"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Friday, January 10, 2014

We've Moved!

The black cat has a new home!

Check out my new blog at

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Year in Books

Lists and Books—Two of My Favorite Things

This is the time of year for lists and top tens and resolutions, so here are mine, in regards to books.

In 2013, I set a goal to read 50 books.  Within that goal, I promised myself I would branch out a little in my reading—add some variety and try something new.  I also pledged to read some books about writing.

I am proud to say that I accomplished my goals.  I read 52 books this year, including 6 books about writing, 7 poetry books, and 1 biography.  I joined a second book club, providing myself with even more opportunity to read outside of my comfort zone, and I reviewed over 15 books on Goodreads, always trying to be both honest and kind, remembering that it might someday be my own work getting rated on that site.

The Last 12 Books I Read in 2013:

(Click here to connect to my Goodreads page and find out more about each of these titles.)

41.  Living with Jackie Chan, by Jo Knowles

This one was not a favorite.  You can check out my review on Goodreads for the details.

42.  The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” 

This simple, yet beautiful sentence from John Green’s love story about two teenagers with cancer aptly describes how I fell for the characters in the book.  As many times as I’ve tried to write down my feelings about their story, I can’t get them right.  It’s a collection of words that you just have to read for yourself.  I will say this though:  I read the entire book in less than twenty-four hours, and I did the bulk of that reading in a closet in the middle of the night.  (The reason isn’t really important now—there was a sick cat, there was a terrible thunderstorm—it all made sense at the time.) 

When I got to page 114, I scribbled this note on a post-it:  “This may be the only review of this book you get from me.  Whether my beloved cat dies this week or not*, whether Hazel or Augustus dies at the end of this book or not, whether rain fills up our sagging lake or not, I know that I love this book, and I’ll always remember the circumstances in which I read the first 114 pages.  It’s already been worth it regardless of what happens next.” Then I paper-clipped the last few pages of the book to the end paper so that I wouldn’t accidentally see how it ended before I was ready.

* Spoiler alert:  My cat did not die.

For me, The Fault in Our Stars  was worth every page.  Read it before it’s made into a movie.

43.  I Could Pee On This And Other Poems By Cats, by Francesco Marciuliano

This book was a birthday gift from my mother-in-law.  The very first poem made me laugh out loud because it reminded me of my parents’ cat, Little Grey, who seems to have short term memory issues.

Sometimes when I lie on your warm chest
And hear your every happy sigh
I gaze into your two kind eyes
And wonder, “Who is that?”

Unfortunately, they were not all gems like this one.

44.  Joyland, by Stephen King

This was a pretty good book.  However, after I read it I gave it to my mom, and she found a glaring error in the plot that neither I nor (apparently) Mr. King’s editors noticed.  Did anyone else find it?  Let me know.  We’ll discuss.

45.  Horseradish:  Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid, by Lemony Snicket

This was not my favorite Lemony Snicket book, but still think that man is hilarious.  For a few more comments on this book, click here.

46.  Newspaper Blackout, by Austin Kleon

Like a sculptor chiseling away a block of stone to reveal the form inside, Austin Kleon uses a permanent marker to black out newspaper articles, revealing the poems that hide within their stories.  You have to see his found poetry to get the full effect of his creativity.  Check out his website here.

47.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie

I didn’t love this book of magical realism and mystical creatures as much as my friends thought I would, but it is growing on me in hindsight.  I think I need to put off reviewing it until it’s had a little longer to simmer. 

48.  Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell

This is a great book, well-written and truly original.  Each short story in this collection was more unexpected than the one before it.  The title story— “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”—was probably my favorite, but I also loved the amusing and strangely touching “Barn at the End of Our Term” and the haunting “Proving Up”.  And “Douglas Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” made for a great road-trip read-aloud.  If you’re into weird literary tales, you should read this.

49.  2013 Texas Poetry Calendar, edited by Scott Wiggerman and Cindy Huyser

The Texas Poetry Calendar, published by Austin’s own Dos Gatos Press, is never a disappointment.  This desk calendar is filled with beautiful poems for anyone, but especially those who love the landscape and culture of Texas.  I am proud to say that both the 2013 and the 2014 calendars include haiku poems by me. If you would like a 2014 calendar, there are still a few for sale.  Go to the Dos Gatos Press website for details about how to order.

My poem from the 2013 Texas Poetry Calendar:

Calm, moon-glazed pumpkin
rests peacefully on the porch,
awaiting the knife.
     -- Carie Juettner

50.  The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak

This was my second reading of The Book Thief.  I read it for the first time in 2007, sobbing my way through the end at two o’clock in the morning on a work night, not caring that I’d be puffy-eyed and exhausted when I faced my students six hours later.  When I heard the movie was coming out, I decided to read it again, so that they story would be fresh on my mind when I saw the film.  (As much as I loved the book that first time through, the story itself did not stay with me.  It was the language that lasted.  Years later, I could remember exact lines of text and the feelings I had when I was reading, but not which characters lived and died.)  So I opened it again.

