TOO MANY BOOKS TO READ BEFORE I SLEEP – Marilyn Armstrong

Half a dozen times during the past few months, I’ve seen the sunrise and heard the birds wake and sing the morning in.

Another Kindle and the Anker blue-tooth speaker.

I have sometimes gotten up very early to see the sunrise and take pictures. It is the thing I do that is most “me.” I am awake into the early hours because I am in the grip of a good book and can’t put it down.

I’m addicted to books.

Although I go through phases where I read a lot of one genre, I move through many genres over the course of time. I have spent years reading history, indulging my enthusiasm for the middle ages and especially that weirdest of times,  the 14th century. Perhaps I am specifically fascinated by this period because it was a fulcrum of civilization, the emergence of central governments, a free peasantry and what ultimately became the middle class.

There was the Black Death, the schism when two Popes reigned, one in Avignon, the other in Rome: a calamity for the Catholic world. There was an endless war. Brigands roaming throughout the European countryside, burning, raping, despoiling.  Destroying what sad remnants of communities had survived the other catastrophes of those years.

Inflation rendered money worthless. Many regions were entirely depopulated leaving no one to tend fields and grow crops. Famine followed.

I thought the 20th century, with all its horrors, could never top the 14th, but I was wrong. Because the 14th-century didn’t destroy the planet. It merely thinned out humanity. Which might not, on second thought, have been such a bad idea.

In this era, we are busy destroying the actual planet on which we live and which we need to survive as a species. If you’ve been reading too much science fiction, this is a good time to remember that this sphere is the only one we’ve got. We have nascent technology that might eventually take us into the universe where new planets might be waiting, but we aren’t there yet nor will we get there before the bad air and fire destroys everything we care about.

Meanwhile, to keep my sanity, I read thrillers, mysteries, police procedurals, and courtroom dramas. I read about lawyers, district attorneys, victims, criminals, and prisons. Then, when I need to escape even further, I turn to science fiction and fantasy. I immerse myself in other worlds, different realities, and the pursuit of magic.

I am, for the moment, caught between favorite authors. All of my favorite writers are in the writing process, creating their next books, though some are finished and publication dates are set in the near or not too far future.

I thought I’d make a shortlist for you of some of my favorite authors and a few of my favorite books. I encourage you to make suggestions for books I might like. I’m always looking for new authors and genres.

Barbara Tuchman is my favorite writer of history, but Doris Kearns Goodwin is close behind. Favorite history books include A Distant Mirror, The Guns of Augustand Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Team of Rivals which became Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” or her equally brilliant work on Franklin Delano Roosevelt No Ordinary Time are masterpieces.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraha...

The entire Hollows series by Kim Harrison for the finest of the urban fantasy genre. She has a new one coming out this summer. I can hardly wait!

Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, the Chicago gumshoe who can throw a mean spell, but carries a loaded gun, just in case. He has finally written the final book in the series called Peace Talks.

I hope it isn’t really the final book because I have rarely loved a series as much as I’ve loved Harry Dresden. It’s set to come out in July.

I have been waiting for this book for almost eight years. It is already considered a best-seller even though it hasn’t been published yet. I guess I’m not the only one who has been waiting.

Connie Willis‘ time travel books including The Doomsday Book, Blackout, All Clear, and To Say Nothing of the Dog (the only humorous one in this bunch, but they are all wonderful!) are among the best books of this genre ever written. She has also written some of the most hilarious science fiction stories, especially All Seated on the Ground, and Bellwether, and many more novels and novellas.

Unlike most readers, I read her more serious ambitious books first and was surprised to discover she was best known for her lighter, humorous fiction. Both are wonderful and you can’t go wrong with any of them. I should mention that some of her older books are only available on Kindle and/or audio.

And, speaking of time travel, Stephen King‘s 11-22-63 is exceptional. It’s not a new book, but it is beautifully well-written. Not a horror story, but true time-travel science fiction. The prose is sometimes so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes.

Recently, I discovered Carol Berg. I completed the final of her various series last night … and am now holding my breath in anticipation of her next book. If you want to start with one of her books that aren’t part of a longer series, try Song of the Beast, especially if you like dragons!

I love almost everything written by James Lee Burke and he has written many books, all fiction. If Faulkner had written detective stories, he’d be James Lee Burke. His Dave Robicheaux series is a long-running favorite, but his other books are great too.

The writing of Anne Golon is an amazing series of historical novels about a fictional woman named Angelique. They take place during the time of Louis XIV. This series is has been one of the most significant influences on my life, not only literary but personally.  Angelique lived the life she chose and never accepted defeat. She gave me an interest in history that I carry with me to this day. She never gave up, she never backed down, no matter how bad things became, she always found a way forward.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Laurie King whose modern version of Sherlock Holmes, now retired and married to, as Mom used to say “a nice Jewish girl,” is a fantastic series. She writes a few other series too, but her Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series remains my favorite.

The English-language versions of the books are many years out of print, but until her death a couple of years ago, she was still writing. Unfortunately, her recent ones are available only in French (maybe German too, but I’m not sure). I have managed to find many good copies of her books second-hand. I wish I could get her newer books in a language I can read. There was a time when I actually could read French, but that was long ago and far away.

