Tides by Sara Freeman

We don’t know her name right away. She’s just “she,” and she is on a bus bound for somewhere else. She doesn’t really care where she’s going as long as it’s away from where she was. She comes to a small resort town on a lake somewhere in the upper Midwest with a few dollars in her pocket, the clothes on her back, and no real plan for what comes next.

We get clues right away that something is very wrong, that a trauma has been suffered. But the clues about the baby and the husband and the brother and sister-in-law left behind are not carefully delineated. “She” checks into the cheapest lodgings, a hostel where a lot of the summer help lives, and begins work at disappearing.

But she can’t completely. She needs money so she finds odd jobs. But she keeps all others at arm’s length and when the summer winds down she is faced with a closing hostel and no place to stay anymore. So her present self goes forth finding a job at the wine shop in town and secretly bunking in the storage room above, and all the while her interior landscape is pulled, like the tides, back to the past where we gradually learn her name (Mara), and her sad story.

Told in micro-fiction chapters that create a mosaic of a whole, Sara Freeman draws a portrait of a woman who is troubled by more than just losing her baby and husband. Little by little the picture forms of Mara, and her life before her arrival in the resort town. As she subsumes her past she plunges ahead into her present where she continues on a path of self-destruction.

This book was so beautiful to read. The tiny portions give us tesserae of the story so when you finish you’re surprised to be holding a fully-realized narrative in your hands. It’s a remarkable feat, and a lyrical story, well crafted.

Tides will be released in bookstores on January 16, 2022.

The School of Mirrors by Eva Stachniak

For those of you who don’t know, I am a sucker for a good work of historical fiction. I adore sinking into family sagas from another time. This particular novel, The School of Mirrors, ticked all of my boxes: palace intrigue, a plucky heroine (this story has two), and lush historical detail.

Thirteen-year-old Veronique is poor, young, and lovely. A Parisian by birth, she helps her mother eke out a living by selling rags at the market. Since her father died there has been little joy in her life. But then her life is changed irrevocably when she is noticed by Dominique-Guillaume Lebel, the premier de chamber du rois (the man who is in charge of Louis XV’s bedchamber). He does the proverbial plucking of a young waif from obscurity and sets her up at Deer Park at the Palace of Versailles where she is groomed to become one of the King of France’s “little birds.” These pre-pubescent girls were the sexual fantasies created by Level, especially for his king. Even the king’s mistress, Madame du Pompadour, had knowledge and a hand in selecting these girls according to the king’s taste.

After many months Veronique finds she is pregnant and is sent away to give birth to another of the king’s bastards. This child, a girl named Marie-Louise, is separated from her mother at birth and the second part of the novel begins with the tracing of her life from a child to middle age. There are a great many obstacles to overcome and triumphs to celebrate all splashed upon the glittering backdrop of eighteenth-century France. Stachniak visits the royal and wealthy as well as the grinding poverty of the working classes and leads us from monarchy to revolution.

Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night (both novels about Catherine the Great), wrote a sweeping historical novel that is perfect for savoring on your fainting couch. This is the first novel I have read by this author but will definitely seek out her previous works for when we have our condo renovated and I have a long Sunday afternoon to spend soaking in my brand new bathtub.

The School of Mirrors will be released on February 22, 2022.

The Bright Blue Sea

It is June in Greece. The sun is a white ball of heat, the sea so bright blue I ache to look at it. I sit in the cool shade of a plane tree and wait. My hair is tied with the first gift he gave me: a scarf of blues and greens, the hues of his home, his pride. At my throat is a charm, a blue eye specked with an ink-black dot, to ward off harm. My eyes slide to the sea, where small waves lap the shore. I wait, but not for long. Soon, I see him in the road.

His brown hair is shot with gold, his skin tanned from the sun. He laughs when he sees me. I stand and give him my cheek; his firm kiss finds my lips. He sits, arm slung on his chair, his smile drinks me in. I stare up at the wall near his back, which has been there since the god’s days, no doubt. It was white once, now caked with age, a frieze of blue squares at the top.

His hand tips my chin so I look down at him. I smile back. A man comes and we ask for cold beers, a Greek brand called Fix. When they come, we sip but my smile does not meet my eyes.