A third of the way through the book, I knew without a doubt that I would not see the movie.  There is no way that they can capture on the screen what Marcus Zusak achieves in words in this masterpiece.  And, at the risk of offending some people, I’ll also say this:  Do not read this book on your phone.  Don’t read it on your Kindle or your Nook or you iPad.  This is a book about pages and hard covers and deep secrets.  When you read about Liesel carrying a burning book against her ribcage and feeling her scorched skin beneath her clothes, you need to have paper in your hands.

I loved this book even more the second time.  I cried my way through the ending again, this time in the light of day.  (The sobbing began on page 499, right on cue—I can point to the exact sentence.)    And this time, I feel like both the story and the language are etched in my mind.  I cannot imagine that I will forget them.  Though, if you see me watching the movie, then I guess that means I have.

51.  The Flag of Childhood: Poems from the Middle East, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

There were only a few poems that stood out to me in this anthology, but the ones that did weighed heavily on me for days.  Here’s one:

White Jacket
-- Yehudit Kafri
Translated by Lami

The white-wool knit jacket
With a decorative pin
Which my grandpa and grandma sent me from Kovel
When I was two
And it was sent to the communal storeroom
And I never wore it, not even once,
My God
Grandma and Grandpa were murdered there
A whole Jewry destroyed
And I searched throughout my life
For a white-wool knit jacket
Which my grandma knit for me and decorated
With a pin
And went to the post office and sent it
In a package which my grandpa had packed lovingly
A small white hand-knitted jacket
For a little girl of two
All my life
And cannot find it.

52. Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve only finished this book today and need more time to arrange my thoughts before I write about it.  It was beautifully written and opened my eyes to the ways in which the natural world is both simple and impossibly complex.

Best Books of 2013: 

The best book I read this year was The Book Thief, hands down.  However, since that was technically a re-read, my second two favorites were The Fault in Our Stars and The Little Leftover Witch. 

Both of these books surprised me.  I was surprised by The Fault in Our Stars because everyone told me how amazing it was for over a year before I read it.  I didn’t think it was possible for the book to live up to the hype, but it did.  The Little Leftover Witch surprised me because, when I ordered it online from Amazon to add to my witchy collection, I thought I was getting a picture book.  It turned out to be a 100-page chapter book, and (even more surprising) it was one of the most touching children’s stories I have ever read.  Check out my review of it here and then find a copy of your own.  This 1960 paperback still has a lot to offer to children and families today.

What’s In Store For 2014?

I’m renewing my goals for another year.  I want to read 50 books in 2014.  I want to read at least 5 poetry books and at least 3 books on writing.  I want to read some things that challenge me, and I want to make time for some old favorites as well. 

Here are just a few of the titles on my to-read list:
* Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield
* The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan
* The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
* Vegetables and Other Relationships, by Scott Wiggerman
* Where I’m Calling From, by Raymond Carver

Happy New Year, everyone!  Happy reading in 2014!

Got a book you think I need to add to my 2014 reading list? 
Tell me in the comments!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Three Christmas Traditions Your Holidays Probably Don’t Include

1.  The Stocking Tree
I grew up in a house without a fireplace.  It wasn’t a problem—we just left the back door unlocked for Santa.  But, without a chimney by which to hang our stockings with care, we had to improvise.  Since we didn’t have a mantle, we had a stocking tree.

It’s just a fence post, painted green, on a platform of wood, with a dozen bent nails sticking out of it, but it has been in my family longer than I have, and I love it.  Seeing the stocking tree always make me feel like Christmas is really here.

2.  Catching the Mistletoe

Mistletoe, that naughty little holiday plant, grows in the trees in my parents’ front yard.  Much like the existence of the stocking tree, this was something I took for granted when I was a kid.  Some years it grows in abundance, and some years it’s more scarce, but never a Christmas goes by that we don’t have at least a little mistletoe to cut down and hang over doorways in the house. * 

Mistletoe itself may not be an unusual holiday tradition, but the way we collect it is.  My dad stands in the front yard and cuts the bunch of mistletoe down with his saw-on-a-long-pole-tool (I am thirty-seven years old and I still don’t know what that thing is called) while I stand beneath the cluster of leaves and berries and “catch it” as it falls. 