Of course, there is my personal favorite author, Gretchen Archer, whose Davis Way Crime Capers are funny, serious, hilarious, tense … all of the things you want in a “curl up and read until your eyes fall out of your head” series of novels. Start with her first novel, Double Whammy and move on from there. You absolutely can’t go wrong!

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I cannot close this without referencing two authors that have given me great joy, the incomparable Douglas Adams, and Jasper Fforde.

I still mourn Douglas Adams. He should have had many more years. Douglas, you died way too soon. Jasper Fforde writes with similar lunacy in a fantasy world where fiction is real and reality isn’t quite. His Thursday Next series is brilliant.

Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series is wonderful and if he ever gets around to it, there should be at least one more book in the series. But he has been writing other books — mostly horror stories which I don’t like as much as his earlier works, movie scripts — as well as Lucifer (a series of brilliant graphic novels which contained the original idea for the TV series “Lucifer”).

This doesn’t even begin to cover everything. It would take me days to begin to remember everything … and way more pages than anyone would have the patience to read … but this is a tickler for you. Maybe you too are searching for something fresh to read,  and new worlds to discover.

These are some of my favorite authors. I’d love to hear about yours!

THE BOOK WORLD AND MEMORIES THEREOF – Marilyn Armstrong

I usually say I wouldn’t want to ever work again, but I got to thinking about that. I realized if I could get back my job as an editor at Doubleday? I’d do it in a heartbeat. How many jobs give you unlimited sick days, two-hour lunches, and require you to read sleazy novels during the day? And pay you for the privilege? And give you the best bunch of people as colleagues you could hope for.

Really old friends

I also had to write stuff about the books I read, but a long review was still shorter than most of the pieces I write for this blog. Even in my crumbling state of health, I could handle it.

The trouble is, the job doesn’t exist. Publishers are all corporate and conglomerated. Each is a subsection of some über corporation where books are one of many products and often, not an important product. People run publishing houses who don’t understand books. I often wonder if they actually read books.

The 1970s were wonderful years for reading. It was a tremendous period for books and book clubs and for literature. In those days, reading was entertainment. People read books and talked about them by the water cooler. If you got excited about a book, you told all your friends and they read it, too.


Before the internet.

Before cell phones.

Before cable and satellite television.

Before computers and many years before WiFi …

We had books.


Other entertainment? Of course, there were movies, but you had to see them in a movie theater. Television was there, but it had limitations. We had — in New York which was entertainment central — seven channels. Unless you had a really good antenna on the roof, you rarely got a clear picture. There was interference called “snow.” Pictures rolled — up, down, and side-to-side. Vertical and horizontal holds on your TV were designed to help control it. Sometimes, they did, but I remember many nights of giving up and turning the set off because we couldn’t get a decent picture. Meanwhile, many of us used a set of rabbit-ear antennas that worked sometimes — if the wind was blowing due west.

I spent more time trying to convince the rabbit-ears to receive a signal than watching shows.

Doubleday in Garden City, NY – I bet the building isn’t even standing today.

Not surprisingly, television wasn’t our primary source of entertainment. Instead, we read books — and we talked to each other — something we old folks continue to do. Sometimes, we had conversations that lasted for hours and in my life, occasionally ran into weeks. Blows your mind, doesn’t it? All that talking without a phone? Without texting, either.

Books were big business. If you wrote anything reasonably good, there were more than enough publishers who might be interested in printing it. I miss that world, sometimes more than I can say.

The 1970s Doubleday I remember

All of this got me thinking about how hard it is to get books published these days. So many people I know have written really good books and have never found anyone to back them. It’s rough on writers, and it’s not a great sign for the art of literature. Not only has our political world caved in, but our literary world is sliding down a long ramp to nowhere. In theory, many more books are published today because anyone can publish anything — and sell it on Amazon. All books — the great, good, mediocre, and truly awful are lumped together. Most of them are rarely read since none of them are being promoted by a publisher. This isn’t a small thing. Publishers were a huge piece of what made books great. If your publisher believed you’d written something excellent, you could count on being visible on the shelves of bookstores everywhere. You’d also be part of book club publications. People — reading people — would see your book. There were book columns and reviews — and people read them they way they read stuff on upcoming television shows today.

Of course, we are also suffering from the vanishing bookstore … a whole other subject.

A great idea followed by a well-written manuscript was just the beginning of a book’s life story. From the manuscript, publishers took books and did their best to sell them to the world. Today, all that pushing and pitching is left to authors, including those whose books typically sell well.

Old Doubleday and Company. I love those cars!

No doubt there were writers who could do the balancing act of writing, marketing, and advertising — but many authors are not very sociable. A good many are downright grumpy and a fair number are essentially inarticulate. They are not naturals to the marketing gig. Ponder this … what kind of blog do you think Faulkner … or … Eugene O’Neill … would have written?

Thinking of a blog by Eugene O’Neill give me the creeps. Not my cuppa tea.

I miss authors, publishers, book tours, and the delicious smell of a bookstore. Fresh ink and paper. I miss beautifully edited manuscripts and elegant hard-copy books in which you could smell the ink and paper as you gently cracked the cover open. Twas a heady perfume.

