Escapist Summer Reading

Last night a friend texted me, asking for some book titles for escapist summer reading, and if there were any I might lend. He cited the current news and politics, and sees hope swirling down the drain.

I asked for a bit of time to think on it. Think I did (and also scanned some bookshelves), and here is the list I came up with. It would be a different list for a different friend, but nonetheless, this is not a bad start for some escapist summer reading. Here is my emailed response, with just a few edits for privacy (I did think of deleting all the borrowing/lending notes, but thought that it might lead to an interesting comment or two on the lending and sharing of books).

Dear George,

Since you’re looking for escapist, I started with fiction, and specifically fantasy which I know you enjoy. Here are my suggestions:

(Note: All links are to Amazon, not because I like Amazon, but because you can usually click on the book and see what it looks like inside, which is a feature I really like, along with skimming the reviews.)

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. This is probably my #1 escapist fantasy recommendation. They are set in the literary world, Thursday Next is the main character (a literary detective) and the books (there are several more) are a romp. You are welcome to borrow this (if I can find it—it isn’t where I thought it was).

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. This is new (to me) and first in a trilogy. I have all three books (I finished the second one recently) but have not yet started the third. You are welcome to borrow the first if the series appeals to you. I can’t overly vouch for it because I haven’t finished it yet, but it has won several fantasy awards and she is a rising star.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. This is a YA, but it is quite brilliant and second only to Lord of the Rings, my favorite fantasy trilogy. I have this and you are welcome to borrow it. This is also highly escapist and it might actually vie with The Eyre Affair as my #1 recommend.

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness. I read this several years ago when it first came out in paperback and absolutely loved it. But I didn’t want to buy the sequel in hardcover, and by the time it came out in paperback I lost track of it. But then I found book 2 and recently book 3 in the dollar bin, so I am interested in getting back to it. Yes, another trilogy. Obviously, I can’t vouch for the entire trilogy, but I loved the first book, which you are welcome to borrow.

Other Fiction:

Still Life, by Louise Penny. This is my favorite mystery series. It is wonderful, engaging, thoughtful, has an engaging cast of characters (including two artists, a cranky poet, a bookstore owner, and a gay couple who run a B&B), and perhaps best of all, it’s set in Canada, so it’s especially escapist. You may have read this already (but the cover of my book is different and looks like this).

The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicole Yoon. This is the best book I have read in years. And it’s YA. But it packs a major punch and I totally loved it. I also read it in one day (even though it’s nearly 400 pages), so it would not be a book that would get you through much of the summer, but I just can’t say enough positive things about this book. Unfortunately, I cannot loan it to you because I borrowed it from the library.

And while I started with fiction, nonfiction can also be escapist (or, in some cases, soothing), and I know you read a lot of nonfiction. Here are some recommendations:

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is a book I am currently reading (subtitled “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants) and it is beautiful. A lot of native stories, a lot of wisdom, a lot about nature, and some about history. I am only to about page 50 but am learning so much! The writing transports you into another world, and it’s starting to make me look at the world a little differently. More reverently. The author is both a Native American and a scientist, and it’s also a book about having your feet in two worlds. You can’t borrow this because I’m currently reading it (at a snail’s pace, because I like to read it in tiny segments). I would call this a highly spiritual book, but not in any sort of Christian sense of the word.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual writers. Christian, yes, but also progressive and kind of cranky. I have learned quite a bit from her. Her short books are good, too. I’ve read two of them but passed both of them on because they just seemed they needed to be shared. I have not been at all impressed with her fiction, and she also has some books about being a mother that I haven’t read. But her spiritual writing is spot on (for me). I have two more of her books on my to-read shelf that I’m planning to read in the next few months. She is very good for these times.

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. What, trees? This is another book I am currently reading and I am LOVING it. It is wild! Did you know trees communicate? By smell, and by roots touching, and by electromagnetic energy (conveyed through fungus!). This book is a total escape into a different and fascinating world. And sorry this is also unavailable as it is in my current reading pile.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is the book on which the movie was based. Quite different (not so humorous, more factual, more science, and a broader swath of characters) but equally interesting to the movie, which I loved. If you loved the movie, I think you will really like this book. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it (available at the library). I am pretty sure I still have my copy of this if you want to borrow it (the book, not the movie).

