Culling Cookbooks

Cookbook culling can be challenging. You have to be in the right mood of course, and it helps if you have a lot of time. The one thing the pandemic has given me is plenty of time, so when the mood to cull struck, I dove right in.

It started with the church basement ladies cookbooks. I needed a bit more room on the bookshelf, and I wanted it right away. In these situations, one picks the low-hanging fruit. I have a lot of church basement ladies cookbooks. Some I got from my mom, a couple were gifts, some I got at garage sales and such, plus I think they multiply on their own. I easily found seven to part with (one of my mom’s I kept because she had written a lot of comments in it, and it makes me smile), and I had the space I needed. Mission accomplished.

Oh, but it felt so good. What about all those apple cookbooks? Do I really need four apple cookbooks when I have a favorite I use all the time? (I decided not—the one will do me fine.) At this point, I decided to be methodical, going left to right on semi-organized shelves.

Start with easy: My Moosewood cookbooks and similar ilk. As expected, I kept most of these, although I did get rid of one Moosewood book about fancy vegetable sides, and another (non-Moosewood) book that was beautiful but contained recipes that I was pretty sure I’d never make.

Then came grains, which are such basic building blocks, I kept four of my cookbooks. Beans, my favorite building block, fared even better—I kept all seven. Beans—there are so many things you can do with beans!

Two of three soup cookbooks got culled, because I realize I almost never get soup recipes from soup cookbooks. I get them from all my other cookbooks. But it seemed prudent to retain one soup book.

I surprised myself on the potato cookbooks—I was sure I would keep the fat one with a lot of recipes and eschew the much thinner book with perhaps a tenth of the recipes. Wrong. The short book had far fewer recipes, but it had several I wanted to make. The bigger book—not even one!

If it sounds to you like I went through each book page by page, indeed I did, with the intent of “indexing” them. This is something I do with most of my new (to me, though they are more often used than new) cookbooks—I go through and make note of all the recipes I want to make, and I put them on a big (or smaller, depending) sticky inside the back cover. This is a great short cut. It isn’t foolproof, because preferences change over time, but it’s also fun to do—nice bonus.

In the course of culling my cookbooks, I’ve found several unindexed books. They go in a separate section on the bookshelf. This is also part of the culling process, but the mood to index a book is different from that to cull, so it goes in a stack and the culling goes on. Later in the evening, I will index a book or two.

Here’s a book I’m looking forward to indexing: The Victory Garden Cookbook. I have several vegetable cookbooks (just getting to these) and can you imagine a better time of year to be looking at vegetable cookbooks?

There is so much fun in this project: I’m making space on my bookshelf, reducing clutter, passing along some really good cookbooks to others and maybe getting some store credit at one of our local used bookstores into the bargain. (Independent bookstores offer much better prices than Half Price Books, and cookbooks are often in demand. I always take my cookbooks to local indies.)

I’m also getting excited about cooking again. I generally don’t like cooking in the summer because I’m a heat wimp, and each summer, I fear I’ll never want to cook again. But already I am longing to cook. The other day my neighbor said her green beans are coming in, would we like some? It took me a few minutes, but I found the recipe for minestrone casserole (think thick minestrone soup) done in a slow cooker.

Green beans? Yes, please!

What’s in a Name?

The July reading theme is proper names: first name, last name, nickname—any variety of proper name (name as opposed to place or object).

I started the hottest month of the year with a graphic novel—Lumberjanes (the 11th in the series). It was a good way to start July. I’ve also finished The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton (another great summer read; Downton Abbey meets Agatha Christie only begins to give you an idea). I’m now just starting The Eleanor Roosevelt Girls, by Bonnie Bluh.

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve read a brief memoir, Grayson, by Lynne Cox (she is a long-distance swimmer and author of Swimming to Antarctica, which I have heard of but not read; I liked Grayson a lot and am now interested in checking out Cox’s other books). My current nonfiction is The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy, by Peggy Caravantes. Baker—a spy for the French Resistance in World War II—is a fascinating woman who led an amazing life, mostly in France.

For poetry, I’m nearly done with Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. This is the first time I’ve read it. Written in the last few months before her death, it probably wasn’t my best choice for a pandemic read. Next up in poetry: The Lindbergh Half Century, by Robert Lietz.

