For Valentine’s Day

I love photographing insects and spiders and discovering details I didn’t see until I opened the photographs on my computer – the lovely striped abdomen of the Drone Fly, the butterscotch color of the Deer Fly, the slim white line that etches the outline of Sehirus cinctus, the White-margined Burrower Beetle.

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I love the sense of wonder when I realize that what I have seen and photographed is a grasshopper laying eggs, a wasp with her long, slender ovipositor slid into a blossom’s bosom.

wasp ovitpositing

I love discovering a crab spider on the yellow petal on which I saw and photographed a Jagged Ambush Bug: in successive frames they edge closer, then edge away.

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I love the names of insects – the scientific names I would stumble over if I tried to say them aloud, but which somersault on my mind’s tongue with joy: Agelenopsis, Araneus trifolium, Neoscona Arabesque, Ellychnia corrusca, Reduvius personatus,  Lygaeus kalmia, Podisus placidus, Stiretrus anchorago, Herpyllus ecclesiasticus. predatory stink bug e watson

And the common names: Grass spider, Shamrock and Arabesque Orbweavers, Winter Firefly, Small Milkweed Bug, Masked Hunter, Predatory Stink Bug, Anchor Stink Bug, Eastern Parson Spider.

14 spotted ladybug e watsonI love the practicality of the names that describe their appearance: Three-lined Potato Beetle, Tortoise Beetle, Fourteen-spotted Lady, Thinlegged Wolf Spider, White Admiral, Painted Lady, Pearly-eye, Zebra Caterpillar Moth, Twice-stabbed Stink Bug.

And I love the names that describe Long bodied cellar spidertheir behaviors: Tumbling Flower Beetle, Jumping Spider, Fungus-eating Lady, Cobweb Spider, Rose Chafer, Oil Blister Beetle, Sharpshooter. And the names that do both: Milkweed Longhorns, Dot-tailed Whiteface Skimmer, Four-spotted Skimmer, Longbodied Cellar Spider.

hummingbird moth_ e watson

And I love this world of wonders in which the Lady Bug is not a bug but a beetle; in which the nymph of the Masked Hunter covers itself in dust and lint and patrols our sheets and pillows for bedbugs; in which the hummingbird is,  in fact, a moth.

 

Book Review: The Awakening & Selected Stories by Kate Chopin

The sidewalk outside NYC’s largest public library building is embedded with plaques such as this one in honor of Kate Chopin. Stopping to read them as I walk along may make me look like a tourist, taking photographs of them definitely does. But surely their purpose is to encourage lingering and contemplation . . . and so I linger, contemplate, and take a photograph.

At home, the 1981 Modern Library version of a selection of Chopin’s work waits by our bedside, our current nighttime read-aloud. Within that volume, the strong wings of Chopin’s words guide us along the inroads of mind, heart, and body. Kate Chopin’s stories are peopled with those who act from deep motivations, and very often they pause to consider the nature and source of their emotions.

The stories are short, well-paced, and thought provoking, making this volume a wonderful read-aloud for adults – and worthy of a book club. The introduction by literary critic Nina Baym offers valuable historical context, and the glossary of terms helps fill in where context clues don’t seem to be enough.

If you pick up this volume and the first two stories lead you to believe that all will end with a lovely sweetness, keep reading. These two stories, “Love on the Bon-Dieu” and “Beyond the Bayou” will begin to teach you how to read Chopin’s stories, but they do not reveal the full arc of human potential that Chopin explores. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Two Good Dogs

Apparently, given how many books she’s written, I’ve come late to the game of reading Susan Wilson’s work. Yesterday, I was browsing library shelves, wondering how I was going to find a comparable title for my own novel, when I saw the word “dog” and pulled Two Good Dogs from the shelf. I skimmed the back cover and the beginning of the front flap copy and plucked The Dog Who Danced from the shelf as well.

At home I settled in with the more recent book first. A few pages into 2GD, I wasn’t optimistic. The writing itself was more than adequate, but the pace at which plot lines came at me was daunting. I don’t need a slow-poke start, but I was too clearly reminded of novels that rocket along in this way all the way to the end, throwing characters and complications in right up to the last chapter. I was looking for a book to relax with, not keep up with. I was very glad, then, when the story line settled down. The world-building had done the job, and I could relax as the story unfolded.

There are complications of modern life to be had here: teenage addiction, dog-fighting and dog rescue, parent-child wrangling, economic woes. So this isn’t a sappy book. But there is the reassuring sense that things will turn out all right: a big dose of realism meets an equally big dose of good fortune. Is that escapism? Probably, but in a world that is going, as my grandmother might have said, “To hell in a hand basket,” I, for one, can use the break. I’m 14 chapters into the book, and I’m glad to keep going.

Recommended.

