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!

Magazine Madness

I’ve never been good at keeping up with my magazines, but about two years ago I seemed to mostly stop reading them altogether, without ending my subscriptions. Well, you might know trouble lies there.

Just recycle the lot of them, maybe keeping the newest issue of each, I hear you say. A good strategy, which worked with exactly one magazine that I found worthless (only a one-year subscription, thank goodness), and old poetry magazines that I subscribed to specifically to find out about new poetry.

It all came to a head when I was looking for a particular magazine which caused me to have to upset the precarious balance of all the magazines piled on top of my seriously overflowing magazine rack. This stack went on my chair, awaiting . . . something. After three days of not sitting in my chair, I hauled the stack to the rack and started sorting. I arranged chronologically by magazine, oldest to newest. I figured I’d read the oldest ones really fast, and slow down as I progressed. I have six magazines I can’t part with without at least glancing through: Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country, Mother Earth Living, Orion, Yes!, and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

But as I finished organizing, I thought—wouldn’t I rather read all the October issues of my cooking magazines now? When they’re talking about fall foods and recipes? Why, yes. And doesn’t the same hold true for Mother Earth Living, with the seasons and such? And certainly the Conservation Volunteer is seasonal.

Fruit basket upset! Clearly the best way to get through the magazines is seasonally, rather than some vague start with the oldest magazines and read fast sort of approach. Granted, this way it takes a year (maybe), but at least, if I stick to it, I will be caught up in a year. This is a pretty good deal to me, since the tower has been building for a few years now (I decreased magazine reading several years before stopping altogether). So I went through and reorganized the magazines by month/season.

I love it, and I’m having great success!  I started the project just one week ago, and I’ve gotten through about 20 magazines. I have all the October magazines done, as well as all the Autumn issues. I have started on November. Actually, I have a good chunk of November done, because one of the cooking magazines is October-November. As such, I read three November cooking magazines in a row. I got a lot of Thanksgiving cooking tips, and was able to do a lot of quick page flipping because how many articles do you need to read about roasting a turkey for a large crowd when you usually go out on Thanksgiving?

I have even made a spreadsheet to track my progress, with the months and seasons in the left column and the six magazines across the top. It’s nice to see two entire rows (October, fall) already completed. I like to see progress this way. When I feel the magazines are still so many, I can look and see how much I’ve already done. If I finish November early, I might read a July issue of something—sort of a vacation. In this way, I think I might get the project done in less than a year.

This is not a solution that will appeal to everyone. But if your magazines are overflowing and you truly can’t part with them, this might be the perfect approach for you. It’s certainly working for me! I love really sinking into the season across the magazines. I love that I’m honoring each magazine by looking at every page, finding good recipes, poems, ideas for saving the world, and beautiful pictures to send to friends. I also love that I’m finally doing this, after continuing to add magazine after magazine to the tippy tower. I love that already the magazines seem manageable instead of overwhelming.

This will be a good New Year’s resolution–finishing the magazines (preferably earlier than later, but no later than end of September).

Fall. It makes me plan ahead. My favorite season.

Happy autumn!

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!

My Mom Died

My mom died a few months ago. It was not unexpected; she was 98 years old. I knew she was going to die. Sometimes, I even hoped she would die—she was losing memory and functions, and, perhaps selfishly, I wanted her to know who I was to the end.

And she did. At least I think she did. We had gone up the week before, and my brother joined us and we ate pie, and Mom had two-thirds of her piece of lemon meringue. We talked about upcoming Mothers’ Day, and Mom said she wanted to go to the pizza place (this is in a small town, and they treat her like a queen at that pizza place).

But she died before Mothers’ Day arrived. No last final hurrah at the pizza place where she was so well-loved.

My brother and I were with her at hospice, as well as his wife (and my best friend in high school) and daughter and her daughter (with my mother’s name). Four generations. Great-granddaughter is a year and a half, gleeful and full of curiosity. It is difficult to be sad when there are young children around, my nephew said. So true. We sat and reminisced, each taking our time to talk to Mom, exchanging stories, laughing, sometimes crying.

Mom was not responsive, but my niece told me that hearing is the last sense to go, and I totally choose to believe that. And I know that Mom knew that we were there, and she heard every word and the love and the happiness, the memories and the occasional regrets (those were mostly the private conversations, at least on my part). But there was also a good amount of laughter in that room, and a lot of fond memories. In one of my last private conversations with Mom, I alluded to something—and I’m sorry to say I don’t know if it was talking about my favorite memory (the swan ride, though I must have done that earlier) or my most embarrassing (I’m pretty sure it was this) and I swear I saw a slight smile on her face.

Oh, I miss her. I used to call her at 6:30 every night. (Not for my entire life, but since my dad died, about 10 years ago.) Sometimes she was out and sometimes I was out, but most days we had our 6:30 talk.

So I totally expected the 6:30 pang, which I still have frequently. What I did not expect was all the fodder I collected for the 6:30 talk—oh, I have to tell Mom the rhubarb is coming in, or how windy it was, or a cardinal in the back yard or the two bald eagles overhead. This I did not expect; that so many things I see and experience every day, I marked to tell my mother about.

Not a pang just at 6:30. Many times throughout the day. A long-delayed chore completed, a bicycle ride, the first mosquito, Colorado peaches, paying the bills.

Another thing I miss is sharing coupons. Mom clipped coupons from forever, and so of course I picked this up as well. We’d often send coupons back and forth (if not in person). I still sometimes stop and almost clip the coupons for her favorites.

