Posts Tagged ‘An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days’

January 2015 reading, part two

Inspired by enjoying several of the latest China Bayles mysteries in November and December, I decided to delve into mystery writer Susan Wittig Albert’s memoirs.  They are a bit hard to come by via the library.  Fortunately, Timberland Regional Library has an excellent interlibrary loan system that came through for me quickly.

Like all my book posts, what I keep from the books makes this post semi-autobiographical.  MaryBeth, sorry for the wobbly pages; I blame the mulitple Cats on Lap.

The copy I got of Together Alone had a plain black cover, so I found a prettier one online.

The copy I got of Together Alone had a plain black cover, so I found a prettier one online.

I soon realized that I’d have many takeaways from these books.

Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place

 map by Molly O’Halloran

map by Molly O’Halloran

I so appreciated the map of Susan’s Texas Hill Country home, Meadow Knoll, and referred to it often.  You can see some photos to accompany the book right here.  (When she writes that while she was away from home, Bill dined at “Mary’s Beef and Buns”, I immediately had to Google it.  It’s still there.)

Susan (I think of her as Susan after reading two such personal books) delved into a topic that is often on my mind:


I knew I was in for a good insightful read that would speak right into my heart.

“Right Livelihood” is a topic dear to me.  She devotes a chapter to it (and, like me, she loves to collect quotations).


The process of finding right livelihood can take repeated attempts, as she says here:


I learned a great deal about mystery writing in her descriptions of her writing career.  She and her husband Bill co-wrote for both the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and the Sweet Valley Twins series.  I had no idea there was a decent living to be done in writing for series like that.  This was in 1988; I wonder if it’s still true.

She shares the progress of starting to think about writing her own series. In 1991, the first three China Bayles herbal garden mysteries were picked up for publication.  They are set in the fictionalized town of Pecan Springs, Texas, based on San Marcos. It was of great interest to me (for the sake of friends who would like to write mysteries) to read that publishers often do a contract for mysteries three at a time, in advance.

1992 saw the publication of her writing memoir Work of Her Own (which I wish I had read in time for this post…It will require another interlibrary loan….and I just paused to make one.)

In 1993, she and her husband, Bill, under the name Robin Paige, got the first of their Victorian mystery series off for publication.

In 1997, Writing from Life, another sort of memoir (or book about how to write them) was published.  (I just ordered it!)

In 2002, with the China Bayles series going strong (by now it is up to over 20 excellent books), she began her Beatrix Potter mystery series.

Together, Alone tells the story of how, working and living together in small space, she and Bill balance solitude and togetherness.  The subject is of much interest to me since Allan and I work and live together and I, at least, am a great craver of solitude.




How well I relate to everything about this.  Thank you, Susan, for putting it into words so eloquently.

Solitude doesn’t always come easy or without guilt.


In the second half of the book, she describes spending time at a quiet retreat in south Texas, a non-verbal community in the country, where she experiences the bliss of silence, and of real night with no security lights glaring around.

She writes of the spiritual nature of the community:


I appreciate how the community there accepted her and provided the peace that she needed.

In Together, Alone, I was thrilled to come across a passage about Henry Bemis.


I had thought often of that Twilight Zone episode and was so pleased a few years ago when I realized that Time Enough Books at the Port of Ilwaco is named after it.

Time Enough Books

Time Enough Books

On the sign, the broken reading glasses of Henry Bemis

On the sign, the broken reading glasses of Henry Bemis

It’s a delight to find that a mystery writer whose series I’ve enjoyed for years has written memoirs that speak so strongly to me.  I wish she could give a reading at Time Enough…but it’s pretty far from Meadow Knoll and I am sure she’d rather be at home.

An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days


The first thing that struck me when I began to read Extraordinary Year was the layout of the book.  I found it disconcerting that quotations ran down the sides of the pages.

like this

like this

How would I go back and forth?  It turned out to be easy.  I soon fell into a natural rhythm of finding a paragraph break and then reading the sidebar. Each quotation tied in with the main page’s theme.  And I do love a good quotation, as you know.  It also made me think maybe Susan wouldn’t mind that I was quoting some passages from her book in this here blog entry.

And oh, did I ever find lots of wonderful quotations.

I was pleased to find more than one quotation by Pacific County's Robert Pyle.

I was pleased to find more than one quotation by Pacific County’s Robert Pyle.