He frowns. “Kat, What’s wrong?”

I look him dead on when I tell him. His eyes, green like moss on a tree, grow wide when he hears what I have to say. I tell him of just last month when I saw him with her back home. How she was tall with gold hair and bright blue eyes, just the shade of this sea. I tell him how I saw him brush her cheek with his hand, how he kissed her soft mouth, how she laughed and hugged him.

His face is pale, the tan smudged with ash. He sits, mute; his eyes do not meet mine. When he does speak, his voice is low.

“Why wait? Why tell me now? Why not say it when you first saw us?”

 “You need to ask?”

 He stares at me, blank. Then, a nod.

“Look!” I cry and raise my hands to the sea, the wall, the street, the beer. “For all this! Now you can’t have this and not think of me.” I stand up and pull the scarf from my hair and drop it at his feet where it pools on his toes. “Now you can’t bring her here and not know what you did to me. To us.” I grab my purse. “I hope you drown in it.”

His hands curl on his beer glass as a snarl curls his lip. I know he gets it as he looks past me to the waves, just the shade of her eyes. I turn and walk. But as I go, I look out at the sea and smile.

Author’s note: This was an exercise proposed from my MFA program that I am enrolled in at Lindenwood University. They asked us to write a story of five hundred words or less and each word can only be one syllable. It was an interesting exercise that tested me. It’s not easy to do this and I had to consider each word. Hope you like it.

Book Reviews and Other Things

This summer I landed a second job. I didn’t necessarily need one, but I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. An old colleague of mine came to the library in July to say hello. It was wonderful to see Linda and catch up. She told me she was writing book reviews for a local magazine but was going to have to quit because of health issues. She asked if I wanted to be her replacement and I said yes! So now I’m doing book reviews for Old Naples News and North Naples News eight times a year. These are two glossy magazines that are distributed in all mailboxes in certain zip codes.

The most fun part of this job is all the advanced reader’s copies of as-yet-unreleased books I get. The publishing houses have me on their lists to get the catalogs of new releases and I admit I got a little drunk with ordering. Yes, I’ll read that, and that, and that, and that, and that, and that and… well, you get the picture.

Most advanced reader’s copies are digital now. There is a service called Net Galley which supplies reviewers and other industry types with these downloadable books. But Net Galley also keeps track of how many you request and how many you actually review. And if I’m doing only eight reviews a year and I’m requesting many more than that, well, my average doesn’t look so favorable and publishers won’t be quite so quick to send me things.

I could write reviews on Amazon or Good Reads, but I thought since I haven’t been writing on this blog for a while, why don’t I start posting book reviews here? All you good people can hear about what’s coming out. Then my average will be high and I’ll keep supplying my habit of free books.

So be on the lookout for book reviews by me. I’ll let you know when it will be hitting bookstores and libraries so you can put things on your wishlists.

And included is my headshot I had taken for the magazine. It was done by Jesi Cason Photography in Fort Myers. She was lots of fun to work with, and if you’re local, I highly recommend her!

Plague Diaries #7

The new normal that I mentioned in my last post continues. I’m working, but I’m having trouble concentrating. I’m forcing my way through it, but at night I am exhausted and only want to lie in bed. But I go for walks because I know it’s good for me. I make myself eat well. I take my medications.

My anxiety has been getting out of hand. I’ve grappled with pretty harsh anxiety since I was a child, just built into my disposition, coming from my repressive Scandinavian genes, I suppose.

My husband doesn’t have anxiety, bless him. And I know a lot of you don’t either, and thank the stars you don’t. But if you know someone who does and you struggle to understand why they do weird things like eat their cuticles to shreds or have a penchant for hiding in bed, let me try to explain.

I know it is different for everyone. Some have severe panic attacks, some lose their shit and scream and cry, some of us can’t breathe. I fall into the latter category. When things get really bad I feel like I have a basketball shoved inside my ribs and my lungs are trying to expand and contract around it. Not easy.

But one thing, I think, that is universal for those with severe anxiety, is that it isn’t rational. It’s living too much in our heads and not being grounded in what is happening in the moment. We worry about the future, the past, the present and it all gets tangled in a whirling blur of color mixed with terrifying darkness that is impossible to slow down and separate into what’s real and what’s perceived.