This is a marvelously rich theme, and I’m glad we have nearly three more weeks to go. Fiction is particularly enticing, and I think I’ll spend most of my time here (again: hottest month). To wit:

  • Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
  • Lizzie’s War, Tim Farrington
  • Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter, N. Nozipo Maraire
  • Adam and Eve, Sena Jeter Naslund
  • I am Morgan le Fay: A Tale from Camelot, Nancy Springer
  • Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
  • The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Alice Walker
  • Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker (1st in a mystery series)
  • Goodbye Tsugumi, Banana Yoshimoto

And that’s just the cream of the crop. For fiction. Seriously.

Nonfiction is much skimpier. Here are my top contenders:

  • The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis
  • Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Isabel Allende (with recipes and beautiful drawings)
  • Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein (a stretch for the theme, perhaps, but surely there was some person Jane referenced when naming Janesville?)

It’s only three books, but a pretty decent range. Still, I expect July to lean towards fiction. But that’s how I feel now. Tomorrow? You just never know.

Keep your cool and happy reading!

Reading Local

The June book theme is Reading Local. For us, that’s Minneapolis, Minnesota, and pretty much anything in the Upper Midwest. It can be a local author or a local setting (ideally, both). It also includes books with the word local in the title (e.g., Going Local—which is the title of several different books, I just found out).

I had planned to start the month with The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl, which seemed like the perfect pandemic read. But then George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police. Protests and riots ensued; here, and then across the world. The protests have continued but the riots and looting have stopped. The protests must continue, and we must not let this go until systemic change happens.

Suddenly, reading The Art of the Wasted Day didn’t feel like the right read at all. Instead, I took something a bit more timely off the shelf: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin. Sheila (my book-theme cocreator) and I are discussing it this week. Like most edited books, it was a mixed bag. Some pieces were really moving, some painful, one I didn’t understand (this of course, bears revisiting). One, about Minnesota Nice, whacked me right between the eyes.

I followed that up with Hood Feminism, by Mikki Kendall (she is from Chicago—definitely the Upper Midwest). I’m about a third through, and am getting a good education. I’ve been a proud feminist most of my life, but I am now questioning that pride. It’s a little gut-wrenching, to be honest, but Kendall is making really good points. I don’t know where I’ll be at by the end of this book, but I am appreciating the journey.

In the poetry realm I’ve finished one book, and it has a title I absolutely love: Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life, by Robert Bly (from Minnesota). This is the second of his poetry books that I’ve read, and I liked it a lot.

Fiction has been a bit of a romp. I started with Leave No Trace, a thriller by Mindy Mejia (Twin Cities). This is a very compelling book if you are able to engage in a strong suspension of disbelief. With that (important) caveat in mind, it’s a great summer read. I followed this up with Fever in the Dark, by Ellen Hart (Minneapolis). This is the 24th book in her Jane Lawless mystery series, set in south Minneapolis (and yes, I have read the prior 23).

A thriller followed by a mystery requires a palate cleanser, so I went Fishing With RayeAnne, by Ava Finch (Minneapolis). I found out while reading the book that Ava Finch is a pen name for Sarah Stonich. (Oh! I just checked online, and I see Stonich has republished it, Fishing! under her own name in March of this year. I got the Ava Finch copy a few years ago.) I had no idea Stonich is a local author.

What next? Tough call. Right now, the leading contenders in fiction are The Blindfold, by Siri Hustvedt (who lives in New York, but grew up in Minnesota and still has family in Northfield); Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, by Lorna Landvik (Minneapolis), a long-time favorite author of mine; The Waking Land, by Callie Bates (all I know about her location is “Upper Midwest”), in case I feel like fantasy; and Shelter Half, by Carol Bly (Duluth)—I loved her nonfiction book, Letters From the Country, and am curious if I will like her fiction as well.

As for nonfiction, I’ve still got a ways to go on Hood Feminism. But, should I have time, right now I have three primary contenders: The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang (St. Paul), which I’ve been meaning to read for years (it’s gotten a lot of attention both locally and nationally); Ignorance Ain’t Got No Shame, by Tracy Lenore Jackson (Minnesota), a memoir that looks like it will be difficult to put down once I pick it up; and Give a Girl a Knife, by Amy Theilen (northern Minnesota), a food memoir. But then again, maybe I’ll go for something beautiful: Tempt Me: The Fine Art of Minnesota Cooking, by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky. Take a look at it: a feast for the eyes.

