How Birds Are Saving My Sanity in COVID

Yesterday, there were 12 robins on the roof of my garage. This may be “big deal” to many of you, but in February in Minnesota, especially when it’s 2 degrees below zero, 12 robins are notable.

Any robin in winter will bring a smile to my face. Most of them migrate, but about 10% stay, and they hang out in flocks. I am lucky enough to have a flock this winter. My guess is they roost near the river. Many mornings when I go out to get the paper, I hear them before I see them. My neighbor has a tree they adore. My other neighbor, across the alley, has a crabapple they adore. I’m a nice crossroads twixt the two, plus I usually have water in my heated birdbath. But it tends to freeze over below zero, so I was surprised to see the robins. First it was just one, but it caught my attention. I realized it was drinking water, that was somehow melting (dark shingles and sun angle?), catching it just before it drips off the roof. Soon joined by other robins, and then house sparrows.

I have never seen birds do this before. Have I just not been paying attention? Today, the goldfinches were doing it as well.

The birds have been a godsend this winter. We are home so much. No restaurants, no bookstores, no games days or birding with friends. In mid-December, a birding column in the Star Tribune (the major newspaper here) suggested, as a COVID distraction, picking a bird and then seeing how many days in a row you could spot it. I spend plenty of time looking out the window, and I thought this a fun daily checkmark. I chose the black-capped chickadee, because it is common in my yard and invariably makes me smile.

I have had good luck with the chickadees and am still counting. But as I watched for the chickadee, I noticed so many other birds. In January I decided to begin a daily log. Oh, what a fun little sparkle this puts in the day!

I started in mid-January and now have three weeks of data. I know—a micro research project. What could be better? Here are my interim results.

Birds fall into two categories: common (seen at least 50% of the time) and uncommon (seen less than 25% of the time). Birds that appear on the same day are listed in the order they are seen.

Common Birds

  • Black-capped chickadee, downy woodpecker, house sparrow, junco (100%)
  • Cardinal (95%)
  • American goldfinch (86%)
  • American crow (76%)
  • Blue jay (67%)
  • Robin (62%)

Less Common Birds

  • White-breasted nuthatch, red-bellied woodpecker (24%)
  • Northern flicker, hairy woodpecker, house finch (19%)
  • Canada goose, bald eagle (both seen flying overhead) (14%)
  • Starling (10%)
  • Pileated woodpecker (5%)

Interesting that huge gap between 62% and 24%. I wonder how that will hold through February.

I’ve been having the most amazing woodpecker action in the backyard this year. One day, I saw four different kinds of woodpecker (pileated, hairy, downy, red-bellied). I’ve been visited by flickers several times this winter, and once I had two in the yard (which has never happened before)—one at the water and one at the suet.

I credit the suet with my good luck with the woodpeckers this year. I actually had a pileated at one of those tiny suet cages (about 4” x 4”), pecking away. I didn’t have my glasses on, and thought it was a crow, but then glasses, and, wow! I got the suet on a whim when we passed the meat department at the grocery store. It is cheap (cheaper than even the cheapest suet cakes, but this is only a good deal in winter)–$1 will fill two of those little cages.

They mostly attract woodpeckers, but also chickadees. Two of my most common visitors, the downy woodpecker and the chickadee, come mostly for the suet (though the chickadee also likes golden safflower and sunflower chips). The downy is only in it for the suet, but it’s a big-time attraction. I’ve never had as many downys as I do this year—two at the suet, two on the walnut, one on the dogwoods, and who knows how many in the woodpecker tree?

In these strange days, we find our joy where we can. I choose the birds.

Rereading in the New Year (Book Themes)

The reading theme for January is Rereads (i.e., previously read books—usually, books that you loved). Back in early December, when we chose the themes, I thought this was a good idea (even though I vetoed Rereads as a January theme the year before, because a new year seems to call for new books). But this year, I thought with the pandemic, unrest, and polarization, rereading in January might be the perfect thing. I planned to start out with Tales of the City (at least the first six books) by Armistead Maupin. Cozy, familiar, and comfortable.

I continued in this vein until about December 28, when I wondered, Do I really want to read Armistead Maupin for the 4th time? Especially since I got 10 new books in December (more, by far, than any other month in the pandemic)? Am I to eschew them?

