April Told in Books*

Books Bought:

  • Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
  • The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah
  • Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich (local)
  • The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd
  • In a Midnight Wood, Ellen Hart (local)
  • Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past, Diane Wilson (local)
  • Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Miracle Creek, Angie Kim

Books Read:

  • Keeping Time, Stacey McGlynn
  • Something Shining, Daniel Halpern
  • Becoming Animal, David Abram
  • Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Belongings, Sandra M. Gilbert
  • The Talking Revolution, Peter Osborn and Eddy Canfor-Dumas
  • Flying Inland, Kathleen Spivack
  • A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
  • Writing Wild, Kathryn Aalto
  • Southern Folk Medicine, Phyllis Light
  • A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines

The books I bought in April stand out in a few ways: They are all by women. That is not so very uncommon for me, as I do read a lot more women than men, but a clean sweep is a bit notable. Also, there’s a lot of genre fiction in there—overrepresentative of my usual reading, but not at all far afield as I struggle through the (hopefully) waning days of the pandemic. Mysteries and thrillers have been especially appealing, as well as the occasional dystopia.

Most notably, it’s really short on nonfiction. I think that’s where bookstores come into play. Prepandemic, I bought nearly all my books at independent bookstores (we are blessed here in the Twin Cities), where I could peruse a variety of excellently curated selections. Sure, I check out the fiction tables, but I spend the most time checking out nonfiction. (The one exception here might be Moon Palace Books, which has an amazingly diverse selection of displayed fiction, both in terms of race and genre. And gender. Sexual orientation too. And probably anything I forgot.)

As for the books I read, the standout of the bunch was Southern Folk Medicine. I was expecting a typical herbal book (I read a lot of them) which describes ways to make herbal medicines, and then profiles herbs specific to the region. I thought maybe I would learn some quirky practices (I am not averse to trying quirky, because sometimes—perhaps often—quirky works). But this book blew my expectations out of the water. It’s more like Traditional Chinese Medicine than most of the herbal books I’ve read, with a strong Indigenous influence as well. I keep thinking about it and haven’t started another herb book yet.

A Lesson Before Dying was also excellent. If you missed this when Oprah picked it all those years ago, I can tell you, it has not lost its punch. What an emotionally mixed book.

If you can’t handle serious these days (I know that feeling), consider Keeping Time. This is a great story about an older woman resisting being put in senior living, and flying to New York to return a watch that she received from her lover in World War II. I feel there are not enough enjoyable books about old people.

The Talking Revolution is also a book worth reading. It’s all about improving conversation, and it goes through a number of good steps that I found helpful. Perhaps the most valuable part of all is the piece up front about underlying values. I kind of pooh poohed this at the beginning, but I surprised myself in realizing it was my biggest takeaway from the book. Values affect perception.

This was my third reading of A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver. In poetry, I star the poems I like best in the table of contents. The second time I read the book, I star at the other end. The third time, I am just amazed at how I love this book in such different ways over the years.

Happy reading to you!

*This format is based on Nicky Hornby’s books, most especially The Polysyllabic Spree.

The Engaging and Entertaining April Reading Theme

The April reading theme is books with “ing” in the title. This is such a fun and vast theme that I have already suggested to Sheila that we expand it through May. I have hopes that she will agree, as she was the one who originally suggested it, although perhaps in jest. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind, especially when I walk past my “-ing” stacks.

I’ve finished two books so far. I absolutely loved Keeping Time, by Stacey McGlynn. It’s a novel about a 77-year-old British woman who travels to New York to return a watch to a soldier she met in World War II. A warm, charming, cross-generational tale that captured my heart. The other finished book is Something Shining, poetry by Daniel Halpern. This volume did not speak to me in general, but two poems sparkled all over the pages; they alone made the book worth both the time and the money. A perfect poem is like a little piece of magic.

I’m currently halfway through Being Animal, by David Abram; and a little more than half through The Talking Revolution, by Peter Osborn and Eddy Canfor-Dumas (both nonfiction). Being Animal is about getting in touch with nature, but it’s much more than that. It’s becoming one with nature—realizing that we, too, are of the world. The Talking Revolution is about conversation, and how to listen to learn and understand. It also addresses challenging people (which I’m just getting into) but not in an aggressive way. It’s fascinating, and I’m looking forward to implementing it.

I’ve selected but not yet started my next fiction and poetry books. Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a postapocalyptic novel wherein the gods and heroes of legend return to the Navajo reservation. My new poetry book is Belongings, by Sandra M. Gilbert. I’ve read one of her other poetry books, Emily’s Bread, nearly a decade ago, and look forward to meeting her again.

Nonfiction is especially rich in this theme. I’ve already decided my next two books: Being the Change, by Peter Kalmus; and Writing Wild, by Kathryn Aalto. Being the Change is about climate change, and living in a new way that directly addresses it. Writing Wild, subtitled “Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World,” is a charmer of a book, celebrating 25 women with strong ties to nature. Some of my favorites include Terry Tempest Williams, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Mary Oliver, Diane Ackerman, Rebecca Solnit, and Lauret Savoy.

