Being read by Susan Howatch novels

The best books are the ones that read you more than you read them.

That is how I feel about the English novelist Susan Howatch’s novels, particularly her Starbridge series (here’s a chronological list of her Starbridge series that I posted on Amazon several years ago).

It is also why I’ve read through the series three times and will re-read it again this summer. There aren’t any other works of fiction that I revisit in this way.

The last time I re-read the series I finished the last novel in a tiny cabin on Lake Michigan, shivering under the covers because it’s always freaking cold on Lake Michigan, even in the summer, and I was in the throes of the worst allergy attack of my life, as the buildup of dust and mold in the cabin from the winter was too much. The Claritins and Benadryls I popped like candy didn’t bring even the merest edge of relief, but even in that state Howatch’s storytelling kept me riveted.

The Starbridge series is a fictionalized account of some of the main players in the Church of England in the mid 20th century. That probably sounds like it would be a snooze, but it’s not.

For example, if I were to write a six word story of the first book in the series, Glittering Images, it would be: Bishop or whore? Hard to tell.

Scandals involving bishops are one of life’s constants, so it gives  Howatch plenty of material to work from. The other day I read a comment thread on a blog in which someone said it’s better to be a whore than a bishop, because being a bishop has a corrosive affect on one’s personality and at least a whore is honest about what she does. There’s some wisdom in that. Power is corrupting.

Another six word story for the book could be: Image was everything. Until it wasn’t.

She uses psychology and theology to strip down the characters and get past their glittering images. As one Amazon reviewer said, reading the book was like being in her own counseling session. Another reviewer said, “With elements that would appeal to those with an interest in mystery, romance, Jungian psychology, or the spiritual life, this volume will fit well on many and diverse readers’ shelves.”

This article by Charles Howard goes into more detail about Glittering Images and how it deserves a place of prominence on his university office book shelf over his academic tomes.  I also like how he ties it in to helping students find their true identity and vocation, which is timely for me as my oldest daughter graduates high school in a week.

Throughout the series you meet a variety of characters, not just clergy. There’s an atheist lawyer, a gay prostitute, a lonely single female cook who attaches herself to the leader of a healing center, which is operated by social workers, psychologists and a priest. And many more characters.

The occult, ghosts and poltergeist activity are featured in one book. A main theme throughout seems to be that healing is a process and the reader can usually identify with at least one of the struggles a character is going through.

Much to my dismay I had heard rumors over the past few years that Howatch isn’t going to write again. This post, including the comments section, confirms that. Alas. It also gives a nice summary of each of the Starbridge books. So if you’re looking for some books to read you, there you go.


Slow Resurrection

Her small Easter. Resurrection came slowly. – Six Word Story #37

The phrase “slow resurrection” has been much on my mind the past week or two, after reading the text of an Easter sermon Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein posted on Facebook.

Everyone loves a dramatic resurrection story, whether it’s a story of a spontaneous remission from cancer, a runner who falls flat on her face during the final lap of a college championship race yet somehow bounces back up and not only manages to catch up with the rest of the runners, but wins the race, or an actress who catches a big break early in her career and goes on to fame and fortune.

Most of our resurrections are of the slow variety, however. The fractured relationship with a family member that doesn’t show signs of healing for years or even decades. Living on the financial edge through a lengthy bout of unemployment. The quiet, daily tending to the maintenance of a disease that will never go away.

Of the tending of diseases I have much experience. For example, ten years ago at the age of five, my second daughter gave herself an insulin injection for the first time without the slightest hesitation.

A year previous, while in the hospital after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, she screamed in terror whenever the nurse would prick her finger to test her blood sugar and give her a shot.  It was heartbreaking for me to have to answer her “Why???” questions with “if you don’t take insulin, you will die.”

Helping her get over the certainty of having perfect health, and accepting that diabetes management would require discomfort several times a day for the rest of her life, were daunting tasks. This is why my memory of her bravely giving herself a shot a year later stands out in my mind, even though there was no audience to applaud, and no one to give her an A for effort. It was a slow resurrection moment. Her life force was triumphing over her fears.

To be sure, there would be other times down the road she would be incoherent while in the throes of a high blood sugar and I would again have to trot out the “if you don’t take insulin you will die” line in order to get her to see the gravity of the situation.  Or I’d have to stand over her in the aisle of a store or other public place while she was in the midst of a low blood sugar episode, order her to drink a sugary beverage, lean over her for quite some time to ensure she drank it all, all the while drawing “what the hell is that mom doing forcing her kid to drink a Mountain Dew?” type looks from passers by.

I guess all slow resurrections are like that. They either go unnoticed or look weird to outsiders.