Why no! I decided. New year, new books. I thought I might want the comfort of loved books, but I just couldn’t start the new year with something old when I had all that something new calling me. So I started the year with A Whisper of Bones, by Ellen Hart, a local author with Jane Lawless, a lesbian-restaurateur-sleuth, set right here in Minneapolis. This is the 25th book in the series, and I’ve read them all in order, so you might guess I enjoy it, especially since I also read the 26th one this month. Now I only have one to read before I’m caught up.

I started the year in nonfiction with Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, by Emmanuel Acho. This was a good book with a very intimate style. I honestly felt most of the time like it was just the two of us having a conversation (albeit he’s doing most of the talking, but that’s the deal since it’s a book). It did not make me as uncomfortable as I had hoped, and I ascribe that to having read White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo earlier this year. GAH—talk about uncomfortable. I asked all my white reading friends to read it with me, it was so uncomfortable. Which is to say, Acho had a pretty high bar to make me uncomfortable, but he did! It was around language, and what differentiates protest, riot, revolt, and rebellion. Here is where I would like to have a conversation with the author. I hate to pick straws about language, but okay, that’s just a lie. I love to pick straws about language because language matters. Obviously, he thinks so too, or he wouldn’t have written this chapter. Maybe I’ll write to him. You’d be surprised how often authors respond—it’s not a waste of time.

I have done some rereading for the book theme, most notably in poetry: two books by Gerald Vizenor, Empty Swings, and Seventeen Chirps; as well as Always Filling Always Full, by Margaret Chula. In fiction I reread Hunting and Gathering, by Anna Gavalda—a book I loved just as much on the second read as the first, and highly recommend to those who love quirky characters who get together to make their own sort of family.

I’m already looking forward to the February theme, Air. This includes things like wind, sky, breath, breathe, etc. I’ve scoured my bookshelves, and here’s what I’m most looking forward to.


  • The Wind That Lays Waste, Selva Almada. This is my #1 book to read. A spare novel of 124 pages, it involves a reverend and his daughter, an aging mechanic and a young boy, and a storm in the Argentinian countryside. “At once strange and compelling” it says on the back cover. I’m there.
  • Hear the Wind Sing, Haruki Murakami. This is actually only half of the book of Wind/Pinball, by Murakami (the Wind half). Sheila and I have a tradition of reading Murakami in February and were delighted to find there’s a theme-related book that neither of us have read.
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame. I’ve never read it, it’s a classic, and it looks fun.
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. I loved his book A Thousand Splendid Suns, and here I still haven’t gotten around to The Kite Runner, which I got first. I think February is going to be the month, after more than 10 years. (Then maybe I’ll see the movie.)
  • The Air We Breathe, Andrea Barrett. Double theme win for “air” and “breathe”; and I loved her book The Voyage of the Narwhal.
  • Skies of Ash, Rachel Howzell Hall. This is the second in a series with LAPD homicide detective Elouise Norton. I’ve been reading more in the mystery/thriller arena since the pandemic, and I discovered Hall a few months ago. Totally looking forward to this after getting to know the characters in the first one.

Poetry is also rich:

  • Voices in the Air, Naomi Shihab Nye
  • Bending With the Wind, Nick Avis
  • Breath, Robert VanderMolen
  • Down Wind, Down River, William Witherup
  • Shattering Air, David Biespiel
  • Coming Up for Air, Nancy Frederiksen (local)
  • Across the Windharp, Elizabeth Searle Lamb

Nonfiction I’ve sometimes gone further afield:

  • Wind in the Ash Tree, Jeanine McMullen. A memoir I’m looking forward to (that I’ve had for 30 years!).
  • Under a Midland Sky, Thomas Dean. Almost local (Iowa), this is a “nature-related search for coherent life connected to place.” A rooted sense of home and community? I’m there.
  • The Wind Birds, Pether Matthiessen. This book looks absolutely lovely, with plenty of drawings; a slim thing. The Matthiessen I’ve read is deep and brings you to different lands. This book seems like a lark in comparison (couldn’t resist).
  • Under a Wing, Reeve Lindbergh. Yes, here’s a stretch, but what could be under a wing but wind? You are the wind beneath my wings, right? A gift from a friend, 19 years ago. Maybe it’s time I read it?
  • A Thousand Sighs, a Thousand Revolts, Christiane Bird. Sigh. Another stretch, perhaps, but I have this book about the Kurdish people, and I really don’t know much about Kurds, except they’re a people without a land. If there’s one thing a pandemic is good for, it’s reading and learning.

