Going Rogue (Bookishly) for Black History Month

A funny thing happened as I was finishing up the “Love” chapter of Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Somewhere after reading longish passages from her conversations with Elizabeth Alexander (African American poet) and finishing the chapter, I decided I needed to read more black and African American literature. I decided to prioritize all the black writers in my theme pile for February.

Guess what? Not a one. Well, boo. January was great with African American writers I didn’t get to. So I decided to go rogue and push the book theme to the side (not completely) and focus on black writers in February, partly because it’s Black History Month, but mostly because I really want to do it. Sometimes I get a little too wed to the book themes. I have books I’ve wanted to read for quite some time now, but I let the themes drive my reading. (I do have control over this, there are no rules. I do have control. Really I do.)

So sometime between my second and third cup of coffee this morning, I decided to read (mostly) black/African American books in February. I was excited before I even got up from my chair. Perusing my shelves (reminder: I tend to use the book themes to read and potentially pare down the huge excess of books I have accumulated over the years), I found nonfiction quite fruitful:

  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • The End of Blackness, Debra J. Dickerson
  • Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
  • Wounds of Passion, bell hooks (plus a few of her other books that I haven’t read yet)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson
  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
  • Living By the Word, Alice Walker
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Not so very gender balanced, I will admit. But note, I still haven’t gone through memoirs or foodish books. Still, a very exciting list of prospects for the month. I expect I’ll start with You Can’t Touch My Hair, immediately followed by Hidden Figures (which I bought shortly after seeing the movie).

I’m adding another book to the nonfiction mix for February, not specific to Black History Month, but relevant nonetheless: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (edited by Sun Yung Shin). Not all the writers are black, but several are, and it’s here in Minnesota. This is what I need to hear. To learn. To understand.

I haven’t finished going through all the general fiction yet, but I’ve been a bit surprised at the sparsity:

  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Zanzele, J. Nozipo Maraire
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I might go to the “already read” shelves and pull a few favorites. Mama Day (Gloria Naylor) comes to mind. Then  Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (Ntozake Shange). And The Color Purple (Alice Walker).

I also found a few mysteries (picked up back in the day when I was reading a lot more mysteries):

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Hidden in Plain View, Blair S. Walker
  • Easier to Kill, Valerie Wilson Wesley
  • Killer Riches, Chassie West

And a few science fiction/fantasy books (mostly purchased at WisCon, the annual feminist science fiction convention held in Madison, WI):

  • Clay’s Ark, Octavia Butler
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin
  • Filter House, Nisi Shawl

Again, a bit heavy on the women. And while that’s okay in general for reading (to make up for all those years of male classics), in this case I think I will need to add a few more male voices (since we didn’t read a lot of black male classics). Ellison’s Invisible Man immediately comes to mind. I would welcome other suggestions.

And I’ve decided that while a Black History immersion month is probably a good thing, I’ve decided to keep it up in a most modest way by resolving to read at least one African American book each month after February through the end of the year. Some might fit into a reading theme, but if not, I’ve realized I want to broaden my reading landscape more than I want to cleave to the theme.

I’m excited to bring this new focus into my life. Every once in a while, it’s really fun to go rogue.


Early Birds 2018

I start a new bird list at the beginning of each year. (This is in addition to my life list—all the different birds I’ve seen since I started paying attention; and my yard list—all the birds I’ve seen in or from my yard or the house.) The new year started out on a good note.

The first bird of the year was a goldfinch. Any year that a house sparrow is not my first bird is a good year. But a goldfinch seemed especially fine. I don’t see goldfinches in my yard every day, or even very often, so having a goldfinch greet me on my first look out the back window on the morning of January 1 was a fine start to the birding year.

The next bird to arrive was the house sparrow, but along with the house sparrow, umm—not a house sparrow. Female house finch! I never did see a male (much more obvious, like a sparrow with a head bathed in raspberry), but the female hung around for quite a while. I’m attributing this in large part to the fact that I threw out some birdseed on December 31st—it was so cold! In addition to water, I always try to put out extra birdseed on these extra cold days (meaning the high temperatures are below zero).

