In Decembers past, I’ve shared resources for writers and readers; this last post of the year is in that same vein. Thus these are not H2O Notes per se, although water of course makes us all possible, be we writers or readers or the trees who gave all to become pages in the books listed below.

These few books demonstrate plenty about how to write in their genres (or bust out new genres). They’re as absorbing and instructive as any writer’s handbook. These reads also changed my mind about issues I knew I needed to rethink. These authors helped retrain my brain, so to speak.

All these books, too, I either found or read cover to cover while I was traveling by train or paused beside nearby bookshops. Reading, along with reducing carbon bootprints and sleeping like a lazy cat to the clacking of the steel wheels, is another great reason I travel on the Coast Starlight. [Although today’s radio broadcasts carried news of atmospheric rivers in the Pacific Northwest, causing locomotive-stopping earth slumps over rail beds.]

Books, river gazing at the Sacramento and Willamette, training, resting—not a bad way to go. [When rails and roads are open; otherwise, reading in situ is advised.]

(Learn more about these titles through the links to my bookshelves in or I’m an affiliate at both sites, which earns me a few cents a year in commissions, I’m obliged to tell you.)

THE LOST JOURNALS OF SACAJAWEA: A NOVEL, by Debra Magpie Earling (2023, Milkweed Editions)

Debra Magpie Earling, one of nine writers in Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition (2007), contributed an essay that helped open my own eyes. The Lewis and Clark Journals and Undaunted Courage, as well as the Ken Burns documentary and the national bicentennial displays and exhibitions, had led me to see the expedition a certain way. Native experts in the 2007 anthology provide different, enlightening insights. Earling’s essay in that collection does the same and and more—it haunts.

Now Earling does it again with the lost journals. She “awakens a voice that our American mythology had hoped would stay sleeping” (Chris Dombrowski). Sacajawea’s reclaimed voice is powerful indeed; Earling’s work is unique and deep.


I believe Margi’s message comes to us from one of climate’s leading edges. She and her partner Geoff Prideaux, wildlife conservationists and friends of mine on Kangaroo Island, Australia, contributed riveting first-hand accounts of wildfire to my book The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019). Now, in Fire, Margi bears witness to the destruction of her farm and home, devastation of surrounding ranches and forests, and deaths of friends both human and animal, domestic and wild, in Australia’s Black Summer 2020 fires. The horror of those fires must be read to be believed; Prideaux emerged with a view of living with climate that I’ve read nowhere else.

Riveting. Incredibly difficult, absorbing, and important. Prepare to stay up late reading and be changed by Margi’s groundbreaking book.

And do sign up for news of an early, free ebook that Margi and I and our co-author Donna Mulvenna are writing about living in this remarkable, rapidly changing world of ours. I’ll send you a copy as soon as we’re done!

CELINE, by Peter Heller (2018, Vintage)

“Celine is not your typical private eye,” reads the bookjacket of Peter Heller’s 2018 literary thriller. No, indeed. She’s to the manor born and yet a badass private investigator. In interviews, Heller has shared that he based Celine on his late mother, who fled Europe as a child, as the Germans advanced on Paris.

Throughout the war all she wanted to do was go back to Paris and fight in the French Resistance. At seven, and eight, and nine. Imagine . . . she had this Special Ops bent very early on. [Later] she and her second husband, Pete Beveridge, focused their prodigious investigative skills on finding missing people and reuniting birth families. 

Peter Heller on the Woman who Inspired Celine, Knopf-Doubleday Reading Group Center

In this unique novel, Celine is asked to find a long-missing wildlife photographer by his possibly orphaned daughter. Celine had considered retiring, but puts it off to help yet another family either reunite or find closure.

Unputdownable. A case study, too, in what is possible in literary whodunnit. “Equal parts character study and mystery” (Entertainment Weekly), Celine is a masterful private eye, and her story is masterfully written. (I just finished Heller’s 2019 novel, The River, and am on to his 2020 The Guide. Staying up late, absorbed, but better up late than never!)

HUNGER, by Roxane Gay (2018, Harper Perennial)

I realize I’m probably the last person I know to read Roxane Gay. Before I knew anything about her, I’d heard her shred a couple of callers on National Public Radio. Her ferocity resembled Margaret Atwood’s when, years ago, she dissected a few student readers who dared to disagree about something. Their dissent was likely ill advised, but what do I know?

That introduction to Gay delayed my consuming her insightful memoir. My loss, and I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer. Honest. Devastating. Necessary.

Although shame and weight gain are covered in media more frequently now than they were, Gay’s book is definitive. Her story is both gripping and heartbreaking. “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe,” she writes. She’s had good reason.

Not to be missed.

THE MUSIC OF BEES, by Eileen Garvin (2022, Dutton)

Another book I’m probably the last person I know to read. What do I like about it? It’s a clear look at how we go on after loss. Eileen Garvin, a lovely writer who’s also learned in beekeeping, engages us as she helps us see community in the hive life, in small towns, and in the complex, beautiful world of sound.

Yes, it’s fiction. And dig this:

The need for cognitive closure has been found to be associated with a variety of suboptimal information processing strategies, leading to decreased creativity and rationality. This experiment tested the hypothesis that exposure to fictional short stories, as compared with exposure to nonfictional essays, will reduce need for cognitive closure

University of Toronto, 2013

So reading fiction helps reduce the mind’s needy need for cognitive closure, a brain function that hinders optimal information processing. Coming to a quick conclusion? Maybe it’s better to ponder.

Garvin mixes imaginative storytelling with concepts we might expect to read in nonfiction. In her hands, the world of Bees comes alive. (Looking forward to her forthcoming Crow Talk.)

GO AS A RIVER, by Shelley Read (2023, Spiegel & Grau)

My friend Cindy Appel—farmer, boater, chef exquisite—shared this debut novel by Coloradoan Shelley Read when I visited Grand Junction this fall. I hadn’t gone by train, alas, as Paul and I were detouring to bookstores. At Cindy’s we ate a lot of Gunnison River peaches and delicious, homegrown food. Read’s book, the story of “seventeen-year-old Victoria Nash—the sole surviving female in a family of troubled men”—provides insight into those local peaches and life on the western slope.

In River, Victoria runs the household on her family’s peach farm in the small ranching town of Iola, Colorado. After devastating loss, she goes on to forge a life of her own choosing. Unique, beautiful prose rooted in the land and waters of the West.

I could go on—I have David James Duncan’s Sun House queued up thanks to my friend Michael Mills, as well as more Heller and Gay and Earling—but a girl’s got to get to her writing. And I long ago stepped off the train.

Until next time, check out other great titles on my bookshelves. I’m still stocking them, backfilling titles more slowly than molasses. As I do, I’d love to hear what you’re reading.

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Like “Training”? Find my 2023 International Rubery Book Prize shortlisted and IAN Book of the Year finalist What I Never Told You: Stories (Wavegirl, 2022). And discover my other books and more short pieces here.


  1. Uhoh, more good reads to add to the stacks… (I just went in for a cup of coffee and came out with three books…)

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