Happy reading to all of you. Stay safe, wear masks, social distance, and read really good books.

Books That Held Me During the Pandemic

A lot of my reading friends are having trouble focusing on books these days. One quit reading books altogether and has been reading magazines instead. Another is rereading old favorites—total distractions, like the Harry Potter books. Others are reading less, or reading lighter.

My reading patterns have changed too, though books have remained a staple of my daily diet. I’m reading a lot more poetry, more mysteries and thrillers, and almost no long depressing novels (generally not a favorite, even when we’re not in a pandemic). Books with short chapters are especially appealing when my attention span is also short.

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in the last 10 months:

Cozy, by Isabel Gillies. This is my #1 pandemic read. What could be better in a pandemic than immersing yourself in cozy? Gillies takes us on a tour of things she finds cozy. Pencils and postcards, hot drinks, English pubs. An entire book devoted to cozy. You won’t agree with everything Gillies finds cozy, and that’s not the point. Cozy is the point, and this book gets you thinking cozy. Candles, reading nooks, a couch, a quilt, a book. Reading this book is like eating comfort food.

The Newish Jewish Cookbook, by Marcy Goldman. Looking through cookbooks is a cozy pastime to me, and ethnic cookbooks seem to be especially cozy. I like to learn about different cultures through books, and cookbooks can be a great element of that. Every time I get a new cookbook, I go through it page by page, look at every recipe, and make a list of all the ones I want to try. I write these down on a big Post-it and stick it in the back of the book. Usually, I do this in one sitting, but this book took several sittings. It’s not that it’s so long (224 pages), it’s that there were that many recipes that appealed to me—I filled two large Post-its (a very good sign!). Latkes and kugel (lots of kugels), knishes, kreplach, challah, and even Montreal bagels—so many delightful dishes to make. Next, I’m looking forward to perusing (and “indexing”) In Bibi’s Kitchen, by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen, which has recipes and stories from eight African countries that border the Indian Ocean.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton. This is a book unlike any mystery I have ever read, and it totally sucked me in. Evelyn Hardcastle is going to die. And every day until Aiden Bishop, the protagonist, can identify her killer, she will die again. And every time the new day starts, Aiden wakes up in a different host (alternating among various guests and members of the household). Harper’s Bazaar called it a mix of Agatha Christie, Downtown Abbey, Quantum Leap, and a bit of Groundhog Day. At 458 pages, it should entertain you for several days.

Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify, by Carolyn Holbrook. I’m a little more than halfway through this book of essays by local author Carolyn Holbrook, and while I try not to recommend books until I’ve finished them, I’ll go out on a limb here. I have loved every essay I’ve read. It’s memoir as much as essay, and memoir seems to be another particularly good vehicle for me in the pandemic. We learn about Holbrook’s challenging life as a single mother (“challenging” being a serious understatement here), and how she still managed to graduate college and now teaches at Hamline University. The writing is intimate, and sometimes I feel like she’s opening the door and letting us see into her very soul. I like it especially for the local aspect—it literally brings the message home to me. I can’t say “That doesn’t happen here.” Because it did.

The Ninja Daughter, by Tori Eldridge. This is a fun escapist read, though I wouldn’t call it light, since a ninja is involved. Lily Wong is a Chinese-Norwegian-American living in LA. She has a secret (from her family) life as a ninja, helping women get out of desperate domestic violence situations. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was into the book until I was about to the halfway point, but once it started to roll, I was hooked. I didn’t even wait until the next day to order the sequel, The Ninja’s Blade, which I’m one-third through. I sure hope she writes a third one in the series. To add a bit of authenticity, the author is a Hawaiian-Chinese-Norwegian and a modern day ninja.