That was the exciting start to the birding day (and year). Later in the day (back at the window), I saw a blue jay. I love the jays—sassy birds, smart too, and always fun to watch. They have a huge number of calls and songs. The jay was followed by a cardinal. I see cardinals in the yard pretty much every day, but it’s not a guarantee, and I was glad to welcome him to the new year. Mid-afternoon some crows flew overhead, moseying towards their roosting area near downtown. Just as we’re nearing dusk, I hear honking and look overhead. Canada geese.

Seven bird species on the first day of the year is not bad, especially since I didn’t leave the house.

January 3: a spectacular add—bald eagle. Not spectacular because it’s so rare, but because the sighting was so very fun. I was out shoveling the walk on a very cold day, and I heard crows calling to the north. I look up and see they are chasing after an eagle (this is called mobbing). The eagle is flying fairly low—just above the treetops, and then whee! it swoops down and into the street, only just a few feet above the pavement. It flew along for several yards, and then started the ascent back to the sky. I heave a breath of relief (it’s a fairly busy street) and continue to watch the eagle. It moves up and up and slowly drifts south (all of this happened about a short city block to the north) until it’s right overhead.

Even as I was standing there I realized I must look like an idiot, and had done for a good 15-20 minutes, standing on my front sidewalk in a windchill of -20 or so, staring into the sky with a big grin on my face. And I couldn’t care one bit because it was one of my more magical birding moments. I watched until I couldn’t anymore because I’d be staring right at the sun. It felt like a New Year’s gift.

Also on the 3rd, I saw my first black-capped chickadee of the year, and my first junco. I love both these birds, but the chickadee especially makes me smile. Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents in Minnesota, and a fun backyard visitor most especially in the winter when the birds are fewer. I also saw a rock dove (aka pigeon)—the only bird on my list so far that is not on my yard list.

Except for the white-breasted nuthatch that I saw on the 7th—a warmer day and we walked to the pizza place. I heard the nuthatch call before I saw it.

And that was it for a while, until the 14th. I was looking out the back window at a group of Canada geese overhead (I always look up; it’s winter, there aren’t that many birds, and I want to respect the ones that stick it out), and one of these geese seems more of a duck. What? I look closer, and no, not a duck, a very small Canada goose—Cackling goose! This is a new bird for my yard list.

So far, the early birds bode well.

Happy birding!

Monthly Reading Themes, 2018

Schedules and circumstances didn’t allow Sheila and me to get together to finalize our 2018 reading themes before the New Year. We had identified themes for the first few months, just in case it took forever to meet, but we managed to meet in early January, and now have decided (mostly, which is to say more or less, which is to say I’m leaving a little wiggle room) on the 2018 reading themes.

(Note: At present, this is for our book club of two. But all are encouraged to participate. Choose a book or books in our themes, or identify your own themes. It’s a really fun way to run across books you might not otherwise read. Or a good way to read a book a month if you aren’t a hard-core reader.)

2018 Reading Themes

  • January: Religious Words (e.g., grace, holy, divine, mercy, god, sacred, faith, redemption)*
  • February: Day/Month/Season (esp. specific days of the week, months, seasons)**
  • March: Women (lady, miss, girl, queen, Eve, she, aunt, mother, nun, etc.)***
  • April: Object/Thing (yes, it’s odd; but books that have “object” or “thing” in the title, while not highly numerous, are highly appealing)*
  • May:  Architectural Elements (e.g., tower, gable, gate, wall, roof, porch, window, stairs)
  • June: Green (trees, grass, plants, park, leaves, the word green, etc.)
  • July: One-word titles (this is a repeat theme—super fun)
  • August: Music (e.g., sonata, chime, tune, song, sing, dance, symphony, jazz, choir, soprano, band)
  • September: Animals (the word animal, or fox, rat, dog, cat, mouse, dragonfly, dinosaur, gnat, toad, etc.)
  • October: Life (and variations: live, lives, lived, living)**
  • November: Health/Wellness/Medicine***
  • December: Journey (e.g., path, pilgrimage, travel, passage)^

So much to look forward to (esp. readingwise) in the coming year.

