection of scenes and character sketches, but no vision for a unified story. I put away the pages and turned my attention to other work.

A year and a half later, while reviewing files of unfinished writing projects, I took another look at the patchwork pieces I had written for my kids. I edited a lot. I wrote some more. It was fun, so I continued, one scene at a time, not really sure where I was going.

Then, one day (which is how so many stories start, after all) everything changed.

I was doing something mundane like stirring a pot of chili and I  realized how the entire story would develop. There were plenty of details to fill in, but I understood enough to sketch additional characters and chapter summaries.

This was no longer just a fun story for my kids. I had a new novel to write.

Sixteen chapters later, I’m on track to finish my first draft by the end of June. I have pages of adventure for my kids and a wealth of sensory memories for me. Soon, I’ll have a complete novel for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the current draft.

It’s one of the original scenes that I wrote two years ago involving a rather strange minor character. In it, four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission.


Mrs. Terry had turned her back on them and now faced the field. In the distance, a grey roll of fog crept toward them from the sea.  Birds fluttered in and out of the tall grasses, filling the evening air with their cries. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds. Over all, three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. Mrs. Terry kept her left hand on her stick while raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her slight body, she cried out,

Draw a peace over this teeming field–

Wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

Waiting on breathless wing for summoning.

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm, soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she must say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least, she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her, Mrs. Terry was happy to continue.

“Well,” she said. She turned her back on the field and faced the low mountains that rimmed the far, western side of their property. There the sun seemed to hesitate on the mountain tops, bathing their house and the land below it in the last lingering rays of soft light.

“The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think?” She sighed.  “It’s a wonder anyone bothers.”

She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Kerith expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. Mrs. Terry shrugged, and smiled at them.

“Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. Great buildings, music, art. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think? I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.” She shrugged. “Unfortunately, my creative talents are limited to mediocre knitting and decent cooking.”

But Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!” The exquisite evening light made her want to capture something of its beauty. She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, paints, pencil–anything–and create.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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Jacksie & Zelda

branch cold freezing frost
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago, I sat with my youngest daughter in a doctor’s waiting room. She had forgotten to bring a book and was bored. Very bored, and very restless. I pulled a pen and notebook from my purse and suggested we write a story together.  We made it through the opening scene before we were called back for our appointment. Later, I finished off the story for her Christmas present, an homage to our favorite make-believe land, Narnia.


In a soft blanket of new-fallen snow, two sets of footprints coursed side-by-side over a meadow and disappeared into the shadows of a forest. One set of prints was larger than the other. They were broad, deep, and tipped with the tell-tale marks of a bear walking upright on its hind legs. The second set of prints was much smaller. They were made by snow boots weighed down by no more than a young girl.

The bear and the girl walked hand-in-paw, deeper into the forest, which was not as dark as it seemed when one looked at it from the meadow. The trees were bare. Cold, white sunlight picked its way through empty limbs and lit the forest like a lace-curtained room at midday.

“Jacksie,” the little girl, whose name was Zelda, stopped suddenly, “are you sure you know the way?”

The bear turned his great shaggy head down toward the girl. His eyes were as dark and shiny as his glossy fur. When he spoke, his voice rumbled up from so deep within him the girl thought it must start in his massive, fur-covered belly.

“I know the way.” Then, having compassion for her eagerness and her fear of disappointment, he added, “It is all true. I have seen it many times, and I can find it in any season.”

Still, she did not move. Her freckled face was tilted toward him, though she kept her eyes on the way ahead.

“Are you the only one who knows the way?”

He was silent for a moment.

“Some others do. But not every bear that walks on his back legs and speaks in a friendly manner does know. Some would willingly take your hand and lead you a different way, one they think is better.”

“Do the foxes know? The squirrel we just saw?”

His laugh rumbled up like his voice. “Some. Some do.”

“What about the trees? Do they know?”

“Yes,” he said, solemn. “But they’re not allowed to tell you.”

