Black History Month (and reading themes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Black History Month Reading Day 6

I’ve finished Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. What an excellent book! Both deeper and broader than the movie, the book covers a longer period of time, a larger swath of people (including African American men) and, occasionally, areas outside Langley and the state of Virginia. The book, Hidden Figures, is about many more hidden figures than the three highlighted in the movie.

I loved the book. I loved the movie. As is usually true, the book holds a lot more than the movie. There’s a lot of history, and many more stories in the book than could ever make it into one movie. It would have to be a documentary. Or several documentaries.

But here’s something. Almost always I will say I loved the book more than the movie (there are a few exceptions, and I’ll think of one soon—maybe The Hours). But in this case, I didn’t love the book more than the movie, but nor did I love the movie more than the book. I loved them differently, in a way that I’m not sure has ever happened to me before.

The movie was a good bit of history, but its primary impact on me was emotional. I was just there with these women. Certainly I learned a lot in the movie, but when I walked out of the movie, I was all yes!—Give women a chance and a place at the table and we can do just about anything. And these black women who broke so many barriers in the face of so much discrimination—it makes me pause in awe.

The book layered a lot more history on that good feeling, which was also a good feeling.

And then somewhere in there I took a break and watched Bagdad Café again. Does anyone out there know/remember this movie? One of my all-time faves (I think it would have to be in my top 10). I loved this movie for the music first, most specifically “Calling You” by Jevetta Steele—a mesmerizing and haunting song. I am not sure I can listen to this song without being moved to tears (is there any other song that falls into that category? Oh, yes, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong).

It might not work if you haven’t seen the movie (the emotional wallop of the song, I mean), not sure—I’ve mostly only heard it watching the movie (at least a dozen times now).

But this quirky movie is worth watching if it has escaped your radar. It’s one of those movies I seem to enjoy just a bit more each time, and I never tire of C.C.H. Pounder.

And I have recently learned that this song that I have loved for decades is sung by a local musician. Yes, right here in the Twin Cities. Jevetta Steele, part of the Steele family. (Thank you dear spouse for bringing this to my attention; I have a tendency to miss things close to home.)

Back to books. In the land of poetry, I’m On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. About two-thirds through, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I especially liked the second section, “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” which contains several gems. One of the best known may be “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967,” and that certainly is a most excellent poem. I thought to include that one because I love it. But I decided on this one because it’s shorter and perhaps a little less well known.

The First Book

Open it.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well . . . maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.

Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:
You’ll never reach bottom.

It’s not like it’s the end of the world—
just the world as you think

you know it.

–Rita Dove

We’re still in serious winter here in Minnesota, so I’m going back to hibernating with my books. Stay warm (to those of you in the winter climes) and happy reading to all!

The May Basket Project

Two years ago I left May baskets for three of my neighbors early in the morning on the first of May. It was a lot of fun. Candy, flowers, a book—leave the basket on the doorstoop, ring the doorbell and run.

Just like I did as a kid.

It was great fun, both then and now. The making of something purely for someone else’s pleasure (hopefully anonymously) is hugely gratifying, for reasons I haven’t quite divined.

An unfortunate confluence of events kept me from May baskets last year, but this year I am back in the game.

I planned 7 of them—a significant increase from last time. I’m kind of hoping this thing will catch on in my neighborhood.

This morning I woke to rain, and when I thought of the books and dog biscuits in some of the baskets, I decided a belated May 2 delivery might be the wiser choice.  Who doesn’t like to sleep in on a rainy day? After newspaper and coffee, spouse and I went out for a late lunch. Halfway through lunch, the rain changed to snow. As we finished, we had a very decent snowfall going on. Too warm to accumulate, but very fun to walk through.

For sure we won’t deliver May baskets now, I thought; but the snow stopped immediately after we got home, and turned into a slow drizzle. I was putting finishing touches on the baskets (leaving only the flowers to add last-minute) when I realized that the rain had stopped.

Do it! I quick got the flowers and added them to the baskets (confession: One set got left behind on the counter, and another fell out en route—clearly we have a few kinks to work out). The first delivery was a total success: after running away, we saw the door open and the basket taken in. Next we did two neighbors to the north, and then two to the south.

As I was wrapping things up, our doorbell rang.  What? A shadow of someone running away.

A May basket! Truly! Flowers (magnolia and tulip), Shakespeare sonnets, and far too many chocolate candies. (Spouse counters that “far too many” is an overstatement.)

Later this neighbor stopped by, and I found out she gave three May baskets in the neighborhood. Perhaps it will catch on after all. I love this idea!

I don’t know if it is my small-town roots, my introvert nature, or simply the appeal of giving someone something unexpected that draws me so to the May baskets. We learned to do it as kids at school—we made them out of construction paper and hung them on our neighbors’ doorknobs.

I’ve ratcheted it up a notch, forgoing construction paper and staples for actual baskets (often free from friends and family who have piles of them in the attic/storeroom/basement), and trying to apply at least a nominal personal element. Dog biscuits, comic books, poetry, puzzles.

Whether it catches on or no, I plan to continue May baskets to my neighbors. It’s simply too fun, and why not?

All the Light We Cannot See

“Color–that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich black and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.”

–Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize and also an Alex Award (awarded to books written for adults that also have strong appeal to teens). Highly recommended. It’s longish (> 500 pages), but it has short chapters alternating perspectives, and you keep wanting to read one more and one more. Another. Just one more.

April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.