I don’t know why this job has always been mine.  I don’t remember there being a tryout or an apprenticeship of any sort.  I just know that, for as far back as I can remember, I’ve been expected to catch the mistletoe.  The position can’t be based on talent either because, sadly, I’m not very good at it.  I tend to close my eyes just before the moment of impact and then hear the poor plant hit the ground or else feel a shower of poisonous berries bounce off my head.  No matter.  There’s always enough to salvage.  A little mistletoe goes a long way and the kisses are just as sweet even when the mistletoe is a little squished.

* Mistletoe is actually quite poisonous to dogs.  We never worried too much about it, since we hang it well out of reach of the pets, but after my puppy ended up at the ER two Christmas Eves ago presenting symptoms similar to those of mistletoe poisoning, we no longer bring it in the house.  Better safe than sorry where the furry loved ones are concerned.

3.  The Christmas Poem

In 1997, finding myself without stocking stuffers to give my family, I wrote my own version of Clement C. Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” (originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”).  
The poem was set in our own home and full of familial silliness and inside jokes.  I printed ten copies, rolled them up, tied them with ribbon, and stuffed them in the stockings.  When we opened gifts that year, everyone got a kick out of my poem and asked me to read it aloud.  And right there, another tradition was born. 
The following year, my brother wrote one.  Then Cousin Kelley.  Then my mom.  Then my sister-in-law.  In the sixteen years that have passed since that first spontaneous verse, almost every member of the family has contributed a poem or a story.  Some years we have quite a few to share.

My brother and his son (bottom right corner) making the
exact same pensive expression as I read my 2007 poem.

The majority of the poems still follow the original idea—personalized parodies of “The Night Before Christmas”.   But sometimes we venture out into other forms.  They almost always rhyme and they almost always contain one particularly bad rhyme or pun that makes the whole family groan.  (In the years when my brother writes them, there is significantly more groaning.)  And, though these poems wouldn’t win any prizes for literary merit, we all smile and laugh and sometimes even shed a tear or two as we huddle in the living room together listening to the latest one.  All gifts remain unopened until the Christmas poem has been read.

Most of the poems wouldn’t make any sense to non-Kinder-related types, but since I’ve just described tradition #2, here’s the poem I wrote in 2007, titled “Mistletoe”.  Please forgive all the liberties I took with the word “’Twas”. 


‘Twas eight days till Christmas
2009 -- It was seventy degrees.
The hat and gloves are just for show.
And, of course, ‘twas no snow—
The air was quite warmish,
The sun all aglow.

Dad said, “Wanna get some mistletoe?”
I said, “Not right now, no.”

‘Twas six days till Christmas
And no clouds did show—
The sky was pure blue;
Birds soared in a row.

Dad said, “ How ‘bout the mistletoe?”
I said, “Nah, later on though.”

‘Twas four days till Christmas
And still ‘twas no snow,
Yet the sky darkened eerily,
And the wind began to blow.

Dad said, “Let’s get some mistletoe.”
2007 -- That is a BIG bunch of
mistletoe about to fall on me.
I said, “Maybe after I watch this show.”

‘Twas two days till Christmas
And the temp dropped so low
That the wind chill felt
Like nineteen below.

Dad said, “It’s time to get the mistletoe.”
I said, “It’s thirty-one degrees, you know.” *
“Well, we should have done this a week ago.”
I glanced out the window and said, “Uh oh.”

Covered in mittens and scarves and a hat,
I shifted my shivering feet to and fro.
Even through two sweaters, it was obvious that
The wind, to my skin, was able to blow.

Dad, with his pole with a saw on the end,
Scanned the hackberry tree for good mistletoe.
If ever I had thought to call it my friend,
1997 -- Dad lets me try using the
saw-on-a-pole.  It didn't go well.
This white-berried plant was now surely my foe.

Dad touched the tool to several large clumps,
Asking, “This one? Or that?” in a manner so slow
While I, in a frigid numb popsicle grump,
Stood in a silent, stiff, opinionless woe.

When finally the ”perfect” cluster was chosen
And Mom was summoned, camera in tow,
Dad ignored the state of my hands (they were frozen)
And issued the warning, “Look out below!”

The saw blade high in the treetop went snick
I dutifully stuck out my arms, and then… D’oh!
Just as Mom’s camera flashed and went click
I felt the cold bundle bounce off my toe.

Nothing was ruined, no harm had been done;
The plant was salvaged and tied with a bow.
I posed with my prize as if I had won
1989  :)
While another picture was taken for show.

So lovers who savor a kiss to bestow
‘Neath this romantic shrub, I want you to know
That more toil and sweat that you’d imagine can go
Into obtaining a bough of mistletoe.

* Remember, this is Texas.  Thirty-one degrees is COLD here.

Happy Holidays, everyone.  Remember to enjoy the little things.