“Why not?” She looked at the trees as if she pitied them, stripped clean of their summer beauty and not allowed to share what she was sure must be their greatest secret.

“Well, we each have our part, and telling is not for the trees.”

He continued walking, and she grasped his paw tighter, scurrying to catch up to his lumbering strides.

“What about you?” Her long dark curls bounced into her face as she looked up at him. “What’s your part?”

“I simply show the way to anyone who asks.”

“But what about the trees? What part can they have if they know, but are kept silent?”

“Little one!” This time his laugh was nearly a roar, and bits of snow fell in little clumps from the trees. “These are questions too great for such a little mind, surely.”

He looked down at her and noted the set mouth, her eyes fixed on his face.

“Ahem. Well, it’s a fair, honest question, and it deserves a fair, honest answer.” Pausing briefly to sniff the air, he then gestured to the right to indicate a change in direction. “It’s true the trees know and don’t speak. Their charge is to stand.”

“That’s it?”

He did not have to see her face to know that she was disappointed.

“Yes, little one. That is exactly it. They stand, and because they do, we can always find what we’re looking for.”

They walked in silence after that, the girl stepping twice as many times to keep pace with her guide. Their feet shushed through the snow. Every now and then, the girl looked hard into the distance, looking for the forest to open again, hoping for a hint of what she longed to see.

“Here now, this way.” The bear turned sharply left then immediately began ascending a small hill.

          When they reached the top, they both stilled and looked down. Jacksie stayed quiet, his breath blowing gentle clouds about his head. Zelda squeezed his paw with both small hands.

         “I knew it was here,” she whispered.

Below them, a clearing in the trees lay still and quiet beneath a pure white covering. On the opposite side of the clearing, against a backdrop of fragrant evergreens, stood a lamp post as bare and black as the winter trees behind Zelda. The lamp cast a pool of warm golden light upon the snow. And away from the lamp post marched two sets of footprints made by a young girl’s sturdy shoes and the delicate hoof prints of a woodland faun.


K. Ashby

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A Children’s Story (Excerpt)

I’m currently writing a children’s story. It’s a great deal of fun, primarily because I’m writing with my children in mind, thinking about what will interest and entertain them.  They really are the perfect audience:  endlessly forgiving and easily amused.

In this story, I’m just getting to know a particular character.   I know she walks every morning and evening with two small, ugly dogs, carrying a walking stick hand-carved from the trunk of a redwood tree cut on her own property.  I  have no inkling as to her name.   I know that when she’s walking, she often speaks out loud, and with great passion, as if she’s conversing with nature and they are intimate friends.

Four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission. The excerpt that follows finds them fidgety and awkward, having just encountered her for the first time.


Behind them, birds fluttered in and out of the tall dried grasses, filling the evening air with their calls and cries. Mice, rats, and gophers scampered and rustled home through the underbrush. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds, and overall, the three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. The tiny old woman leaned heavily on her stick and pivoted to face the raucous field. She kept her left hand on the stick, raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her frail body, she cried out,

“Draw a peace over this teeming field–

wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

waiting on breathless wing for summoning.”

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm as if soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she was required to say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least,  she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her,  she was rescued by the little woman, who seemed to see no need for anyone else to speak.

“Well,” she said, with such force that all five of them fixed their eyes on her wrinkled face. She was not looking at them. She had turned around to face the low mountains that rimmed the far side of their property.  There the sun seemed to rest on the mountain tops, a hesitation that bathed the valley below them in soft, golden light. “The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think? It’s a wonder anyone bothers.” She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Joshua expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. She shrugged and smiled at them. “Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. The cathedrals, sculptures, paintings, magnificent compositions. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think?  When I see them or hear them, or when I’m outside on an exquisite evening like this, I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.”  She smiled at them again, her large eyes glinting in the fading light.

Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes! Yes, I know exactly what you mean! She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, oils, acrylics, a pencil–anything–and create.  Heck, she was tempted to drop to one knee in the dirt and start tracing her finger in the dry brown earth.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”


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