May-June Book Themes

May has gotten away from me, as it often does. So much going on, what with spring and all. For most of May I’m either outside or looking outside unless it’s raining or nighttime. You just never know when an ovenbird might show up in your yard. (It’s been back twice since. Maybe it will nest!)

Back to books. The May theme is architectural elements. So far I have read a staircase, a kingdom (perhaps a stretch), medicine chest, bridge, and fountain. In process are a picture window, stairway, and corridor. May is not one of my stronger reading months. I just don’t care so much about books. The birds are migrating, the catnip is coming up, the cactus is singing. I may still love books, but I can’t seem to focus on them.

June gets a little more down to earth. Still plenty to see and discover, but a bit more time for books as well. The theme for June is “green.” This includes any book with the word “green” in the title, and also green things (e.g., grass, trees, plants, parks, leaves, salads, envy).

I’ve not yet done a scouring of the shelves. Even so, I’ve likely found more than I can read. So far for fiction:

  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
  • Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas
  • Murder on Sagebrush Lane, Patricia Smith Wood
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

For nonfiction:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, Gayla Marty
  • The Green Boat, Mary Pipher
  • Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (a bit iffy on direct theme fit, but the greenest book of them all, and I really want to read it, subtitled: “The ecological crisis through the lens of faith.”)

Poetry often adds fun variations on the theme:

  • Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer
  • Green Soldiers, John Bensko
  • Nettles, Betty Adcock
  • Flower Wreath Hill, Kenneth Rexroth
  • Now the Green Blade Rises, Elizabeth Spires
  • You Speak to Me in Trees, Elana Wolff
  • The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri

With luck I will read five or six of these. You just never know what you’ll be in the mood for. And I’ll probably find half as many again before June even starts!

Happy reading to you, and happy summer as well!

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Black History Month Reading: Coda

Last February, I decided to focus on black writers to honor Black History Month. I wondered if an immersive reading experience would have any kind of long-term impact. What might I learn?

Here’s what I read (in order, because I think that matters):

  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly (nonfiction, quite different from the movie but equally excellent)
  • On the Bus With Rosa Parks, Rita Dove (poetry, loved this)
  • The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon (YA, I loved loved this book which I read in one day, which was really cool because it takes place over the course of one day)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson (nonfiction, I learned huge amounts from this book—much of it about myself)
  • Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums, Sonia Sanchez (poetry)
  • Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Vashti Harrison (children’s nonfiction, 40 black women—many I knew, but some not—I learned quite a bit!)
  • Morning Haiku, Sonia Sanchez (poetry)
  • Sula, Toni Morrison (fiction; I generally find Morrison’s fiction difficult. I expect she rewards rereading)
  • In Montgomery, Gwendolyn Brooks (poetry)

One thing I noticed as February progressed is the more I read, the more my interest in black literature increased. Since February I have read:

  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith (memoir)
  • We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (nonfiction; this is the first of her books I’ve read. I have Americanah on the to-read shelf)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (fantasy, first in a trilogy; I got books 2 and 3 before I finished—but after I started, so that should tell you something. I think I might have to read all of her books.)
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (fiction)

This last (The Underground Railroad) is still in process, but I felt compelled to include it because there seems to be a slight skew to books by women. Although I do want to say that overall, I believe women do a better job of including and representing men in their work (fiction and nonfiction) than men do of including and representing women. This is to be expected, as women have learned to navigate this world that is mostly run by men.

I find a parallel in black literature: Black people do a better job of including and representing white people in their work than white people do including and representing black people. I learn a lot about white people from black people. Not so much the other way around. Black people have learned to navigate this world that is mostly run by white people.

People tell their story and the story of the people that dominate them.

Here is a big thing I learned from my immersion reading: The experiences I have as a woman experiencing discrimination in a man’s world are very different from the experiences of black people navigating a white world. I used to think it was similar. But there have been many times in my life when I have been in mixed male-female company and not felt like I had to keep my guard up at all. This is not so much the case with black people, because you just never know when someone might say something nasty. Always ready, just in case the insult comes. Because it does.

Another thing I learned was the importance of stereotypes. It is so easy—practically default—to go down the stereotype road. As I walk down the street towards three black men, do I think shy musical students? Well, no, not usually. But I did find after a month of intensive reading, I was looking at black people completely differently. I mentioned this to my librarian friend, and she suggested that all this reading has made black people more three-dimensional to me. It’s true. Through books I’ve met black scientists, physicists, computer programmers, immigrants, comedians, artists, and U.S. poet laureates.

Up next: Finishing Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and then getting back to the N.K. Jemisin trilogy. Lots of nonfiction to consider, but for now that will remain a tantalizing possibility.

Post-Blizzard Birding

Last night when I went to bed, I had seen 31 bird species so far this year (including wild turkey and great egret just yesterday). Most (60%) I have seen from my house or yard and nearly all the rest have been spotted while driving (mostly to visit my mom).

