Reading in June Is All About Size

Happy June! June brings a lot of wonderful things, like strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb and cactus blossoms. Also, a new reading theme.

The theme for June is size (think small, medium, large, and take it from there). I’ve been looking forward to this theme ever since Sheila suggested it, and I will not be disappointed.

Nonfiction is especially enticing this month. I’ve started with Small Victories, by Anne Lamott. Talk about the perfect book at the perfect time (although it’s true that I tend to like Lamott at any time, this one seems particularly perfect). Next up is likely Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver (the rare writer who has written both fiction and nonfiction that I’ve loved). Other books in the nonfiction pile:

  • Any Small Thing Can Save You, Christina Adam
  • The Big Picture, David Suzuki
  • Sleeping Giant, Tamara Draut
  • At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman
  • The Marginalized Majority, Onnesha Roychoudhuri (is a majority an amount rather than a size? It feels like a size)
  • The Big Squeeze, Steven Greenhouse
  • The Small-Mart Evolution, Michael H. Shuman
  • The Size of Thoughts, Nicholson Baker

Not bad, huh? And a nice range in topics.

My fiction stack is skimpier (but note, I have only gone through about two-thirds of my fiction). I’ve started with The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny. At first I thought “long” a bit of a stretch for the theme, but I’m good at stretching, and when I remembered drawing sticks when I was a kid (the kid who drew the long stick got to go first; the kid who drew the short stick had to do dishes—like that) I knew I was home free. Meeting with Sheila before the theme began, I started reciting my reasoning for “long,” sticks and all, and she laughed and said she already had a “long” book in her reading pile. Oh I do love my friends.

I also have two books by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and The Little Sister. I’m leaning more towards The Big Sleep, and I’ve just remembered I have a graphic novel of The Little Sister. Maybe I’ll read both!

Also in the pile:

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie
  • The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, Tiffany Baker
  • The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara

A short but appealing stack.

In poetry, I’ve started All the Short Poems, by Valerie Worth. This is a lovely book, with illustrations by Natalie Babbitt.

Poetry has given me some of the best titles for the size theme:

  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye
  • A Slender Grace, Rod Jellema
  • Skinny Dipping, Suzanne Collins
  • In This Thin Rain, Nelson Ball
  • Crossing the Great Divide, Jean Feraca

A new month, a new reading theme, new birds and new plants. Turning the page on the calendar. Entering the lazy season, for lolling on the porch, reading and napping. Count me in.

Happy reading (and napping) to you!

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Emotional Maturity

I honestly thought (assumed, really) that by the time I got well into adulthood, I would become wise and emotionally mature. No more temper tantrums or sulking. No jealousy, no resentments (that I can’t get past no matter how hard I try).

Holy cow, was I wrong.

While it’s true that I don’t sulk nearly as much as I used to, that’s only because a friend called me on it. We were on a road trip, and I didn’t get my way on something, and after an hour of me sulking in the car, she said something along the lines of, “So are you just going to sulk all day, or what?” Well.

Apparently, I thought in my wee mind that nobody noticed my sulking. Or at least if it was noticed, there was a tacit rule that it not be mentioned. But I think mostly I thought it was somehow not that noticeable. Why, I cannot say. Is there any behavior more annoying in a friend than sulking? It’s annoying in children and even more annoying in adults.

I’m embarrassed to admit that this event took place in my 40s. I’m pleased to admit, however, that it effected immediate change. What? You can see my sulk? That behavior ended that very day. Not without an occasional backslide, I’m sure. But it was quite a verbal slap to the face, and I am ever grateful to my friend for pointing out my poor behavior. I still feel sulky once in a while, wishing I had gotten my way. But now I usually either say something or just get over it. The hours-long sulk is behind me. Which goes to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

And resentment. Don’t get me going on resentment. I don’t think I’ve made one iota of progress on that front. When I was young I could carry a grudge longer than god, and that hasn’t changed much. Oh, except that I don’t get grudgeful nearly as often. But still the grudge is inside and it festers. Why can’t I let these things go? Years ago I said something that offended a friend. They demanded an apology. I said I wanted to tell my side. They said I didn’t have a side, and apologize or the friendship is over. Well, I apologized, but of course as you know, the friendship was over.

I’m still not sure to this day whether I’m more outraged or flabbergasted, that a friend would tell me in any kind of disagreement, “You don’t have a side.” Who says that? A judge, perhaps. A dictator, certainly. A czar, a despot, a tyrant.

