The year of reading Sue Grafton


We began with “A is for Alibi” and Kentucky Hall of Fame author Sue Grafton’s opening lines: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

It was February 2016. My husband had lost his job; we were in the process of moving from city life in northern California to rural Kentucky, leaving a life we’d been building for a decade to save money and be closer to family; and though my husband had no symptoms, his doctor had called with news: prostate cancer.

To say we had a hard time focusing on anything but sickness, moving, and money would be an understatement. We were both big readers, but who could read at a time like this? He’d recently made it through Shelby Foote’s Civil War series and everything Cormac McCarthy; for me it had been Jane Hamilton, Mary Karr, Ann Patchett, the collected short stories of Grace Paley. And yet, we both knew we needed an escape, maybe something fast-paced and light and out of our ordinary, and wouldn’t it be fun to read the same books for change?

“I ordered the first one, A for something,” he said one morning over coffee, handing me his New York Times crossword with less than half the answers filled in. “You want to read it first or do you want me to?”

We were tag-team crossword solvers, yes, but regardless of who started our puzzles we both wanted to be the one who finished, the one who could claim victory. I took the folded newspaper and went to get my own pen. “You start,” I said. “You read faster than me, and that way you can move on to “B is for Burglar” without having to wait on me.”

“Wait, is this a trick?” he said, laughing.

Two weeks into social distancing, with mounting fears about the spread of coronavirus and the lack of enough ICU beds, healthcare providers, and ventilators, I’ve been thinking about 2016 —not about the Donald Trump getting elected-part, but about the year we spent trying not to panic. The year we spent escaping into Sue Grafton’s 20-plus books and the fictional life of private detective Kinsey Millhone — and how I couldn’t wait to get through it all so life could get back to normal.

And yet, isn’t “normal” simply code for wanting our old life back? For what Joan Didion famously called “magical thinking” in her 2005 memoir?

In 2016, we read Sue Grafton during a year of magical thinking. Our adult son who now lived nearby would come often for dinner. My husband would finally, after decades away, get to spend time with his parents. After he finished treatment, and if he was healthy (which of course he would be!) he would find a new job, which likely meant a lot of traveling. And I’d be home alone, out in the country with no distractions, so I’d get back full-time to the book I’d been researching and writing. Everything would be back to normal.

The good news is that my husband is cancer-free, for which we are so very thankful, but he decided to retire, to stay home. Then his parents died within two months of each other, our son moved to Boston (you saw that coming, right?), and with Trump’s shocking election, I set my step-parenting book aside as I started writing about Kentucky politics and teaching at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

A normal — a life — I could not have imagined in February 2016.

I bailed on our Sue Grafton reading marathon after “N is for Noose“—I’ll give you the win,” I said. “I need to read something else.”— though my husband, as is his character, kept his commitment and read all the way through “Y is for Yesterday,” Grafton’s last book before she died.

In these terrifying and uncertain days of 2020, I worry for all of us and wonder what our new normal might one day be, how on earth we are going to come out on the other end of this, and I try not to panic. Try.

I have four stacks of new books on my bedside table. I can’t make myself care about any of them. Not a one. I’m too scattered, too scared.

But I remember the year we read Sue Grafton and how it helped. It’s time to go back, I think, to pick up “O is for Outlaw” and find out how Kinsey survives her next close call. To find out what happens. To see how her story ends. There’s still time, right?



The comments section is open. Please share the books you’re reading, the shows you’re binge-watching, how you’re getting through these unfathomable days. I wish you and your families good health and good spirits. Here’s to fighting on.

10 thoughts on “The year of reading Sue Grafton

  1. Belladonna Took

    I enjoyed the Kinsey Milhone series … but can’t imagine reading all of them end-to-end! If you’re looking for something completely different to read, you might consider Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. There are lots of them; the first two – “The Color of Magic” and “The Light Fantastic” are pretty lightweight, but they get the thing started and it’s worth persisting. The stories become more complex as the series develops. The humor is belly-jiggling, the quality of writing excellent, the satire clever but seldom bitter … and the Discworld itself is a wonderful relief from our current reality.

  2. Andy Kienzle

    I read mostly non-fiction. But for an excellent escape, I recommend Neal Stephenson. I still gobble up every book he writes. Cryptonomicon and Seveneves are my favorites, but I really enjoy them all. Why I haven’t seen a movie of one of them is beyond me. Also, as a news and politics junky, I like to turn off the news before I go to sleep and watch some live music on YouTube. There’s so much of it. There is also a plethora of good television and movies. My wife and I were happily distracted by an old Steve Martin – Goldie Hawn movie called The Housesitter last night. Finally, thanks for opening the comments. I have wanted to express my appreciation for your writing for quite some time. I always enjoy your take on things and look forward to the next Teri email.

  3. Kathy Bryan

    I moved down here summer 2008. My mother’s health was getting trickier, my job had ended in NKY, and Dennis was getting used to having me around. Mom passed at the end of the year, but my sister and I were both in Franklin County. Helped both of us. Until the virus we had lunch on Thursdays most weeks. I would pick her up at Boone Center where she works for Military Affairs. She is working about twelve hours a day now with the state emergency. She has a civilian administrative role. Don’t call her my baby sister any more, but she will always be that. Proud of her.