The last time I had anxiety this bad was in the months after my mother died. No difficulty explaining why. And there is no secret to why it’s revving up now either. This pandemic is changing our world at a screaming pace. And the thing that makes me most anxious is I don’t know how it’s changing us, or where exactly (or even generally) we will end up.

I know this isn’t a post of stiff upper lip. (We can’t all be Queen of England.) I am a brave person–I go on living in spite of my anxiety. Some days are more difficult than others to put together the semblance of a well-lived life, but I never give up. But if I chew my thumb or have to lie down in the dark for a while, it’s okay. And it’s okay if someone you know does the same thing–as long as they don’t unpack and set up house with that feeling.

I hope you’re okay. I’m hanging in there. I’m doing my best, and I’m trying to be kind to myself and to others. We’re all going through a hard time and kindness is the best medicine for the ills that surround us.

Take care of yourself.

I’ll see you on the other side,

Anna

Plague Diaries #5

I think like many of you, my brain has been obsessively focused on the pandemic. It’s taking up a lot of mental real estate with me these days. Mostly I’m worried about what’s going to happen and the alarming news about the projections of how many people in this country are going to die in the next month or so.

But this morning during breakfast I was musing on another aspect of this extraordinary event in our lives and how the world has lived through this before and will no doubt live through it again. The Bubonic Plague lay waste to the world’s population and was instrumental in plunging us into the Dark Ages. But a more recent plague, namely the Spanish Flu pandemic of just over one hundred years ago, is something that is a little more accessible to our modern brains.

grandmaThis is my grandmother: Eileen Mary Bachmeyer Nelson. She was born February 11, 1915 in Minneapolis, MN. She lived through the Spanish Flu. She once told me one of her first memories was the end of World War I. She remembered her mother crying and seeing people shouting and celebrating in the streets. She was the only member of her immediate family with a job for a time during the Great Depression. She had an independent streak a mile long and lived to be nearly 95 years old.

Why am I telling you this? Not just because I was honored to be her granddaughter and that I still miss her like crazy, even though she’s been gone for ten years now. But I was considering today how the span of her life overlapping with the span of mine (and who knows how long that will be?) isn’t even a blip in the span of history, but what things have happened in our Venn Diagram of shared and un-shared time on earth.

She saw the Spanish Flu, though I doubt she remembered it. She lived through two world wars. We both lived through the Challenger explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraq War, and 9/11. And now, what will I add to our story before my light goes out in this world? I thought 9/11 was going to be the most significant world event that I would ever experience. I was very mistaken on that. As much as our world changed in 2001, I have a feeling the effects of the Covid-19 are going to be so much more far reaching than any of us can imagine now.

Life is never going to be the same again. We will be unequivocally, irrevocably changed. We are going to have to adjust to a new normal, whatever that may be. But this plague won’t finish us as a species. We are infinitely adaptable.

I’m glad my grandmother was spared living through this. Not that she wasn’t resilient enough, but one pandemic is enough for a lifetime.

Besides, she would have HATED the president.

See you on the other side,

Anna

Plague Diaries #4

A week has passed since my first installment of the Plague Diaries. Much has changed, but in another way we seem suspended here in Florida. True, the numbers are jumping every day. As of right now there are 4,246 cases of Covid-19 reported in the state of Florida, with 95 of them in my county.

But I know that number is grossly underrepresented. Testing in Florida has been abysmally lacking. The drive-through testing center we had in Naples had to shut down because there were no more testing kits available. I find that extremely disturbing.  We have no idea what’s really going on out there and that, I think, frightens me above all else.

I am returning to work tomorrow. I have been told I can self-isolate in my office and that’s exactly what I intend to do. I have plenty of projects I can work on and am honestly looking forward to the distraction. This past week, while I didn’t do much, was filled with anxiety combined with an inability to concentrate.

I did have a great video conference with a very dear friend just an hour or so ago. She’s a writing partner of mine and we are going to work on our current projects, share, and chat weekly about them. I feel like this is something I can do that will help me bridge the gap back to calm.