Forgiveness. Definitely not my strong suit.

It all feels so petty. I thought I would be past this by now.

In a somewhat different realm is worry. Worry can be useful if it reminds you to do things. But once you’ve done everything and you’re still obsessing, worry becomes less useful, and it can even become debilitating. I used to swirl in worry, but I’ve learned (or been taught) some tricks: food and drink often serve as an excellent distraction, especially if the food is good and the drink is hoppy. Getting out in nature almost always soothes my soul, and if I can manage at least two hours, sometimes the worry moves away like the clouds. I can also find solace in physical activity: raking, weeding, doing dishes, cleaning out storm drains.

So this is a bit of progress, a bit of maturity. I’ve found some productive outlets (detours?) for my emotions.

I began drafting this post weeks ago (some posts are tougher than others) and just a few days ago I got an amazing (to me) gift from a friend. A book, A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, by Donna Cameron. While kindness is not exactly an emotion, it sure seems to be tied to a lot of emotions that would not well entertain things like sulking, resentment, and worry.

I am intrigued. I was originally going to write, “I don’t think kindness is a panacea for my emotional immaturity” but I couldn’t do so, because now that I think about it, it might indeed be a cure. I mean, if you really think about it, kindness might well be the cure for many things. Maybe even for everything.

Could kindness save the world? Stay tuned.

Reading Theme Update

May is underway and I’ve shifted to the May reading theme, which is Black and Blue. An odd fit for May (why didn’t we do Green?), but usually our monthly reading themes aren’t attached to the month, so there you have it.

If I recall correctly, we got to Black and Blue because we were trying to choose a color theme, and black and blue seemed the most viable. But we thought perhaps there wouldn’t be enough with just one color, so we combined them. It made sense at the time. In retrospect, though, I think the theme would have been broader had we just chosen one of the words. Say what? If we had chosen black, for example, I would certainly look for books with black in the title. But I would also include things associated with black, like night, dark, and ebony for sure; but it seems like there could be additional variations—black birds, perhaps. Blue could have incorporated the concept of sadness, all words for shades of blue, and seriously blue things, like the sky, the ocean, and sapphires.

But when it’s black AND blue, I feel compelled to limit myself to those two specific words, because in my (perhaps strange) mind, the theme loses its cohesion if I stray into all those other territories. Not that anyone would care. (I don’t think even Sheila would mind—no, I’m sure she wouldn’t. She didn’t even get annoyed last year when I only read one book for the theme month because I devoted the month to a completely different theme. She is so much more emotionally mature than I am.)

So, sticking specifically to black and blue, the gleanings from my bookshelves are pretty skimpy (I have a couple of books on order from the library). But this is not necessarily a bad thing, because May is a busy month (birding, yard, garden) and reading is a lower priority. But also, I’d rather have a few good books to choose from than a lot of mediocre ones, and I’ve got a few good ones this month.

I’m about one-third of the way through Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim. This book is basically an introduction to brilliant black women writers. It contains several lists of recommendations: classic novels by black women, books on black feminism, books about black girlhood and friendship, science fiction and fantasy books by black women, plays by black women, and poetry by black women.

Each list is followed by three essays, and the list of contributors is impressive—Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Barbara Smith, Rebecca Walker, and N.K. Jemisin, to name a few. And it’s a wonderful package, an added bonus, with illustrations (mostly small but a few full page) of each of the contributors. A book beautiful both inside and out.

For poetry, I’m reading Blue Horses, by Mary Oliver. I am not far into it, but already I love it. Much of Oliver’s poetry deals with nature and I have thoroughly enjoyed most of her books. She can string together a few words and I will feel like I’m right there with her in the marsh (except she isn’t there, it’s just me in the marsh). No other poet does that quite so well for me.

I’ve not started a fiction book yet, but I’ve decided on Blue Eyes, Black Hair, by Marguerite Duras. It has many wins in its favor: the title contains both black and blue, of course; also, it’s short—117 pages; even with that short length, there is a lot of white space—the margins are wide all around, the font isn’t small, and there’s frequent double spacing between paragraphs; and it’s a novel of erotic obsession. Granted, novels of erotic obsession can be really bad, but if this one is, it’s only 117 pages.