And these two because I think they might appeal to your interest in art and artists:

Hold Still, by Sally Mann. This is a memoir that I haven’t read yet, but just look inside the book at the link, and you’ll see why I think it might be captivating. You can’t borrow this because I haven’t read it yet and I don’t lend out books I haven’t read because I’m selfish that way. The moment it has left the house I want to read it.

Just Kids, by Patti Smith. This is a memoir of Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (much at the Chelsea Hotel). I’m not sure if you’re into this era or not, but I thought I’d include these last two kind of as wild cards. You can’t borrow this because it’s on someone else’s reading pile. It will be available somewhere down the road, but probably not before the next (presidential) election.

Whew! Hope you find something in here that appeals.

Happy Reading!

Liz

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May-June Book Themes

May has gotten away from me, as it often does. So much going on, what with spring and all. For most of May I’m either outside or looking outside unless it’s raining or nighttime. You just never know when an ovenbird might show up in your yard. (It’s been back twice since. Maybe it will nest!)

Back to books. The May theme is architectural elements. So far I have read a staircase, a kingdom (perhaps a stretch), medicine chest, bridge, and fountain. In process are a picture window, stairway, and corridor. May is not one of my stronger reading months. I just don’t care so much about books. The birds are migrating, the catnip is coming up, the cactus is singing. I may still love books, but I can’t seem to focus on them.

June gets a little more down to earth. Still plenty to see and discover, but a bit more time for books as well. The theme for June is “green.” This includes any book with the word “green” in the title, and also green things (e.g., grass, trees, plants, parks, leaves, salads, envy).

I’ve not yet done a scouring of the shelves. Even so, I’ve likely found more than I can read. So far for fiction:

  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
  • Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas
  • Murder on Sagebrush Lane, Patricia Smith Wood
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

For nonfiction:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, Gayla Marty
  • The Green Boat, Mary Pipher
  • Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (a bit iffy on direct theme fit, but the greenest book of them all, and I really want to read it, subtitled: “The ecological crisis through the lens of faith.”)

Poetry often adds fun variations on the theme:

  • Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer
  • Green Soldiers, John Bensko
  • Nettles, Betty Adcock
  • Flower Wreath Hill, Kenneth Rexroth
  • Now the Green Blade Rises, Elizabeth Spires
  • You Speak to Me in Trees, Elana Wolff
  • The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri

With luck I will read five or six of these. You just never know what you’ll be in the mood for. And I’ll probably find half as many again before June even starts!

Happy reading to you, and happy summer as well!

Black History Month Reading: Coda

Last February, I decided to focus on black writers to honor Black History Month. I wondered if an immersive reading experience would have any kind of long-term impact. What might I learn?

Here’s what I read (in order, because I think that matters):

  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly (nonfiction, quite different from the movie but equally excellent)
  • On the Bus With Rosa Parks, Rita Dove (poetry, loved this)
  • The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon (YA, I loved loved this book which I read in one day, which was really cool because it takes place over the course of one day)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson (nonfiction, I learned huge amounts from this book—much of it about myself)
  • Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums, Sonia Sanchez (poetry)
  • Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Vashti Harrison (children’s nonfiction, 40 black women—many I knew, but some not—I learned quite a bit!)
  • Morning Haiku, Sonia Sanchez (poetry)
  • Sula, Toni Morrison (fiction; I generally find Morrison’s fiction difficult. I expect she rewards rereading)
  • In Montgomery, Gwendolyn Brooks (poetry)

One thing I noticed as February progressed is the more I read, the more my interest in black literature increased. Since February I have read:

  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith (memoir)
  • We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (nonfiction; this is the first of her books I’ve read. I have Americanah on the to-read shelf)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (fantasy, first in a trilogy; I got books 2 and 3 before I finished—but after I started, so that should tell you something. I think I might have to read all of her books.)
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (fiction)

This last (The Underground Railroad) is still in process, but I felt compelled to include it because there seems to be a slight skew to books by women. Although I do want to say that overall, I believe women do a better job of including and representing men in their work (fiction and nonfiction) than men do of including and representing women. This is to be expected, as women have learned to navigate this world that is mostly run by men.