Come to think of it, even the dramatic Easter resurrection story shows Jesus initially going unnoticed by his disciples. The first signs of his resurrection were emptiness…the emptiness of the tomb and the empty burial clothes. Then when they ran into the resurrected Jesus they didn’t recognize Him for a while and were more preoccupied with their fishing. Even in the midst of that epic first Easter, their own personal Easters were small, as are many of ours.


Six Word Story #36

He put the sin in Wisconsin.


I realize the “he” in this story is vague, so, for fun, here are some possibilities:

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A politician:

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A thief:

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Or, more likely, a combination of all of the above. :)


Six Word Story #35 plus a book recommendation

75. Divorced. Their history was history. – Six Word Story #35

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says before you write a novel you should come up with a situation for the story. The situation is best described in a “What if… ” statement in a sentence or two. He says don’t bother writing a story until you have a good situation.

For The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a novel I read recently, the situation is: “What if a wealthy 78-year-old man divorced his 75-year-old wife after almost 50 years of marriage?”

This situation intrigued me so I decided to read the book. Also, it’s set in Connecticut and I knew reading it would make me feel wistful for New England (in my 20s I lived in Massachusetts for four years) and I felt like revisiting New England in that way. Plus it’s February so I was in the mood for a book that wasn’t minds-on but that wasn’t mindless chick lit either.

Here’s a front page review the New York Times gave of the book and explains the Jane Austen type elements of the book, which give it a lot of charm. As the review says, “Schine is perceptive, and even breathtaking, in her observations.”

Now if only I could go visit New England again for real. Someday, I hope.


Six Word Stories 33-34

“Hello. Mello Yello Jello poisoned him.” – Six Word Story #33

Today while eating lunch with my youngest daughters, they decided to be a bit more rambunctious than usual. Lots of non-stop laughter, which would’ve been fine, except we were in a public place and I didn’t want them to choke.

To distract myself from their silliness, I decided to come up with as many words as possible that are spelled like Mello Yello (I was drinking one at the time). I know, the things I’m reduced to as a mother at times.  It’s a wonder I have enough little gray cells left to even string six words together. The story above is a line I imagined Captain Stottlemeyer saying to Detective Adrian Monk over the phone about the victim on a case the are working on (or substitute the detectives of your choice).

For kicks here’s another six word story (#34):

Quiet, personal camouflage protected her childhood.

Suffice to say there wasn’t any camouflage or quiet during this particular afternoon of my youngest daughters’ childhoods. ;-)


Bourbon Balls: One way to make snow days less tedious

Today Betty Givan from Betty’s Kitchen posted a recipe for Bourbon Balls, so I made sure to buy those ingredients while out stocking up before the storm arrived tonight.

Hey, it gave me an excuse to buy some bourbon. :D I hardly ever buy alcohol so when the clerk asked for my birth date, I was confused, and just said “May 31.”  And I hadn’t even had any bourbon to drink yet. Ahem.

Betty says Bourbon Balls are very popular in the south. I made them tonight and I can see why they are so popular. Or maybe it’s because I drank some Wild Cherry Pepsi with bourbon while making them that I came to that conclusion.

Here’s her video.

Here’s the recipe:


1 pound box confectioner’s sugar
½ cup butter, melted
½ cup bourbon whisky
6-oz. semisweet chocolate chips
pecan halves for topping (optional)

In a large bowl, combine 1 pound of confectioner’s sugar, ½ cup melted butter, and ½ cup bourbon whiskey. Stir until smooth. Refrigerate for about ½ hour, until workable with hands. With your hands, pinch off about a rounded teaspoonful of cold mixture and roll it into a ball. The ball can be up to 1-inch in diameter, but you should make all balls approximately the same size. Place the ball on a waxed paper lined pan, and continue making the balls until all of the mixture is used. Place the pan in the refrigerator or freezer, until balls are very cold, but not frozen. Melt 6-oz. semisweet chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler. (You may add ½-oz. paraffin to the chocolate, if desired.) When the chocolate is melted and the bourbon balls are cold and firm, use a toothpick to dip each ball into the melted chocolate. Swirl it around to completely cover the ball, and then remove it quickly and place it back on the waxed paper lined pan. Immediately place a pecan half on top of the chocolate dipped bourbon ball and press to set. Continue dipping until all bourbon balls are completed. You may leave the pecan off half of the bourbon ball for people who do not care for pecans. These are really delicious for a party or for a late-night snack. You may keep them at room temperature on serving day, but you should store them in the refrigerator or freezer for long-term storage. You can also place these in a decorative tin for Valentine’s Day gift! We love them and hope you will, too! –Betty

And here’s a silly Six Word Story that I wrote about bourbon balls (hey, there’s a blizzard here and I’ve both eaten and imbibed bourbon, so that’s my excuse):

Six Word Story #33

Death by frozen bourbon balls. Whodunit?