*This might seem it would get all religiony, but trust me, it’s a finely broad-ranging theme. Of course you could make it all religiony if you wanted to (I could see wanting to focus on a specific area for an entire month—hmmm, hmmm! That could be really fun sometime. Not this month, but definitely worth pondering down the road).

**I have Saturday, August, October, February, September, June, winter, summer, spring, and a few generic day/season books.

***For Women’s History Month.

*It’s possible that “It” could be added to things and objects. It seems like a good fit, and I want to reread Stephen King’s book, It.

**An amazing number of books across the spectrum have life/lives variations in their titles.

***This was a completely new add. We already had a good list of themes we were contemplating, but we’re both interested in healthcare, the healthcare industry, big pharma, and health and wellness, and when we stumbled across this in our conversation, it became the November theme. I’m quite excited about it.

^Confession: As this theme is the furthest away, I have given it the least thought. Except for pondering whether “paradise” might be part of journey. I have several paradise books I want to read….

New Year’s Resolutions

I like making New Year’s resolutions. I find them a good way to set goals, try new things, and sometimes, induce new habits. I usually try to do three, in different areas of my life. Last year I resolved to: (1) send a weekly postcard to the Minnesota Senate majority leader, (2) give May baskets to several of my neighbors, and (3) get back to blogging (I had not blogged for months).

Overall I did quite well. For the political postcard project, I sent the majority leader a total of 57 postcards. In addition, I added another senator (on a couple of key health committees) in late July, and sent her 18 postcards.

I did indeed do May baskets (and plan to do again this year, but now May baskets are moving more into tradition rather than resolution). As for blogging, I had resolved (parenthetically) to blog weekly. That didn’t happen, but I did post more regularly, and I will be satisfied enough with that.

Here are my resolutions for 2018:

  1. Expand personal correspondence. I enjoyed the political postcard project, and I again wanted to do something with postcards, but I wanted to take a break from politics. So I decided to send my niece a weekly postcard. I tend to be abysmal at email, but find I have a bit of a gift for snail mail; and with the wide assortment of postcards I’ve accumulated over the years of the haiku project (yes, I’m still doing it), I can send a variety of sometimes beautiful, or funny, interesting, and even potentially scandalous cards. She has already received the first postcard and is quite excited about the whole thing. I’m also going to try to establish correspondence with an author. But I realize that it could well be that a person who writes for a living might not be inclined to find writing in their off time a relaxing/enjoyable thing. But I am giving it a try, and the card is in the mail. I’ll let you know if I hear back.
  1. Work out (yoga, walk, weights) at least twice a week. Yes, I know it’s a low bar, but I want to be realistic. This way, I might at least establish a bit of discipline. I have been known to work out five times a week and track it and everything—for about three weeks, but then I lose discipline. I can always do more than two (and I expect I will, especially in spring and fall when I love to walk), but I like having this low bar as a bit of a work-out safety net.
  1. Do at least one novel thing a month with my spouse. I got this idea from an excellent book I read in December, Life Reimagined, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, which I hope to blog about sometime soon (so many ideas for posts of late!). I’m starting to compile a list of novel things for us to choose from. My ideas include play mini-golf, take a class together (a cooking class, perhaps?), try a new cuisine (Somali?), attend a Supreme Court case, Explore Brooklyn (we are going to NYC for a wedding in August), visit the prairie (southwestern Minnesota has some gorgeous prairie lands), tour one of the huge mansions on Summit Avenue when there’s an open house, go on a paddleboat ride down the Mississippi, walk in the rain on purpose. Nothing hugely weird, just things we’ve never done together (and for many of them, things we’ve never done at all, or at least not for decades). Suggestions are welcome. The more we have to choose from, the better. And after all, we aren’t limited to one a month. This could be a very fruitful resolution.