Happy Reading!

My City Is on Fire

Here’s what it’s like to live in Minneapolis right now: scary and heartbreaking. I woke up this morning wondering if my favorite bookstore was still standing (it is). A lot of buildings around it weren’t, though, and lots that are still standing had looting and serious damage, including fires.

Many storefronts are boarded up (most, in some neighborhoods). We drove from Minneapolis to Edina (a tony inner-ring suburb) to find a newspaper this morning because newspapers apparently weren’t delivered to many stores in Minneapolis or St. Paul (or our house). We stopped at a Holiday gas station, and they did have newspapers, but they didn’t have gasoline. The pumps were turned off.

On our return, I noticed another large gas station. It was open, but the windows were boarded and the pumps there were also closed. Many things are closed. Target, Walgreens, CVS, post offices, banks. Not in all locations, but pretty much all of the ones in this area. Shopping malls are closing.

The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul have imposed curfews between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. I, personally, was relieved to hear that.

Mind you, I’d be out there protesting too, if we weren’t in a pandemic. Not participating in the violent looting, of course, but acting with the 99% or so that are peaceful. I appreciate the peaceful protesters. But I am having a very hard time dealing with the looting and the violence and the property destruction. These are opportunists, I think to myself.

But then this afternoon, after returning from Edina with our treasured newspapers (both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press are required), I read this in the Strib editorial:

A riot is the language of the unheard.”

That stopped my brain and opened up my mind. It’s a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. He detested violence, but he understood it.

The police officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for more than 5 minutes has been charged with murder and manslaughter. For a system that typically moves at a snail’s pace, that is swift and none too soon. We’ll see if it makes a difference.

What does one read in such circumstances? Before all of this started, a few days ago, I had planned to read The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl, as my next nonfiction book. It seems perfect pandemic reading. But it doesn’t quite fit for today. I looked at my shelf, and pulled out several books, mostly comforting, to pick one, but I ended up with two. For comfort, I chose Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris. For edification (and discomfort) I added A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, edited by Sun Yung Shin.

We have much work to do here. There is much to rebuild, much to mend. And much to learn.

What’s in a Syllable?

The May book theme is 3-syllable titles, and I’m excited as can be. This one was my brainchild, and when Sheila asked for some examples, I told her I’d send a list. It was so much fun, I went a little nuts. After perusing my shelves for a while, I came up with approximately the following:

Possession    Persuasion    Becoming    Belonging    Grocery    Company    Coventry    Continent    Innocents    Origin    Erosion  Evicted    Perdido    Proofiness    Happiness    Amatka    Orlando    Nikolski    Moby Dick    Paris Trout    The Hobbit    The Astral    The Curfew    The Weekend    The Tempest    Red Harvest    White Apples    Kitchen Yarns    Lucid Stars    Wonder Boys    Endless Things    New Mercies    Ocean Sea    Mauve Desert    Little, Big    Little Faith    Flesh and Blood    Now and Then    Lost and Found    Kick the Can    On the Road    Lambs of God    Lamb in Love    The Big Squeeze    The Big Sleep    The Glass Key    The F-Word   Not a Sound    Best to Laugh    Leave No Trace

So many books (and this is only a  partial list!) and only 31 days. And not just many books, but many books I’m really excited about. I’m currently about halfway through Kitchen Yarns, by Ann Hood. This is a perfect comfort read for stay-at-home days. A memoir of kitchen memories, loaded with recipes. Right on its heels, another book I’m quite excited about: Grocery, by Michael Ruhlman.

A fun aside: I got both Kitchen Yarns and Grocery last December (different stores, different dates). I was quite excited about both of them, but decided to hold on to them for the 3-syllable theme (I can get a little silly about the theme). As I’m reading Kitchen Yarns, she mentions her husband, an author of many cookbooks, and who should it be but one Michael Ruhlman! I love that I bought their books separately but in the same month, held on to them until the same month, and then end up reading them one after another. It feels romantic. And who wouldn’t love to be married to a chef? Hood’s no slouch in the kitchen either, as you’ll find out if you read Kitchen Yarns. I can’t speak to Grocery yet, except to say it isn’t a cookbook, but rather about groceries, as suggested by the title, and the buying and selling of food in America. It looks to be informative and compelling (if not nearly as comforting as Kitchen Yarns).