6 Six Word Stories

Six Word Story #27:

Holes made him whole, not holy.

Six Word Story #28:

He suffered her certainties 46 years.

Six Word Story #29:

Wanted. Anticipated. Saved. Purchased. Misplaced. Intoxicated.

Six Word Story #30:

He lusted. She trusted. Oops. Pregnancy.

Six Word Story #31:

Guilt arrived and sabotaged her afternoon.

Six Word Story #32:

Their love died from emotional anemia.


Fun Friday Potpourri

First, oh how I wish I could get my 7-year-old to agree to throw a birthday party with proper princess accessories like these:

(H/T Phil Thompson)

Next, snowmen like these would make winter less tedious:

Rose Is Rose

That’s a commendable effort by Vicki the Biker but it doesn’t top the Calvin & Hobbes snowmen:

I could go on, but it’s entirely possible your sense of humor isn’t as warped as mine, so click here if you’d like to see more strips like these (here’s a site that shows real life Calvin & Hobbes snowmen). I tried to get my kids to make Calvin & Hobbes snowmen during the snowstorm on Monday but they refused. Alas. If I want snowmen like that or princesses that carry saw blade guns, I guess I’ll have to borrow some other children. ;-)

That Vicki the Biker snowman reminds me of this “My Guitar Gently Weeps” video where, beginning at the 3:30 mark, Prince plays a guitar solo that is at least as good if not better than Eric Clapton’s version. Prince plays it with more panache.

A Facebook friend was looking for non-dictionary definitions of the word “family” so I posted Erma Bombeck’s definition (it’s always nice to have an excuse to bring on Erma):

The family. We are a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.

Finally, here’s Six Word Story #26:

Marriage. Boredom. Relocation. Overspent. Adultery. Suicide.

There. Madame Bovary in six words. :-)

Hope you have a great weekend.


6 Six Word Stories in 6 Hours

Seeing as how there was a blizzard today, and I didn’t feel like doing the writing I was supposed to be doing, I thought I’d try writing 6 six word stories in 6 hours. I ended up writing five of them in a half hour.

Here goes:

Death in the drive-thru came swiftly. (Six Word Story #20)

Unfortunately this is a true story. Last Wednesday at the credit union I go to all the time in my normally quiet community, a police officer fatally shot a man who kidnapped an older man.

She killed husband, not the boss. (Six Word Story #21)

I finished the book Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King this weekend, which is about a woman who got away with murdering her husband years ago but then was falsely accused of murdering her boss.

It’s not a horror novel, which is why I was able to read it (I made the great mistake of reading his Cujo horror novel one weekend when all my roommates were gone for the weekend and I hadn’t touched a King novel since). This was a fun read because the book is entirely a monologue by Dolores and there are no chapter breaks.

Seven league boots fly through snow. (Six Word Story #22)

Cellist Zoe Keating has a song called Seven League Boots so I looked that up and found out those are boots in European folklore that can go seven leagues (21 miles) in one step.

Loyal German Shepherd performed blizzard rescue. (Six Word Story #23)

I had to write some copy about German Shepherds this afternoon and found out how loyal and smart they are and found myself developing a soft spot for them even though I’m not a dog lover.

I had to write a true story about how a woman noticed a German Shepherd sitting attentively in a gas station parking lot across from the restaurant where she was eating. She later asked the gas station manager about him and he said the dog was abandoned there seven days earlier but hadn’t budged from the spot because he was waiting for his owners’ return. She ended up adopting him.

I also learned German Shepherds can be trained to do just about anything and are sometimes used as diabetes alert dogs. They sniff to see if the owner’s blood sugar is normal and will run and fetch the glucometer if  they sense the blood sugar is abnormal. Of course my diabetic daughters now want one of these dogs.

He’s nobody’s fool – smarter than God. (Six Word Story #24)

I’m reading the novel Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo, who is perhaps my favorite modern novelist and a winner of the Pulitzer prize.  His novels are about “blue-collar heartache” and are set in working class communities in New England, usually. Quite often the main character is an English professor.

That Old Cape Magic is a good novel to start with if you haven’t read one of his novels before.

Well-tempered clavier finally lost its cool. (Six Word Story #25)

Every winter I go through a phase of listening to lots of classical music, including Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I’ve always found that name vaguely amusing so I had some fun with it here. What can I say, I was snowed-in and bored and therefore easily amused. :-)


Best six word story ever

Well, maybe not the best. That distinction still belongs to Hemingway, I think, for his “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Used.” This one is the most clever one I’ve come across (from the Six Word Stories site):

Optimist drowns in half full bathtub.