THE PUBLISHING WORLD IS NOT ON FIRE – Marilyn Armstrong

The_12-Foot_Teepee_Cover_for_Kindle

Almost every month, Amazon sends me a bit of money from the sale of my book. The amounts are occasionally enough to get a cup of coffee and a doughnut at Dunkin Donuts, but not enough for a cappuccino or anything at Starbucks. Nonetheless, I’m always tickled that someone bought a copy. I’ve set the Kindle price as low as they will allow, so I don’t exactly make a killing on royalties.

I wrote the book in 2007. Publication date is officially September 27, 2007, though it really didn’t “hit the market” so to speak until 2008. I did lots of “author things.” Television interviews on local cable, radio interviews. I got a bit of nice local press.

I arranged book signings. They were fun, though turnouts were small. I got to meet other local authors, some of whom have become friends.

I sold a few hundred books. Not bad for a self-published book. For a while, I got royalty checks that were large enough for a cheap dinner for two at a local fast food joint. I briefly thought Teepee would be a minor-level straight-to-DVD movie, but financing failed. So much for Hollywood.

Then I discovered I had cancer and the book didn’t seem nearly as important as it had before.

It’s difficult to successfully market a self-published book. Like all new authors, I had dreams of glory. I dreamed of Hollywood and best-seller lists. I was deluded.

A highly personal book largely based on life experiences will sell only if written by a celebrity. Even celebrity tell-all books don’t do well, moving from display in the front of the store to the discount bargain bin faster than you can say “I didn’t know he/she wrote a book …”

Recently, I got to read a lot of books deemed “the best fiction of the year.” I have no idea on what basis these books were determined to be the best of anything. The overall quality is pathetic. Most of them are uninspired, derivative, and trite. Boring at best, unreadable at worst. Many will cause you gastric distress and lead to a burning need to read something involving wizards, vampires, and time travel.

Every now and again I bump into a winner … an author who can really tell a story, and a story that transports me to another place. I live for those moments. It’s too rare.

Which brings me back to my book. It is not deathless literature, but it’s better than most of the books designated as the best of the year’s fiction. My book has characters, humor, and the semblance of a plot as well as a good-faith attempt by the author (me) to make a point. At the very least, you will learn how to build a tepee (perhaps how not to build a teepee). You might not love my book, but I’m pretty sure it won’t bore you into a stupor.

These days, books that sell are mostly cops and courtrooms, whodunits, thrillers, terrorists, fantasy, and the supernatural. Is the real world too dull to write about? Are we that boring?

If you are interested, you can buy the paperback here and the Kindle edition here. If you belong to Amazon Prime, you can borrow it for free.

I worry about the state of publishing. I am sure more good writers can’t find a publisher than can.

Why not publish more books? E-books cost nothing but storage space. Books like mine, published as “print to order”, don’t exist until after they are bought and paid for. It’s risk-free and would be good for everyone.

I fear how many authors are ruined by their inability to play the marketing game. Writing a book is easy compared to marketing it. The race by publishers to put out only best-sellers doesn’t work anyhow. Most books flop, just as they always have.

As far as I can tell, most acquisitions editors wouldn’t know a great book if it bit them on the ass. It’s not that I’m so great and couldn’t get a reading, a publisher, or an agent. It’s that what does get published is so dreadful.

READING UNDER THE COVERS – Marilyn Armstrong

If reading were illegal, I’d have spent my life in prison. The most frightening book I ever read was Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than a life with no books.

As a kid, I literally read myself cross-eyed, but today, I have been redeemed by audiobooks. Early during the 1990s, I discovered audiobooks. I was a “wrong way” commuter, which meant my commute started in Boston and took me out to the suburbs. This was supposed to make the drive easier than going the other way.

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The reality was different. Traffic was heavy in all directions, from Boston or from the suburbs. The east-west commute was nominally less awful than the north-south commutes, though coming from the north shore down to Boston was and is still probably the worst commute anywhere.

When we lived in Boston on the 17th floor of Charles River Park, we had a perfect view of the Charles River … and an even better view of 93 northbound. We could look out the window any time of the day or night. It was bumper to bumper as far as the eye could see every day of the week, any time of day or night. Garry had a 5-minute walk to work. I always drove somewhere. You’d think at least once during the more than 29 years Garry and I have been together I’d have found one job near home. Funny how that never happened.

In New England, you do not measure a commute by distance. Distance is irrelevant. It’s how long it takes that matters. No one talks in terms of miles. The mall is half an hour away. Boston is about an hour in good traffic, who knows how long in rush hour traffic. It can take you 2 hours to go six miles, but maybe you can travel 15 miles in half an hour. In which case 15 miles is the shorter commute. Ask anyone.

My commute was never short. Wherever my work took me, it was never convenient, except for those wonderful periods when I worked at home and had to go to the “office” only occasionally. The 1990s were serious commuting years. Boston to Amesbury, Boston to Burlington, Boston to Waltham.

A Kindle and a Bluetooth speaker for listening to audiobooks

It got worse. By 2000, we had moved to Uxbridge. It’s never easier to get from Uxbridge to anywhere, except one of the other Valley towns … and I never worked in any of them. Probably because there is no work there …

As jobs got ever more scarce and I got older and less employable, I found myself commuting longer distances. First, Providence, Rhode Island, which wasn’t too bad. But after that, I had to drive to Groton, Connecticut a few times a week — 140 miles each way — a good deal of it on unlit, unmarked local roads. It was a killer commute and unsurprisingly, I was an early GPS adopter. Even though I didn’t have to do it every day, Groton did me in.