In the land of fiction, I’ve finished The Hobbit. This was a reread, and I admit I was surprised at how much I loved it. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings trilogy many times, but I’ve only read The Hobbit once or twice before. I had forgotten a lot, and I laughed and cried and loved it. A fine tale indeed (and also a nice comforting read, if you like dragons with your comfort). I’m now about half through Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos. I loved her book, Broken for You, and I have high hopes for this one as well.

When I think of reading for the rest of the month, I look into space and smile. After Language Arts in fiction, I’m torn in several directions. The current top contenders are Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor; Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson; Leave No Trace, by Mindy Mejia (local author, with a northern Minnesota setting); and Best to Laugh, by Lorna Landvik (another local author). It’s a good mix of books, and I’m staying at home, so maybe I’ll even get them all done. The thing is, by the time I finish my current fiction book, the top four contenders will be different. Not completely different, but almost certainly not the same. There are too many exciting possibilities.

And that is a very nice reading catbird seat to be in.

Happy reading!

Reading in the Time of Coronavirus: Reading Themes

This has not been a good reading month for me. In fact, I have finished only four books, two of which were slim volumes of poetry (and the third a mediocre mystery). I’ve been preoccupied with Covid-19, and books that I thought would appeal to me in any mood just a few weeks ago have lost their allure.

The most significant book of March has been On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, by Naomi Klein. Not exactly comforting reading, is it? But I went to the usual places for comfort (spirituality, memoirs) and . . . nothing. Perhaps I needed an urgency in my reading to match the pandemic.

I expect to finish a few more books before month’s end. I’m nearly done with Sunshine, by Robin McKinley (a vampire book which is keeping me reading, but not quickly), and nearly two-thirds through Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, by Emily Bernard (which I’m liking a lot).

The reading theme for March is Hot (as in sun, fire, burn, warm, summer, etc.). It’s not a really strong theme (at least based on what I found on my shelves) but that turned out to be okay, because I was probably going to end up reading whatever appealed to me regardless of the theme (which is why I’m reading Emily Bernard right now). I do hope to slip in one more poetry book: Fire to the Looms Below, by Liliane Welch.

The April theme is Beauty. This is also a little skimpy (again, based totally on my shelves), but that’s okay because I suspect I’ll be excessively diverted over the next several weeks. Still, I have a number of appealing titles. For fiction:

  • Everything Beautiful Began After, by Simon Van Booy
  • The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb
  • The Beautiful Miscellaneous, by Dominic Smith
  • Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
  • An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin
  • A Beautiful Blue Death, by Charles Finch
  • A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity, by Whitney Otto

I’m particularly looking forward to Everything Beautiful Began After (set in Greece), which I think will be my first book. There’s a good chance I’ll read Whitney Otto after that, as I adored an earlier book, Now You See Her.

I only have a few nonfiction books, but they have a nice range:

  • Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today, by Leslie Marmon Silko
  • Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo, by Carole Maso
  • Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want, by Bryan Welch

I hope to get to all three of them (and in that order).

Poetry is also slim but appealing in its beauty:

  • I Will Say Beauty, by Carol Frost
  • Beautiful Trouble, by Amy Fleury
  • Stumble, Gorgeous, by Paula McLain

Stay safe, wash your hands frequently, keep your distance, and remember: Reading is a great social distancing activity!

Staying at Home

There is nothing I love more than a day of solitude. After too much time out and about, nothing is better than a few days at home. But when days turn to weeks, and maybe months, the walls start closing in, and solitude starts feeling a little more like solitary—the big emptiness. Not good.

One of my ways to address this is to have a primary project every day. Often they are kitchen oriented (e.g., make applesauce, make vegetable stock), but one rainy day it was to watch movies, and one day soon it will be doing taxes (not all projects are equally fun, though I do prefer to err closer to fun).

