Reading Geography

As February ends, I start looking ahead to the March book theme—geography. So broad as to be overwhelming, even if one limits oneself to one’s own books. (For those of you who don’t follow my reading proclivities, I have a lot of books—a few thousand. The book themes serve to bring some of the older titles to the head of the class, and I’ve discovered some gems.)

Back to topic: Geography. Going through the books I had pulled off the shelves (without a thorough scan) I found a lot of America. So I’ve decided to focus on America for the geography theme (all of a sudden I had a throwback to sixth-grade, where I decided to focus on Fort Snelling for my history theme project—don’t know where to go with that but remind you I’m in Minnesota, which is home to Fort Snelling, which we visited when I was a kid).

I’ve already started a nonfiction book in the March Geography theme. I finished a nonfiction book a few days ago, and towards the end of the month, I always like to move ahead into the next theme. As I perused titles, I noticed America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth. I’ve a keen interest in economics and the balance of consumerism and sustainability. I’m not against buying things, but living in our consumer culture (70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumption), which is basically just getting people to buy more things, has gotten a bit over the top for me. So I’m interested in different economic models (anything downwards of 70% is a good start).

And that, really, was the start of the America theme. Also in the nonfiction arena that pulled me in this direction:

  • What Is America? Ronald Wright
  • Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Stephen G. Bloom
  • Heartland, Sarah Smarsh
  • Still Life in Harlem, Eddy L. Harris
  • American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever
  • American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom

Fiction also has a number of stars. I am looking forward to:

  • Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Matthew Flaming
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Poetry is also falling into my subtheme, at least a little bit, with:

  • American Smooth, Rita Dove
  • American Primitive, Mary Oliver
  • The San Francisco Haiku Anthology

So I have decided to focus on America for the March reading theme; no generic city, country, state or territory (that could be its own theme for sure).

But America gets old, and I’d like to take a vacation or two. I have several options:

  • Versailles, Kathryn Davis
  • Murder in the Marais, Cara Black
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
  • A Palestine Affair, Jonathan Wilson
  • South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby
  • The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins

March looks promising. Thirty-one days. So long compared to February. And every day, three more minutes of sunlight. Happy reading all—spring is around the corner!

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The Heart of Winter

We’ve been having serious winter here lately. Polar vortex, freezing rain, snow on ice, black ice, snow and more snow, and the resulting snow emergencies (for those of you not in snow climes, this is about moving cars so streets can be plowed).

And I have hit my winter stride.

Last summer I lost interest in cooking and despaired it would ever come back. It has, and in spades. Or perhaps I should say teaspoons. All the old standbys—meatloaf, roasted vegetables, corn pudding, ham steak, baked potatoes, applesauce, etc. Plus a few new things—minestrone soup, kedgeree (a rice-lentil mix), and quesadillas (how in the world did I never try making these before? So easy!). But here is the fun part (or do I mean the frustrating part?): I cook so much that I have to stop because we have too many leftovers and we’re going to (a) waste food, plus (b) there’s no room in the fridge for anything else anyway.

Oh, the difference that six months can make.

Winter also always gives me a special appreciation for the birds. So many animals migrate or hibernate; I love the birds that stay (or arrive) for the winter. Staying closer to home in winter, I’m much more dependent on my backyard for birding entertainment. I have not been disappointed. Yesterday morning I saw my first pileated woodpecker of the year, in my neighbor’s tree. She was slowly sauntering up a limb. (Today I noticed some large fresh-made holes in a tree several houses away. I wonder if that might also have been my pileated woodpecker.)

But the stars of winter this year are the cardinals and juncos. They’ve been rather plentiful all season, but Wednesday in the snowstorm, even at its height (an inch of snow per hour) the birds were plentiful in the yard. (I went out and spread seed twice, and made sure they had water, and also put out a few peanuts for the blue jays.) I could not get a good count on the cardinals—I think maybe 12. There were a lot more juncos—40 or so? And they stayed all day. Usually the cardinals visit a few times a day. Same with the juncos—they come and go (emphasis on go). But not that day. And I couldn’t help myself. I think I spent half the afternoon watching them. (Also a few chickadees and two intrepid blue jays.)

And the other thing that winter brings me to, at its best, is going through stuff and culling. Being cooped up in a house can be very motivating that way. Most recently it was a small corner bookshelf, that must have been purchased at a clown shop. I went to empty the first shelf and there were just layers and stacks and piles of books—far more than should be allowed in such a small space. This made the culling a bit more challenging (I thought it would be a breeze to do the entire bookcase in an afternoon before I realized its clown-car aspect). On the bright side, I got a huge stack of unsightly hardcover mysteries tucked away on the bottom shelf (ungainly towers on top of the corner bookshelf—20 of them at least).