But there is so much competition! To wit:

  • Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
  • Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen
  • Onigamiising, Linda LeGarde Grover
  • The Singing Wilderness, Sigurd F. Olson
  • Living By the Word, Alice Walker
  • Becoming Human, Jean Vanier
  • Trying to be Human, Cheri Huber
  • Yearning, bell hooks
  • Transforming Power, Judy Rebick
  • The Joy of Missing Out, Christina Crook

And that isn’t even all of them; just all I could haul to the computer at once!

There’s lots of fiction too. It just isn’t bowling me over quite so much as the nonfiction. Still, plenty to entice:

  • Walking to Mercury, Starhawk
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
  • Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde
  • Aiding and Abetting, Muriel Spark
  • Eating Heaven, Jennie Shortridge
  • Something Rising, Haven Kimmel
  • Mapping the Edge, Sarah Dunant
  • The Waking Land, Callie Bates

Again, not all of them, merely an armful. There are as many or more poetry books, but you begin to see the picture—lots of “-ing” going around!

Last month’s reading theme—women—was also a winner. I read a bride, an abbess, witches, daughters-in-law, two women, a wench, a queen, two mothers, one girl, and one sister. March was heavy on fiction and poetry. My two favorite books: Daughters-in-Law, by Joanna Trollope (which I would call light fiction) and Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson (fantasy).

Happy reading!

Postdemic

I hesitate to put the cart in front of the horse, but I have become hopeful enough to write about post-pandemic plans. Almost all my friends are vaccinated, and while I’m feeling the big “will it ever be my turn” thing, it clearly will be coming, and every time I turn around, the timeline improves. A good trend.

Because I am a list-maker, I started a list of things I wanted to do postdemic fairly early. The first thing I put on the list was go to Electric Fetus with Nancy to try on hats, and if we find hats we like, actually buy them (my treat). I love hats and always have, but never wear them (except winter, of course) because they aren’t in style. But I’ve decided I don’t care, and if I find a hat I like I’m going to get it and wear it (except in the winter, as I have plenty of winter hats). Where did this come from? Last December we two went to the Fetus for candles and incense, and got distracted by hats, and had a grand time trying them on. A very nice selection of hats for a store that’s mostly about music.

Over the course of (outdoors socially distanced) games this summer, I learned a friend had never tried latkes. So that’s another plan—Cecil’s Deli for latkes (the best in the Twin Cities that I’ve found so far, and good pastrami sandwiches to boot).

I have several things I want to do with my niece, some planned prior to the pandemic: Meet for pizza near her place of work; bring a ton of flowers to her house where she can teach me flower arranging; and go to the arboretum at St. John’s University.

The Delano drive-in—Peppermint Twist—made the list in early summer. We always stop there on the way back from visiting my hometown, but I haven’t visited since the pandemic. They have really good shrimpburgers. Also in the dining realm, I want to go to a brunch with bottomless mimosas.

There are a few things I want to get, mostly cooking related: small fry pan, 8×8 pan (I wrecked the one I had), an oven thermometer with dark enough/big enough numbers that I can actually read it in the oven; also, a pokey thermometer, for meats and such.

I’ve also realized a new patio table and chairs are in order, as I sink in the chair such that the table is at neck level, and the table itself is a chipping wobbly mess. I’m trying to think of a use for the round glass top. Any ideas?

Unrelated to anything, I also want to get Merrill tennis shoes. Not for tennis. I had never heard of this brand, but three good friends in the last year bought these shoes and love them. I have to at least check them out, because I am always looking for a comfortable shoe and I need new tennies.

I am looking forward to board games and games days and cribbage. To birding when we can stand together instead of 6 feet apart and trying to point to whatever are you looking at?

A completely new thing for me postdemic is that I want to get tickets to a Lynx game, because I’ve developed a huge interest in the Minnesota professional women’s basketball team during the pandemic. I’m not a sports person, and pre-pandemic, I always tossed the sports section of the newspaper (yes, I still read the hard copy) aside. But during the pandemic, something on the front page caught my eye. And after all, what DO sports pages write about when all of a sudden there are no sports happening?

An article about the balance of power between owners and players. The ratio of white coaches to black athletes. The rights and safety of college athletes in the pandemic. All of a sudden, I found the sports pages interesting.

One of the things that interested me most was the Lynx. I was first attracted to them because of all the work they’ve done for social justice. But as I kept reading, I started liking them as a basketball team. I like the way they work together and respect each other. To me, it is a dream team, and I can’t wait to see them play. I may even get some sort of ticket package. But, first game first.

Most of all, I’m looking forward to being with my friends. I’m not a touchy-feely person in general, but people are not meant to be so isolated. Hugs all around.

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.

Fiction:

  • 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.