Rollout: 2019 Monthly Book Themes

Last month my friend Sheila and I set aside a special day to identify our monthly book themes for 2019. This is always a fun afternoon that we both look forward to, and this time was no different. Without further ado, here are the monthly reading themes for 2019:

January: Questions. This includes any book that has a title that’s a question, has a question mark, contains any of the usual question words (who, what, where, when, how, why), or is questionable. Fun titles from poetry include Held for Questioning, Second Guesses, and Ask. Since this theme is right around the corner, I already have a small stack of potentials. I’m most excited about Prius or Pickup? by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler (looking at the political divide). Sheila and I are reading this one together, and I think it will make for good discussion.

Other books I’m excited about in January include Where We Stand: Class Matters, by bell hooks; and What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, by Wendell Berry. Starting the new year with a Wendell Berry book seems like a really good idea. In the fiction realm, I was pleased to see that the next Louise Penny mystery that I’m up to fits the theme: How the Light Gets In. That will be my first fiction of the year. And I think it will be followed by How to Find Love in a Bookshop, by Veronica Henry (called “a love letter to books and the shops that sell them”—that seems like another very good start to the year).

February: Love & Death. The book can have either word in the title to qualify, but I have one top runner already, with Simone St. James’s An Inquiry into Love and Death. That just leapt off my shelves. I haven’t done any looking ahead for this theme. I wonder which will be more plentiful—love or death?

March: Geography. This one is really broad, such that common geography words like city, country, town, in a title would work; as well as proper nouns: Minnesota, Africa, Alberta. The books will be falling off the shelves for this theme. I only have two books in mind so far: The Rain in Portugal, by Billy Collins; and The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, which Sheila and I have talked about maybe reading together. (Although now that I think about it, Death Cleaning could also fit into February, if we’re in a hurry (or there is a dearth of nonfiction in that theme). It will be a perfect February-March bridge book!

April: Men. This is also a very broad theme, and I expect it to be loads of fun. It encompasses books with any common male reference (men, boy, he, brother, etc.) in the title as well as books with proper male names. On my nearby shelf I find, for example, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past, by Ariel Sabar; White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, by Michael Kimmel; The One-in-a-Million Boy, by Monica Wood; and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, by Phaedra Patrick. That only skims the very surface. This will be another theme where the books fall into my hands.

May: Black & Blue. Yes, that sounds a little macabre, but we were throwing around individual colors as themes. A black theme? A blue theme? Will there be enough books with the specific colors? So we decided to combine them. Why not black and blue in May? I don’t have much in mind for this one yet, though there is a new (to me) mystery writer I want to check out, and she has two books which fit the theme: Black Water Rising (which is the first in a series set in Texas); and Bluebird, Bluebird, a stand alone—both by Attica Locke.

June: Size. Another one I’m looking forward to, it includes any reference to size: small, medium, large, giant, huge, etc. in the title. One book has jumped off the shelf for this one: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker. This could be the month to read Little, Big, by John Crowley (daunting in size but I’ve heard such good things). In nonfiction, I’m looking forward to Sleeping Giant: The Untapped Economic and Political Power of America’s New Working Class, by Tamara Draut.

July: Water. Titles including the word water, also lake, river, puddle, rain, ocean, bay, etc. I think this will be so easy I won’t even start looking for titles until the end of June. The one book I do have in mind is Daughters of the Lake, by Wendy Webb (a local author I’m quite fond of).

August: Women. This is the same as the April theme of men, but this time for women. The nearby shelf provides: The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn; The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey; and Eve, by Elissa Elliott. This is a repeat theme from last year (we obviously both loved it).

September: Literary Forms. This is also a repeat theme, but from a few years ago. For this theme, the title should contain a literary form (e.g., book, letter, chapter, play, poem, verse, handbook, memoir, diary, etc.). I don’t have anything on tap for this yet, but I have so many books with the word “book” in the title that I’m covered right there. (Not that I would ever care to be that samey.)

October: Pronouns. Basically any title containing a pronoun (he, she, they, we, I, us, etc.). There will be tons of these. On tap so far: I am, I am, I am, by Maggie O’Farrell; and Republican Like Me, by Ken Stern. I’m sure books will start falling off the shelf months before October arrives.