There seem to be two groups of people in this country. The first group is taking the pandemic seriously. They stay home as much as possible, they keep six feet away from everyone they meet, and they practice strict hygiene. I fall into this category. When I go back to work I will immediately bathe and put my clothes in the washing machine upon returning home. That may seem extreme and ridiculous to some, but if it keeps me from getting sick, I’m all for it. You don’t bounce back from dead.

The other group are the people who don’t or won’t take this seriously. They stand right next to you at the grocery store, they sneak onto the beach even when they are closed. (This last week Naples City Police turned away over 400 people trying to go to the closed beach for sunset. In about 2 hours. They are now threatening $500 fines for lawbreakers.)

Losers at the poolHere is a picture of the pool at my condo. It’s right out my back door. And you can partially see in the picture the crowd that gathered out there yesterday to hang out, drink, and talk.

There were about eight of them altogether. Not sitting 6 feet apart. Not paying any heed to the PANDEMIC that is gripping the world. I want to find a copy of The Masque of the Red Death and nail it to the pool gate. Although I wonder if anyone would get the reference.

I’m tired of this. Not just the people who won’t behave but of the anxiety and the worry and the fear that all come along with it. But what can I do? I just have to actively look for ways to retain calm in my life. Right now, those include:

  1. Watching Looney Tunes on YouTube (Holy cow, a lot of those do not hold up! So racist!)
  2. Reading beloved novels from my childhood. (I’m looking at you, Maud Hart Lovelace.)
  3. Face Timing with friends and family. It’s amazing what getting to see someone’s face will do for you.
  4. Taking naps.

The last one isn’t probably very healthy–it’s an old coping mechanism that I’ve employed since I was a teenager to escape reality. But I’m being nice to myself right now. A nap isn’t going to kill me.

I hope all of you out there are doing all right. Drop me a line if you need to talk. Do what the CDC is asking of you. Don’t take risks right now. After this passes there will be plenty of time for living again. Like I said, you don’t bounce back from dead.

I’ll see you on the other side,

Anna

Plague Diaries #2

This is our fifth day of self-isolation. Although I went to the grocery store yesterday, so it didn’t feel like a quarantine. The store was pretty well stocked and we got what we needed for the week. Today we plan to stay at home and go for a walk, but that’s all.

I am scared. There are lots of things to be scared about: getting sick is the top one on the list, but there are many other things pressing on my mind right now.

How many people are going to die?

The numbers are reported for the state of Florida every day at 11 a.m., and 6 p.m. For the past two days we have been adding 200+ cases every 24 hours. My county has 39 cases. That may not seem like much but testing has been scant. They started getting more aggressive last week when the private labs and hospital started testing too. But if test results take 5-7 days to come in, then we haven’t seen the real spike in the number of cases yet. Maybe in a few more days we’ll see more numbers reflective of how we really are.

What is going to happen to the economy?

It’s in a free fall right now and I don’t see anything stopping it. The stimulus package that the senate is fighting over might help, but I don’t have a lot of confidence they will reach an agreement. Bipartisan fighting is tearing us apart when we need our elected officials to band together now more than ever. I don’t see the senate standing on the steps of the Capitol singing “God Bless America” like they did after 9/11.

I’m not going to comment on who is right and who is wrong in this scenario because that is exactly my point. If Democrats and Republicans can’t come to an agreement now, when the world is collapsing, then we might be doomed.

What is going to happen to everyone who is suddenly out of work? 

I almost can’t sleep at night because I’m worried about friends who have lost their jobs. I realize the importance of shutting things down and agree this is the only way forward to lessen the number of deaths. There is a human life attached to every one of those numbers you see posted every day.

But what about the people who worked in restaurants? That is a livelihood that is already tenuous–a tiny wage with the majority of money made in tips. And when the job is gone, so is the health insurance. (At least that’s so in the USA.) What happens if they get sick and need to be hospitalized? How are they going to pay for that?

Why are some people still not taking this seriously?

My husband and I have been going for daily walks. We practice social distancing, where if someone is headed towards us on the sidewalk, we step out into the street to keep a safe distance from others.