    Back to books

    Combining households meant combining books for us. I didn’t bring much furniture, but we made room for what I did. Also brought my two cats who already loved him. He had been catless for about two years.

    I had not read the Harry Bosch books or Jack Reacher ones. Soon tackled them in order. I had started Kinsey books. He read those too. I am so sorry that Kinsey became an orphan again when Grafton died.

    Paper books in progress:
    The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence. Library loan.
    Had not read since 1975 when pregnant and not yet settled on name for the baby. Decided a girl would be named Ursula and she is.

    Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow – will get back to it.

    We share a family library on Kindle too. Both of us read The Goldfinch when it was new. He is a fast reader. Devours books. We have added two bookcases in the basement, one in the “study” upstairs, and of course the two I brought with me.

    1. Kim Weckerly

      I have also read many of the Kinsey books. Now I am on something entirely different and am reading Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series. She also has another series – sort of a spin off – Soulwood. Both good if you enjoy the genre.

  4. Sharon Bonin-Pratt

    What a terrifying year 2016 was for you personally. For the country, for the whole world. And now this, Covid 19. I worry for my sons and grandchildren, about our health and theirs, and that of the whole world because I know how this is the universal atmosphere. Eventually we all breathe the same air.

    Still, I’m pleased your husband is well, that you share your writing here. Everything you write makes me think and wonder what’s possible.

    I’m reading A Very Stable Genius by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, non-fic. Recently finished La Rose by Louise Erdrich. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste NG. The World that We Knew by Alice Hoffman. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Sapiens by Noah Yuval Harari, non-fic.

  5. loiej

    Thanks,Teri. You’re right. There is no normal but maybe there’s an almost normal without trump, but here’s what’s constantly in my head. As soon as we get rid of trump (hopefully in Nov) the nasty republicans–the ones who want our social security, put money in their pockets until one must call it gluttonous and who cheat, lie, steal, lie, stir up racism, lie–they’ll be huddling, trying to find a way to take over our world, our rights, our liberties–our country as we once knew it. The world where ‘normal’ was easier, better. Where pain and illness was still there, nipping at our heels but no one was stealing our country, our integrity, our children and our culture. I definitely know that normal is permanently gone for me. Forever. Because I will always assume my normal, whatever it is, is just a vote away from being a nightmare.

  6. Tim Harlow

    I am a financial advisor and have been officing out of my home since Jan 2005. My assistant who used to work here with me moved to Dallas 2-1/2 years ago, so she works remotely. So the work from home thing is no big deal. But, I am a social person, and I miss meeting my clients in person.

    Been working on Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, an old classic for us car people. I don’t do enough pleasure reading. The WordPress community is a great distraction. There are so many different types of posts, and almost everyone’s blogs are well thought out, including yours.

    Thanks for the great posts. I have faith that we will see a normal again, especially if we can get the criminal out of the White House. But this virus is not unique, and we need to figure out better ways to cope with these new bugs.

  7. Steve Fergus

    Hi Teri! I also thank you for the open comments as I often want to share my appreciation for your work…your personal approach is very appealing and strongly invites a response. My first readers choice for you is fellow Kentucky writer Tawni O’dell. ‘Back Roads’ and ‘Coal Run’ are two of my favorites. Another recommendation is Carson McCullers, especially ‘Ballad of the Sad Cafe’. I once told Tawni her writing impressed me as much as McCullers and she was thrilled as McCullers is one of her favorites too. Given the life challenges you describe in your writing you might find the ‘Conversations with God’ series of books by Neal Donald Walsch helpful. Many are put off by the seeming ‘pretension’ of claiming a conversation with God but personally I feel if the substance is useful who cares where it came from. Same is true for the books by Carlos Castaneda which I also find very useful. Thanks again for your efforts…I look forward to each of your new columns and am never disappointed. Keep up the good work. And when the smoke clears and we return to a normal life I invite you to visit my wife and I in our tropical beach home in Costa Rica – we have a guest cabina and you and your family are always welcome. Take care for now. All the best, ~Steve Fergus/

  8. Alli Farkas

    I’m a member of a “non-standard” book club. Instead of everyone reading the same book and getting together to dissect it and thoroughly discuss it, we each bring a book we have read any time in the past that we really liked and plug it to everyone else by explaining exactly what was so great about it—even mentioning parts that may not have been so great—and reading aloud particularly interesting excerpts. The books are then offered on loan to any member intrigued enough to take it on. My “borrowed” book this month is “Woman Talking” by Miriam Toews. So far it’s one of the more unusual books I’ve ever read even though it’s a novel based on a real-life event. I guess I will have the book until we’re permitted to “gather” again😊.

  9. Karen (formerly kcinnova)

    I, too, am having trouble concentrating on the written word, and our libraries are closed while we are on state mandated “stay at home.” I have downloaded several audiobooks and thoroughly enjoyed A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. Next up is Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It seems like the comfort of a childhood classic might help in these uncertain times.

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