Land of Shadows, by Rachel Howzell Hall. This is the first in a series of four mysteries. This series is also set in Los Angeles (a fact I hadn’t noticed before writing this, which is a little odd, since I read them back-to-back). The protagonist here is Elouise (Lou) Norton, a female black homicide detective, paired with a somewhat naïve white male cop who just arrived in LA from Colorado Springs. In this first book, they are investigating a death that seems to be related to Lou’s sister’s disappearance 25 years earlier. I am waiting for the sequel, Skies of Ash, to arrive.

Night Flying Woman, by Ignatia Broker. I bought this book 30 years ago. I started it back then, but I set it down. It just didn’t appeal to me. Thirty years later, I wonder—what was wrong with me back then? This is the story of Ignatia Broker’s great-great grandmother, Ni-bo-wi-se-gwe, Night Flying Woman. Night Flying Woman is the dreamer. The dreamer has special dreams, that give signs of the future. Set during the 19th century, when various tribes were moved to reservations (in this case, White Earth Reservation), it’s a marvelous story of ingenuity, tradition, patience, adaptation, and endurance.

There are always more books, but this post is already long, and now I must go work on finishing all the books I currently have in progress. I like to start the new year with a clean slate.

Happy reading!

Winter Creature Comforts

This has been a tough year, and now we’re going into the darkest times, both literally, with our shortening days, and potentially, with the pandemic. I have been on high alert throughout COVID (my friends might suggest annoyingly so).

But I am not so concerned about going into these dark months. Staying inside in winter feels snuggly. Think hot apple cider and hot chocolate; stew simmering on the stove; a couch, a pillow, a quilt, a cat, and a good book.

Winter has always been hibernation season in Minnesota, except when we’re cross-country skiing, ice fishing, playing broomball, or snowshoeing. I don’t do any of those things. I mostly stay in and read, write, shovel the sidewalk, and go to the store as needed.

And therein lie winter’s creature comforts: As I sit at the table, reading and writing, a whole world is right on the other side of the window. Goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, and chickadees come to the birdfeeders. I especially love the chickadees—they always make me smile. And this year I’m lucky to have bunches of chickadees visiting the feeders (last year they were scarce).

I had a flock of robins (30-40?) visiting every morning (mostly the birdbath) through most of November. I hoped they would stay, and I’d have a winter robin flock, but no such luck. I do, however, have one singleton robin that is visiting the birdbath pretty much every morning.

A brand new visitor to my yard a couple of weeks ago: red-breasted nuthatch. I have seen these in northern Minnesota often, but they are rare this far south. But their food supply failed, and they have come south in search of—my feeder! I watched the bird cache seeds under the bark of the big tree next door. I hoped that meant it would stick around, but I haven’t seen it since.

Another fun visitor at the suet: pileated woodpecker. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a pileated in the yard, but it is the first time I’ve seen it at one of my feeders—one of those small cakes, maybe 5 x 5 inches. What is this big bird on this little bit of suet? At first I thought it was a crow. But—no! Such a fun mistake!

Also attracted to the suet (more often) are downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers. Occasionally I see a blue jay at the suet. But they prefer peanuts. Those blue jays—I thought I could train them to come for peanuts (not wanting to feed the squirrels that live in the walls of my house, no matter how many times they’re evicted). And I guess it worked, because they do come and call for peanuts, just like I envisioned, and then they come back and back and back, and yes, I see who has been trained here. Corvids—smart birds.

Birds aren’t the only animals of winter. The eastern gray squirrels always entertain, even when they’re scarfing down birdseed. I seem to have a crew of about five that visit my yard within about 20 minutes after I put out seed.

The other day I saw a much smaller squirrel wrapped around the suet. I wondered if it was a baby, and grabbed the binoculars—ahh, a red squirrel! Not uncommon, but uncommon to my yard. Only the third or so that I’ve seen in over a decade. They are so fast!

My most recent visitor was the opossum. I was heading to bed around midnight and looked out the window one last time. What is that white thing by the bird bath? Is it nothing? Is it moving? Binoculars—opossum! The second one I have seen in my life, and this one I got to watch for quite some time, as it drank and drank and drank (camel-possum?). Then it ambled up the sidewalk and out of sight.

Yes, of course I miss my friends. But we play the hand we’re dealt, and we’re dealt COVID. So I talk to my friends and write to my friends, and I look out the window.

Creature comforts. Stay safe.