Since spontaneity is not my strong suit, I plan my projects. If you’re floundering a little bit with all your home time, consider some of these activities:

Generic suggestions

  • Have a candlelight dinner.
  • Peruse seed catalogs and plan a garden.
  • Start a gratitude journal.
  • Go through your old photographs.
  • Send a care package to a friend.
  • Tell someone you love your favorite memory of them.
  • Start sunflower seeds indoors.
  • Write letters and send cards to friends and/or family.
  • Really pay attention to your house plants.
  • Get caught up on magazines.
  • Cook something you’ve never tried before.
  • Make a collage.
  • Put together a jigsaw puzzle.

In my world, rainy days call for movies, and I love movie themes. Here are some I’ve done and others I plan to do:

  • Hitchcock movies (this is good for many rainy days)
  • Coen brothers movies (a Minnesota must)
  • Katharine Hepburn movies
  • Cary Grant movies
  • Julia Roberts movies
  • Dance movies (e.g., Shall We Dance? Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing, White Nights)
  • Musicals (e.g., The Music Man, Oklahoma! Fiddler on the Roof, Chicago, A Star is Born)
  • Heist movies (e.g., Oceans 8, 11, 12, 13; The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair—double down and see both the 1968 version with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and the 1999 version with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo)
  • Sports moves (e.g., Hoosiers, The Natural, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own, Bend It Like Beckham, Pat and Mike)
  • Star Trek
  • Star Wars
  • Lord of the Rings

That will take care of a lot of rainy days, or a yawning weekend, if it comes to that.

If you want to be productive

  • Organize your pantry/cupboards and put the oldest food in front.
  • Clean out the medicine cabinet.
  • Organize the tool bench (or tool box).
  • Clean out the utensil drawer and get rid of things you don’t use.
  • Clean the front/coat closet.
  • Clean out your junk drawers. All of them.

If you want to play games

There are the usual board games, card games, and word games, but I most favor made-up games. These can be particularly amenable to social distancing. Examples:

A-Z game: pick a topic and go through the alphabet, alternating answers. You need fairly broad topics to encompass the entire alphabet. Plants, animals, movie titles, musical groups. Sometimes you just agree to skip over a letter (this is always fun as it stops you from planning too far ahead, as the person that can’t think of a Q just moves on to R, and now you have S instead of R, and did I mention there’s no scoring here?).

Another version of A-Z is paper and pencil. You pick a topic (any of the above, for example, but make up your own because it’s much more fun), and then you each make your own lists. You want to decide ahead of time whether you want to write your lists to match or not match. Both are equally fun.

Outside the A-Z realm, there are plenty of fun and nostalgic lists to make: TV shows you watched when you were a kid, the first popular singles you remember, indoor and outdoor games you played, foods you love, foods you hate, foods you’ve never tried. So many potentials. Usually these aren’t to match. They just make for fun memories and discussion.

Tired of lists? How about Hide the Thimble? It doesn’t have to be a thimble—you could hide a candy bar, promise of an hour’s time, a poem….

For the reading inclined

  • Reread a favorite childhood book (Charlotte’s Web, Go Dog Go, Goodnight Moon).
  • Read a poem.
  • Read a poem every day.
  • Read a book about poetry (e.g., How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch)
  • Read a play.
  • Read a short story.
  • Write a short story?
  • Read a fairy tale.
  • Read a Grimm’s fairy tale. Grim!
  • Read a book of the Bible.
  • Memorize a verse of the Bible.
  • Memorize a poem.
  • Read a fiction book if you only read nonfiction.
  • Read a nonfiction book if you only read fiction.
  • Read a book in a genre unfamiliar to you (for me that would be westerns and military novels).
  • Read a genre you eschew (paranormal romance?)
  • Read a book from a perspective really different from yours. Try to cover at least three differences: race, gender, class, liberal/conservative, age, sexual orientation, ability, immigrant/refugee, many more—so many people to get to know!

This is the tip of the iceberg of what we can do with our time at home.

There must be so much I’ve missed. What are others up to?

The Joy of Rereading

This month’s reading theme—rereading, which is to say reading books we’ve read before and want to read again—has been my favorite theme of all in the 6+ years we’ve been doing monthly reading themes.

Rereading books. I used to do it a lot as a kid. I read Charlotte’s Web (checked out of the library, I only recently bought my own copy) seven times when I was a kid, and I read The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton many times, though I don’t remember just how many. But as an adult, I rarely reread. That changed four years ago, when I read Artful, by Ali Smith. In her essay “On Time,” she says:

We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.  . . . Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives. You don’t step into the same story twice.”

