Top-10 Books of 2017

Reading Book

I read for several reasons. Entertainment is the primary reason, not is more satisfying than a good book. I also read to expand my knowledge of the world, to learn about people and places that I haven’t or can’t visit. And, as a developing short story writer, I read to see how other writers “do it”. How they construct their stories, how they use language, how they deal with themes.

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of short story collections, a bunch of novels, and a couple of non-fiction books. I’ve purposely searched out new-to-me authors. And I’ve returned to several of my favorite authors, reading both new publications or rereading some of their classics.

Here are my favorite reads of 2017. This is my list, very specific to me, my likes and prejudices, and my goals in reading. I would be interested in hearing which books you liked this year, both new and old, as I’m always looking for new authors to read.


  1. The O. Henry Prize Stories, 2017” by Laura Furman. This is a really strong collection of 20 of the “best short stories” published in the US in the previous year from a mix of emerging and established authors. Most anthologies of “best” short stories seem to have a handful of really strong stories, and then some not so strong. But I didn’t find a weak one in this bunch. An added bonus is the short essays by each of the judges about their favorite stories in the collection.
  2. Slaughterhouse-Five”, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. One of my “oldest and dearest friends” that I visited this past year. I’ve always been a big fan of Vonnegut’s simple, straightforward writing style. I’ve tried to keep my writing simple and concise as well. But when I found my writing was getting more complicated and dense that I would, I decided it was time to reread Vonnegut’s masterpiece. It’s been years since I last read Slaughterhouse-Five, but I was happy to find that it has stood up well. The simple, concise, straightforward writing still propels the story and allows Vonnegut’s message to slip into your subconscious, almost without notice. And the story about the horrors of war, so timely when the book was written in the late 1960’s, still resonates today.
  3. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty” by Eudora Welty. Eudora Welty was a new friend that I made this year. Although she is widely regarded as one of the great writers of the American South, I haven’t read anything by her except in school. This collection, containing 41 of her stories, is a must for anyone interested in writing short fiction and anyone who loves a well crafted short story.
  4. 4 3 2 1: A Novel” by Paul Auster. Another new friend. This was the first book that I’ve read by Auster. The novel is built as four parallel threads that explore how the life of Archibald Ferguson could change given slight different circumstances or happenings. Auster deals with the age-old question of Nature-or-Nurture, breeding-or-upbringing. Each thread starts with the same boy with the same parents. But then, life happens, a little differently in each thread and Ferguson’s life veers off into slightly different paths. Which leaves the question “is each Ferguson a different person, or the same person in different circumstances?”
  5. Men Without Women: Stories” by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is another dear friend,  one of my favorite contemporary authors. I first ran into Murakami when my son gifted me with “Kafka on the Shore” in 2005. And I have since read just about everything that Murakami has published in English. I was drawn to this new collection of stories, not only because it was more writing by Murakami, but for the theme of the book – grown men and and their relationships with women. Murakami, being Japanese and setting his stories in Japan, shows us that even if we speak different languages and have appear culturally different, the human condition is the same all around the world.
  6. Why Poetry”, by Matthew Zapruder. I’ve become interested in poetry in the last couple of years. I’ve wanted to “like” poetry, but I’ve felt that I “just don’t understand” it, and modern poetry has left me especially baffled. Zapruder has written this book for people like me. It not only dispels many of the myths of poetry that we have picked up in school, but contains good insights into writing and the visual arts in general. After reading this book, I’ve become much more comfortable with poetry.
  7. Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman. Another new friend. Being of Norwegian descent and interested in myths in general, this was a “must read” for me. And it didn’t disappoint. Gaiman has put together a fun to read collection of Norse myths that provides a good overview of the mythos that inspired the Vikings.
  8. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” by Salman Rushdie. I’ve been interested in reading something by Rushdie since the days of “The Satanic Verses”. In this book, Rushdie builds on the story of Scheherazade and the 1,001 Arabian Nights. “Two Years . . . “ tells the tale of a war between the jinn and our earth and the conflict between rational thought and faith. The writing is a little dense, but so rich. I would have really liked to underline and bookmark multiple passages that just resonated with me. But, alas, I was reading the public library’s copy of the book. I guess I’ll just have to purchase my own copy and reread it.
  9. Rabbit Redux” by  John Updike (3rd read). A dear, old friend. Rabbit Angstrom is just a couple of years older than me. I’ve read all of the Rabbit books by Updike as they have been published, gaining insight into my life and struggles. My writing covers many of the same themes as Updike does in the Rabbit saga. I periodically return to the series to better understand my life and struggles, and to see how a real master handles the themes of men progressing through the various stages of adulthood.
  10. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.)” by Francine Prose. It’s often said that if you want to write, you need to read more. But is just reading enough? Prose, author of 16 books of fiction, talks about how a writer can read with purpose. While you can learn something from well written books, almost by osmosis, you can learn some much more if you read to improve your writing. Prose talks about what types of things to look for in other’s writing. I learned a lot about writing just by looking at her examples and discussions of them.