What’s in a Word? November Reading Theme

What better in stressful times than books? The reading theme for November is Wild Card, which means it can be any theme you want. I chose one-word titles, primarily because I wanted to read Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, and I have a slew of other appealing one-word title nonfiction books.

Caste is excellent, which I expected, but slow, which I did not. I suppose I wanted it to be like The Warmth of Other Suns, which just swept me away, and I kept turning the pages. But Caste is altogether different, and I usually put the book down after one chapter. It’s like I need to let it sink in. It reminds me in that way of Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer), which took me over a year to read, but ended up being my favorite book of the year. Slow doesn’t always equal bad!

For those moments when I felt like reading nonfiction but Caste wasn’t the right fit, I recently picked up Trace, by Lauret Savoy. Subtitled Memory, History, Race, and The American Landscape, a blurb on the cover describes Trace as John McPhee meets James Baldwin. Who could resist that?

For fiction, I’m currently reading Origin, by Diana Abu-Jaber. I’ve read most of Abu-Jaber’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, and if you had to pick the one that didn’t belong, this is it. There is no Arabic theme (at least yet—I’m about halfway through) and it leans towards being a thriller. It is absolutely keeping my interest, but it’s not her typical fare. But who knows what will happen? There’s half a book to go and unknown parentage for our protagonist.

In the world of poetry, I’m just starting Asylum, by Quan Barry. I’ve finished two other books of poetry this month: Multitudes, by Afaa Michael Weaver; and Inland, by Pamela Alexander. I especially liked Inland, with its frequent immersion in the natural world.

I’ve finished one novel, Wool, by Hugh Howey. This is the first in a trilogy, but it stands on its own. Wool is set in a dystopian near future, where people live in underground silos. The writing is good and it’s very compelling, but I haven’t decided whether to read book #2. I can only take so much dystopia during a pandemic.

I mentioned lots of good nonfiction for this theme. A few standouts:

  • Native, by Kaitlin B. Curtice
  • Witches, Sam George-Allen
  • Onigamiising, Linda LeGarde Grover
  • Limber, Angela Pelster

There’s no shortage of fiction, either:

  • Snapper, Brian Kimberling
  • Temporary, Hilary Leichter
  • Hound, Vincent McCaffrey
  • Scoop, Evelyn Waugh

Of the four, I’m most leaning towards Temporary, although Scoop is such a nice package, it’s hard to resist. And Hound refers to a bookhound, so you know that has appeal. To further round things out, the protagonist in Snapper studies birds. Honestly, any one of these books could be next. But then maybe I’ll surprise myself, and pull something completely different off the shelf, like Timbuktu, by Paul Auster.

You just don’t know until you actually start reading.

Stay safe and read well!

Book Theme Pivot

My book-theme partner was called out of town last week on a family emergency. Things are under control, but it’s taking longer to resolve than she expected.

She’ll be there well into October, and she has no October theme books. In fact, her stash of books has dwindled to two: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew Sullivan; and Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

We had both been quite excited about our upcoming October theme, so rich, so much to choose from. But Sheila missing a good chunk of that fun was no fun. And I think we maybe said almost simultaneously—new theme?

After about a nanosecond of mulling the possibilities, we decided on M books: M titles, M authors, even an M word within the title (desperate times call for desperate measures).

My current herbal tome (started way before this) is Midwest Medicinal Plants, by Lisa M. Rose. A good sign, and double points for two Ms in the title!

Since I have a whole library to choose from, I’m focusing on M titles. (Oh, I just had a marvelously anal thought—M titles by M authors. Meh.)

I didn’t have to go far beyond my recent purchases and high-priority books to pull together a respectable pile that I’m quite excited about. In fiction:

  • Moshi Moshi, by Banana Yoshimoto. This will likely be my first fiction. I love Yoshimoto, plus, of course, two Ms in the title.
  • Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark. Another double M. Another favorite author.
  • Minaret, by Leila Aboulela, a new author to me.
  • Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan, also new to me.

