Book Reviewing 101


Once upon a time, and what a long time ago that was,  if you got a book published, you’d cross your fingers for a review in the New York Times, but you’d probably have to settle for brief reviews in smaller papers.  Now most of those stalwarts are gone, and a review in the NYT or the others left standing is even less likely than before.  There’s precious little space for paid reviewers to turn their attention on you.

In order to get that attention, writers are urged to market themselves on social media sites like Goodreads and Amazon author pages and Facebook.   I don’t do this myself (except for the occasional FB post), but I know plenty of writers who jump through all the hoops.

The result: Writers get tons of reviews, this time from unpaid reviewers.  Actually, it’s my understanding that some unpaid reviewers actually are paid—in copies of books.  Amazon, which owns Goodreads, also promotes a crack team of elite pre-publication unpaids, “Vine Voices”  These “most trusted” reviewers provide “honest and unbiased feedback,” for which they are sometimes paid by “participating vendors.”

This is supposed to be a good thing, although my publisher tells me there’s little proof that all this attention translates into sales.  Still, writers have to pay the rent, so many of us trudge off to these sites and market ourselves.

Because writers are supposed to have  marketing skills.

Probably some of us do, just as some people excel at both pocket billiards and rock climbing.  But most of us do not.

The great Mitch Hedberg noted that when you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to other things besides comedy.  They say, “All right, you’re a standup comedian, can you act? Can you write? Write us a script.” They want me to do things that’s related to comedy but not comedy. That’s not fair. It’s as though if I was a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook and they said “All right, you’re a cook.  Can you farm?”

Anyway, those of us who have dutifully farmed then get to sit back and enjoy all this attention.

Every writer I know has experienced blowback, as opposed to feedback, from unpaid reviews.

I’m not talking about reviews which simply give a number of stars, or which just say “I liked it” or “This isn’t for me” or “I hate hate hate this book”  or “This writer’s books suck.” These are straightforward expressions of opinion. Everybody’s got one, and why not.

And I’m certainly not talking about those unpaids which are well-written and sharply critical.  If a writer takes offense because a conscientious reader didn’t like their book, that writer needs to toughen up.  And if a reviewer, paid or unpaid, backs up critical assessments with illustrative quotes and examples, then that writer should be grateful and credit the reviewer’s skills.  We learn from intelligent criticism, whether we are persuaded by it or not.

Finally, I don’t want to imply that writers are entitled to positive criticism from unpaids.  For pete’s sake, they’re unpaid. If they were writing for the NYT, they’d need to get their act together, but they’re not.  An unpaid reviewer, unlike most paid reviewers, actually has the option of being wholly negative, and I have no issue with that.  When you write a paid review, you usually feel compelled to say at least something positive about the book.  Unpaids have no such obligation.  On top of that, “constructive criticism”—criticism designed to help the writer improve–has a place only in a workshop/class setting. Reviewers, paid and unpaid, are not the writer’s teachers, friends, or fellows; constructive criticism is inappropriate (and presumptuous) in a review.

I’m talking about those unpaids who

  1. Encourage their readers to agree with them when all they’ve done is express their own taste, and/or
  2. Attack the writer personally.

My purpose here is to encourage critical analyses of unpaid reviews.  (Also paid reviews.)  Why? Because all writing, including written reviews, should benefit from critical analysis.  This is especially the case for writers, who must, as they write and revise, criticize the hell out of their own drafts.  Also, since all writers should toughen up, confronting these reviews critically should help with that.

This is not an “anti-bullying” post.  I’m guessing there are lots of these. Examples:

I’m not interested in whether reviewer is or is not a bully.  I’m focused only in the writing. The best (and worst) of all writers is on the page. Writing a good book review isn’t easy.  It begins of course with your own reaction to the book, but then you have to figure out why you’ve reacted that way, and then you ought to provide evidence (with quotes and examples) from the book to back up your assessment.  People don’t read reviews to find out whether a stranger liked the book.  They read to find out if they themselves will like it.