Runners Up (in no particular order)

  • Huck Out West” by Robert Coover. I’ve read several previous novels by Coover, I loved his 1971 novel “The Universal Baseball Association”, and of course I’ve read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” several times. So, this was a natural to read. It’s an interesting spin on what became Mark Twain’s Huck and Tom Sawyer, with cameos by Becky Thatcher and even General Custer. It’s an interesting storyline and takes the characters places that Twain probably never envisioned, but seem quite appropriate in looking back.
  • The Accomplished Guest: Stories”, by Ann Beattie. A new collection of short stories from the respected American novelist and short story writer. I really enjoyed this collection and will have to read more of Beattie’s work in the coming year.

Trajectory: Stories”, by Richard Russo. I’ve read pretty much everything Russo has published. His books “Empire Falls” and “Nobody’s Fool” are classics. In “Trajectory”, Russo strays from his usual theme of men in dying, blue-collar towns. It was nice to see Russo expand beyond his standard dying, industrial New England, and deal with themes that he has likely been encountering in his life after becoming a successful writer.

Posted in Reading Tagged with: , ,

Saying Goodbye to Rudy









We said goodbye to Rudy Saturday morning. He had blessed us with his personality, companionship, and love for almost 8 years.

Rudy was a “rescue” dog that my wife, Janet, and I had adopted from the Humane Society. He was a mixed breed, listed by the animal shelter staff as being part German Shepherd and part some type of Retriever. Rudy seemed to combine the best personality traits of a Shepherd and a Retriever. He combined much of a German Shepherd’s intelligence with a Retriever’s playfulness and loyalty. And he was extremely well behaved. He obeyed almost every command immediately. And we could let him out into our unfenced yard without worrying about him leaving, not even to chase a cat or squirrel. And he was very affectionate. While Rudy could sometimes be demanding for attention, he gave back way more than he took. Intelligence, playfulness, obedience, and a loyal, loving nature. Rudy really was just about the best dog ever.


Rudy loved to play ball. He loved chasing after a thrown ball, running as fast as he could after it, the farther the better. He would grab the ball and then run back with it in his mouth. He would stand in front of you chewing the ball to make sure it got it good and slobbery, until you told him “Rudy, drop it”. He would then drop the slimy, saliva covered ball at your feet and turn and take off again for your next throw.

He would often jump to try to catch the ball if it bounced high enough off the ground. Sometimes he caught it, and sometimes it would bounce off of his nose. And if it ended up in the bushes or long grass, well, he seemed to get even more enjoyment out of looking for the ball. You would see Rudy’s head and shoulders disappear in the bush or grass, with just his butt and tail sticking out, wagging rapidly. And when he did find the ball, you could see the pride on his face as he trotted back triumphantly with the prize in his mouth, his tail wagging like a propeller behind him.

His other game was his own invention. He loved to tease you with one of his toys. He liked to approach you carrying a toy in his mouth, being part Retriever he always seemed to have something in his mouth. He would offer it to you like he wanted to play tug-of-war. But he was very adept at understanding the limits of your reach. He would manage to stand just out of your reach, teasing you with this treasure. Oh such a wonderful toy I’ve got here. Aren’t you jealous? Don’t you want it? And when you reached for it, he quickly turned away, keeping the toy just out of your reach. Nope, you can’t have it. It’s mine. And then quickly turn back towards you to tease you so more.

Sometimes, I would pick up one of his other toys, feigning disinterest in the one he had in his mouth. Of course, Rudy would try to get the one you had, so that he could get back to teasing you. At first, he would drop the one in his mouth and reach for the one in my hand. I would drop my toy and grab the one that he had dropped. That put him in a quandary. Now, he couldn’t tease you. Sometimes, he would try to grab both toys in his mouth at the same time, which almost never worked. It seemed that when he opened his mouth to grab the second toy, the first one fell out.