In the land of nonfiction, a lovely motley crew:

  • Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, by Stephanie Land. I wanted to read this when it came out in hardcover, and I jumped on it when it came out in paperback. This will be my first nonfiction.
  • Motherhood So White, by Nefertiti Austin. This is definitely my second nonfiction read, since I didn’t even wait for it to come out in paperback.
  • Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward. I have put this off because it seems so painful, but I think it’s time.
  • The Marginalized Majority, by Onnesha Roychoudhuri. This book grabbed my attention browsing at a bookstore. That’s how I find most of my books, browsing bookstores. I think I miss that more than anything in this pandemic. I miss eating in restaurants, too; but bookstores are even more fulfilling—they nurture my soul, expand my mind, tickle my brain, and comfort me.

Support your local bookstore!

What I’m Reading Now

I’m reading a nice array of books right now, and every single one of them is good, which is a great place to be anytime, but especially in a pandemic.

Nobody has the same taste in books, but maybe some of my good books will be good books for you, or springboards to better books.

I’ll start with the books I’m reading for this month’s theme—Time of Day. My fiction book is The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng. It might be a bit risky to call this good, as I’m only 23 pages in, but it gives me goosebumps (in a good way). After World War II, a survivor of a Japanese wartime camp seeks solace in building a garden in memory of her sister. She works with a Japanese gardener, who takes her on as an apprentice. Good writing, and a story I think I am going to fall right into.

It’s unusual for me, but I’m reading two poetry books right now. I started the theme with Almost Dark, by Richard Terrill, a local poet. I’ve read him before and liked him a lot. I am not far into this book, but I loved the first poem (it got 2 stars, which is as high as it gets; poems I love get a star, and poems that knock my socks off get 2 stars). Starting out a book of poetry with 2 stars is pretty good. The next poem got a star too. I have quite high hopes for this book.

Nonetheless, when Sheila mentioned she’s planning to read A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver, I couldn’t stop myself from rereading it. I’m finding the most interesting thing. The star system (mentioned above)—I’ve done that for many years. These are light stars in pencil, in the table of contents. As I’m reading A Thousand Mornings this time, I find I’m enjoying almost all the poems I didn’t star last time, and passing over those I most loved the first time I read it. How fun is that?

My nonfiction book is Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative, by Ignatia Broker. I’m nearly halfway through and am loving this book. Published by the Minnesota Historical Press, I got this book 30 years ago. Finally I am getting around to reading it. Some books take their time.

I also have a few books outside the theme reading that cross over months:

My current herb-study book is, Plants Have So Much To Give Us, All We Have To Do Is Ask, by Mary Siisip Geniusz. This is a book of Anishinaabe botanical teachings that includes a large section on medicinal herbs. I was excited to note that Night Flying Woman is also Anishinaabe, and they both have glossaries. I’ve been comparing the words, taking into account they are in different clans. I can’t help myself, I love plants and words equally.

Everybody seems to be reading a race book right now, and the one I’ve been avoiding is White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo. I told myself I was avoiding it because it’s by a white author, and I’d rather learn about race from a person of color. But this particular book is telling me the things that nobody told me in the numerous diversity trainings I attended throughout the years. DiAngelo specializes in educating progressive white liberals (like me) and makes points I have never considered before:

There can be racism without racists. This is a really key point, and it underlies systemic racism.

Becoming defensive or angry when someone suggests you’ve acted in a racist manner is itself racist. This took me a while to figure out, probably because I’m white. This was a huge learning for me. Why is it racist? It shuts down the conversation. It changes it from being about the racist behavior to being about me, the white person, and how I’m being misunderstood.

I am so completely unaware of my white privilege. I feel like I can walk down any street I want. I never worry about traveling in rural areas. I am always given the benefit of the doubt. And I assume that, everywhere. And I have only just realized that this is white privilege.

On a completely different note, my last book is Ocean Anatomy, by Julia Rothman. This is a most gorgeous, fun, informative book. I’m only at page 30 and I’m loving it. I had thought that maybe I would cram this into last month’s book theme (earth), but no. This is a book that you want to take the time to appreciate. Gorgeous artwork, and fit for kids and adults. She has three previous anatomies: Farm Anatomy (my favorite), Food Anatomy, and Nature Anatomy.

Life is good when you have a pocketful of books.