I find a parallel in black literature: Black people do a better job of including and representing white people in their work than white people do including and representing black people. I learn a lot about white people from black people. Not so much the other way around. Black people have learned to navigate this world that is mostly run by white people.

People tell their story and the story of the people that dominate them.

Here is a big thing I learned from my immersion reading: The experiences I have as a woman experiencing discrimination in a man’s world are very different from the experiences of black people navigating a white world. I used to think it was similar. But there have been many times in my life when I have been in mixed male-female company and not felt like I had to keep my guard up at all. This is not so much the case with black people, because you just never know when someone might say something nasty. Always ready, just in case the insult comes. Because it does.

Another thing I learned was the importance of stereotypes. It is so easy—practically default—to go down the stereotype road. As I walk down the street towards three black men, do I think shy musical students? Well, no, not usually. But I did find after a month of intensive reading, I was looking at black people completely differently. I mentioned this to my librarian friend, and she suggested that all this reading has made black people more three-dimensional to me. It’s true. Through books I’ve met black scientists, physicists, computer programmers, immigrants, comedians, artists, and U.S. poet laureates.

Up next: Finishing Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and then getting back to the N.K. Jemisin trilogy. Lots of nonfiction to consider, but for now that will remain a tantalizing possibility.

The Art of Rereading

I’m rereading Jeanette Winterson’s Art [Objects] to discuss in a couple of days with my friend Sheila. We discussed this book when we read it many years ago. We both loved it then, and were curious as to whether we’d each feel the same on the reread.

One thing has not changed for me: This book makes me think. And while the first time it seems we primarily discussed the book as a whole, this time I am wanting to discuss very specific things, often just one sentence. These are not necessarily things I disagree with, but they all made me stop and ponder. What do I think about this? And then: I’d like to talk to someone about this. Examples:

It seems to me that the intersection between a writer’s life and a writer’s work is irrelevant to the reader. (p. 26)

Years ago I was in a book club and someone suggested reading Michael Dorris’s book, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. (The author at the time was being accused of abusing his daughters.) One member of the club (a librarian) was appalled at the suggestion and refused to read the book. Another (who majored in literature) was shocked that the librarian (a librarian!) would refuse a book based on the actions of its author. Is the intersection between a writer’s life and their work relevant? Ever? Always?

[S]peech patterns, and therefore thought patterns and patterns of feeling were rapidly changing. (p. 39)

Do speech patterns affect thought patterns? My knee jerk was “no way,” but I had only to think of derogatory terms to realize that speech patterns certainly enforce thought patterns. So they likely change them as well. Interesting concept and worth some deeper thought.

To be truthful, there are whole sections of Dickens that should never have been written, therefore they should never be read. (p. 89)

This one kind of blew me out of the water. (Confession: I’ve not read much Dickens, only Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol.) Perhaps Winterson’s comment is obviously true to everyone who has read a lot of Dickens. But my first thought was, What if Winterson’s whole sections that should never be read would happen to be my favorite? What is the role of truth here? Whose truth?

There is plenty of escapism and diversion to be had, but it cannot be had from real books, real pictures, real music, real theatre. (p. 111)

This gave me pause. The Lord of the Rings provides plenty of escapism and diversion, and I most definitely consider it a real book. If you can read a book over and over again, and each time learn something new, I consider this a real book. I’m not sure I learn something new every time I reread Charlotte’s Web, but I always relearn the importance of compassion. And Charlotte’s Web is absolutely a real book, even while I escape into a farmyard every time I read it. Even Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an escape, and one of the best if you’re holed up during a cold and icy winter. I am guessing Winterson and I have different definitions of “escapism.” To me, escapism is diving into a book and leaving all your cares behind—work worries, the bills, chores, upcoming blizzard—instead you enter a different world in a book. And of course in my definition, Winterson’s books themselves are escapism, because they inevitably introduce new worlds to me. Hence I suspect Winterson has a somewhat different definition.

On a lighter note, I am often upended by Winterson in my own ignorance in matters of literature and history. Example:

We all know the story of Coleridge and the Man from Porlock. (p. 62)

Man from Porlock? Does everyone know about the man except me?