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Hudson was almost as bad, and Amesbury was no piece of cake either. The distance from Uxbridge to Newton was not far as the crow flies, but since I was not a crow, it was a nightmare. On any Friday afternoon, it took more than three hours to go twenty some odd miles. On Friday afternoons in the summer when everyone was taking off on for the weekend, I found myself battling not merely regular commuter traffic, but crazed vacationers, desperate to get out of Dodge.

The job market had become unstable, and it seemed every time I turned around, I was working in a different part of the Commonwealth or in another state entirely. If it weren’t for audiobooks, I’d probably have needed a rubber room.

First, I discovered Books On Tape. Originally intended as books for the blind, I and a million other commuters discovered them during the mid-1990s. They were a godsend. Instead of listening to the news, talk radio, or some jabbering DJ, I could drift off into whatever world of literature I could pop into my car’s cassette player.

I bought a lot of audiobooks and as cassettes began to disappear and everything was on CD, Books On Tape ceased renting books to the consumer market. Fortunately, audiobooks had become downright popular and were available at book stores like Barnes and Noble. Everybody was listening and most of us couldn’t imagine how we’d survived before audiobooks.

In 2002, along came Audible.com. At first, it was a bit of a problem, figuring out how to transport audible books into your car, but technology came up with MP3 players and widgets that let you plug your player, whatever it is, into your car’s sound system.

Audible started off modestly, but grew and grew and having been acquired by Amazon is getting bigger by the minute. For once, I don’t mind a bit. The company was well run before Amazon, and Amazon had the good sense to not mess with success. It is still easy to work with them, literally a pleasure doing business.

Taste of my Audible library …

Ten years ago, I became too sick to work anymore. Would that mean giving up audiobooks? Not on your life. When I was nearly dead, I listened to books and they distracted me from pain and fear, kept me company when I was alone and wondering if I’d live to see morning. Sometimes, they made me laugh in the midst of what can only be described as a time when humor is at a premium.

Today, I listen as I do everything except writing. I can listen to books as I play games, edit photographs, or pay bills. I admit I cannot listen and write at the same time. That seems to be the point where multi-tasking ends. Actually, I can’t do anything while I write except write. I get a lot of reading done while accomplishing the computerized tasks of life, not to mention turning hours of mindless messing around into valuable reading time. I am, in effect always reading.

Reading in Bed: My Guilty Pleasure

I read at night on my Kindle using a good little Bluetooth speaker. Reading in bed has always been my biggest guilty pleasure. I remember reading in my bedroom under the covers using a flashlight, or worse, trying to read from the sliver of light coming from the hallway nightlight, or, if everything else failed, by the light of a bright moon.

“You’ll ruin your eyes” cried my mother who probably had snuck books into her bed and read by candlelight.

To this day, I don’t know why she didn’t just let me turn a light on. She had to know I was going to read anyhow. She was always reading too. In fact, if books were my addiction, she was my dealer. Even in today’s politically correct world, giving your kid too many books to read is not yet considered child abuse. I think there was some kind of law in her generation that kids had to go to bed by a specific time, whether or not they were sleepy. It was the eleventh commandment.

My love affair with literature in all its forms continues. My tastes change, favorite authors move up or down the list. I go through phases: all history, nothing but fantasy, a run of thrillers, a series of biographies. Getting older has few advantages but there is one huge gift — time. I often get so involved in a book that I look up and realize that oops, the sun is coming up and I’ve lost another night’s sleep. But now, I can sleep in. Not all day, but enough to not be exhausted in the morning — depending on when the dogs decide it’s time to bark.

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I don’t have to commute anymore. I don’t have to leap out of bed and in 15 minutes, shower, dress, put on makeup, and chop the ice off my car windows. I can stay up late whether it’s for reading, \writing, or watching movies. No one can make me stop. There are no official bedtime hours for senior citizens.

I knew there has to be some benefit to the whole age thing.

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS BY CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE – Marilyn Armstrong

By Clement Clarke Moore


‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.

1864

1864

And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

1883

1883

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

1886

1886

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen;
“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

1896

1896

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.

1898

1898

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

1901

1901

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

2019 – EARTH ABIDES ACHIEVES PLATINUM – Marilyn Armstrong

I don’t know how many copies of “Earth Abides” I have owned or how many times I’ve read it. I first read it when I was a teenager and I’ve been rereading it regularly ever since. I used to give away copies to people who hadn’t read it yet and eventually, kept extra copies, just in case.

So I bought another copy.

A couple of years ago, I bought the audiobook which has a great introduction by Connie Willis. Since I can’t give that one away, I still have a few paperbacks waiting for whoever becomes the next person I meet who hasn’t read it. Yet. Or who need to read it again.

Periodically, I need to reread this book. It gives me hope and frankly, I’ve been very weak in the hope department recently. This time, Garry and I listened to the Audiobook together. Not surprisingly, he liked this.

Earth Abides speaks of today. Ironically, of all the science fiction books I’ve read through many years, this one has become increasingly relevant. I wish it had not.