Book Themes: Goodbye August, Hello September

Before the month completely slips by, let me report on the August book theme. The theme for August was Earth/World, as in our planet, so also ground, dirt, ocean…. Oh crap! I could have read Ocean Anatomy, by Julia Rothman. Why didn’t I think of that earlier? Oceans cover more of earth than land does, and yet it did not occur until I was here at the keyboard writing about earth.

These are the books I read for the theme (in order of reading)

  • The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, Wolfe Swain (fiction)
  • The World Book, Steven Cramer (poetry)
  • Turning Over the Earth, Ralph Black (poetry)
  • Earth, Mercy, Mary Rose O’Reilley (poetry)
  • The Gaia Websters, Kim Antieau (SF/fantasy)
  • Poem Rising Out of the Earth, James Grabill (poetry)
  • Erosion, Terry Tempest Williams (nonfiction)
  • Coming Back to the World, Lisa Ann Berg (poetry)

A lot of poetry, I know, but it was a good theme for poetry. It was also really good for nonfiction, but Erosion, by Terry Tempest Williams, is a very good read, and it was also a book that took its time. It was my favorite book of the month, along with the poetry book, Turning Over the Earth.

I would only have read four poetry books this month, except I lost the first one, the one I most wanted to read. I remembered I had taken it off the shelf to be my next poetry book, and then I could not find where I put it. I looked in all the usual places, and plenty of unusual places. I was sure I would find it in the basement from the night of the tornado warning, but the table was bare. That was the last place I could think of. Until I was writing a friend a card. I wrote that I remember taking it off the bookshelf, and in my head, the next words were “and taking it downstairs.” And I stopped. Did I remember taking it downstairs? I remember putting it on the bed. I had looked behind the bed, but I had not thought to look under the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. Eureka! What was lost has been found! That was the last book of poetry I read this month. After all that searching, I had to read it.

My mind is already turning to the September theme, time of day. Think morning, twilight, evening, the gloaming, midnight, noon, etc. We agreed that “night” is also a time of day, since it is clearly not day. And then we further agreed that if “night” was allowed, “day” should also count (although I will try to avoid that if I can; but it’s nice to have these allowances). I have a fairly good selection to choose from:

I’ll start with poetry, as it’s closest:

  • After Dark, Richard Terrill
  • Mornings Like This, Annie Dillard
  • Six O’Clock Mine Report, Irene McKinney
  • Ninety-Five Nights of Listening, Malinda Markham
  • Into the Early Hours, Aislinn Hunter

For nonfiction:

  • Night Flying Woman, Ignatia Broker (I will start with this)
  • The Wolf at Twilight, Kent Nerburn
  • Perfection of the Morning, Sharon Butala
  • Bingo Night at the Fire Hall, Barbara Holland


  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng
  • Midnight Robber, Nalo Hopkinson
  • Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue (a bit of a stretch, but I really want to read it)
  • Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew Sullivan
  • What Night Brings, Carla Trujillo
  • The Night Watch, Sarah Waters

In August, nonfiction was rich, while fiction was skimpy. For September the reverse is true—I want to read every one of those fiction books.

So I look back on August fondly, wishing I had gotten to more of the nonfiction books, while I eagerly look forward to a raft of interesting fiction in the coming month.

Happy reading!

The Songs of Summer

I heard my first cicada of the summer the other day. It seems late—maybe it’s the first cicada I actually paid attention to. Or maybe it is the first cicada I’ve heard.

I’ve been spending more time listening to crickets these days. The other night I was writing at my little blue table (with the window open) and I heard three different kinds of crickets. Really? I had never noticed that before—different cricket calls. It had always simply been the cricket chorus. But that night, there were three distinct calls: one like the cricket I always think of, one like sleigh bells, and one like a car horn (I thought it WAS a car horn at first, but it didn’t have the mechanical rhythm; this would not be a big car, it would be a subcompact car horn cricket).

I have determined I heard field crickets (the common cricket sound), and snowy tree crickets as well as two-spotted tree crickets (sleigh bells). I haven’t found the car horn yet. This has been a fun diversion in the pandemic. I am appreciating nature all the more, even while my exposure is less (mostly my yard).

Recently the goldfinches have been unbelievably vocal. My neighbor has a large sunflower patch just on the other side of the fence. I think they might be thanking him.