A useful quotation about success: “To establish oneself in the world, one does all one can to seem established there already.” Francois, duc of La Rochefoucauld

Continuing the theme of Together, Alone, Susan writes about how two people who appreciate some solitude can live together:


I absolutely adore that they bought a double wide (since it’s what we live in here).  Also, note the page layout with the month highlighted:  elegant.  (I do think I need to buy myself my own copy of this book………A few minutes later:  It is on its way.)

The satisfaction of owning one’s own humble abode:


On living in a small house:


smallOn the subject of home, she has collected many quotations that I saved.



And quotations about gardening:

I value my garden for being more full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly I give them fruit for their song.  Joseph Addison

My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of trandscendent, magical experience that let’s you see your place in the big picture.  And that is what I had with my first compost heap.”  Bette Midler

I was excited to find a quotation from one of my favourite books (one that I wish I owned as I’d like to reread it):



And I learned that Bowers has a second book!

full life

Because Susan and Bill live in Texas, her liberal vote is always useless in a national election because of the Electoral College.


She writes, “I feel more empowered when I vote in the primary, where my vote actually counts for something.  In the general election, my vote for the Democrat counts for nothing.  The Electoral College swallows it.”

About the media:


Another memoirist beloved to me who seamlessly mixed politics with tales of her home and garden was Gladys Taber during the time of the Vietnam war, to which she was deeply opposed.

Susan spends the year educating herself by reading about the climate change and peak oil, sharing her findings with the reader.  She and I are sympatico on these issues.


For a novel about these topics, she recommends A World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler, “a novel about a post-oil, post-apocalyptic world.”
(I thought I might read it till I read several bad reviews on Goodreads.)

She also shares her joy in seeing President Obama elected, even though she is not starry-eyed in a belief that everything will now change.

She takes refuge from politics in nature:


Here is a passage that reminds me of our small town parades.  She writes about the Labor Day Oatmeal Festival.  “The parade takes place on Bertram’s main streat because Oatmeal (too small to show up on the map) doesn’t have a main street, or any street at all.  Several years ago, my ninety-year-old mother got to ride on the Bertram Nursing Home float.  She’d never been in a parade before.  I asked her how she felt about this.  She said she felt like a queen.”

Here on the Long Beach Peninsula, the Golden Sands Assisted Living bus goes in the local parades.


I hope they also feel like queens.

I hope they also feel like royalty.

Here is a recommendation for a movie on that subject dear to me, the ephemeral nature of life:


When one of their dogs, Lady, dies:  I once read that we rehearse our own death in every other death we meet, In Lady’s, I see an image of my own, and hope it will be as peaceful.

Something else that deeply moved me:  Susan writes of her father:  ….”He passed the love of books and libraries on to me.  I worked as hard as I could in school to make him proud of me and learned to love the learning itself. There were no rewards of pride or affection from him.  ….Even now, twenty years after his death, I still can’t say I love him.  …the world is too pretty to harbor grudges.  I’m sorry, Dad, that you were so unhappy.  That’s the best I can do.”  My takeway from that for parents is to think carefully about how you will, or will not, be missed, because like Susan, I still can’t say I loved my dad, and I never missed him.  I can wish that he had lived longer (because he did enjoy his life) for his own sake.  I am sorry that Susan had that experience even though it is a comfort to me to read it.

On  libraries:  Barbara Kingsolver once wrote that she wanted to embrace “every living librarian who crosses my path, on behalf of the souls they never knew they saved.”  True for me, too.  My soul has been saved, over and over, through books, beginning when I was young and in dire need of salvation.  The only books available to me where in libraries, and librarians held the key, literally.

Takeaways from An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days:

a list of books to read

Circling My Mother, Shadow Man, and Seeing Through Places by Mary Gordon

anything by Terry Tempest Williams

Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders

The Mountains Next Door and a re-read of A Full Life in a Small Place by Janice Emily Bowers

And the biggest takeaway for right now is this quotation, which explains to me why we should continue to work instead of retiring into genteel poverty (with more time to read and go boating):


The Long Beach, Ilwaco, and resort gardens where we work are our fields of care, and I think we need to emerge from staycation soon to fulfill our commitment to this place.

Don’t worry if the blog is quiet for a few days, though; I have a big stack of books to read during some predicted stormy weather.  I think there might be too many even for a five day storm:



am halfway through this one...

am halfway through this one…

I’ll be back when I have at least a few of those read…

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