Some talented unpaids understand this.  Others do not.

Some time ago, when I was setting up a Mean Writers website (since abandoned), I collected a number of unpaids of my own stuff.  I’ll just list some here, with a few comments.

Here are some that simply report the reviewer’s response, which is fine with me:

  1. Bought this book for my daughter because she loved the author’s other book. Did not enjoy stories at all.
  2. I bought this book because I have read, and loved, two of Jincy Willett’s other books. This book was a huge disappointment. David Sedaris, a very funny man, said on the cover, “It’s just the funniest collection of stories I’ve ever read – really funny and perfectly sad at the same time.” Well, I get the perfectly sad – just not the really funny. Not a chuckle from me throughout. Just really sad stories.
  3. It showed a tiny bit of promise, but after having read the second book of the series I have given up on them all. The only people who would like this series of books is the very type the author is sending up. Some compare him to Oscar Wilde. What??? Because he sends up the upper English classes? But Oscar does is with wit and style.Am I supposed to give this book a high score because it evoked such strong feelings in me: disgust, horror, disbelief? Or a low score because I absolutely despised all its characters and the story line? Part of me wants to read at least one more if the subsequent novels (there are 5 in all) but only because I hope some if these people will seek redemption. I have a feeling though that they wont. And I really don’t want to waste my time reading about people who only know how to be cruel to one another.
  4. I couldn’t force myself to care about any of these people. Prose reads musically in an obtuse, pointless plot. Appears to illuminate only that the author is well-read. I’m about to put my copy on the driveway and run over it eight times. [This is my favorite unpaid.  I hope my prose doesn’t read musically in an obtuse, pointless plot, but this is a thoughtful and creative description, plus I love the idea of hating a book so much that you want to demolish it.  We’ve all been there.]

These are not bad at expressing their own response, but these reviewers assume, without evidence, that others will share it:

  1. Seriously?? NPR claimed this as a best book of the year? Maybe if no other books were written. This was the most boring book I have ever read! The reviews on the book claimed it was hilarious, witty and brilliant. On what planet!? I will give any book 100 pages but, kept reading this junk assuming it would get better. Wrong! Don’t waste your time or your dimes on this waste of paper. I will never read another Jincy Willett book again!
  2. I’m sorry….I have read the other reviews for this novel and I do not agree that this is a must read. It is NoT! I borrowed this book from the library and I am so glad that I did. The basic premise of this story is a good one …but I feel it was edited and put together badly. When your main character takes over almost a whole chapter of the book with her nonsensical lists of “funny words”…then your story has taken a twist that is very uninteresting. The villain is not developed until the last pages and your main character is basically running away from any confrontational situations for the entire book. I want to like the main character….not feel sorry for her. I’m sorry I read this book. Don’t spend your money on it.
  3. Call me a spoil-sport, but that issue with the dates REALLY bothered me as well. It’s a very sloppy mistake which seems to epitomize how I felt about this book. It’s clever at times, but Dorcas (the narrator) goes from being a funny, irreverent sage to an out-and-out pill awfully fast and Willett’s narrative style is wildly inconsistent. Literary and thoughtful at times, a messy spew of words the next. And that date mistake. How does a writer do such a thing? How does an editor not catch it? It only indicates that no-one involved in the writing or publishing of this book cared enough or took enough time with it. So why should I or any other reader? [Apparently there was a timeline error in the book, and I sympathize with the reviewer’s annoyance but not with their assumption that one error signifies that writer and publisher did not care about the book. The reviewer has no idea how publication works.]