The reading theme for April was Men (any variety will do). I read a monk, a boy, three men, plus Jack, Jim, Tolstoy, and Arthur Truluv. I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to in April—I had so many good theme books. But we had some beautiful days, and the lure of the bike and the river held sway.

It’s hard to stay inside. My rhubarb is nearly a foot high; the lilacs are starting to flower; the crabapple is in full bloom; the forsythia has peaked and the leaves are now in. I’ve had fox sparrows (3), a Lincoln’s sparrow, and scads of white-throated sparrows in the last several weeks. The house wren is back, and I’ve had both Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes in the backyard. I do love the spring bird migration.

Happy reading (and birding)!

The Beautiful Day

Today is a beautiful day. In Minnesota, you feel guilty for staying inside on such a beautiful day (even if you’re sick, you at least try to sit in the sun). And here I am, sitting inside writing, feeling guilty. Mind you, I’ve spent much of the day outside. I’ve been for two bike rides, done some gardening (such as it is here in April), spent some time birding at the river, and also did a little birding in the yard.

I think the first bike ride was the highlight of the day. I didn’t get out on my new bicycle much last year, and I’m bound to make up for it this year. While riding up the river road biking path, I saw a very large bird swooping low—vulture or eagle? I lost the one that swooped, but when I glanced up, I saw what was clearly a turkey vulture soaring, soon joined by the other. I was pleased, as I’ve already seen an eagle this year, and the vulture was new to my year list.

After biking at a brisk pace for a distance not quite far enough to make my legs rubbery, we stopped and rested and chatted for a bit. Before long I found myself distracted by the birds I saw flitting through the trees, and try as I might I couldn’t focus on conversation. So I decided to go to the river later and do a bit of birding (I didn’t have my binoculars with me on the bike ride—why do I ever go anywhere without binoculars in spring?)

After our equally brisk ride back, I rested for a bit, but the beautiful day and the call of the birds lured me out before long. I rode down to the river, picked a spot, sat down, and waited for the birds to reappear after the disturbance of my arrival. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes, birds started coming around. Not a lot of them—it was mid-afternoon, not the best time for birding. Still and yet, I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler of the year, as well as an eastern phoebe. Also a northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, and I heard a red-bellied woodpecker laughing. Slowly floating down the river was a group of northern shovelers.

Earlier today, I was outside at the cactus, uncovering it (again—after I had to recover it mid last week for our winter storm). I could almost feel it stretching towards the sun. I got the bulk of it done, and hope to finish the rest yet tonight (it stays light until after 8 p.m. now!). I also uncovered (again) the rhubarb, which is much further along than it was five days ago when I covered it back up. Rhubarb bread is around the corner (with cinnamon and nuts—yum).

I’ve had a few spring migrants in the backyard. For the last 10 days, I’ve had three fox sparrows, which have totally captivated me. They’ve been here pretty much all day for those 10 days, and I’ve been quite diligent about putting out fresh water and seed of various sorts (and also graham crackers). This is a particularly important time to feed birds, as often their common sources of foods (insects, buds, seeds) haven’t arrived yet or are sparse.

Several days ago, as I was watching the fox sparrows under the dogwoods, spouse came up, pointed out the window and asked, “What’s that?” to a bird that was about three feet away from my nose. A beautiful male purple finch! I’m glad I saw him then, because I haven’t seen him since. I have house finches quite often, but the purple finch is rare in my yard.

Robins are plentiful this spring, but I’m still awaiting the return of the house wren.

Do you think if I unplug the heated birdbath, winter will return?

Books: Not Just for Reading

I love playing with books, especially around the monthly reading themes. Usually I start thinking about next month’s book theme in the middle of this month. A friend once castigated me for that—not living in the moment enough, as it were. Pigsfoot. I have always been a big fan of anticipation, and I don’t see a thing wrong with it.

Plus, in this particular case, it allows me to play with my books in pursuit of a goal (a nice stack of interesting books to choose from for next month’s theme). It’s purely fun, and has the advantage of helping me get reacquainted with my books (which can also help in the culling process).

This is not an either/or thing. I can enjoy the monthly reading theme and also anticipate the upcoming theme. Really, it’s like winning twice: I enjoy picking and anticipating the books, and then I enjoy reading them (though not all of them, because I always select more than I can read, because it’s nice to have a lot to choose from).

Any time of the year is good for playing with books, but this last winter has especially lent itself to book play. Days inside due to the polar vortex; days inside due to snowstorms; days inside due to ice.