And then on page 91, she quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf, and goes on to say it is “impossible to read the above and not think of Cleopatra” at which point I burst out laughing, because not only had I not thought of Cleopatra, even thinking of Cleopatra while rereading the passage, I found it a stretch to think it impossible not to think of Cleopatra since I found it such a stretch to think of Cleopatra even while trying to think of Cleopatra while re-rereading the passage.

Is this book worth a reread? Absolutely yes. I’ve still 40 pages to go, and I expect it will keep me thinking.

April Reading: Objects and Things

This month’s book theme is objects and things, which mostly means books with either the word “object” or “thing” in the title. As I was perusing my shelves, it seemed that “it” was often interchangeable with “object” or “thing,” so I added “it” to my mental list. And it didn’t take long for me to consider rereading It, by Stephen King. I loved it when I read it 25 years ago or so. Would it hold up?

I have just reached page 1000 (153 more to go). Sometimes you need to take a break. I’ve spent much of the afternoon reading King, and believe me, once I finish this post I’ll be right back to It, fully planning to finish tonight. I’m reminded of why I loved it so much the first time: While it is a horror novel, at its heart it’s a story about friendship and love and trust. With maybe a dash of faith.

I’ve got two poetry books going, The Plural of Some Things, by Desi Di Nardo; and One Secret Thing, by Sharon Olds. I’m liking the Olds in particular, but I’m also feeling like reading it slowly (often a good sign with poetry). A couple more poetry books that I’m looking forward to this month: Things and Flesh, by Linda Gregg; and Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney.

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve finished Rich People Things, by Chris Lehmann, which I didn’t care for at all. I had expected whimsical essays on economics and social issues, but what I got was economic pedantics at its most deadly boring. Economics can be fun and interesting. Really! This, however, would not be a good example.

I’ve followed Rich People Things up with Objects of Our Desire, by Salman Akhtar. Early days, yet, just a quarter through, but so far I’m liking it. In this first part, he’s talked about clutter versus collections, why people collect, and what people collect. (Lots of people collect things. I collect bookmarks from independent bookstores, and it is fun reading Objects of Our Desire through the lens of that collection.) I’m not sure what I’ll read after this one. Maybe Nothing (Nica Lalli).

There are a few fiction books I’m looking forward to after It: An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (a novel about the art world that includes beautiful color reproductions—an intriguing and beautiful book); Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, by Katharine Weber (I loved her novel The Music Lesson, but never read beyond that and I don’t know why); and Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection (I’ve read at least one of his books and enjoyed it, and this is his first).

Last month’s theme was women (in any way, shape or form), in honor of Women’s History Month. I read a girl, a pastrix, female, geek feminist, she, Temperance Dare (local author Wendy Webb), sisters, and a mother. My favorite book of the month was Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It stretches your ideas of Christianity, this tattooed female priest, this pastrix. The love just pours out of the book. A different kind of Christianity than what I experienced growing up. I will definitely seek out more of her books.

Now I’ll return to Stephen King. A battle awaits me.

March Books

I’ve barely searched my shelves and already have more potentials for the March reading theme than I can possibly get to. Topping the list in fiction:

  • Fishing with RayAnne, Ava Finch
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  • Woman in the Dark, Dashiell Hammett
  • Huntress, Malinda Lo
  • The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
  • Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, Elizabeth Jolley
  • The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa
  • The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
  • The Mistress, Phillipe Tapon
  • Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen

Mind you, this was without searching my shelves. These are books that practically fell into my hands while I was perusing my shelves for other purposes.

Aside: I believe I spend more time perusing my bookshelves than most people spend cooking. (That could be a seriously weird comment about me, or a comment about how much time the average person spends actually cooking these days.)

I’m guessing the March theme is fairly obvious from the above list, but in case not, here are the books that have jumped off the nonfiction shelves (again, no perusal required):

  • The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit
  • The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
  • Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
  • Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
  • Janesville, Amy Goldstein

And poetry contenders include:

  • She Says, Venus Khoury-Ghata
  • The Sisters, Josephine Jacobsen
  • The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • The Moon Is Always Female, Marge Piercy

Yes, the theme is women, timed to Women’s History Month. All things female count (including pronouns). My personal favorite is Pastrix (“A term of insult used by unimaginative sections of the church to define female pastors”). A female Lutheran pastor with tattoos. Lots of tattoos. This book will appeal to lovers of Anne Lamott.