There were times when I could see Rudy pondering the situation. He saw that I, with my grasping human hands, could hold a toy in one hand while reaching for the second toy in his mouth. He tried to emulate me. Holding one toy in his mouth, he would reach out with his paw for the toy that I held. But without grasping fingers, he couldn’t grab my toy and pull it away from me.

Finally, Rudy figured it out. If we both had a toy, he would drop his toy and hold it on the ground with his foot. Then he could reach and get hold of the toy that I had with his mouth. And, if I tried to reach for the toy under his foot, he would push it back further out of my reach.

After you played these games with Rudy, or paid him special attention in any way, his loving and devoted nature would really show. He would follow you around like, as the saying goes, a little puppy. At first, I had interpreted this obsequious behavior as him looking for even more attention. But I came to realize that he was just happy to have someone like you who would play with him and give him so much attention.


The animal shelter had estimated Rudy’s age as around five when we adopted him. We had him for 7, almost 8 years. So he was getting to be around 13-years-old. He had developed a lot of gray fur around his muzzle and he was putting on a little weight. Aren’t we all? And, he now trotted back with the ball after fetching or catching it. No longer running back as he did when he was younger. But other than that, he seemed to be in pretty good health.

Then, last spring, we noticed some sores on Rudy left flank and a couple of lumps around his face. The vet took some biopsies at his next check-up. The news wasn’t good. Rudy was diagnosed with “epitheliotropic lymphoma”, a disease sometimes found in older dogs. The symptoms are ulcerative sores, scaly patches of skin plaque, and lesions around the mouth and eyes. The disease seems to affect mainly the skin with little less impact on the internal organs. The veterinary oncologist gave us the prognosis. Rudy could live for anywhere from 6 more months to 18 months or longer. With epitheliotropic lymphoma, we were told, it wasn’t generally the disease that led to death. Dogs were generally euthanized when the discomfort of their skin condition became too severe.

Rudy was put on a steroid to address the skin irritation and itchiness, and he seemed to do pretty well through the summer. He was getting more and more skin lesions and more sores around his mouth. And sores were starting to show up around his eyes. But they didn’t seem to have much effect on him. He didn’t seem to be in any major discomfort and his mood didn’t seem to have changed. His eating habits were unchanged, and he still loved playing ball and his version of keep-away.

But in the fall, the progress of the disease seem to accelerate. It’s was like Rudy’s body finally wore down in its defense against the effects of the disease. The number of sores and lesions seem to grow rapidly, many becoming open bleeding, oozing sores. And, more importantly, Rudy’s demeanor changed. He no longer spent almost all of his time underfoot, looking for attention, trying to get us to play. Instead, he was spending more time laying off by himself in quiet, warm spots on the kitchen floor. At night, he used to get up and wander. If you got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, you never knew where Rudy would be lying by the time you went back to bed. But now at bedtime, he would go to one of the dog beds, curl up in a tight ball, and lie there almost the whole night. And that was unusual for Rudy, to curl up. He usually liked to lie all stretched out, the better to trip you when you passed by. And there was the constant licking at his sores. Often during the night, you could hear Rudy licking and licking, finally giving up with a big sigh and quietly whimpering until he went back to sleep.

Janet and I both came to the conclusion that it was time to say goodbye to Rudy pretty much at the same time. It was a hard decision. He still perked up to go outside and play ball. And he still got excited at feeding time, especially since we began replacing some of his dry food with canned food, to make it easier for him to chew and swallow. But he was obviously in a great deal of discomfort and probably pain. In the last couple of weeks, he had even pretty much quit trying to get us to play his keep-away game.

Janet called the vet and made arrangements for us to bring Rudy in for the last appointment of the day on Saturday. Rudy had a hard night Friday. He had stayed in one spot the whole night. It didn’t seem like he slept much, spending much of the night licking and quietly whimpering. The first snow of the season started falling Saturday morning. Rudy had always like the snow. He loved to eat it, taking big mouthfuls and giving himself a “brain freeze”. Which made him whimper, but not stop eating the snow.

Shortly before it was time to leave for the vet, I took Rudy out for one last game of ball. He almost acted like the old Rudy. He raced after the ball as I threw it, either jumping trying to catch it or chasing it down. I purposely threw the ball into the bushes a few times so he could root around looking for it. But once we went back inside, he found his spot on the kitchen floor and curled up tightly.