And here’s a typical ad hominem attack:

This book was just plain awful. The characters were inconsistent and uninteresting. It’s such a stupid book. The only reason I kept reading until the end was so that I could make note of the pretentious and ostentatious vocabulary that peppers the pages. The author is, in my humble opinion, a show-off. Yeah, we’re all REALLY impressed. Better to just say “belch” than try to impress us by using the word “eructation.” It’s so obvious what she’s trying to do, which is to show us how well-educated she is. [Reviewer makes an obnoxious assumption about a writer’s word choices.  Our job is always to choose the right word for our meaning, and in a first-person narration (or in dialogue) a character’s personality will factor into those choices. In this particular stupid book, the narrator is introverted and bookish and chooses her words with deliberation.  I’ve looked at the offending phrase; Dorcas describes Guy DeVilbiss, a cartoonishly pretentious character: “His bee-stung mouth contracted into a little O, and he snorted, like an infant eructation.” I recall making that choice because of the characters of both narrator and Guy.  Looking at it now, I’m inclined to agree that “belch” would have been a better choice. It’s funnier, and Dorcas might be inclined to use it privately to ridicule Guy with a coarse monosyllabic. But the reviewer’s assumption (in their “humble opinion”) that a writer chooses words in order to show off is unwarranted.  Was Perelman a showoff? Reviewers should maintain tight focus on the page. As should we all.]

Finally, I sympathize with this one.  We’ve all had the experienced a book (movie, TV show) marketed to us (there’s that word again) as surefire hilarious and slogged through the whole thing without cracking a smile.  You do feel cheated.  But novels don’t promise; ads do that. There’s no such thing as universal funny.  If you’re not having the promised experience, read something else.

“Winner” is a book that suffers from bad advertising. I was promised a black comedy. “Riotous. Hugely funny…” and “The funniest novel I have read, possibly ever” appear right there on the cover.
The book was certainly sarcastic. It was caustic and biting but there was very little in the book that I could laugh at in good conscience. (And honestly, during reading, I wasn’t inclined to do so.) In many ways, it was more like a car wreck on the highway – horrific but engrossing – than anything else.
Ms. Willett’s main characters, twins Dorcas and Abigail, area a fascinating pair. Each completely embody the part of the human condition that the other lacks. “Winner” is the story of their interactions with each other and the members of a New England literary circle made up arch-typical characters.
Through my entire reading, I was off balance. I kept expecting ‘funny’ to show up and it never did. That said, “Winner” had other redeeming qualities which kept me reading. Ms. Willet gives Dorcas, the bookish narrator, wonderful recollections and descriptions of the joy of reading. The relationships between the people in a group and between the sisters were exaggerated for effect, but still intriguing.
Other parts of “Winner” were less successful. There were bits of extraneous metaphor and occasional clunky bits. Occasionally certain characters verged on caricatures. I understand what Ms. Willett was attempting to skewer but in the end, “Winner” falls a bit short. If I had come at “Winner” with different expectations I might have found it more enjoyable, but I never shook the feeling of being a bit cheated by a novel that failed to deliver on its promises.



Writers:  If you’re interested in this enterprise, please comment or otherwise contact me ( with any unpaids you’d like us to look at and discuss.  I look forward to hearing from you.

From My Father on Veterans Day

My dad died ten years ago.  Here’s a letter he wrote to Paul Fussell, author of The Boys’ Crusade (I had given him this book with great trepidation because Dad didn’t talk about the war–combat vets don’t–but I knew that this book was about his group. I’m so glad I gave it to him.) Anyway…