November: Taste. Any title with a flavor/taste in it—e.g., sweet, sour, bitter, salty; but also to taste food, so any title with sip, sample, bite, savor. It’s a kind of fun heady mix, and I think it will be a great reading theme for November. I have one book on my radar so far: Umami, by Laia Jufresa. Plenty of time to grow this list!

December: Prize Winners. These are books that have won any sort of prize—Pulitzer, National Book Award, Orange, Hugo, any old award at all will do. This is also a repeat. I don’t have anything in mind for this yet but I’m sure a few good books will make themselves known by next December.

Happy New Year a little early, and I wish you many good books in the new year.

A Reading Odyssey

The reading theme for December is Journey (especially a spiritual journey). We seriously considered scrapping this theme because it seemed so narrow. But then we decided to make it personal. What book might be a spiritual journey for each of us (or just a journey in general). That opened the gates, and we decided to stick with the theme.

And then at Thanksgiving, our host was telling us about a book he had read, a memoir, Homer’s Odyssey, about a blind cat. He highly recommended it, and I realized it would be a good fit for the December theme. (Full title: Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, Or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat, by Gwen Cooper.)

I’m about two-thirds through and it’s an absolute delight. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book where a cat and a person seem like soul mates, but these two—well, they potentiate each other, they make each other stronger. It could just as well have been called Gwen Cooper’s Odyssey, but that’ not nearly so catchy in a title. A lovely book and a fantastic December read. If you like cats even a wee bit, I highly recommend this book.

Each chapter of Homer’s Odyssey begins with an epigraph from The Odyssey (by the Homer who is not a cat). It gave me a nudge to read it again (I read The Odyssey in college), and I went to get it off the shelf. I couldn’t find it! Iliad and Metamorphoses yes, but not The Odyssey.

Library to the rescue! But wait. There are a lot of holds on this book that is thousands of years old. What gives? Ah, a new translation. By what? A woman? A woman! Homer, translated by a woman! So I signed on. Finally, today, a copy came up for me: The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.

Yikes! It’s 582 pages! Oh, but wait. The first 100 pages are intro, maps, and notes (I skip all this except the maps and the note from the translator). At the end there are 50 pages of notes, and these include a summary for each of the 24 books in The Odyssey. (I find this a nice back-up. Good to know that if I get confused about what’s going on, I can just turn to the back of the book for a bit of clarification.) I’ve only just started, but already I’m quite excited to read it.

I’ve been dawdling through Homer’s Odyssey, simply because I’m enjoying it so much. But it’s time to get a move on. There are other journeys to be had this month. I picked up another book at the library today, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, by A.J. Swoboda. Now, doesn’t that sound like a spiritual journey? Or how about Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone? I’ve also been considering a reread of The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power, by Barbara G. Walker. So many options and only half the month left.

In the fiction realm, I’m going to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry alongside The Odyssey. And while I try to avoid reading similar books at the same time, I don’t think I’ll get confused between these two male journeys. (But wouldn’t it be funny if I did?) If there’s any time left in the month, I’m looking at After Life, by Rhian Ellis—a book I’ve had for 10 years, and I pull it off the shelf and say, “Why haven’t I read you yet?” Maybe this will be the time. Ann Patchett called it “exquisitely written and a thrill to read.”

Last month’s theme was health. My favorite book was After the Stroke, a journal by May Sarton. I have loved all her journals, but I think this is my favorite one yet (perhaps excepting Journal of a Solitude). The other best book of the month was Slow Medicine, by Victoria Sweet, M.D. This got me interested in traditional Chinese medicine, and now I’m reading a book about that. It’s complex and I’m reading it slowly, but it’s fascinating. When I know more than a gnat, I might write a post about it.

For those of you in the north, take heart—the winter solstice is only a week away, and then the days will start getting longer.

Happy reading to all!

One Thing Leads to Another

Yesterday I didn’t get much on my to-do list done, but a series of events led me down some fun memory lanes. It all started with my decision to put a few tree ornaments on the small tree growing too close to the garage, but it’s so beautiful I couldn’t bear to pull it up when it was little, and every year I told myself I should and now it’s taller than me, and still I love this tree.