We wash our hands. If we are forced to go out (like to the grocery store) we shower when we come home. And some people, I am sure, will say we’re being extreme. Are we? Or are we making sure we stay well?

On our walk we pass by the Lakewood Public Golf Course. The parking lot is still packed every day. Most of the license plates are out of state. So apparently the snowbirds that are with us every winter still feel that playing their 18 holes is more important than stopping the spread of disease.

Of course, it is a sport with very little contact. You’re out of doors, staying away from each other, and generally getting exercise. But who is sanitizing the golf carts? Who is practicing social distancing in the club house? I see clumps of people standing around and talking as we walk by. And it makes me angry.

But!

I also am reminding myself daily of the things I am grateful for. There is a lot. My husband, my father, and I are all healthy as of this writing. I have a job which I am damn grateful for. I have health insurance. We own our condominium outright and have no mortgage payment. We have plenty of food and enough toilet paper for a month. No one I know has the disease as of yet, although one family member was tested yesterday.

Above all, I am grateful for every day I have that I remain healthy. I can go for long walks. I can watch movies with my husband. I can keep in touch with friends and family that I love dearly.

Watch out for each other. Check in. Spread some laughter in this dark time. And stay away from each other as much as you possibly can.

See you on the other side,

Anna

In a pig’s eye

I awoke this morning to an eye that was half swollen shut. Turns out I have a stye underneath my eyelid. It hurts like hell and makes me look like Popeye.

A trip to the eye doctor confirmed it and now I have drops to put in 4 times a day. I hope it works fast because I’m miserable.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go lie down and ooze.

What’s for Dinner?

First to update, Mom is home from the hospital! She is feeling much better, though is rather wiped out. But she is happy to be home and sleeping in her own bed again.

This week was a challenge with going to the hospital every night. But I didn’t have to worry about dinner. Because I signed up for one of those meal kit delivery services, and I am ridiculously excited about it.

Kosta and I have been eating like crap lately. We eat out way too much or we stop at the store on the way home from work to pick up an easy dinner. We’ve gained weight, spent money, and feel pretty much gross.

Cherry Balsamic Pork before cooking.

Without telling him I made an executive decision: I signed up for Hello Fresh. What you do is pick three or four meals a week from the six or so they have to choose from. Then once a week you get a box on your doorstep with everything you need to make dinner! It’s all pre-measured, all you need are butter, oil, salt and pepper. It takes about 30 minutes to cook dinner and you have something healthy, balanced, and so far, delicious.

This week was our first foray, and I cooked our first meal on Tuesday: cherry balsamic pork with roasted potatoes and broccoli. It was just complicated enough to make it interesting and it tasted amazing. Even Kosta, who was unsure of the whole business at first, had to agree that it was outstanding for 30 minutes of work.

The ingredients to make our first supper.

Everything comes in a box, and in each box are three paper bags, the meat separate. Most of it is recyclable and everything is fresh and beautiful. I love all the mini things, like the tiny jar of cherry preserves and the little bottle of balsamic vinegar. It all goes so fast because you don’t have to measure much, you just dump stuff in the pot.

The directions were easy to follow and it reminded me how much I love to cook. In our house Kosta is known as the chef, but I’m no slouch.  I can slice and dice too, and while my knife skills might not be on par with his, I still feel I can measure up.

And it isn’t that expensive and very convenient. I don’t have to buy extra of stuff at the grocery store and there are no leftovers. Whoever initially thought of this is a genius. It saves me time and money and I get the pleasure of cooking three nights a week and enjoying a great meal.

My first effort was sickeningly good.

So we have a deal now. I cook dinner and he cleans up. I can’t tell you how much I have been enjoying this. I even bought a blue tooth speaker for the kitchen so I can listen to music while I cook. Everything about it is fun for me. Especially not having to wash the dishes.

We also had French onion burgers with kale chips and roasted salmon with crispy potato rounds and dill veggies. We get another box on Monday and I’m excited to do it all over again.

It’s nice to have a new routine that is good for us and it gives me something to look forward to. And after three hits, Kosta is convinced this is a good idea.  I can’t say I’ve ever looked forward to a Tuesday quite so much.