“Dear Mr. Fussell:
“I am one of those “boy survivors, now around eighty.” When I first read “The Boys’ Crusade” I felt that I wanted to write to you. Now that I have completed the second reading I feel compelled to do so.
“…I did my ASTP stint at Providence College and then later joined the 26th (Yankee) Division on maneuvers in Tennessee. You know the rest of that story but there are a couple of things that I wanted to add. I wound up in the Second Squad of the First Platoon of Company “K” in the 328th Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, attached ultimately to Patton’s Third Army. When you itemized those items carried into combat by most infantrymen, there was an anomaly in our outfit of which you apparently were not aware. When it was announced that we were being committed to combat in some unknown place, we were ordered to line up with our raincoats and overshoes in hand and then told to throw the raincoats in one pile and the overshoes in the other pile. The rationale, we were told, is that we would not need these in combat. Well, we did go into combat and it rained, and it got cold, and colder, and it snowed, and the water in our slit trenches often froze over at night, and we were pinned down cold, wet, and miserable, scared to death, and for six weeks we did not change our clothes. At the end of that time, those that did not get killed or evacuated with wounds for the most part had severe trenchfoot and I was one of those. [The casualty rate for this group was over 50%.] Through tender care and patience, and a lot of luck, I did not require any amputations but I have been in trenchfoot centers crowded with kids my age with toes amputated and legs amputated to the upper thigh and always bilaterally. Would we have been better off with overshoes and raincoats? Those in command didn’t think so. [Note: I know, because Dad told me, that it turns out that trenchfoot can be avoided if you just take off your boots every night and massage your feet and legs, but the soldiers were never taught that. They were taught about brushing their teeth and avoiding VD, but not trenchfoot.]
“After being discharged, I attended Brown University to get my deferred education. While there I met and become very close to a professor of mathematics called Ray Gilman and when I read “An Operation Called Cobra” I recalled a conversation that I had with him. I had mentioned that I had driven through the rubble called St. Lo may times while on temporary duty on Patton’s Red Ball Express. He told me that he was involved with that in a way. He said that when Cobra was under consideration, the Allies realized that there would be many “friendly fire” casualties and, as a mathematician, he was called on to calculate the degree of those casualties given the terrain, the position of all troops, and the planned bombing patterns. He did so and came up with a number that, as I recall, was somewhat under three percent. On the basis of that estimate (and other things!!), Operation Cobra was carried out with the results that you so graphically described.
“Finally, before I read your book, there were certain bits of information about the war that I thought were known only by me. Thank you for erasing that burden from my mind. I am very grateful.
“Most sincerely,
“Ward C. Willett.”
And here is one of his V-Mails from France–I found it in a box full of photos and papers when I was cleaning up and organizing after his death.  He was very young.

Today’s Grammar Quiz (Seriously, I don’t kid around about grammar)

  1. In the sentence “Hortense was furious when the judges overlooked her rhubarb omelet,” the underlined word is an example of which of the following parts of speech?


  1. participle
  2. verb
  3. noun
  4. adjective
  5. adverb
  6. none of the above


2. In the sentence, “Hortense vowed, ‘There will be repercussions,’” the underlined phrase is an example which of the following verb forms?


  1. the simple future tense
  2. the present tense, passive voice
  3. the future tense, passive voice
  4. the future perfect tense
  5. the future perfect tense, passive voice


3. In the sentence, “As she spoke, Hortense’s face turned an alarming shade of crimson,” the underlined word is what part of speech?


  1. a past participle
  2. a past tense verb
  3. a linking verb
  4. a causative verb
  5. (2) and (3)
  6. (1) and (2)


4. Which accurately describes the following sentence: “German shepherds are great problem solvers, and basset hounds never let go of a grudge”?


  1. run-on
  2. fragment
  3. compound sentence
  4. comma splice
  5. (3) and (4)
  6. (1) and (4)
  7. none of the above


5. In the sentence, “Infuriated bassets often exact revenge days after the perceived offence,” the underlined word is what part of speech?


  1. past tense verb
  2. gerund
  3. present participle
  4. past participle
  5. none of the above


6. Fill in the blanks: “A basset hound’s ideal afternoon consists of __________ on his back in the sun with _______ tongue hanging out.”


  1. laying, its
  2. lying, it’s
  3. laying, it’s
  4. lying, its
  5. lying, their


7. What punctuation does this sentence need? “Because of the city-wide truffle shortage Chef Monsoun will be unable to prepare Coquilles St. Jacques and patrons will have to make do with Coquilles Sans Souci.”