House wrens have also been vocal of late. These are vigorous singers. Unfailing, you might call them. Their unceasing song can get monotonous, but it is the monotony of a summer hammock. Being adaptable, it also harmonizes with the lawn mower. Such a lovely little bird.

Catbird is also a vocal summer visitor. I love these gray birds with their cocky tail and sound of cat. They are also mimic birds, so in addition to cat, they make a variety of other sounds, depending on what they’ve heard.

House finches also have a strong summer song. It’s one of the few bird songs I can sing in my head because I watched a house finch singing for so long one day; I was enchanted. Maybe I got imprinted.

The robins have been here all summer, with their early morning wake-up call since May. They are joined by the cardinals, year-round residents (though about 10% of robins overwinter), in the “did-you-really-want-to-sleep-past-4:30?” chorus. I do love birds, but less so at 4:30 in the morning.

Another song of summer: the lawnmower. I will admit to loving the sound of a neighbor a few doors down mowing the lawn. And the smell—the smell of that fresh-mown grass is the quintessential summer scent.

The songs and smells of summer. Fill your senses while you can.

Culling Cookbooks

Cookbook culling can be challenging. You have to be in the right mood of course, and it helps if you have a lot of time. The one thing the pandemic has given me is plenty of time, so when the mood to cull struck, I dove right in.

It started with the church basement ladies cookbooks. I needed a bit more room on the bookshelf, and I wanted it right away. In these situations, one picks the low-hanging fruit. I have a lot of church basement ladies cookbooks. Some I got from my mom, a couple were gifts, some I got at garage sales and such, plus I think they multiply on their own. I easily found seven to part with (one of my mom’s I kept because she had written a lot of comments in it, and it makes me smile), and I had the space I needed. Mission accomplished.

Oh, but it felt so good. What about all those apple cookbooks? Do I really need four apple cookbooks when I have a favorite I use all the time? (I decided not—the one will do me fine.) At this point, I decided to be methodical, going left to right on semi-organized shelves.

Start with easy: My Moosewood cookbooks and similar ilk. As expected, I kept most of these, although I did get rid of one Moosewood book about fancy vegetable sides, and another (non-Moosewood) book that was beautiful but contained recipes that I was pretty sure I’d never make.

Then came grains, which are such basic building blocks, I kept four of my cookbooks. Beans, my favorite building block, fared even better—I kept all seven. Beans—there are so many things you can do with beans!

Two of three soup cookbooks got culled, because I realize I almost never get soup recipes from soup cookbooks. I get them from all my other cookbooks. But it seemed prudent to retain one soup book.

I surprised myself on the potato cookbooks—I was sure I would keep the fat one with a lot of recipes and eschew the much thinner book with perhaps a tenth of the recipes. Wrong. The short book had far fewer recipes, but it had several I wanted to make. The bigger book—not even one!

If it sounds to you like I went through each book page by page, indeed I did, with the intent of “indexing” them. This is something I do with most of my new (to me, though they are more often used than new) cookbooks—I go through and make note of all the recipes I want to make, and I put them on a big (or smaller, depending) sticky inside the back cover. This is a great short cut. It isn’t foolproof, because preferences change over time, but it’s also fun to do—nice bonus.

In the course of culling my cookbooks, I’ve found several unindexed books. They go in a separate section on the bookshelf. This is also part of the culling process, but the mood to index a book is different from that to cull, so it goes in a stack and the culling goes on. Later in the evening, I will index a book or two.

Here’s a book I’m looking forward to indexing: The Victory Garden Cookbook. I have several vegetable cookbooks (just getting to these) and can you imagine a better time of year to be looking at vegetable cookbooks?

There is so much fun in this project: I’m making space on my bookshelf, reducing clutter, passing along some really good cookbooks to others and maybe getting some store credit at one of our local used bookstores into the bargain. (Independent bookstores offer much better prices than Half Price Books, and cookbooks are often in demand. I always take my cookbooks to local indies.)

I’m also getting excited about cooking again. I generally don’t like cooking in the summer because I’m a heat wimp, and each summer, I fear I’ll never want to cook again. But already I am longing to cook. The other day my neighbor said her green beans are coming in, would we like some? It took me a few minutes, but I found the recipe for minestrone casserole (think thick minestrone soup) done in a slow cooker.

Green beans? Yes, please!