Ish's Hammer(1)

According to Google, both the 70th and hundredth anniversaries are honored with platinum gifts.  Since Earth Abides is closing in on the 70th anniversary of publication, George R. Stewart’s epic work has achieved platinum.

The novel was published on October 7, 1949.  It immediately caught the attention of reviewers for its well-written, epic tale of humans living in a world they no longer dominate.  One later reviewer went so far as to call it “a second work of Genesis.”  With its title from Ecclesiastes and the old testament rhythm of its language, it is almost biblical in its feeling. Never dull, it is a book that sings.

Stewart later insisted he didn’t intend it to be a religious work.  But even he admitted that there was “a certain quality there.”  The language was one thing.  Stewart taught himself Hebrew before he wrote the book.  He wanted to translate portions of the Bible into more modern English.  He was surely influenced by the style of ancient Hebrew.

The book has had an enormous influence on later works.  Stephen King based The Stand on Earth Abides, Grammy-nominated composer Philip Aaberg wrote “Earth Abides,”  Jimi Hendrix was inspired to write “Third Rock From the Sun” from the novel (his favorite book). Other authors and scientists honor Stewart’s works.  It is published in either 20 or 27 languages, depending on who you ask.  There is some talk of producing a film version of the novel, but I don’t think it will happen and if it did, I’m afraid it would be awful. I don’t see it translating well to the silver screen … or even the small one.

It might make a good mini-series …. if Ken Burns directed it.

It was also the first winner of the “fantasy novel” award. It generated a whole genre of post-apocalyptic writing and another entire generation of disaster books — and sadly, movies. Connie Willis, who reads the introduction says it hugely influenced her work on many levels.

The best essay about the novel was written by James Sallis and published in The Boston Globe.  Like Stewart, Sallis realizes the importance of integrity and beauty in his work, and it’s reflected in his essay.  Sallis is a distinguished novelist and poet, whose noir novella Drive was filmed by Nicolas Winding Refn.

The novel has never been out of print, no thanks to its original publisher.  Random House decided to pull the novel in the early 1970s.  Fortunately, Stewart and small fine press publisher Alan Ligda quickly got together and brought out a beautiful copy from Ligda’s Hermes Press.

Hermes EA

The Hermes edition sold well.  Random House quickly realized they’d made a mistake and bought the rights back.

Thanks to Alan Ligda, Earth Abides has been in print for seventy years come next October.  He is a hero of the novel.  Sadly, he died young, and won’t be able to help celebrate the book’s Platinum Anniversary.  So please take a minute (or more) to say a silent thanks to Alan Ligda while you celebrate the novel.

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Read the novel again. You’ll have to do a number of readings to catch up with Steve Williams, the Pilgrim, who doesn’t know how many dozens of times he’s read it. Despite the post-apocalyptic story, it’s an optimistic book. The ultimate disaster is overcome and the world that arises is a better one than that which perished. As you read, reflect on Stewart’s role in raising our consciousness of the ecosystem.

His wildly popular ecological novels, StormFire, and Earth Abides, and his less-widely read “post-modernist” ecological novel, Sheep Rock, have shaped our thinking.  Like most great creative works of thought, they have more power than all the armies in existence.  That pen (or, in Stewart’s case, pencil) is mightier than the sword.

By the way – if you want to buy a signed first edition,  Morley’s Books in Carson City just happens to have one.  It comes with a custom box to protect the classic.  Only $1600 – about half the price of another on offer at ABE.

EA Morleys

EARTH STILL ABIDES – Marilyn Armstrong

When I first read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart more than 50 years ago, it wasn’t newly published, but it was new to me.

Unlike so many other books I have read and forgotten, Earth Abides stuck with me. I’ve returned to it many times in recent years, but there was a period when I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere.

Nonetheless, I could recall it with remarkable clarity. This is especially remarkable considering the thousands of books I read every year. That I could remember this single book spoke volumes. It turns out that I was not alone. Many people found the book unforgettable, including many writers. George Stewart’s masterpiece became the jumping-off point for an entire genre.

Earth Abides is a “foundation book,” one of a handful of books that you must read if you are a science fiction fan. It is frequently cited as “the original disaster” story. A foundation book it most definitely is, but classing it as the “original disaster story” rather misses the point.

Earth Abides isn’t merely a disaster story or post-apocalyptic science fiction. Above all, it is a book of rebuilding, renewal, and hope. The event that initiates the story is a disaster, a plague resulting from either a natural mutation or something escaped from a lab that runs amok. Whatever its origins, it kills off most of Earth’s human population. As has been true of plagues throughout history, a small percentage of the population is naturally immune. Additionally, anyone who survived a rattlesnake bite is immune.


You might think the technology in the story is going to be old and silly. Except, everything fails immediately when people are gone. It doesn’t matter what you used to have. Without electricity, it’s trash.

It turns out, whatever super high tech stuff you have in your tech-pile of devices if you don’t have power, you have nothing. It’s rubble.


The plague is the back story. The front story of Earth Abides is how humankind copes with the tragedy as scattered remnants of people slowly find one another, form groups and create a new world. Through marriage and the pressures of survival, groups become tribes. Simultaneously, the earth itself revives and finds balance.