  1. a semicolon after “Jacques”
  2. a comma after “shortage”
  3. a colon after “shortage”
  4. a comma after “Jacques
  5. both (2) and (4)
  6. none of the above


8. In the sentence “Coquilles Sans Souci” is prepared from bizarre, literally nauseating ingredients,” what are the two underlined parts of speech?


  1. past tense verb, past participle
  2. past participle, present participle
  3. past tense verb, present tense verb
  4. none of the above


9. Which accurately describes the sentence “Basset hounds will eat almost anything, however even a basset will turn up its enormous nose at Coquilles Sans Souci”?


  1. a run-on
  2. a fused sentence
  3. a comma splice
  4. none of the above


10. In the sentence “On the other hand, to a discerning basset with refined taste buds, Hortense’s rhubarb omelet is the bomb,” the underlined words are what parts of speech?


  1. preposition, adjective
  2. adverb, indefinite article
  3. preposition, definite article
  4. none of the above










Respect That Mechanism (Covid Post 2)

Many years ago, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and I almost lost my mind.*  All around me, people were going about their lives, oblivious to the impending nuclear holocaust.  I spent my days lurking around newsstands (there was no Internet then), listening to news radio, shaking, and looking out my window, scanning the sky for that white light.  I slept one or two hours a night; my muscles ached from constant tension.  I envied  old people because they had lived complete lives. This went on for five weeks.  Then it stopped.  I woke up one morning and it was like that moment in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opened the door and the world had color.  My colors were back.

This never happened to me again.  I’m not confident it couldn’t (even a brief bout of mental illness is permanently humbling), but I don’t worry about it.

I don’t worry about it because it’s not something I can control anyway.

What I remember most clearly about this episode is my profound bewilderment when people (the few in whom I confided) said “Look, there’s no point in worrying about stuff you can’t control.”  I thought they were insane.

Denial is a wonderful human strategy.  It makes happiness possible. I’m sure we’re not the only animal that knows we’re mortal, but other animals don’t need denial because they’re too busy surviving.  To deny, and to need to deny, you need top-of-the-food-chain-leisure time.  Anyway, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, my denial mechanism crashed, and there I was in the howling void where anything can happen and tomorrow is hypothetical.

I’m not much of a sharer except in fiction, but I’m sharing this today because all around me I see good people worrying about stuff they can’t control, and I wish I could help them, and I probably can’t, because all I can do is tell them to stop it, and I remember how useless that advice was when the Russians invaded Afghanistan.

We hang by a thread.  We always have and we always will.  Sometimes a thing will happen and we glimpse that thread, which is just a metaphor but metaphors are all we can access because the void itself is unimaginable, and the metaphorical curtain parts and confronts us with what we’ve been blithely denying.

This is not fun.  Still, it isn’t unbearably scary if you’ve learned your lesson about the limitations of your own anxious mind.  All we have is now.  It’s all we’ve ever had and all we ever will.

This is one of those profound truths that you can “know” without really knowing.  Real knowledge sinks deep.  Millions of people know already, some of them so eminently sensible that they never thought otherwise, others having learned through experience.  Also, it really helps to be old.  But I do worry about the people who can’t sleep.

If you’re one of them or worried  that you might be, this is all I have to offer, and forgive my presumption:

Look after your colors and lean into the now.


*Not funny at the time, but that is a funny line.

My Mother; or Watching Out for Tests

My mother was my hero, and here is why.

Back in the 1950s, she was active in Sweet Adelines, the women’s equivalent of SPEBSQSA (both international barbershop singing organizations). After Brown v. Board of Education, both organizations inserted the word “white” into their bylaws to keep African-Americans from participating in championship competition.