We got to the vets right at the time of his appointment. Janet hadn’t wanted to get there too early, to limit the stress on Rudy. The vet was running a little behind. So, we took turns walking Rudy around outside while one of us waited inside the vet’s waiting room for her to be ready for Rudy. Rudy seemed to somewhat enjoy walking around the parking lot at the vet’s office, even if it was a little cold and the wet snow was falling on his fur, and I’m sure, all of the sores on his skin.

The vet was very kind and gentle with Rudy. She knew Rudy from treating him for over seven years. She liked how Rudy remembered where she kept the treats and marveled at how a dog of his size could sit up on his haunches, almost standing on his hind feet, to ask for a treat. Her demeanor and soothing voice seemed to put Rudy at ease in the treatment room, and the end came quietly.

When we got home later that afternoon, Janet and I both felt that we had done what was best for Rudy. We felt that we had balanced his pain and discomfort with the times when he still acted like the old Rudy. We hadn’t waited too long, but we hadn’t rushed things either. And we both felt that today had gone as easy as possible for Rudy. Janet had paid him special attention this morning and I had taken him out in the snow for one last game of ball. And the vet had done everything that she could to ease any discomfort for Rudy.

Later that afternoon, after taking the trash out, I stood on the back porch, enjoying the slight chill. I watched the snow falling over the backyard. And there, in the inch or two of wet snow, I could still clearly see the path that Rudy had made running back and forth when we were playing ball for the last time.

Posted in pets, Rudy

Where I Write

Vigilante Coffee Roastery

Vigilante Coffee RoasteryWhen I decided to start trying to write seriously about two years ago, I thought that I would need a space to write. I have an “office”/”reading room” at home, with a CD-player, lots of books, a comfy chair, and a nice desk and computer where I would occasionally “telework” before I retired. But I find that there are too many easy distractions around the house, especially in my office. When I sit down at my computer, I’m usually checking my email, checking social media, playing games, surfing the web. Mostly relaxing, but non-productive activities.

For writing, I thought that I needed a new space, maybe outside of the house, but not too far away. I considered the local library. But it was often crowded, with limited seating. And something about libraries just felt stifling. Maybe it’s the thought of the old librarian, gray hair in a bun, glasses hanging on a chain around her neck, telling you to “Shh! Be quiet”.

But then I found “Vigilante”. It was a new coffee shop a short drive from home. It was located down an alley in a part of town that was hoping to revitalize as part of a nascent arts district. The redevelopment had been slowed during the Great Recession, but seemed to be starting up again. Vigilante originally opened as a coffee roastery, but after a couple of months had started serving their freshly roasted coffees.

My wife and I had gone to Vigilante several times as a welcome alternative to the typical suburban Starbucks and to try to help the local businesses. It was a funky space, built in an old industrial garage. There were three large glass garage doors at the front of the building and uneven cement floors. The seating was basic, definitely “repurposed”. A hand full of square shiny, aluminum topped tables, with thick square brown wood legs are each surrounded by four short, metal “shop” stools. The roasting equipment, the brewing equipment, and the seating area all shared the same space. So if you get there at the right time, you can watch the roasters as you sip your brew, with the smell of roasting coffee beans filling the air.

Vigilante has a unique vibe. The neighborhood is a mix of students and young adults from the nearby University of Maryland, or drawn to the developing “arts district”, and older, longer-time residents, with a bit of a hippy/70’s bent, who were drawn to the many older Victorian homes in the area. The result is a mix of hipness of the younger folk with their Apple laptops, iPads, and iPhones, and tattoos and piercings that comes with any coffee shop, and the more laid-back, somewhat intellectual atmosphere of the older residents. Add to that the personal interests of Chris, the owner/founder of Vigilante. Chris takes coffee very seriously, and Vigilante is a place for serious coffee drinking, where added sugar and milk or cream are frowned upon. Chris is also a skateboarder. Custom painted skateboard decks and parts are prominently displayed on the walls, all for sale, making Vigilante probably the only coffee shop where you can also buy an espresso made with fresh in-house roasted beans and a custom made, hand decorated skateboard to go.