But it’s not just books. For some reason I develop this “eye” in the depth of winter: I look at everything in the house through a more critical lens. This is a great time to go through clothes, books, dishes, anything and everything. It’s like I have this roving “what can I get rid of” eye. And I find that getting rid of excess things is very refreshing.

This, to me, is the heart of winter: cooking, appreciating the nature in my own backyard, and getting the house in order.

I think this is what I love about winter. It is so close and simple.

Hate Speech: Liberal Style

“All Republicans should die.”

That’s what a liberal friend said to me at lunch a few weeks ago. It gives one pause, doesn’t it? Well, at least I hope it does, whether you’re liberal, conservative, in between or above or below.

I’ve been hearing a lot of such sentiments from my many liberal friends. (Mind you, I’m a liberal myself, which is why I have so many liberal friends.)

I am of an age where I think of the Democrats and the liberals as the party of love. But over the last two years in particular, it’s gotten to a point where politics are off limits in many of my friendships. It’s a rabbit hole of negativity.

I am particularly concerned when people my friends use broad terms, like “all Republicans.” Like assuming that every asshole on the road is a Republican (I know several liberals who are bad drivers and one that might qualify as an asshole—on the road, I mean). It’s the sweeping nature of the condemnation that bothers me.

Republicans, like Democrats, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. I happen to have some Republicans that I respect in my life. My father is one of them (even though he’s dead now). He was super conservative and I was radically liberal, but we always managed to find common ground (sometimes with difficulty, and most often in the realm of economics). And I learned some of the things about why he was conservative (e.g., a small-business owner dealing with one-size-fits-all government regulations) and that has helped me to understand conservatives in a small way.

Which is to say, they are not all alike. I expect there are as many reasons for being conservative as there are for being liberal.

And for this reason, I suspect that liberals and conservatives might have a lot more in common on a lot of issues than they realize. We box each other into categories and demonize the worst in each other. So easy to do, and almost expected. A knee-jerk reaction.

A potential remedy: The next time you’re in a situation with someone on the opposite side of the political fence, spend some time finding what you have in common. It might not be as hard as you think. Talk about books or health care. Or maybe the number of people in prison. Or the price of soybeans.

Just…talk.

In Praise of Winter Hibernation

On of my favorite things to do on a snowy day is sit in a chair by a window and watch the snow. Ideally, there’s a table with the chair, and I have a mug of hot tea and a book. So I will read, and at the end of every section I look out and watch the snow. Sometimes briefly, sometimes for minutes. It’s hypnotic and relaxing and magical all at once.

On a good snowy day (which to me means at least four inches of snow), I often don’t even leave the house except to put out food for the birds along with fresh water. When it gets way below zero (-15 and colder) I also put out peanuts in the shell. Generally, I don’t like to put out peanuts because almost always the squirrels find them first and bury them all; and there are squirrels in my roof, and I hate to reward these trespassers with one of their favorite foods. However, when it’s twenty below, even I take pity on the squirrels, although I was happy to see the blue jays got to the peanuts first both of the last two times I put them out.

The birds are a great part of my joy in winter hibernation. Just today I saw a house finch at the feeder—the first one I’ve seen this year, and so brightly colored I thought it might be a purple finch. But the female showed up and I was assured they were house finches. I have had tons of juncos this year! Far more than usual. And not nearly as many chickadees as in past years, so I was happy to hear several of them when I was outside earlier today.

Hibernation is also good for reading. One of the books I’ve been reading (a surprise theme find) is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson. Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which I haven’t read), it is a book focused on decluttering. But it’s half the length and feels much more pragmatic (mind you I’m only one-third through). Magnusson suggests starting in the attic or the basement. She suggests starting with large things. She suggests starting with easy things.

So after 40 pages I’m looking around the house for big easy things. There’s that large cloth shopping basket I’ve never used. What about this air conditioner that doesn’t work? And I have entire categories of easy things to get to—linens and shoes, for sure. (Interestingly, not winter boots. I was shocked, looking through my death-cleaning eyes, to see I have four pair of winter boots. That’s nuts! What can go? I have two pair for serious winter snow, meaning over six inches. One pair is for shoveling and outdoor work. The other is for wearing in public. For the rest of winter, I primarily wear my little black snow boots for every day wear out of the house. But for quick runs into the yard—to the compost bin or the bird feeders, I like my old cheap step-in moon boots. I have one pair of tennis shoes and four pair of winter boots? Hmmm.)