Lots of individual chapters protested, but in the end only a handful did so in a meaningful way, by challenging the change in the by-laws and, according to Sweet Adelines, generally being “troublemakers.” My mother was president of the Providence chapter; when Providence put the issue up for a vote, its members voted unanimously to withdraw. Theirs was the first chapter to do so; they were followed by Massachusetts chapters in North Attleboro, Scituate, New Bedford, and a Canadian chapter in Orillia. This small group started its own organization—Harmony, Inc.—which has since grown internationally and continues to thrive. (Both Sweet Adelines and SPEBSQSA discreetly deleted “white” at some point.)

Barbershop music comes across to many as square and very, very white (although its origins are anything but; I grew up listening to records of the Golden Gate Quartet), so all this may seem rather quaint and inconsequential. It wasn’t. This was the Fifties: These women were housewives, file clerks, factory workers, and once a week they got to sing, and once a year they went to international conventions and sang themselves hoarse for three days straight. Singing was their passion, and giving it up was a meaningful sacrifice. And the moral courage it took to buck the system was something I witnessed as a child and never forgot.

My mother went into the fight a young, idealistic, optimistic woman; she went in expecting that of course the right would prevail, the international board would see the light, or if not, then there would be a wholesale exodus of outraged members. She learned a lot about human nature, and so did I, from watching her.

Daughters watch their mothers very closely. Once she said to me, “In life there are tests. If you’re lucky, you’ll never get one, but if you do, you may not recognize it for what it is. Always watch out for tests.” I do.

In memory of Joanne Willett, 1925-2019.




Story to Film

I’ve neglected to note that student films (through Prof. Frederick Lewis, Ohio University Media Arts & Studies) have been made from two of my stories.  Working with these students was a pleasure.

From “The Best of Betty”:


From “Julie in the Funhouse”:

Leaving San Diego (eventually)

From Monday’s Union-Tribune, May 26, 2014:

San Diego: Loving and (Eventually) Leaving It


Nope, it’s not there any more. Here’s the piece:

It is always summer in Escondido. Locals claim four seasons, but I’ve been able to identify only one. There used to be a fire season, which threatens to extend beyond November, and countywide conflagrations will soon be no more seasonal than earthquakes. Summer stretches from January, when the median temperature hovers around 60 degrees, to December, when it does the same damn thing. The rainy season (winter, so-called) is easy to miss, and there is no fall at all. Autumn arrives only in theory. Families troop up to Julian to admire the “foliage,” since some leaves do change color, but they do not do this in a magnificent way. For magnificence you need sugar maples.

I moved here from Rhode Island when I was forty-one, a widow with a small child. My family was in Escondido, so here is where I had to be. I bought a house and planted trees, took in dogs and a cat, settled in. But not for good. Even after twenty-five years, I’m still just visiting.

Once the place was paradise. In 1970 my family, minus me, moved here to escape the snow and so my dad could grow everything under the constant sun. At home, his garden had produced as many rocks as it had tomatoes. Here he planted kumquats, mandarins, white peaches, pluots, raspberries, grapes, nectarines, figs, persimmons. He grew flowers too, roses and plumeria, epiphyllum and iris. Persian melons the scent of which could madden you on the hottest day. I loved my yearly visits.

And all the days were hot, and all the nights were cool. Back home, in the dog days, when the humidity topped 95 and the nights were as sweltering as the days, the mayors of Middletown and Newport would sometimes throw open the state beaches so people could stagger, some fully clothed, down to the waterline, lie in the surf, and get a few minutes of sleep. Hardly paradise. Paradise was dry heat.

And swimming pools, accoutrements of only the wealthy in New England, here as middle-class as propane barbecue. The summer sky was always blue and when the sun got to be too much, I could sink into the pool. I always returned home with a tan and looked forward to coming back the next year.