Any New Year’s resolutions out there that anyone cares to share? (I love to post mine, because it strengthens my resolve. Also, I’m pretty sure no one but me is keeping track.)

Happy New Year to you! Wishing you good books, good friends, and a lot of laughter in the coming year.

2018: So Many Books (and Happy New Year)

We’ve already moved into January (and I have many things to get caught up on with this blog, which is one of my New Year’s resolutions) and also into a new monthly reading theme. The theme for January is religious terms or words (or, occasionally, phrases). This is a super-rich area for book titles (some more religious than others, and some, of course, not religious at all).

Here are the fiction books that leapt off my shelves:

  • The Holy Machine, Chris Beckett
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, Kristi Belcamino
  • Can I Get an Amen, Sarah Healy
  • Grace Notes, Bernard MacLaverty
  • Minaret, Leila Aboulela
  • God on the Rocks, Jane Gardam
  • Act of God, Jill Ciment
  • Holy Fools, Joanne Harris
  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • Kabbalah: A Love Story, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Nonfiction is troubling, as there as so very many theme books I want to read, and only 31 days in the month. Calling to me:

  • Grace (Eventually), Ann Lamott
  • Living With a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • Words of Passion, bell hooks
  • Shopping for Buddhas, Jeff Greenwald
  • Lipstick Jihad, Azadeh Moaveni
  • Living by the Word, Alice Walker
  • Devil in the Details, Jennifer Traig
  • Aphrodite, Isabel Allende
  • Life is a Miracle, Wendell Berry
  • Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris

And a few poetry titles for frosting:

  • Clothesline Religion, Megan Buchanan
  • Nature’s Grace, Carolyn Zonailo
  • The Tulip Sacrament, ‘Annah Sobelman
  • The Gatehouse Heaven, James Kimbrell

As you can see, I’ve got a fine month of reading ahead of me. I have already finished Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, a reread for me. Oddly, I quite disliked this book on my third reading. I will put it back on the shelf and see how it wears in a few years. But I have to say, the strong dislike took me aback. It also makes me want to revisit Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which I especially loved).

December’s reading theme (things that fly) was a good one, and I got back into reading mode. I finished 11 books (4 fiction, 4 nonfiction, 3 poetry). The best of the theme books was The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (a marvelous reimagining of the famous feminist/abolitionist Grimke sisters). The Bees, by Laline Paull also stood out, and while it is called a dystopian novel, I didn’t find it so at all. Is one happy at the end of a dystopian novel? (She snorts, I think not.) Also in fictionland, a YA novel that I quite adored, Memoirs of a Bookbat, by Kathryn Lasky. A book for anyone who loves books or libraries, or has experienced a time in their life when books are their only friend.

In the world of nonfiction, the standout was The Geese of Beaver Bog, by Bernd Heinrich. This is a fine study of Canada geese (and other bog residents, on occasion) that I found both fun and fascinating. Canada geese are extremely common here in Minnesota (and Minneapolis), and I loved learning more about them. Most interesting to me: The white facial marking on the goose’s face varies and can be used to identify individuals. Also, Canada geese are not nearly the lifelong devoted monogamous mates that we (birders) had been led to believe. Monogamous, yes, if it’s convenient. I will no longer feel sorrow when I see a single goose winging through the air. OMG, have I put you to sleep? I think all my friends want to tell me to cut back on the bird ramblings.

I have been remiss in blogging and intend to get back on the horse in this new year. I already have a slate of topics, including New Year’s resolutions, caregiver tips (based on recent experience), 2018 reading themes (soon to be finalized), and perhaps a look back at 2017—the best birds, the best books, and other best moments. Also maybe the biggest flops.

Happy New Year to you!