Animals return. Old animals and new animals. Dogs and cats remain and the only absolutely lost creature turns out to be the human louse.

Most diseases of the old earth are eliminated by depopulation. New generations are healthy. Along with physical disease, mental illness, archaic religion, outdated social structures, and cultural norms are discarded or slip away. New human generations have no memory of institutionalized bias and prejudice. The color line becomes extinct.

There is much that needs doing in this brand new world, but there’s an infinite amount of future in which to do it. The earth will be repopulated. Gently and peacefully. The reborn world will contain bits and pieces of what went before but lack its former demons.

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover editi...

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover edition of Earth Abides. Cover illustration by H. Lawrence Hoffman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last time I read it was just following its re-release. Now, we are reading it again. Eight years has given me time to be surprised by the book again. Surprised by how much Ish — the main character — changes over the years. How enormously his belief structure adapts to new realities. How much of the detritus of the previous world he eventually allows to disappear and how open his mind becomes.

It’s a rare transformation from a literary point of view. Few characters I’ve read have transformed as much as Ish does in Earth Abides.

The technology stands up surprisingly well because it’s essentially irrelevant. All technology disappears, so it doesn’t matter how advanced it used to be. When the power goes off, it’s over. The world returns to pre-technology. It has wind, water, and sun. Books remain, so knowledge exists, but in stasis, waiting to be rediscovered and deployed. Meanwhile, earth abides.

The world ends, a reborn world begins. Earth Abides is timeless. As is the Earth.


There’s an entire site dedicated to George R. Stewart — The EARTH ABIDES Project. Please check it out!

It’s available for Kindle, Audible download, audiobook, hardcover, and paperback and I have a spare copy, just in case you need one.


Notes on Hebrew and its use in Earth Abides


Many people (including Connie Willis) think the name “Ish” is related to some ancient native American with a similar name or some mythical creature from some legend. However, if you read the original commentary from the Stewart home blog, you’ll realize as Stewart was writing this book, he was studying Hebrew. He wanted to retranslate the bible. Yes, he WAS an academic — the best kind.

His two primary founders were a man and a woman, called “ISH — in Hebrew pronounced “eesh,” meaning man and “EMMA.” in Hebrew pronounced “eema.” It means mother.

Ish and Emma are the founding parents of the world to come. Their names are not an obscure reference to other books or myths. They are standard Hebrew and anyone who speaks the language — even a little bit — will get it.

WHAT KIND OF IDEA ARE YOU? – Marilyn Armstrong

From Salmon Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”:

I don’t fit in a category. Not me, not my ideas. The concept of “compromise” as wrong bothers me. Not because I “go with the flow.” I have no idea what “the flow” is.

I’ve never been in touch with popular thought because I don’t care what’s popular — or unpopular — or even hated. What I believe is subject to lots of varying forces. What you might call compromise, I call being in touch. I have never thought that rigidity was a positive personality trait. The world is ever-changing and those who do not change do not survive.

The world and I have undergone dramatic changes. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Is not life all about learning? Learning means change. If not, what’s the point? If my ideas are fixed and cannot change, they will ultimately become ridiculous. Irrelevant. Stupid. And so will I.

What might make anyone think their idea is “The Idea?” Or that it will be adopted by the “world?” What historical thing, event, process, cultural trend, would make someone expect righteousness (as they perceive it) to prevail? Throughout human history, exactly the opposite has been the invariable human experience.

When reality bites, I don’t stand around waiting for it to eat me. I think. I test my ideas to see if have legs to stand on. If not, I try to figure out what can I do to make them sturdier.

Is that a compromise? I call it intelligence at work. I know people who can not change. Refuse to change. Are stuck in a fixed belief system. Maybe their system made sense and then again, quite possibly not. Ultimately, they become relics, laughable parodies of who they were. We find them pitiable, that they can’t let the light in. They’ve locked the doors and drawn the shades of their minds.

For most of my life, I believed everything could be fixed if we kept trying. Fifty years later, the world is not only not better. It is markedly worse. My generation has grown weary. Our children are afraid of drowning as the waters rise. Their children — our grandchildren — are even more cynical.

Rigidity is the problem. It cannot save us. Nor will it lower the heat of hatred and rage threatening to engulf us. Rigidity is marching us backward in lockstep to the deepest of waters.

I’M STILL UNDER DEVELOPMENT – Marilyn Armstrong

One of the many things I learned while working for a living was “never let them know how good you really are.”

It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Moreover, I’ve always been more fond of family and friends than my work, except for the year I ran a newspaper in Israel. I totally loved running a newspaper. I was busy all the time, either editing, writing, looking for material, helping design the physical paper.  This was before they had software to design magazines and newspapers, so you had to literally cut and paste the pieces into place.

I wrote three regular columns under three names: the lead story as me, a cooking column, and an astrology column under various names. And if we were needed another article, I wrote that, too.


I got to interview the big guns in 1980s Israeli politics including Netanyahu who I think was Education Minister. Pretty sure. We did a very long interview about how important it was to stop using the money for “other stuff” (settlements, for example) and spend it on education. He certainly has changed a lot since the mid-80s.

Other than that, I did what I could with the skills that I had. There was only one English-language newspaper and everyone who wrote in English wanted to work there. On the other hand, there were dozens of advertisements for technical writers.