And what I haven’t missed yet but know I will is the cards. My mother was the queen of the card. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries for relatives and friends alike. Even if everyone else forgot my birthday, I always got a card from Mom. People mostly do email and Facebook birthday greetings now. It’s just not the same. I intend to continue the tradition of birthday and anniversary cards via snail mail. Also the occasional Valentine’s, Thanksgiving, and Halloween card.

My mother absolutely loved life. It didn’t take much to make her day—a trip to the grocery store, a compliment from a friend, tulips blooming, a cardinal in the backyard, a surprise visitor.

I think she instilled a little of that in me—that love of life (with a little help from her sister, my godmother). A gift that has made so much of the world interesting.

Sometimes (not often) around 7:00 p.m., I go into a kind of panic of “I haven’t called Mom for several days! WHY??? Call Now!” and then I remember she’s dead. I still miss her.

And now, when I think about her, I think about much more of her life than the day-to-day that we always focused on. I remember how she walked me to kindergarten almost every day (I hated kindergarten); and all those times we bicycled to Grandma’s (often with the dog running along).

Death does not have to be a bad thing. Even the funeral arrangements were fun in their own way—no squabbling, no disagreements of any sort. More the opposite, in fact. There were three women at the arrangements—me, my sister-in-law, and my niece. We all had a specific dress for my mom in mind, and we all said we had a specific dress in mind as soon as the first person brought it up. And we all three wanted the same dress. It was all like that. We looked at pictures, laughed about good memories.

The funeral was more of the same. People who loved my mom or my family, so much love, so many good memories. When we got back to the church after the graveside service, everyone had finished going through the line, but lots of people had stayed specifically to talk to one or the others of us. Friends from elementary and high school, cousins not often seen, old neighbors.

I left town missing Mom, but also with a buoyancy from what really was a celebration of her life. I knew she had a lot of friends, but I had no idea how many people loved her. And I also felt like I had a place to return to, even without the reason of visiting Mom.

It surprised me what a happy experience it was, in the overall scheme of things, and I felt pretty weird about it. I had written a thank-you note to my niece for her wonderful eulogy, and she wrote back. In her card, she said something along the lines of, “it feels so weird to say this, but the planning of the funeral and all of it—it was actually kind of fun. I didn’t expect that at all.”

Neither did I. It pulled us together and brought out the best in all of us. Mom would have loved it.

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.

Emotional Maturity

I honestly thought (assumed, really) that by the time I got well into adulthood, I would become wise and emotionally mature. No more temper tantrums or sulking. No jealousy, no resentments (that I can’t get past no matter how hard I try).

Holy cow, was I wrong.

While it’s true that I don’t sulk nearly as much as I used to, that’s only because a friend called me on it. We were on a road trip, and I didn’t get my way on something, and after an hour of me sulking in the car, she said something along the lines of, “So are you just going to sulk all day, or what?” Well.

Apparently, I thought in my wee mind that nobody noticed my sulking. Or at least if it was noticed, there was a tacit rule that it not be mentioned. But I think mostly I thought it was somehow not that noticeable. Why, I cannot say. Is there any behavior more annoying in a friend than sulking? It’s annoying in children and even more annoying in adults.

I’m embarrassed to admit that this event took place in my 40s. I’m pleased to admit, however, that it effected immediate change. What? You can see my sulk? That behavior ended that very day. Not without an occasional backslide, I’m sure. But it was quite a verbal slap to the face, and I am ever grateful to my friend for pointing out my poor behavior. I still feel sulky once in a while, wishing I had gotten my way. But now I usually either say something or just get over it. The hours-long sulk is behind me. Which goes to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

And resentment. Don’t get me going on resentment. I don’t think I’ve made one iota of progress on that front. When I was young I could carry a grudge longer than god, and that hasn’t changed much. Oh, except that I don’t get grudgeful nearly as often. But still the grudge is inside and it festers. Why can’t I let these things go? Years ago I said something that offended a friend. They demanded an apology. I said I wanted to tell my side. They said I didn’t have a side, and apologize or the friendship is over. Well, I apologized, but of course as you know, the friendship was over.

I’m still not sure to this day whether I’m more outraged or flabbergasted, that a friend would tell me in any kind of disagreement, “You don’t have a side.” Who says that? A judge, perhaps. A dictator, certainly. A czar, a despot, a tyrant.

Forgiveness. Definitely not my strong suit.

It all feels so petty. I thought I would be past this by now.

In a somewhat different realm is worry. Worry can be useful if it reminds you to do things. But once you’ve done everything and you’re still obsessing, worry becomes less useful, and it can even become debilitating. I used to swirl in worry, but I’ve learned (or been taught) some tricks: food and drink often serve as an excellent distraction, especially if the food is good and the drink is hoppy. Getting out in nature almost always soothes my soul, and if I can manage at least two hours, sometimes the worry moves away like the clouds. I can also find solace in physical activity: raking, weeding, doing dishes, cleaning out storm drains.

So this is a bit of progress, a bit of maturity. I’ve found some productive outlets (detours?) for my emotions.

I began drafting this post weeks ago (some posts are tougher than others) and just a few days ago I got an amazing (to me) gift from a friend. A book, A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, by Donna Cameron. While kindness is not exactly an emotion, it sure seems to be tied to a lot of emotions that would not well entertain things like sulking, resentment, and worry.

I am intrigued. I was originally going to write, “I don’t think kindness is a panacea for my emotional immaturity” but I couldn’t do so, because now that I think about it, it might indeed be a cure. I mean, if you really think about it, kindness might well be the cure for many things. Maybe even for everything.

Could kindness save the world? Stay tuned.

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.