The Pleasures and Follies of Reading Themes

The reading theme for January is “year.” (Reading theme: I’m doing this with my friend Sheila—we’ve identified themes for each month of the year. Mostly that means the theme word is in the title of a book, but sometimes we get more creative.)

I have just finished The Checkered Years: A Bonanza Farm Diary 1884-88, by Mary Dodge Woodward. Sometimes I like diaries and sometimes not, and this one I loved. I read a year a day, from 1884 to 1888, the lives of this family—she a widow—in the Dakota Territory (eight miles from Fargo). I can’t imagine such a life (except this book has now helped me experience it in some small way): “I baked seventeen loaves of bread today, making seventy-four loaves since last Sunday, not to mention twenty-one pies, and puddings, cakes, and doughnuts.” That’s just the baking of course. There’s also the cooking, the washing, the garden, the sewing, the chickens….

As a Minnesotan, I fancy myself acquainted with snow and blizzards, but winter on the prairie in Dakota Territory in the 1880s makes my Minneapolis winter seem like Florida.

I do not think people anywhere else guard against cold as they do here. I doubt if they wear three pairs of drawers, a buffalo coat over a cloth coat, a fur cap, a mask, and arctics over two or three pairs of socks and a pair of shoes.

January 12, 1888. 42 degrees below zero:

I doubt if there is a poet living who possesses vim enough to write a poem about a Dakota storm. I guess a blizzard would knock all the poetry out of a man. There is no romance about this country.”

But despite the brutal winter, Woodward sees beauty all around, on the same day: “Today a Jack rabbit came very near the house. He looked beautiful, as large as a dog and snow white. I beg the boys not to shoot them and then, in summer they eat my vegetables.”

Possibly most fascinating is the mention of several mirages, most commonly in winter. I was familiar with desert mirages, but not prairie mirages.

There was a grand mirage this morning. Katie and I, as we hung out our clothes, watched a train sailing in the air; but we could see none of the farm houses between the cars and us, although there must have been many. We could see timber a hundred miles away; while villages ten miles away looked close at hand.”

I found the whole book fascinating and engaging, and very humbling.

dotyThe other extremely good year book that I’ve read is Dog Years, by Mark Doty. This is the story of the dogs that span 16 years of his life, a time that his partner died of AIDS, but it really is pretty much all about the dogs. I am not a dog person and I wanted to get a dog before I was even halfway through this book. If you even remotely like dogs you will likely love Dog Years.

In the world of fiction I started the year theme with Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years. My first Anne Tyler. Not a long book, but it took me nearly three weeks to finish. I guess I am not an Anne Tyler fan. I will give her another chance (but not for a good while). Three weeks! And I have so many good “year” fiction books! But then John Sandford’s new book, Deadline, came in at the library (I just can’t buy him new anymore), and I picked it up yesterday and finished it today. It’s really nice to get sucked into a book like that and who cares about the theme?

hareI’ve still got over a week left in January, for a couple of those enticing fiction books. The Year of the Hare and Leap Year are floating to the top. But who knows? Moods change.

Unfortunately, in nonfiction I have read all the year books that called to me. IHoover have a few left in the pile: A Year at the Movies, A Year in Provence, and The Years of the Forest. I’m not in the mood for France, so that will go back on the shelf; the movie book—it doesn’t look as enticing as it did several years ago when I found it in the dollar bin, and I think I’ll take it back to Half Price Books. The Years of the Forest is a small regret, because I love Helen Hoover. But after years of brutal winters (oh, summers too) on the prairie with Mary Dodge Woodward, I’m not keen to jump into brutal winters (summers too) in the north woods.

So this morning I needed a new nonfiction book to start, having finished The Checkered Years. Feeling just slightly guilty, I bypassed the few remaining “year” books, and picked up The Impulse Society, by Paul Roberts. I’m only to page 11, so I can’t say much. But based on this from the introduction, I think it will be interesting:

In everything from eating and socializing to marriage and parenting to politics, the norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in civic, social ways. We struggle to make, or keep, long-term commitments. We find it harder to engage with, or even tolerate, people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our faith in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.”

It sounds a bit like an updated Bowling Alone. I’ll keep you posted.

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