I wasn’t a technical writer, but if that was what they were hiring? I was one.

And so I got my first got a job as a technical writer working with the group at the Weizmann Institution who were designing DB-1, the predecessor to all DBs since. The first real, multi-lingual database. Except I didn’t know anything about databases. In fact, when I got the job, it was the first time I’d heard of one. I hung around the office for a few days, realized I was useless unless I got some training and ‘fessed up.

After six weeks of having database design force-fed into my brain, I could use the database and design something simple that worked. Sort of.

I learned system analysis rather than computer programming, so I never knew how to write programming though I could read it. I learned how software is designed and understood why and how it works. During my three years there — until they sold the product to IBM — I found my technical writing legs.

I was a bit of a pioneer. Breaking new ground was exciting and professionally risky. I was known, by the time I left Israel, as its best tech writer in the country. Israel was a very small market and when I went back to the States, I was a little twitchy about testing my skills in “the big time.” But it was fine. Maybe better than fine.

Except for one thing: I discovered the reward you got for being very good and very fast was more work. Not a raise or a promotion. Just work. Not even overtime.

In my first job in the U.S., I started as “the junior writer.” Eventually, the other 5 members of the department were let go or moved on until finally, there was only me. Doing the whole thing that had previously needed (?) six people.

I was handling the “work” four writers and an editor had done before me. I finally asked how come I didn’t at least get the title of “manager” and was told I was too good a writer to be promoted. Too good to be promoted? Okay, how about a raise?

I got 6%. I changed jobs and made more money. That was when I realized that I should never have let them know just how good — and fast — I was because there was nothing in it for me except more work.

I eventually got really good and ultimately got a good salary. This is exactly when the dot com market blew up. The company for which I was working went out of business between Monday (when we got the news that our backers had lost all their money and thus we had lost all of our) and Friday. A lot of small investment companies disappeared that year.

It was also the same time when big companies decided \they didn’t need tech support departments that knew enough to offer tech support. Simultaneously, they concluded no one needed a manual since customers could call Pakistan and ask questions … and get the wrong answers.

I was already getting sick and working was difficult. Garry had lost his job and Owen’s company blew up on 9/11. My income mattered. But the industry decided I and the work I did was obsolete. Ironically today, the tech writing business is resurging. It turns out that people who buy expensive stuff — like cameras — feel they are entitled to a manual. Sadly for me, I’m 20 years out of date, lack the ability to work a full-time job, and live in the middle of nowhere.


Why am I writing all this? Because Garry and I were talking last night. He said he had a burning need to succeed. Virtually nothing else mattered to him. How did I feel about work?

I said no one has a burning need to succeed as a technical writer. It’s just not that kind of job. So what DID I have? I was an incredibly good writer and insanely fast. I was a better writer than anyone else I had worked with and at least twice as fast. They got paid more, but they were men.

If I’d had the drive and business sense to move out into the big wide world and build my own company? Could I have “made it big”? I don’t know, but I didn’t do it so I’ll never know. I never liked the business side of the business world.

But damn, I was good.

THE GIFT OF WORDS – Marilyn Armstrong

And thus shall I bestow upon you the gift of gab, the talent of words, the ability to write with clarity and precision.

Congratulations. You are a writer. But — how do you know?

Because you write. Could you be a better writer? Probably. We can all be better writers. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started blogging and I was a pretty good writer before that. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write because as soon as I could read, I could write.

Every style of writing has special ways of handling issues.

For children’s books, much is made of making sure kids never have to look at a word that’s too “hard” for them. With which I disagree because that’s how I got a vocabulary. You see a word you don’t know. You ask someone or look it up. Now, you know a new word.

Technical writing, when I started doing it, was a wholly different. With a few other people, we sort of invented it since it was a new field and the “rules” didn’t yet exist.

I learned to write tightly using few adjectives or adverbs unless those words provided a specific definition. It produced something that has served me well — an extremely clean style of writing that is easy to adapt — except as fiction. Non-fiction, mostly.

The baseline for technical writing is making complicated information easy to understand for anyone with any background, technical or not. That includes old people, little kids and everyone in between. It also means I give good directions.

You are a working writer, even if no one ever sends you a check.

Maybe now you want to join a writing group or take a seminar. As you are already a writer, you are many steps ahead of where you were. Writing classes can be useful, though I’ve never had the patience to deal with them. They can help you focus on refining and organizing your work and most importantly, help you find a publisher. Seminars won’t teach you to write, but they might teach you to market your product.

I never took courses, per se, but I needed to learn a lot about style and design. I read books. I also read many other documents to see how other writers handled this kind of material. I also needed to learn to design books the physical book. In big corporations, they hire designers to do that, but I didn’t work for people who had that big a budget. Instead, I did it all.

It turned out, designing was the most fun I ever had while getting paid.


As for whether or not blogging “is writing?” What a silly question.

Writing is.

Blogging is very much like writing short features for newspapers or magazines. All kinds of writing are writing including advertising, for radio, television, and the Internet. We give them different names, but it’s all the same creative process. How you apply your talents has a million applications.

Ignore the people who feel like they need to put everything in a box. Keep doing what you’re doing!

You GO!