I got a little cabin fever and started culling my books. And while this may sound more like work than fun, think of it this way: Book culling involves handling, looking at, and sorting books; reading book jackets, paging through books, and occasionally taking trips down memory lane. A great way to spend a snowy (or rainy) day.

I’ve only gotten through three shelves so far (but that’s more than half a bookcase!) and have had to stop because the stacks are taking over the Blue Room. (Note: There were already stacks of books on the Blue Room floor; but now it has gotten to a point where there is only a wide path for walking.)

The next step is to sort the books. The cream of the crop go to an independent that buys books, and the rest get bagged up for Half Price Books (HPB). This is the dangerous time, when back-sliding occurs. (Or, more charitably, it gives me an opportunity to change my mind if I have been a little too hasty, or if I was in a particularly strong cleansing mood when I did the culling.) I don’t usually uncull many books, but knowing there is this pause ahead may make me a bit bolder in the initial culling. And I have already pulled back several books (mostly nature—why did I think I wouldn’t want to read this Cape Cod book? Acquainted With the Night, going through it hour by hour—why would I get rid of that? You see….) But probably not more than 2 or 3 out of every 50 culled. It’s a good check and balance system that works for me.

Bringing books to the store and getting cash or credit is also fun. The independents always pay much better than HPB, but they are few and far between (although I have found a new one that is particularly keen on poetry, and soon I will try branching out into other areas—nature, history, and books by local authors—things in line with the spirit of the store). But HPB takes everything, including books with underlining (I underline in some of my books—mostly books I think I’m going to keep and then sometimes it turns out I don’t want to keep them after all; underlining helps me process a book at a deeper level).

So the cream of the crop goes to the independents, and the bulk goes to Half Price Books. We have a HPB near our house and this is our new system (now that we have about 12 bags of books, and still stacks to go): two bags of books in the car at all times. Any time we drive by HPB and there’s room in the parking lot (and we have time), we bring in the two bags. When we get home, two more bags go into the car. With luck, six bags are gone within a week.

A final enjoyment: coming home and looking at the bookshelves no longer double stacked, and room on the shelf for more. Having room for new books is nice for a change (we haven’t quit buying books, after all!).

Writing this has made me realize that the memoir shelf is ready to cull. And there’s now enough room in the Blue Room for a few more stacks. Hmm. Maybe I’ll go down and just start with a smallish pile of memoirs….

Looking for a Few Good Men

March is drawing to a close, and I’m starting to anticipate the April reading theme—men. I’m quite excited about the possibilities and have been looking forward to this particular theme for quite some time. This is men in a broad sense, including any book with the word “man” or “men” in the title, also boy, mister, Mr., father, uncle, etc., or a proper male name.

The one book I’m most singularly excited about is Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, by Michael Kimmel. With the resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism (which are not just men, but men are the primary face) and the continuing school shootings (and other mass killings) committed primarily by white men, I am quite interested to see what Kimmel has to say. Bear with me while I quote a wee bit on this from Kimmel’s book (it has a really good index):

Take a little thought experiment. Imagine all the rampage school shooters in Littleton, Colorado; Pearl, Mississippi; Paducah, Kentucky; Springfield, Oregon; and Jonesboro, Arkansas; now imagine they were black girls from poor families who lived instead in Chicago, New Haven, Newark, Philadelphia, or Providence. Can you imagine the debate, the headlines, the handwringing? . . . . Yet the obvious fact that virtually all the rampage school shooters were middle-class white boys barely broke a ripple in the torrent of public discussion.

If it’s as interesting (and data-driven) as I expect, you will likely be hearing a bit more from me about Angry White Men. Other nonfiction books I have in the stack:

  • Men We Reaped, Jesamyn Ward
  • Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Susan Shapiro
  • The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd
  • My Father’s Paradise, Ariel Sabor
  • Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood
  • Reading Judas, Elaine Pagels & Karen L. King

I think that’s a nice selection. A little heavy on memoirs, but I do like memoirs, and they’re all pretty different. My fiction list is a bit longer, though I have been much less diligent in my search for fiction. There are just so many of them!