Whether you fall permanently in love with San Diego—a love that takes you from youth through middle age and beyond—really depends on how much the outdoors means to you. The first time I saw swimmers frolicking with dolphins right offshore, I was enchanted. The same with gray whales and coyotes, bobcats and eagles. Birdwatching is much easier here than at home: there’s water all over Rhode Island, so the birds have the great luxury of being where you are not. Here they have to put up with people roaming the lagoons with binoculars and bags of stale bread. (Once, at high noon in July, I saw a kingfisher staking out a birdbath on Felicita Avenue. In Rhode Island he’d have commanded a trout stream.) There’s a whole lot of nature out here, and that’s not including the Zoo and Wild Animal Park, which I refuse to call anything else, and where I spent hundreds of happy hours with my son. But this is not my home.

Although I do see the allure.

They get you with the jacarandas. Fragrant trees the size of oaks, exploding all over May and June with outlandish lavender blossoms. Jacarandas look like Disney trees, dreamed up by the animators of Fantasia. Giant bouquets the color of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes! My favorite shade, even though, according a test I took when I was a kid—it was in McCall’s– if your favorite color is lavender, you’re immature. Jacarandas look like Nature took a day off and one of her kids just went crazy.

They get you with fruit fresh-picked from the trees, trees you can plant yourself in your own back yard, because everything grows here and every season is a growing season for something. On a typical summer day in Escondido, ripe grapefruit will roll down my hilly street unmissed and unremarked, because there are so many more where they came from. Rhode Island has fruit trees, but only apples and pears get the chance to ripen fully. The first summer I came out to Escondido, my dad’s neighbor invited me to pick a peach. “Just cup your hand around it. Don’t pull. If it’s ready it will come to you.” And it did, I can still recall the weight of it, a freestone the size of a softball and the color of a New England sunset, its flesh perfectly soft and obscenely juicy, so that biting into it felt like the sort of thing you shouldn’t do in public.

They get you with surfing and swimming and skiing all on the same day, which must knock the socks off of people who surf, swim, and ski. And you can plan outdoor parties, dinners, weddings, pretty much without Plan B. This would be a serious plus for social types. Not so much for hermits.

I do get annoyed by the anti-California bias of people back home. I know more than one New Yorker who won’t even fly out here for a weekend because of imminent earthquakes. There’s something absurdly Biblical about their conviction that any minute California will be punished for its sins and they’re terrified of being caught in the righteous apocalypse. As though the rest of the country, the non-California part, didn’t have its own sins. Others say they would miss the seasons. I miss them myself, but not enough to move away.

It’s the sky, really.

They don’t have good clouds here. They’re mostly very high up, wispy or mackerel or absent entirely. I miss the drama of low clouds, whether threatening or friendly, black or ivory or bright white. The sort of sky you can lie on your back and watch. Here, at a certain time of the year, you can see great big clouds in the distance, but they’re fenced in by the mountains.
And the blue never seems to change. It’s a pleasant blue, your basic sky blue, but I distinctly remember a sky whose hue could deepen at a whim. At home the sky was small, hemmed in by buildings and trees, but its color changed unpredictably. The sky wasn’t background there. It was spectacle.

And the sunsets! Please, I can’t number the times a local has said, “Look at that beautiful sunset!” I hope I smile agreeably. Okay, there’s a modest wash of yellow and some orange and, if we’re really lucky, a cloud or two to set it off, but it’s just your basic sunset, and anyway you’d better look fast, since around here night drops like a felled ox. In order to have a gorgeous sunset, you need clouds. Lots of them, intercepting the sunlight, playing with it, passing it on to us, not for our sake, of course, but what a happy accident! And I still remember an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in Greenville, R.I., must have been more than forty years ago, when the air around us, not just the sky but the air, was pink, as though motes of water suspended in the humid air encased us in sapphire.

When I leave, I will miss a great deal. The night sky, far richer with stars than the sky I remember. I’ll miss the scrub jays and the coyotes and the possibility of rattlesnakes. I’ll miss the runaway grapefruit and the obscene peach. And the jacarandas! But in the twilight of my life, I insist upon a twilight sky.