So I went to look through my tree ornaments which I haven’t touched for years (I don’t do a tree but that’s a different story), and I found several that seemed they would work on an outdoor tree (though none of the garden variety shiny red balls that I was hoping for—just one or two; it’s a small tree, after all).

At the bottom of one of the boxes of ornaments, I found a book I got from my aunt when I was in 2nd grade, A Christmas Story, by Mary Chalmers. It’s a very small book—a gift book, maybe 3×4 inches. I remember being shocked at getting what I considered a picture book in 2nd grade. I was quite insulted. It was a kid’s book! I’m pretty sure I didn’t say any of these things out loud.

Here’s the thing I didn’t get at the time: The main character is named Elizabeth (which just happens to be my name), and she is a little girl (hmmm, possibly 2nd grade or so?) who has to find a star for the Christmas tree she has just decorated with her friends, Harry Dog, Alice Rabbit, and Hilary Cat. I will not ruin the story by telling you how it ends. I treasured the book more and more over the years, and used to take it out every Christmas. But I moved and traditions changed, and it got packed away. But now that I’ve found it, it’s back on display for the season.

Also while looking for ornaments, I found a large bunch of Christmas cards from the early 2000s. Thinking this would be an easy dispatch and free up space in the box, I grabbed a large stack to go through. Another trip down memory lane. Pictures of friends with their little kids (who are now adults); cards and letters from graduate school friends; cards from former coworkers and former former coworkers. I haven’t finished going through them all. So many of my parents’ generation of relatives are dead, but they were not dead in the early 2000s, and it’s nice to be running into them again. I’m keeping more of these cards than I’d thought I would, because I figure if I enjoy going through them now (not all of them—some are being repurposed as postcards, and most are getting recycled) I’ll enjoy it every bit as much 10 years from now.

Some of these cards were from the same aunt (who also happened to be my favorite aunt and my godmother) who gave me The Christmas Story. She died four years ago, and I still miss her. I’m keeping all the cards from her that include significant personal notes. And all of this made me remember the ceramic Christmas tree that she made, and gave to my mom, and my mom gave to me many years later. I decided this was the year to put up the tree again. I knew exactly where it was, and on a whim decided to get it out right that minute. But it wasn’t where I was sure it was. It wasn’t in that closet at all, which caused pause. Where could it be? I sat down to read for awhile to let my brain relax and remember. And then I remembered exactly where in the basement it was. But no. And no and no and no.

And then I remembered the closet under the stairwell. It would be right up front. It was not. Sigh. What’s that box back there? Old books (shocking). Surely not that one way in the back—I reached, I tipped—ceramic tree! I tugged it out of the box (which did not want to come out from under the stairwell), and brought it into the kitchen to plug it in. But, what? No plug, no switch. I knew it lit up; that’s why I liked it so much. Did I miss something in the box?

I did indeed miss something in the box, and it was a big something that didn’t want to come out. So I hauled the box out over the top of all the other things in front of it, and a huge pile of photographs cascaded to the closet floor. Of course.

It’s a cramped closet so I pile up the photos and stick them on the shelf outside the closet. I get out the box and the bottom portion of the ceramic tree, plug it in, and it works! While it wasn’t really like my aunt was with me, it was in a little way.

And then I grabbed a bunch of photographs off the top of the pile, and took another trip down memory lane. They were nearly all from road trips I’ve taken around Minnesota with a good friend of mine. I thought the photos would be easy to cull, but my friend is such a good photographer, and he has such a good eye for mood, that I find I’m keeping far more than I’m tossing. And I have realized that there are so many good memories here, while I will do some culling, I want to organize rather than get rid of these photos. Already categories are emerging: quirky town monuments (we have a lot of these in Minnesota—Paul Bunyan, loons, Jolly Green Giant, chicken, walleyes—this could be its own post, and maybe will); nature shots; bird shots in particular; town names (often on water towers); various kinds of signs (road signs, billboards, street signs); and that was just a handful off the top. This could be a hugely fun project.

So the little tree outside is decorated, The Christmas Story is on top of the bookshelf, the ceramic tree casts its light again, I’ve more Christmas cards from years past to look through (and mostly recycle), and an entire photograph organizing project ahead of me.

Life is good. Happy December.