The first couple of times that my wife and I went there, I noticed that most of the other customers were hooked into their laptops, mostly Apple MacBook Airs, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. “You know,” I thought, “this place has pretty much everything I need to write.” There was the Wi-Fi; coffee; seating with places to put your laptop, coffee, a pastry, and maybe a book or some notes; and it wasn’t too crowded. Just enough people to keep it from being “like a morgue”, but not enough activity to be a real disturbance.

I started going to Vigilante on an almost daily basis. I bought a new tablet computer and keyboard to replace my worn-out, clunky laptop. I soon found that 2:00pm was a good time to start. It was a fairly quiet time, between people taking a break at lunch and teachers and students from the nearby high school and University of Maryland stopping by after school. I got to know most of the baristas and they got to know me. I’m a creature of habit, with distinct likes. The baristas soon recognized me and knew my standard drink, an Americano. I was often greeted with “Hey, Americano, Bob?” In fact, one barista suggested that I just change my name to “Americano Bob”.

Well, it’s been over two years now. Vigilante has grown and expanded its seating area. Some of the staff has moved on and lots of new staff have been brought in. More people have discovered Vigilante, and sometimes it gets a little crowded. They have even gone to rationing their free Wi-Fi, limiting connections to 2 hours during the week, and turning it off on weekends, to help people “regain their social skills”. Chris, and a couple of original baristas, have kept the original comfortable vibe going. It’s still a very friendly, comfortable, somewhat funky space with great coffee. Just right for me to write.

Posted in Writing Tagged with:

That Old Guy in the Hat

We all know him, we’ve all made fun of him, and we all try to stay away from him when we see him driving down the road – “That Old Guy in the Hat”. We’ll I guess that’s me, now. I’ve become “That Old Guy in the Hat” – the TOGH. I’ve always been partial to hats, helmets, and visors – ball caps, cowboy hats, bicycle helmets, even men’s dress hats back in the day. Even the stray straw hat. But the “That Old Guy” is new to me.

I and my fellow TOGHs are a dying breed. Back when I was young, you would see TOGHs all over – at McDonald’s’, nursing a small coffee; on the bus trying to start a conversation with you; sitting on a park bench, sometimes feeding the pigeons; at the Church or community picnic, sometimes with a pith helmet; or it seemed most often, in that slow car directly in front of you, with the turn indicator on. But you don’t see many of us anymore. Sure, you see old guys around, still hanging out at McDonald’s (until they throw us out for spending too much time in their empty dining area milking that “senior size” coffee), sometimes in the park. But not many other places. You rarely see us in Starbucks – the coffee is too fancy and expensive – just give me my good ol’ McDonald’s Arabica bean senior size coffee. Besides wearing hats, we tend to be frugal, and like simple, basic things.

Now you see younger guys wearing hats. Hipsters in their fedoras; working men, and Hipsters, in mesh ball caps advertising automotive equipment or trucks; urban young men in their ball caps with the bill askew and the “authentic” hologram label still stuck prominently on the bill; and of course the urban Gen-X’er or millennial in their bike cap. But old guys, not so much anymore.

So, maybe I’m just a throw-back, or maybe I’m just ahead of the curve on a new movement. I’ve always liked hats, but now that I’m retired, I have the time to hang around places where you’ll see me. It might be the new, hot coffee roastery or the new microbrew pub. You might see me at the park, but I won’t be feeding the squirrels, pigeons, or ducks. Or I might be in the car in front of you, with my turn indicator on. But that’s only because I still use it to signal turns, and I do make sure it turns off after I turn.

As my predecessor TOGHs, you’ll probably hear me moaning and complaining. But I do try to not complain about “those young folks these days”. But being an Old Guy, I can’t help but complain about my aches and pains, and those things that I just can’t do anymore. And of course, I’ll reminisce about the good ole days and how everything was so much cheaper then, but I’ll remember to mention that my first full-time job paid only $2.25 an hour, so things really weren’t so much cheaper. And I may even try to strike up a conversation with you, don’t be afraid.

So, when you see me, don’t run, don’t fear me, and no need to pity my. Sure I’m old, and I’m wearing a hat. But, I’ve always liked hats and I try to take them off inside. Don’t laugh at me, and I probably won’t laugh at you, even if you are wearing you ball cap sideway, have your pants drooping below your butt showing off your boxer’s, or are wearing fake glasses with a bushy beard and short cropped hair. Heck, I might even be willing to listen to your music. I’ve really gotten tired of mine.


Posted in Getting Older Tagged with: