The Taste of Books

November’s reading theme is Taste (as in sweet, bitter, sour, salty, umami). I don’t have a huge pile for this theme, but I have a few major winners (at least in terms of theme fit). For fiction, I’ve found Umami, by Laia Jufresa; Sourdough, by Robin Sloan; Bitter Sweets, by Roopa Farooki; Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile; and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford.

In nonfiction, I have Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss; Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat; and Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A short but very rich list.

Poetry was a major bust. My best contenders: Sesame, by Jack Marshall; and Wise Poison, by David Rivard. I had Pinion, by Claudia Emerson, until I realized I was thinking of pinyon. I may still read Pinion. I’m that desperate.

I’ll certainly go further afield than the five specific tastes mentioned above. I’ve already finished The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, by Phaedra Patrick. I also have Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell; and Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde for back-up fiction. In nonfiction, I have Honey From Stone, by Chet Raymo; and Lion’s Honey, by David Grossman.

Whoa! I just went to put some of those books back on the bookshelf, and what should I happen to notice but Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, right there big as life (hardcover, no less) on the to-read shelf. How in the world did I miss that in my initial sweep?

Still, I think Something Rotten might be my next fiction read (after Bitter Sweets, which I’m about one-quarter through and quite enjoying). I haven’t read Jasper Fforde in years, and I think I’m ready to visit his wacky literary world again (this is the fourth in his Thursday Next series, and I loved the first three).

Next month’s theme is Prize Winners. Yes, it’s early to be thinking about next month’s theme, but I’ve exhausted my search in Taste. (Despite having overlooked Sweet Tooth, I am not going to review the entire collection for other misses—far too tedious! Much more fun to look forward.) This is the fourth time we’ve done the prize winner theme, and I’ve turned my methodology on its head this year. Previously, I’d check the awards lists—Pulitzer, National Book Award, Book Critics Circle, Man-Booker, Lambda, Tiptree, Hugo, Nebula, Edgar (there are so very many) etc. Then I’d check my shelves to see which of those I had (I remember a lot of the books I have, but not all of them).

But this year, I’m just looking at my shelves, and saying: What have I been wanting to read, but not yet gotten around to? And then I check it online to see if it’s won an award. Well. What a great idea! The very first book I checked had won an award. I’ve been running about 50/50, with half of the books I check having won an award (state awards are a great boon).

I do love playing with books.

Happy reading!

Pronouns, She Said

The October reading theme is pronouns (e.g., he, she, they, we, me, I, us, etc.). This is a great theme, rich in possibilities. Unfortunately, I’ve been otherwise committed to library books and reading groups and haven’t yet made much progress.

I have finished one book, I Still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg. The book was fine, but Fannie Flagg is in a difficult position with me, because Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is one of my favorite books (the movie is good too, but not so good as the book), and now every time I read Fannie Flagg, it’s no Fried Green Tomatoes. However, I Still Dream About You did have Flagg’s signature humor, and I would add that she’s in fine form on that count in this book. There were at least four times I started laughing so, I had to stop reading. Not a tee-hee or under your breath heh-heh, but neither a guffaw. Rather, a long chuckle that’s almost a giggle. A chuggle?  Not many books make me laugh out loud, much less invent a new word, so I’d have to say I Still Dream About You was definitely worth my time.

Currently in progress: So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. I’m reading this to discuss with Sheila, and while I’m not far into it, I can tell I’m going to learn a lot (of course what I don’t know about race is immense, so that isn’t difficult). I kind of think it might change the way I think about race (as of p. 33).  I’m also reading Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right, by Ken Stern (part of my ongoing effort to understand and help bridge the partisan divide).

In poetry, I’m reading You and Yours, by Naomi Shihab Nye. I recently loved her book The Tiny Journalist and am appreciating You and Yours as well.

I only finished Fannie Flagg a couple of days ago and have yet to pick up a new novel. Top contenders (as of this moment; it will be different by the time you read this):

  • Sister of My Heart, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • The Love of My Youth, Mary Gordon
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Why She Left Us, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

One of the best things about the reading theme is that it brings to my attention books that have been on my to-read shelf for years. The above books have been patiently waiting for 18 years, 12 years, 6 years, and 15 years, respectively. Before I started the reading theme, I mostly read the books I had most recently purchased. And since I purchased more than I read, a lot of the books over the years have gone unread. (I happily have my problem under control now and purchase far fewer books than I read.)

Back to pronouns. Other books I’m looking at for nonfiction (the elite of the moment):

  • Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit
  • Through No Fault of My Own, Coco Irvine
  • Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly
  • This Much I Can Tell You: Stories of Courage and Hope from Refugees in Minnesota, compiled by Minnesota Council of Churches and Refugee Services
  • I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl

Of these, I’m most interested in Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Voices. This book isn’t a diatribe but a broad look at how women are allowed to express (or more often, repress) their anger, complete with more than 60 pages of notes and an index. Even as a woman who has experienced this, I think it will be eye opening.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the most recently purchased book of the bunch, having been in the house a mere two months. The Solnit is relatively new, at 1 year. Irvine has been around 4 years, and the Refugees for 8. Hampl is the outlier here: I’ve had this since 2003. I’ve read many of her other books since, but still not this one. Perhaps this month?

Poetry at the top of the pile:

  • The Way She Told Her Story, Diane Jarvenpa
  • They Tell Me You Danced, Irene Willis
  • I Think of Our Lives, Richard Fein
  • The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Combing the Snakes from His Hair, James Thomas Stevens

Here there is no question, Jarvenpa will be next. She’s local, and I’ve already read several of her books of poetry, usually focused on nature. She’s also a musician (in the name Diane Jarvi, and in fact she sang at our wedding 12 years ago, so I’m a little biased).

And I will admit the only reason I included the last two poetry books is that I love the titles, most especially one above the other. It’s tempting to shelve those two together, even though I’m obsessive about alphabetizing my poetry. And for those of you that are interested in such things, I’ve had these books for 1, 13, 14, 11, and 13 years, respectively.

We’re in one of my favorite times of year, autumn—so beautiful. Yesterday we drove across the Mississippi, and the leaves in the river valley are seriously starting to change. Gorgeous, even on a cloudy day. On a sunny day it will be stunning.

Happy reading to you all—enjoy the fall!

Fall Cooking Experiments

Fall has arrived, and already I am in cooking mode. I’ve been exceptionally interested in the humble bean lately—kidney, pinto, garbanzo, and refried, along with lentils, black-eyed peas, and all manner of beans and legumes I’ve yet to discover. I’ve also found myself drawn to warming spices—cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, curry, cloves, coriander, cayenne, chili powder.

Since beans are so hearty, I often forgo meat with my bean meals. I think this is a good thing both for my health and the planet. I’m getting more and more concerned about climate change, and cutting down on meat (especially beef) is definitely a positive step. I’ve found using beans to be a really good way to not miss meat.

My first experiment was minestrone casserole in the slow cooker. This is exactly like what it sounds. Minestrone soup, except it’s thick with pasta, chickpeas, green beans, onions, and carrots, and instead of a ladle, you dish it out with a spoon. It was delicious. The singular mess-up: The recipe said add the green beans (fresh from my neighbor’s garden!) and pasta at the same time. Big mistake. The pasta was done long before the green beans. It worked out okay in reheating, but the initial version had very crunchy beans and pasta as cooked as I dared let it go. I will absolutely make this again, adjusting for the green beans. (Recipe from: The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook)

My second experiment was Black-Eyed Peas & Rice One-Pot, and doesn’t that sound easy? Doesn’t it make you think when you’re done, you’ll have one pot to clean up, plus maybe a cutting board, a knife, and a couple of utensils? Well, no. At the end of cooking, I knew if I was the picture-taking kind of person, I’d take a picture of my sink full of dishes from my one-pot meal (and that did not include the one pot, which was on the stove). Uh huh. Let that sink in.

That said, it was delicious; a bit time consuming (for those of us not as dexterous with the knife as we might wish) but not difficult. The one-pot refers to the pot where you bring the black-eyed peas to a boil, turn off the heat, and leave them sit for up to three hours. At that point, in a separate pan, you sauté onions for five minutes, then add carrots and green peppers (I substituted celery because I hate green peppers, and they worked perfectly) for three more. Then add minced ginger, garlic, and spices (cumin, turmeric, cayenne, curry powder). Cook for a minute. Add the contents to the one-pot. Add water to the sauté pan to deglaze (one cup)—bring to a boil, and add to one-pot. Then add rice and crushed tomatoes (the recipe calls for diced, but I prefer crushed; both the recipe and I concur that fire-roasted are best).

The mess-up: the black-eyed peas took much longer to cook than they should have. I figured out pretty quickly that I should have put a lid on the black-eyed peas as they were soaking. The recipe didn’t say one way or the other, so I opted for no lid. Mistake. Next time, bring the beans to a boil and let them sit, covered, for up to three hours.

But the rice (basic brown long grain) was very forgiving, and the meal was delicious. Here’s something interesting: This is one of those recipes where you don’t add salt until the very end. All the rest of the spices are in there at the beginning. Salt and pepper are last. At the end, I added plenty of pepper, but no salt was needed. So rare, not to add salt to a dish. (Perhaps the acidity of the tomatoes added that sparky edge of salt?)

Two experiments, two successes with minor mess-ups. I think this is shaping up to be an excellent autumn.

September Reading Theme: Literary Forms

Being a little late to the gate with this post, I already have several books under my belt for this month’s theme:

  • Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, Roselle Lim (fiction)
  • Sleeping With the Dictionary, Harryette Mullen (poetry)
  • Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman (fiction)
  • Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman (nonfiction)
  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye (poetry)
  • Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney
  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays, Amy Meyerson (fiction)

There are no dogs in the above list, and I’m not going to comment beyond that except to call out The Tiny Journalist, by Naomi Shihab Nye, a poetry book I loved. I don’t think people read enough poetry. I find poetry to be akin to meditation in some way. I’m not quite sure how to equate them, except that meditation can pull me out of workaday, and poetry takes me out of my everyday reading. In both cases, they are special spaces. Perhaps not quite sacred space, but close to. In-between places, I think of them. Neither quite one nor the other.

Back to literary forms. This is such a rich theme, so many to choose from. Currently at the top of the fiction list (this can change on a dime):

  • A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
  • The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry
  • History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund
  • The Reader, Traci Chee

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve just started The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith. I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I certainly agree with one of her major premises, that animals are a vital part of a natural ecological cycle on a farm. But I don’t feel a need to convince vegetarians of this. Vegetarians have a much smaller carbon footprint compared to us meat eaters, and I respect that.

Other contenders for nonfiction:

  • True Notebooks, Mark Salzman
  • Monsoon Diary, Shoba Narayan
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Briana Karp
  • I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Grace Jones

The Grace Jones book was at the top of my list, but I got it in paperback. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I hadn’t originally seen it in hardcover, with all those full-color pictures. The pictures in this book are black and white and of grainy character. I want to read it, but I want the experience I had when I first saw the hardcover. So, I guess I will track down the hardcover. Grainy black and white just does not do Grace Jones justice.

Last month’s theme was Women (in any form or reference). I read a lady, a huntress, a bride, Hagar, Invisible Women, a sister, more women, a mistress, a mother, a girl, Lumberjanes, and Sappho. A very good month for women.

Happy reading!

August Is for Reading Women

The reading theme for August is Women. This is such a fun theme (a repeat from last year—that’s how much we enjoyed it): any reference to a female in the title is all that’s required, common as well as proper nouns, and even pronouns. Broad. (Did I mention fun?)

I have been heavy on fiction in this first part of the month—so far I’ve read The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler; The Handmaid’s Tale (graphic novel version—so fun), Margaret Atwood; Huntress, Malinda Lo; The Bride Test, Helen Hoang (loved this); and Hagar Poems, Mohja Kahf, which I also loved.

I do have some nonfiction in progress, though. My main focus has been Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez (it’s very informative and quite depressing); Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson (I am not far in, but so far I’ve loved every page); and The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible, Joan Chittister.

We’re not even halfway through the month, so plenty of time to get in a few more women. I’m just starting Mother Love, Rita Dove, as my next poetry book (this is a reread; I loved it when I first read it many years ago). I’m pretty sure my next fiction book is going to be My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite. But until I actually start it, you never know.

Additional fiction I’d like to read for this theme:

  • Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile
  • The Fate of Katherine Carr, Thomas H. Cook
  • The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  • The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
  • The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen, Katherine Howe

I can’t imagine I’ll get more than two or maybe three more read yet this month. So hard to choose. I want to read them all.

I have a similar problem with nonfiction. I would like to read all of these this month:

  • You Play the Girl, Carina Chocano
  • The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy, Peggy Caravantes
  • The Black Girl Next Door, Jennifer Baszile
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp
  • Give a Girl a Knife, Amy Thielen
  • The Crone, Barbara G. Walker

The Crone would be a reread for me. I thought I needed a crone in there to balance out all those girls. I loved it when I read it in the 1990s. I wonder if it would still strike a chord, now that I’m so much closer to cronehood?

Last month’s theme was water. Just listing the titles is kind of fun: Dragons in the Waters, Daughters of the Lake, Skinny Dipping, Watership Down, Wade in the Water, The Arm of the Starfish, River, Waterborne.

This is turning out to be a very good reading summer. I hope you are finding yours equally enjoyable.

Happy reading!

Water, Water Everywhere: July Reading Theme

During the hottest month of the year, it feels good to immerse yourself in water, be it lake, river, sea, or pond. So we’re immersing ourselves in “water” books for the month of July. I’ve finished three so far:

  • Dragons in the Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle. This turned out to be the second book in the O’Keefe series, and now I have the first on order from the library. I loved the Wrinkle in Time series; the O’Keefe series is showing promise as well.
  • Daughters of the Lake, by Wendy Webb. I loved this book by one of my favorite local authors. I didn’t think she’d ever write anything I loved as much as The Fate of Mercy Alban (set in the famous Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, though it isn’t Glensheen in the book of course), but Daughters of the Lake was every bit as engaging. A contemporary gothic mystery set on the shore of Lake Superior, this one had me baffled right up to the end.
  • Skinny Dipping, poetry by Suzanne Collins (what better in July?)

I have a good selection of watery fiction to choose from:

  • The Sea, John Banville
  • The Odd Sea, Frederick Reiken
  • The Shape of Water, Andrea Camilleri (first in a mystery series set in Sicily)
  • Ocean Sea, Alessandro Baricco
  • Bay of Angels, Anita Brookner
  • The Marriage of the Sea, Jane Alison
  • Rain, Kirsty Gunn
  • Madras on Rainy Days, Samina Ali
  • The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler

Notice how almost all the authors’ surnames are from the start of the alphabet? I stopped looking through fiction after the letter G because I already had such bounty. (I did go search out The Odd Sea, though, because I knew I had it and I wanted to be able to pick between a regular sea and an odd sea). I think it’s a grand list and I hope to get several more books in yet this month. It is July, after all—lazy days on the front porch (or under the ceiling fan) reading. It makes me feel all happy inside just thinking about it.

Nonfiction is much skimpier:

  • St. Croix Notes, Noah Adams
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill
  • When the Water Smokes, Bob Simpson
  • Water and Sky, Alan S. Kesselheim
  • Seasons on the Pacific Coast, Susan J. Tweit
  • Sippewisset, Tim Traver
  • Facing the Wave, Gretel Ehrlich

I have started the Ehrlich book, just a few pages in. But earlier today, I glanced at Seasons on the Pacific Coast, and I think it may just win out. It looks so compelling, and it is so much of my mood in a July. It’s subtitled A Naturalist’s Notebook, and it has lots of beautiful illustrations (I am a sucker for illustrations; pictures, too). It’s a singularly attractive book with a siren call.