(Reminder: We had a blizzard here last week that gave us 20 inches of snow. I’m pretty sure I was shoveling at this time one week ago.)

Today, I added 39 new birds to my year list.

That just sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? But not so much if you’ve been socked in by winter for far too long, and the birds were having none of it.

Our first stop was a marsh that I was sure would be all open water with our current temperatures in the 60s. Shocked we were to see it frozen as we approached, and we nearly turned around. Oh, let’s check it out. And so we did.

Not completely frozen over; open water around the edges. We see red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, coots, pied-billed grebe, ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, wood duck, bufflehead, and lesser scaup. Also flying around: barn swallows, tree swallows, and at least one northern rough-winged swallow. Horned lark, song sparrow, killdeer, eastern bluebirds, northern flickers, brown-headed cowbirds and one ring-necked pheasant. We were glad we didn’t turn around.

And while we were already exceptionally pleased with our birding morning, we continued on to a nearby lake. Who knows? And our luck continued: white pelicans, Bonaparte’s gulls, hooded mergansers, red-breasted merganser, horned grebe, ruddy ducks, green-winged teal, and common goldeneye. In the trees and surrounding area: western meadowlark, mourning dove, yellow-rumped warbler, eastern phoebe, and gray catbird (heard only, but there’s no mistaking that sound; they are a frequent backyard bird here).

We leave the lake—sated with birds and craving food. Moseying down the road, we flush a bird from a shrub near the road. This is not a shape I see often. I watch—this familiar not familiar sight—American woodcock! A life bird for me, completely and totally unexpected.

A week ago I was shoveling out from a blizzard. Today I added 39 birds to my year list.

I love Minnesota.

The Art of Rereading

I’m rereading Jeanette Winterson’s Art [Objects] to discuss in a couple of days with my friend Sheila. We discussed this book when we read it many years ago. We both loved it then, and were curious as to whether we’d each feel the same on the reread.

One thing has not changed for me: This book makes me think. And while the first time it seems we primarily discussed the book as a whole, this time I am wanting to discuss very specific things, often just one sentence. These are not necessarily things I disagree with, but they all made me stop and ponder. What do I think about this? And then: I’d like to talk to someone about this. Examples:

It seems to me that the intersection between a writer’s life and a writer’s work is irrelevant to the reader. (p. 26)

Years ago I was in a book club and someone suggested reading Michael Dorris’s book, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. (The author at the time was being accused of abusing his daughters.) One member of the club (a librarian) was appalled at the suggestion and refused to read the book. Another (who majored in literature) was shocked that the librarian (a librarian!) would refuse a book based on the actions of its author. Is the intersection between a writer’s life and their work relevant? Ever? Always?

[S]peech patterns, and therefore thought patterns and patterns of feeling were rapidly changing. (p. 39)

Do speech patterns affect thought patterns? My knee jerk was “no way,” but I had only to think of derogatory terms to realize that speech patterns certainly enforce thought patterns. So they likely change them as well. Interesting concept and worth some deeper thought.

To be truthful, there are whole sections of Dickens that should never have been written, therefore they should never be read. (p. 89)

This one kind of blew me out of the water. (Confession: I’ve not read much Dickens, only Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol.) Perhaps Winterson’s comment is obviously true to everyone who has read a lot of Dickens. But my first thought was, What if Winterson’s whole sections that should never be read would happen to be my favorite? What is the role of truth here? Whose truth?

There is plenty of escapism and diversion to be had, but it cannot be had from real books, real pictures, real music, real theatre. (p. 111)

This gave me pause. The Lord of the Rings provides plenty of escapism and diversion, and I most definitely consider it a real book. If you can read a book over and over again, and each time learn something new, I consider this a real book. I’m not sure I learn something new every time I reread Charlotte’s Web, but I always relearn the importance of compassion. And Charlotte’s Web is absolutely a real book, even while I escape into a farmyard every time I read it. Even Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an escape, and one of the best if you’re holed up during a cold and icy winter. I am guessing Winterson and I have different definitions of “escapism.” To me, escapism is diving into a book and leaving all your cares behind—work worries, the bills, chores, upcoming blizzard—instead you enter a different world in a book. And of course in my definition, Winterson’s books themselves are escapism, because they inevitably introduce new worlds to me. Hence I suspect Winterson has a somewhat different definition.

On a lighter note, I am often upended by Winterson in my own ignorance in matters of literature and history. Example:

We all know the story of Coleridge and the Man from Porlock. (p. 62)

Man from Porlock? Does everyone know about the man except me?

And then on page 91, she quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf, and goes on to say it is “impossible to read the above and not think of Cleopatra” at which point I burst out laughing, because not only had I not thought of Cleopatra, even thinking of Cleopatra while rereading the passage, I found it a stretch to think it impossible not to think of Cleopatra since I found it such a stretch to think of Cleopatra even while trying to think of Cleopatra while re-rereading the passage.

Is this book worth a reread? Absolutely yes. I’ve still 40 pages to go, and I expect it will keep me thinking.