Rereading has always seemed like a bit of a luxury to me. Why reread, when I could be learning something new?

But after reading Ali, not only do I feel like I have permission to reread, I feel like I have an obligation! And I’ve been rereading quite a bit more ever since.

But this month, this lovely month immersing myself in reading books I’ve already read and loved, has been a grand experience (if far too short).

I started with Dragonflight, the first book in the Pern trilogy by Anne McCaffrey. I read this in the 1980s, and I still loved it in 2020. I started the second book, Dragonquest, but it was enough different from the first that the compulsion was gone, and I was able to put it down and move on to something else. Short month.

My first nonfiction was Reflections on Aging. It’s almost a coffee table book, and it is perhaps a bit fluffy, but it also has good wisdom sprinkled throughout. I will keep it to read again in a few years—different years deliver different messages. I followed this up with Fifty Day of Solitude, by Doris Grumbach. I loved this when I read it in 2002. But this month, it was—okay. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t move me. Really? Doris Grumbach? But I’ve loved all her nonfiction! So I tried another, Life in a Day this time. Ah, here is the Grumbach I love.

Why do I still love the one and not the other? In another 10 years, might the books switch places?

After Grumbach for nonfiction, I picked up 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Now here is a book I loved even more on the second read than the first. A book I think everyone should read (or at least all booklovers—also people who enjoy epistolary works). A book that can be easily read of an afternoon (97 pages)—perfect for either snowstorm or sunny day.

After revisiting fantasy with McCaffrey, I read Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen, a light book with touches of magic that I loved on the first read. The reread left me disappointed. I remembered so much more than was there (memory being a very faulty thing). I followed this up with Kindred, by Octavia Butler. This one did not disappoint.

What I love about the rereading theme, is discovering what stays with you and what doesn’t. And yet again, maybe it doesn’t right now, but will again in the future. Some places in yourself you come back to again and again and again. For me, these are the land/environment, religion/spirituality, and community (friends, family, or faith). The books that continue to captivate me even after decades nearly always roam in these areas.

A month of rereading is like coming home. It’s like rediscovering yourself. Yes! I believed this way back then!

Two years ago exactly, in February 2018, I spent the month focusing on black writers because I was appalled at the few number (1) I had read the prior year. That month of reading changed my reading habits. My reading is far more diverse now, and it feels weird when I’m reading only white authors.

I think my February of rereading is going to have a similar impact, and I’ll give even more value to rereading than I have since reading Ali Smith’s essay.

Because you just never read the same book twice.

Rereading Books

For February, we’re doing something different with the reading theme. Instead of a topic or specific word in book titles to focus on, we are rereading books. I’m finding this theme to be much more spontaneous than our typical themes.

I’ve started the month with a small stack of books that caught my eye in the last few weeks. Fiction started with The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey. I’ve finished the first book, Dragonflight, and will likely start Dragonquest tomorrow. I read this in my 20s and loved it, and I have to say, it’s held up. I still love Lessa and the dragons and the weyrs.

After the trilogy (although I might not read all three—it depends if they hold my interest against the sway of the other books I want to read), first in line is Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor. I don’t have anything for sure after that because I think it might just be The Women of Brewster Place, also by Gloria Naylor. And when I go downstairs to get The Women of Brewster Place (the read books are in the basement), I’ll see another two or three books on the shelf that I want to reread. I just can’t tell you which. Yet.

In nonfiction, I started with Reflections on Aging, almost a coffee table book (lots of calming pictures, brief essays). I was going to give it away after I first read it, but for some reason I couldn’t let it go. Later, I wanted to reference something in it, and read nearly the whole thing again. And this month I’ve read it through with good attention. It is not a deep book, but it has good wisdom sprinkled throughout; things it’s good to be reminded of. I will keep it to read again in a few years—different years deliver different messages.