This a great theme month. So many possibilities! Already I want to do it again. But also, I want to do a reading theme of the male variety. Again, books leap off the shelf and I’m still sitting at the computer: Maurice, Invisible Man, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, The Men We Reaped, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Angry White Men, Sons and Lovers. Lots of potential. I am working on being more bipartisan in many aspects of life. Books included.

The official reading theme for February was Day/Month/Season. I read only one book for the theme (a new and extreme low), but it was a good one: In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming—a mystery (first in the series) that has a female priest working (kind of) with the chief of police. I’m definitely intrigued enough to read the next one. What I find most compelling here is that the author goes into issues beyond the typical mystery genre. It puts me in mind of Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries, which are good purely as mysteries, but also seem spiritual in some way that is difficult to articulate.

But mostly in February I read Black History Month. It was an excellent experience of immersive reading, which I’m still processing a bit (and plus I went over into March and have only recently finished Tracy K. Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light). More on that soon.

Good books to you, happy reading, and please do let me know of excellent books that you run across.

Black History Month Reading: Day 14

I’m close to finishing Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair (one chapter left to go) and have pretty much loved it. The thing about Phoebe Robinson is that you (or at least I) feel like she’s standing right there talking to you. She’s funny, direct, and honest. First off, I learned a lot about hair. Black hair in general and women’s in particular. You might not care about this, but I found it fascinating, and it has given me a new appreciation (and the occasional silent wow) for black women’s hair. Don’t touch it. Don’t ask to touch it.

Moving beyond hair, Robinson addresses stereotypes, or what she calls the monolith of black, which I totally got when I read:

Blackness is not a monolith. There’s nerdy black, jock black, manic pixie dream black, sassy black, shy black, conscious black, hipster black . . . the list goes on and on.”

After a nanosecond of introspection, I realized I have a bit of this monolith perspective myself. (This comes up in many of the books I’m reading—the perceptions, the expectations, the stereotypes. My eyes are opening a bit. I read on.)

Because I am an introvert and tend to analyze everything social, this, in particular resonated with me:

I don’t know about other black people, but that Greek chorus of “But what will the white people think?” has been a constant in my brain for much of my life. “Man, I truly am going to be late, not because of CPT but because of traffic. But what will the white people think?” “I really want to order certain food off this menu at dinner. But what will the white people think?” “I want to speak out about some injustice I just witnessed. But what will the white people think? That I’m a troublemaker? Guess I should keep my mouth shut.” Do you know the amount of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years that have been wasted second-guessing each and every behavior because I was wary of how I was going to reinforce or dismantle certain stereotypes?”

This is an excellent book, and I haven’t included any of the funny bits, some of which were quite exceptionally funny.

After You Can’t Touch My Hair, I decided maybe a little balance with the old school was in order, so I pulled out bell hooks and Alice Walker. I thumbed through both, decided on Alice Walker, and life was good. But then I went Stop! Why go old school? Why not read another up-and-coming (or at least on my bookshelves for less than a decade) author? So I put Ms. Walker back and pulled Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light off the shelf.

I’m not dismissing Alice Walker or any of her peers, but I think it’s time for me to get in touch with a younger generation of writers. Smith is Poet Laureate of the United States, and I’ve read a bit of her poetry, but Ordinary Light is a memoir, the story of “a young woman [born 1972] struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America.”

I am beginning to begin to understand just a wee bit of what it means to be black in America.

In the fiction world, I loved The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon. Here is what you have: a girl all about science, a boy who writes poetry. She is a Jamaican immigrant scheduled to be deported at the end of the day. He is a Korean American, the younger son, destined to become a doctor. Science meets poetry. This YA book is a wonder on many levels. First of all, it has physics and multiverses (one of my pet physics theories and my own preferred explanation of infinity), and then you add poetry and I’m a goner. So much more—lawyers, parental issues, family angst… I won’t say more except that I laughed out loud, cried (more than once), and loved it.

In the world of poetry, I have moved on to Sonia Sanchez, Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums. A beautiful book I want to read slowly but can’t. I will leave you with this:

love between us is
speech and breath, loving you is
a long river running

 –Sonia Sanchez

 Happy Valentine’s Day!