  • The Hanged Man, Francesca Lia Block (YA)
  • Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones
  • Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal (mystery)
  • The Bachelors, Muriel Spark
  • The One-in-a-Million Boy, Monica Wood
  • Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker (mystery)
  • The Mostly True Story of Jack, Kelly Barnhill (YA, local author)
  • The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Phaedra Patrick
  • Jim the Boy, Tony Earley (note the double win here)
  • The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Alice Walker

A nice selection, I think. Though maybe I should look at the SF/fantasy shelf for a possible addition. It seems to be the only thing missing.

Poetry is surprisingly skimpy in the male realm: only seven books after looking through six shelves of poetry! Interestingly, I scanned just two shelves for female titles and came up with nine! What is it about poetry that makes it so female oriented? I checked, and I have about equal numbers of male and female authors, so it’s not that. However, most (though not all) of the female titles are written by women. Poetry on men:

  • The Silence of Men, Richard Jeffrey Newman
  • The Gentle Man, Bart Edelman
  • Narrative of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson (note the double win)
  • Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me, Stanley Plumly
  • Gabriel, Edward Hirsch (one of my favorite poets)
  • Martin & Meditations on the South Valley, Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • The Throne of Labdacus, Gjertrud Schnackenberg

There is much to look forward to in April!

I’ve been enjoying my geographic peregrinations this month. I visited both coasts: The San Francisco Haiku Anthology, New York (Will Eisner), and Another Brooklyn (Jacqueline Woodson). After New York I hopped up to Maine (J. Courtney Sullivan) with a stop in Radio Free Vermont (Bill McKibben). I also spent quite a bit of time in the Heartland (Sarah Smarsh) and the Kitchens of the Great Midwest (J. Ryan Stradal). I have recently left the country for Rain in Portugal (Billy Collins). Spring in Portugal is lovely.

Quick bird note: Spring in Minnesota is pretty good too! Yesterday I saw my first chipping sparrow as well as my first white-throated sparrow of the year. Spring migration has begun!

Spring in Minnesota

March in Minnesota is often mostly winter, but this year the official spring actually feels like spring. Today I went outside in a light jacket to put out birdseed and fresh water. It was so nice out, I found myself picking up winter trash and cleaning up around the compost bin. I moved a stepping stone to the muddy area, and rescued and cleaned a water dish frozen out over winter. Then I started to pull the leaf mulch off the rhubarb until I got to a layer of ice. Time to let the sun do its work. Honestly, there’s just not that much you can do in a Minnesota yard in March.

And then I glanced at the south wall of the house. The cacti are coming back to life! I had worried about this a bit over winter, especially with the polar vortex. I didn’t mulch them as well as usual last fall (because I mauled them the previous spring when I was raking off the mulch) and feared they wouldn’t survive polar vortex and record-breaking February snowfall. But a glance showed me otherwise: Several pads were rising up—I love this miracle of spring.

In a wee bit of awe, I went to check out the full patch (I’m trying to cover the south wall of the house). A bit more mulch than I remembered. I found a twig and used it to gently move leaves off the cactus pads. Most of the pads are still flat on the ground (they seem to almost melt in winter; the first year I was sure they were dead, and was shocked as anything when they came back even bigger and stronger the next spring). And a couple of years after that, they flowered, and continued to spread. When they started to cover the sidewalk, I clipped one off and set it in a bit of a scrape in the rocks. “Back to nature,” I thought. Indeed back to nature: It took root and grew that very summer and started its own vigorous plant the next spring. That’s when I got the idea of a cactus bed on the south wall of the house. It’s coming along nicely.

Also in the land of spring: The cardinals have paired off. No more large groups of them coming and hanging out for much of the day. Ditto for the robins. The juncos are now few and far between. I miss the groups, but the trade-off is worth it in song: Yes, the birds are singing again! They certainly haven’t hit their peak yet, but the occasional robin song and chickadee dee are definite signs of spring, along with the frequent drumming of the downy woodpeckers. There will come a time later in summer when the cardinal calling at 4:30 in the morning does not make me smile, but in March, the birds are the vocal heralds of spring. I cannot help but love them.

I saw my first chipmunk of the season today. An immediate flash of pure affection. So cute. And a few hours later, after I had put out birdseed, I also remembered what little hoovers they are. One chipmunk can clean out a seed tray in record time. They put squirrels to shame. Chipmunks have huge cheek pouches where they store the seed they vacuum up. Then they hie off to their cache, deposit their feast-for-later, and go back to the banquet for more.

Nature. Wily Nature. It makes my heart sing.