Looking for something else downstairs, I ran across Doris Grumbach, whose memoirs I devoured in the early 2000s. I couldn’t decide between Life in a Day and Fifty Days of Solitude, so I grabbed them both. I know I loved both on first reading, and wanted to read them equally, so decided based on date of publication, and am currently reading Fifty Days of Solitude. I’m tempted to read Life in a Day next, but even moreso, I think I want to reread all the Grumbach books in order. I read them out of order the first time and loved them. But if I’m going to continue reading them, I know I’ll get a much better picture of Grumbach if I read them in order rather than willy nilly. (Our December reading theme is Wild Card—we each pick our own theme—maybe I’ll read all the Grumbach books, in order; that would be a great December reading project!)

What comes after Grumbach? So many choices! Deep Economy, Tap Dancing in Zen, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. Those off the top of my head, but who knows what I’ll decide on when I see all those other books I’ve read?

Oh, also a paired reading has occurred to me: Winne the Pooh and The Tao of Pooh. Doesn’t that seem like good February fare?

Poetry has been a wee bit of a learning experience. I started the month with What the Living Do, the first book I read by Marie Howe (a favorite poet) and my favorite book of hers. I’m about halfway through. I had a completely different memory of this book, and I’m guessing it’s based on one or two or a few poems towards the end. I have thought of this book (for 18 years) as “oh, what a good book to give a friend when someone close to them has died.” Oh so glad I didn’t. The poems are good, for sure, and pack a huge emotional punch. But so far it’s a lot of incest, not the best conveyor of sympathy. I hope by the end of the book to find the redeeming note I remember.

Next up for poetry? I think it has to be Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot. But maybe not….

Best Books of 2019

I generally do a favorite-books-of-the-year list every year. Not the top 10 or top 20. It doesn’t stop at a number; it stops when I stop saying, “Oh, yes, I loved that book.”

And these are the books I loved in 2019 (note, these are books I read in 2019, not necessarily, or even usually, published in 2019):

  1. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (nonfiction; a book that can be found in many sections: nature, science, botany/plants, indigenous studies, sustainability, ecology and likely several more)
  2. Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson (fiction)
  3. Hagar Poems, Mohja Kahf (I have corresponded with this author after writing to tell her how much I loved Hagar Poems; I love it when authors respond, and poets are particularly good at responding)
  4. A Year of Living Kindly, Donna Cameron (nonfiction—who doesn’t need more kindness in their life?)
  5. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Phaedra Patrick (an absolutely lovely and charming novel)
  6. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Margareta Magnusson (a short book about cleaning up before you die; this Swede finds it a bit more pragmatic than holding each item you own to see if it sparks joy)
  7. Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez (nonfiction about how women are underrepresented in research and why it matters, and not nearly as boring as I’ve just made it sound)
  8. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat (I will never ever look at salt the same way again. A beautiful book about cooking, with lots of illustrations and recipes.)
  9. That Good Night, Sunita Puri (nonfiction about palliative care and end-of-life issues—there’s a lot more out there than straight to hospice)
  10. What I Stole, Diane Sher Lutovick (poetry)
  11. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson (a memoir, told in verse, written for middle schoolers)
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg (first I read the book, then I saw the movie about 10 times, then I read the book again; I love the movie, but the book has elements that the movie just doesn’t have the time to capture)
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (loved this rabbity novel decades ago, and I loved it all over again last year—the same dinged-up mass market paperback I read the first time)
  • Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, Lorna Landvik (Landvik is probably my favorite local novelist, and I reread this book because I bought it for a friend and I had forgotten that it was about a bookclub, set right in my part of Minneapolis, so I read it again and I think I loved it even more, because I didn’t live here the first time I read the book)

The last three aren’t numbered because they’re rereads. I don’t like to pit rereads against first-time reads. It isn’t a level playing field.

A bit of context for the numerically inclined: I read 121 books last year, 53 fiction, 38 poetry, and 30 nonfiction. Most of my years are not quite so heavy in fiction, but 2019 was definitely a fiction kind of year.

I’ve also started tracking my diversity reading since I discovered a couple of years ago that it was almost none. In 2019, I read 31 books by people of color. That’s just over a quarter (26%) of the books I read, and a nice improvement on the 19% of the prior year.

Does it matter—diversity in reading? I think it does. Reading helps you to walk in other people’s shoes. I find I’m much more likely to examine things through a racial lens when I’ve read beyond my usual white menu (no surprise there, I guess). I like this trend. And the happy thing I’ve found is that the more diversely I read, the more diversely I want to read.

The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.