A LOVELY WAR: A WORLD WAR I MEMORIAL – Marilyn Armstrong

Happy Birthday, Great War. It’s 105 years since the day you officially started. World War I (WWI), also known as the First World War, was a nearly global war. It officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier.

It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that — technically — ended on November 11, 1918.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

For the past couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been “celebrating” the centennial of the first world war, inviting historians and military people to do the introductions and closing comments on the films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s intros and outros, the last of which was for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t really cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is one dark comedy.

It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to seeing this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, I guess we did learn a few things. We learned to build more efficient weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. We can kill more people faster — but no deader — than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs.

Catchy. Very catchy.


OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance, and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain.

The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable whos-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old-world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to the loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers, and soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and what those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny, catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. The all-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.


144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

WHO SAID LIFE IS FAIR? – Marilyn Armstrong

With shock and grief, I hear the wailing of betrayed youth. They have made the awfulest Big Discovery.


Life is unfair.


You work hard, perform brilliantly yet wind up bruised and forgotten. Then again, you might find yourself famous, rich, and covered with honors. It’s not cause and effect, though we like to think it is … until the economy, health, or other people betray those beliefs.

The younger me knew — with 100% certainty — that work, talent, ambition and determination were magic. The older me learned you can do everything right, follow all the rules and then some, and it still doesn’t work out.

bankruptcy

I did it all. I worked hard and with more than due diligence. I smiled when I wanted to snarl to keep that critical positive attitude. I was creative. I gave it my all.

I did okay, but while I worked hard and put in overtime, I watched the suck-ups, second-raters, and those who worked cheaper if not better, move past me. I came in early and stayed late while they went to meetings and took long lunches. If I’d gone to more meetings, would that have changed the outcome?

Somehow, I doubt it. I can’t be someone I’m not, though I sure did try. It’s out of my hands. I’m a passenger on this bus and it’s a long ride ahead of me (I hope).

Former belief: Play by The Rules, give it your all. You are bound to “make it.”

Current belief: Do the best you can and hope for a bit of luck and a boss who really likes you. Oh, and a company that won’t go bankrupt before you get paid. If not, enjoy life. It’s the only one you’ve got.

We tell our kids if they do it all right they will get that pot of gold. We don’t tell them that work sucks. Most of their bosses will be morons who know less than they do and have less talent.

But we also were right. They will earn a reward: the satisfaction of knowing they did their best. It’s a big reward. Everyone can count on it and no one can take away.

We have to try. If we succeed and for a while, we get a piece of the good stuff, at least enough to feel it wasn’t a waste of time, that’s great. For some, it just doesn’t happen. Bad luck? Wrong attitude? Crappy economy? Not quite enough talent?

And you have to know that trying may not be enough. You also need talent and luck and good timing.

Sometimes, you need a better agent.

I no longer believe in inevitable triumph. There’s always a chance you’ll make it to the top and it’s fantastic if the magic works. For me, realism has replaced optimism. Everyone’s best achievement is living up to our best self. If this also turns into a success, I’ll wear your t-shirt. If not, this is an achievement no one can ruin. You can’t control the world, but you can control yourself.

Life’s a roller coaster. You’re up and then you’re down. Screaming, crying, laughing … you go where the rails take you. Life will surprise you and sometimes a loss becomes a winner and will give you moments of unimagined joy.

Rejoice when times are good, but if you must, cope with the darkness. You can learn a lot in the dark.

PASS THE SANDPAPER. I’M BUFFING. – Marilyn Armstrong

Buff has lately come to mean “handsome guy.” For me, it’s wood finishing. Especially the kind of sandpaper or buffing cloth I need to get the wood as silky as I can. I used to do a lot of that sort of thing before my son grew up and took away all my tools because I was obviously too helpless to do anything involving tools with sharp edges.

These pictures are very buffed!

It’s not that I’m helpless these days, but I am wobbly. It makes clambering up chairs or stepladders dicey. Nonetheless, carefully hidden in my hall closet, I have a little jigsaw and mini power sander in case I get an uncontrollable urge to carve a piece of local oak.

I know language changes. As a rule, I change with it because that’s how it goes. I have watched American English drift into something that sounds more like tweets than language. I don’t necessarily like the drift, but I go with it anyway.

Every now and again, a word is used in a way that simply annoys me.

Buff as a description of the human male? That’s one of them. Unless, of course, he used to be a hunk of wood but has now been properly polished and smoothed to an ultra-fine finish!

MY OLD NEIGHBORHOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.

The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.

96-Holliswood1954

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining mature white oaks in New York, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.

I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.

First contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.

Oak woods

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends were inevitable.

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined the lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.

Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Three friends

October 1952

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, battles raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and goodwill, there was neither.

A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.

We envied each other, thought each better off than ourselves. It would be long years before we learned each other’s secrets. By then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed as we grew up. Lonely in our big old houses, all those years ago.

QUOTES ABOUT FREEDOM – Marilyn Armstrong

I really hate that we fought this war for civil rights before and it has come back. But more than that, I hate how easy it was for one detestable human being to make it happen. It took less than three years. I never imagined our freedom could be chipped away so fast … and I hate it!


“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” ― George Washington

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public.” ― Theodore  Roosevelt

“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.” ― Neil Gaiman

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” ― George Orwell