April Reading: Objects and Things

This month’s book theme is objects and things, which mostly means books with either the word “object” or “thing” in the title. As I was perusing my shelves, it seemed that “it” was often interchangeable with “object” or “thing,” so I added “it” to my mental list. And it didn’t take long for me to consider rereading It, by Stephen King. I loved it when I read it 25 years ago or so. Would it hold up?

I have just reached page 1000 (153 more to go). Sometimes you need to take a break. I’ve spent much of the afternoon reading King, and believe me, once I finish this post I’ll be right back to It, fully planning to finish tonight. I’m reminded of why I loved it so much the first time: While it is a horror novel, at its heart it’s a story about friendship and love and trust. With maybe a dash of faith.

I’ve got two poetry books going, The Plural of Some Things, by Desi Di Nardo; and One Secret Thing, by Sharon Olds. I’m liking the Olds in particular, but I’m also feeling like reading it slowly (often a good sign with poetry). A couple more poetry books that I’m looking forward to this month: Things and Flesh, by Linda Gregg; and Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney.

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve finished Rich People Things, by Chris Lehmann, which I didn’t care for at all. I had expected whimsical essays on economics and social issues, but what I got was economic pedantics at its most deadly boring. Economics can be fun and interesting. Really! This, however, would not be a good example.

I’ve followed Rich People Things up with Objects of Our Desire, by Salman Akhtar. Early days, yet, just a quarter through, but so far I’m liking it. In this first part, he’s talked about clutter versus collections, why people collect, and what people collect. (Lots of people collect things. I collect bookmarks from independent bookstores, and it is fun reading Objects of Our Desire through the lens of that collection.) I’m not sure what I’ll read after this one. Maybe Nothing (Nica Lalli).

There are a few fiction books I’m looking forward to after It: An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (a novel about the art world that includes beautiful color reproductions—an intriguing and beautiful book); Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, by Katharine Weber (I loved her novel The Music Lesson, but never read beyond that and I don’t know why); and Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection (I’ve read at least one of his books and enjoyed it, and this is his first).

Last month’s theme was women (in any way, shape or form), in honor of Women’s History Month. I read a girl, a pastrix, female, geek feminist, she, Temperance Dare (local author Wendy Webb), sisters, and a mother. My favorite book of the month was Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It stretches your ideas of Christianity, this tattooed female priest, this pastrix. The love just pours out of the book. A different kind of Christianity than what I experienced growing up. I will definitely seek out more of her books.

Now I’ll return to Stephen King. A battle awaits me.

March Books

I’ve barely searched my shelves and already have more potentials for the March reading theme than I can possibly get to. Topping the list in fiction:

  • Fishing with RayAnne, Ava Finch
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  • Woman in the Dark, Dashiell Hammett
  • Huntress, Malinda Lo
  • The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
  • Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, Elizabeth Jolley
  • The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa
  • The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
  • The Mistress, Phillipe Tapon
  • Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen

Mind you, this was without searching my shelves. These are books that practically fell into my hands while I was perusing my shelves for other purposes.

Aside: I believe I spend more time perusing my bookshelves than most people spend cooking. (That could be a seriously weird comment about me, or a comment about how much time the average person spends actually cooking these days.)

I’m guessing the March theme is fairly obvious from the above list, but in case not, here are the books that have jumped off the nonfiction shelves (again, no perusal required):

  • The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit
  • The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
  • Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
  • Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
  • Janesville, Amy Goldstein

And poetry contenders include:

  • She Says, Venus Khoury-Ghata
  • The Sisters, Josephine Jacobsen
  • The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • The Moon Is Always Female, Marge Piercy

Yes, the theme is women, timed to Women’s History Month. All things female count (including pronouns). My personal favorite is Pastrix (“A term of insult used by unimaginative sections of the church to define female pastors”). A female Lutheran pastor with tattoos. Lots of tattoos. This book will appeal to lovers of Anne Lamott.

This a great theme month. So many possibilities! Already I want to do it again. But also, I want to do a reading theme of the male variety. Again, books leap off the shelf and I’m still sitting at the computer: Maurice, Invisible Man, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, The Men We Reaped, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Angry White Men, Sons and Lovers. Lots of potential. I am working on being more bipartisan in many aspects of life. Books included.

The official reading theme for February was Day/Month/Season. I read only one book for the theme (a new and extreme low), but it was a good one: In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming—a mystery (first in the series) that has a female priest working (kind of) with the chief of police. I’m definitely intrigued enough to read the next one. What I find most compelling here is that the author goes into issues beyond the typical mystery genre. It puts me in mind of Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries, which are good purely as mysteries, but also seem spiritual in some way that is difficult to articulate.

But mostly in February I read Black History Month. It was an excellent experience of immersive reading, which I’m still processing a bit (and plus I went over into March and have only recently finished Tracy K. Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light). More on that soon.

Good books to you, happy reading, and please do let me know of excellent books that you run across.