Book Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I’m working on a ghost story and, by way of procrastination as much as by way of research, I settled in with two slim volumes of ghost stories: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and More Scary Stories, by Alvin Schwartz. In their pages, I was amused to find a few traditional ghost stories that I myself had heard and passed on. Two of them I heard from my uncle, Gerald Shattuck. He was a very good story teller. The first story he told was a “Cemetery at Night” story.  We were amused, but not scared much. But then, in a low, serious voice, he told the tale of his own experience with the “Ghostly Hitchhiker,”

One night, my friend and I were driving along on a dark road. Suddenly, in our headlights we saw a distraught young woman by the side of the road. She flagged us down. Of course, we stopped. We wondered if she were hurt, but she insisted that she just needed a ride home. She gave us an address and we started off. From the back seat she told us how grateful she was. We were very worried about her, and when we asked her a question and she didn’t answer, I turned to the back to check on her – she was gone! She had disappeared! We stopped at the first little store we came to and reported what we had seen. The people there had heard this story before. We discovered that a young woman had been killed by a hit-and-run driver at the very spot we first saw her. Her spirit has haunted the roadside ever since, looking for the guilty person who killed her.

Told this way, it is a compelling story: we young listeners were suitably caught between belief and disbelieve. I, myself, passed on the story when I told it to a carload of middle-schoolers I was driving to an activity night. To my great surprise, the most credulous among them fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I spent some time back peddling and explaining the nature of ghost stories.

When they were first published, the series was very popular with children, but deemed too gross and scary by some adults. The stories are based on folktales – old and modern – and they are scary, especially the illustrations. And if you find ghosts eating the pus of their rotting stomachs gross, (which I do!) they are gross. All in all, I agree with Harper’s 1984 review of another Schwartz publication, “a nicely nasty collection.” I’ll be on the lookout for more volumes.

If I find any, I’ll be looking for more than ghost stories. In the Acknowledgments section of the two volumes, an interesting tale is hinted at – that of a marriage and of the changing public roles of women. In the first  volume, published in 1981, the author acknowledges his wife with these words, “My wife, Barbara, who did the musical notation . . .  carried out bibliographical research, and contributed in other ways.” By 1984, he identifies her in this manner, “. . . my wife and colleague, Barbara Carmer Schwartz.” How she came to be acknowledged with her full name and a more professional status is a story I’d like to hear.

Writing Prompt

Sometimes “what to write” comes easily; we walk the street or overhear a conversation, or glimpse a memory, and we have enough material to last us for hours. But sometimes we could use a prompt to tickle our imagination, get us to jump off our usual track and find rich new material. In that spirit, here’s a prompt (with a bit of backstory):

In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith – poet, artist, rock star – includes this story.  She and her very sick lover have left a flophouse on the advice of other residents who recognize that these two young people are misplaced among the terminal junkies who make up most the population. The pair sneak out taking only their two portfolios, but Patti goes back later to settle her bill and retrieve their belongings. She sees that her most prized possessions now decorate the landlords’ sitting room, some of them displayed on his mantel, one of her drawings hanging on the wall. Her books and record albums are packed in boxes. Over coffee Patti and the landlord negotiate the bill. All but her notebooks and a few other items are left in payment for the rent. She ends the scene with this comment, “I said goodbye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”

Prompt: What have you left behind? Is there always new stuff? Do you recognize it when it arrives? What is it about ‘stuff’ anyway? What role does the ‘stuff’ we gather around us play in our lives?

Book Review: Paris by the Book

Promising title, nice cover, but . . .

I’ve just returned Liam Callanan’s Paris by the Book to the library. The book has a fun cover and a promising title, but the execution fell short. While I came to really like the two daughters, Callanan used coincidence and inexplicable infusions of cash to fuel the plot. He also dipped a toe into “issues” without ever setting the groundwork for them or developing their meaning within the story. For instance, the plot touches on the treatment of black immigrants in Paris and the disagreement in the US about the wisdom of vaccinating children – and moves on with no further mention. In the afterword the author confirms there is no such thing as the magical visa that allows the Americans to stay in Paris, but there was at least one other, even more far-fetched, plot device to explain away. The good writing kept me reading, but the contrived and muddled plot had me shaking my head.

Why write?

It’s been many months of adapting to changes, good and sad. One of the good changes is that we’ve landed in a new living space. We’re moved in and are settled enough that I can work into a new writing routine.

But all the shakeup of endings and beginnings has taken its toll – I come into moments where I find myself stranded – what, after all, is the point of all this writing? This morning, after considering this point for longer than might be healthy, I came to a heartening thought when I considered the writing vocation of my mother. She wrote novels while she raised her seven children, and she wrote poetry always. She didn’t ever try to publish her work: her family were her only readers. So, why did she do it? Why does anyone do it? Because, the answer came to me, story matters. I’ve had this declaration come to me before; it does motivate me, and I clearly need to ‘hear’ it more often. With that need for repetition in mind, I took a detour on my way to getting back to writing and made myself the gift of a reminder. Using one of my photos, I created a new background, “lock screen,” to greet me each time I open my computer. Maybe it will help inspire you, too. . .

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