Mary Helen Stefaniak’s Best of 2011: A Book, A Bird, A Dog, A Present, and A Meal


One of the best books I’ve read this year is Kate Kasten’s novel Ten Small Beds. A woman who long ago escaped the confines and cruelty of her hometown returns to take care of her mother and finds more than one ghost of the past that needs exorcising. Ten Small Beds wins our sympathy for narrator Davida Grayson, a woman caught up in an all-too familiar familial bind, before it begins to turn, slowly and quietly, into a psychological thriller. Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to film certain turns of the plot.   (Look for it at Prairie Lights or online.)

The best, which is to say, the boldest and most entertaining bird at our backyard “bird feeder” (a saucer of water surrounded by a scattering of seeds on the bare earth under our cedar tree) is not the flashy male cardinal who serves sunflower seeds to a female friend, delivering each seed beak to beak, in an amorous-looking peck.  And it’s neither of the bold bluejays who disperse the sparrows on arrival, having never learned to share, nor is it the red-headed woodpecker who makes a few showy taps on the trunk of the tree before lowering himself to eat seeds on the ground like everybody else.  No, the best of the birds is the little gray titmouse who likes to steal from the big bowl of food I leave on the step for the outside cats.  He always pauses, perched on the rim of the bowl, his black-crested head tilted to one side and a kibble of cat food clutched in his beak, just long enough for the inside cat to spy him from the other side of the glass.

The best of the seventeen dogs that my daughter-in-law Monika was cagelessly boarding in their Florida home when we visited at Christmas was the white and fluffy Maltese—who was so eager to be loved and petted by the humans that he stood up and danced from one of us to the next, patting the air with his paws in the vicinity of our knees, trying a tentative pat on a pants leg, too polite, I guess, to actually jump on us.  The rest of the doggies, as Monika calls them, ran in a cheerfully barking pack from one gated doorway to another as we moved from room to room.

The best Christmas present ever was the moment my mother, while recovering from a stroke that wiped out large swaths of her memory, looked out her door on Christmas Eve morning and cried, “I know that man!” as a neighbor walked by.

The best thing to order at El Ranchero on Hwy 6 in Iowa City is an especialidad de la casa called Taquitos Mexicanos—or possibly, Taquitas Mexicanas—they are delicious, regardless of gender.  I like them with a Corona, followed by a long walk home with a stop in the middle at Dairy Queen.

Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, winner of the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.