And of course hibernation almost drives one to cook. I tried a dish I’d never heard of, called kedgeree, a mix of rice and lentils with cumin, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, and likely a few spices I’m forgetting. Next time I will use red lentils, as the brown lentils I used took much longer than the rice to cook (boo!). But the taste was sound, and it would serve as a good breakfast, a side dish, or on a tortilla.

I also made my first minestrone soup. I used the slow cooker and it tasted great. However, I have a piece of advice: Don’t use a pasta in a soup that you haven’t tried on its own. I used an “ancient grains” pasta. After the allotted time, it had fallen apart. Was it the pasta or the cooking method? I am not sure, but next time I think I will cook it stovetop. Sometimes I need a little more control than the slow cooker allows. Also made in hibernation: ham steak with corn pudding, and a big batch of applesauce.

We’ve finally been getting some serious winter here. I will tell you, I will take snow over a polar vortex any day. The up side of the vortex is that now a 10-degree day feels quite comfortable. We just yesterday shoveled out six inches of snow, and we might get six more inches overnight tonight. And then maybe another six inches Thursday. So there will be a whole lot of shoveling going on.

Happily, I love shoveling snow (along with raking leaves, one of my favorite household tasks). My absolute favorite is shoveling at night. It’s so quiet; snow muffles sound. Just me and a few neighbors, the sounds of shovels scraping snow. I cannot explain why I love this. It even smells good to me.

Mind you I love the light fluffy snow (which is what we’ve been getting) and not the heart attack snow, laden with moisture (that’s more in March/April). And of course by March/April, all of the glow has worn off the hibernation, but that’s okay because the days are longer and warm days are in reach.

For now, we’re in a winter cycle at least through the end of the month. You can hate it, or you can ride it, and I’ve decided to ride it. With a shovel, some books, birdseed, and a full pantry.

Black History Month (and reading themes)

February is a small reading quandary for me. It’s Black History Month, which makes me want to read a lot of Black writing—African American, Somali, Cuban—so many Black voices. So many books I want to read.

The reading theme for February is Love and Death. Now this seems like it would be a really broad field, doesn’t it? And I do have plenty on top of plenty in the fiction department. But nonfiction is a near total bust (two books, and I had to expand beyond love to eros to get two). I have zero books in the death category, and no, I do not want to read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Even poetry is skimpy, with four books (two love, one death, and another stretchy eros).

What’s a reader to do? In my case, I say, read as much as you like for the theme, and don’t forget about Black History Month.

Happily, I have the February theme covered in one book, An Inquiry Into Love and Death, by Simone St. James. (I am a bit of a sucker for the gothic novel, and this is a good one.)

Moving on to Black History Month, I have one book that clearly fits the monthly reading theme, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, by Alice Walker. (What is going on with me? Why do I have so little love and death in my nonfiction? Poetry as well. Mind you, fiction is teeming with love and death. What is that about?)

Oh, but wait. There’s this one book I’ve been wanting to read—still—since I got it several years ago (often the shine wears off, but not with this one). This is the beauty of a scanty theme month—finally getting to the book you keep looking at, the one I keep hoping will fit a theme, but it never does. But I think that’s it for white authors this month. I am a big fan of immersion reading. For the most part, I intend to spend February on Black writers.

I predict that a large portion of these books will be fiction. Oh, there will be nonfiction and poetry as well. But fiction has an important place. Fiction is most likely to put me in someone else’s shoes; to have me crying, to understand the injustice—almost experience it in a visceral way—as happens with the best fiction. I learn more factually from nonfiction; I learn more emotionally and socially from fiction.

Top of the pile: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Spots two and three are taken by Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Warrior, and N.K. Jemisin’s Kingdom of the Gods. Both of these books are parts of trilogies that I started last year (Okorafor’s first book, and the first two of Jemisin’s). I liked both of the trilogies, mind you; it’s just that for me, a little SF/fantasy goes a long way, and perhaps I should have had closure on the first trilogy before starting the second. But I do so like Okorafor, I couldn’t stop myself. Also on my radar as of today (it’s amazing what you don’t see until you look at a stack of books eight times)—A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines (which actually ties into the theme, and how did I not notice that before?).

The singular nonfiction that is at the top of the pile is Phoebe Robinson’s Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay. Her first book, You Can’t Touch My Hair, was my favorite book last year.

Happy reading to you, and happy Black History Month. Read an old favorite or discover someone new. I hope to do both!