As is usually the case, there are a number of good titles in poetry. I am most looking forward to Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (current U.S. poet laureate). Sheila and I are reading this together to discuss. It’s been awhile since we discussed a book of poetry. I’m looking forward to it. Also in the poetry stack:

  • River, Fred Chappell
  • Crossing the Same River, Patricia Goedicke
  • Waterborne, Linda Gregerson
  • The Water Carrier, Steve Straight
  • Water Becomes Bone, C. Mikal Oness
  • From Where the Rivers Come, Richard Solly
  • You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Anna Moschovakis
  • White Sea, Cleopatra Mathis
  • Fleet River, James Longenbach

So many options available for long summer days. I’m picturing the front porch, a little stack of books, and a big glass of iced tea with lots of lemon.

Happy reading!

Deep Kindness

I’m nearly halfway through the kindness book, and already it’s making a difference. No, I have not become a better, kinder person overnight, but I have begun to take notice.

A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, by Donna Cameron, can be read in many ways. It comprises 52 chapters in 12 sections. You could read a section a month, a chapter a week, or just pick it up and read a chapter whenever you feel like it (which is the way I’m doing it). The chapters are short, generally 3 to 5 pages, and invariably give me something to think about.

I don’t underline in most of the books I read, but this one I am. As I finish each section (five so far), I’m writing to the friend who gave me the book, telling her what stood out for me in each chapter. Now she’s rereading the book and we discuss it each time we meet for lunch (she’s saving the cards so we can discuss later as she reads at her own pace). What fine conversations we’re having!

Here are some of the things that stood out for me in the first part of the book:

In the introduction, Cameron calls kindness a “superpower that has the capacity to transform lives and change the world.” Hmmm. That’s a bit of a tall order. I will wait and see.

In the first chapter, she talks about the difference between niceness and kindness. “Nice doesn’t ask too much of us. It isn’t all that hard to be nice. In fact, it’s easy. It’s also benign. Passive. Safe.” Kind people go beyond what’s expected of them; they go beyond the easy response. And they do it without expectation of anything in return. I am a nice person, but I am not a particularly kind person. Occasionally yes, certainly. I rarely go beyond the expected response, and I usually do expect something in return—like gratitude or a thank you.

As you can see, I have a ways to go.

One particular thing the author says in the early pages really caught my attention. She’s talking about how she’s been practicing kindness for over a year now, and she’s getting better at it.

But there are still days when, as soon as words come out of my mouth, I recognize that they were not especially kind words and contributed nothing of value.”

That made me stop and think about my own speech, and it has stayed with me. How many times every day do I say words that are not especially kind and contribute nothing of value? Far too many, I will tell you. But there is good news already: I have started to take notice of it (“That wasn’t very kind, was it?”) and I think my behavior is already slowly starting to improve. Not bad for page 24, huh?

There’s a lot of research on kindness out there, and they’re finding that acts of kindness have a positive effect on the body’s immune system, and they produce serotonin (the brain’s happy chemical). Interestingly, the recipient of the act of kindness also experiences the positive effect on the immune system and the serotonin, and—wait, there’s more!!—even bystanders who simply OBSERVE the kind act get the immune and serotonin effects! Seriously, who knew besides all these researchers and everyone who’s read this book?

It gets even better: Kindness is contagious. The giver of the kind act, the recipient, and, again, the observers are all more likely to go on and do kind acts, and it doesn’t stop there. It spreads outwards to three degrees of separation. So my kind act will cause those around me (or at least increase the likelihood) to also commit kind acts, and then those observers will commit kind acts, and the observers of those acts will commit kind acts. That’s quite a potential effect.

But even if every act doesn’t go that deep, there’s always the potential. You just never know.

On the other side of the fence, rude behavior acts in a similar manner. People who experience rude behavior are more likely to subsequently behave rudely, and even those who simply observe the rude interaction are more likely to engage in their own form of rudeness.

And there I was, stopped in my tracks again. What? A rude behavior on my part can precipitate three degrees of rudeness? Now there’s a motivator. At so many given junctures I can choose to be kind or rude. Either act will have a ripple effect on those around.

As I pondered the numbers, I realized that if more people increase kindness and decrease rudeness, then kindness will spread. And if it does indeed affect observers as well as actors, and to three degrees, it could spread quite quickly.

And that would be a very good thing. I’m going to give it a try.