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?

Award-Winning Books

RelishThe reading theme for June is award-winning books. No lack of books here (and no lack of book awards, for that matter!). My kick-off book was Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley. I absolutely loved it. Relish is a graphic memoir (think Persepolis or Maus) with a focus on food. I loved both the drawing and the story and would highly recommend this as an introduction to the world of graphic memoirs and novels. If you’ve never explored this genre, it’s a door worth opening. Relish won the Alex Award, which is given to adult books that are good picks for teens.

WolvesInterestingly, the other book that I have totally loved so far this month is also an Alex winner: Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt. This is the story of 14-year-old June Elbus who loses her beloved uncle Finn (also godfather, best friend, and rather famous painter) to AIDS. When she discovers Toby, her uncle’s long-term partner, they strike up a friendship of sorts, based on their mutual grief. It’s also about June’s relationship with her family, most especially her older sister Greta (the good, smart, petite, talented, beautiful one). I was drawn in from the first, and the further I got into the book, the more reluctant I was to put it down. I can be rudely antisocial when reading a good book and have been known to become quite irritable if interrupted.

Sex and the River Styx is the first book I’ve read by Edward Hoagland. A book of essays equally about nature and aging, I feel kind of ambivalent about it. Some of the essays I liked a lot, some not so much. Not uncommon for a book of essays. (This won the John Burroughs Medal.)

TuxedoIn the multiple awards category (caveat—I have not done extensive research and may have missed awards—there are a ton of them out there!) I read The Green Tuxedo by Janet Holmes (winner of the Ernest Sundeen Prize in Poetry and the Minnesota Book Award) which included a poem that I absolutely love: “The Mortician’s Son” (possibly I love it because my brother is a mortician’s son and my brother’s son is a mortician’s son).

Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton won the NAIBA (New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association) Award and the James Beard Foundation award. I started out liking this book quite a bit, but by the end, not so much. (Truth be told I hated it, but I am in a small minority here; the reviews are exceptionally positive.)

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth won the NAIBA Award. Another book in graphic form, this one is all about Bertrand Russell, mathematics, philosophy, logic, and madness. Also starring Alfred North Whitehead and Kurt Gödel.

It took barely an afternoon to read Newbery winner When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. All I will say is that it’s connected to A Wrinkle in Time, one of my all-time favorite books. Okay, I will also say time travel and good for 8-12 year olds. (Adults too, of course.)

RazorCurrently in progress: Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations from Prison, by Ken Lamberton. I am about halfway through and loving it. It gives equal insight into Arizona wildlife and life in prison, a fascinating mix. He also draws, and the book includes a goodly number of his drawings. I love books with pictures, and these drawings pull me into his prose: birds, toads, flowers, beetles, scorpions, spiders. More, much more. Wilderness and Razor Wire won the John Burroughs Medal.

I’m midway through two poetry books, Going Back to the River, by Marilyn Hacker (Lambda Literary Award) and New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (National Book Award). I’m enjoying both—Hacker for the forms, and Oliver for the nature.

I’ve just started The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend (Minnesota Book Award). Only to about page 20, but it has good promise. I’ve read two of her other books, Hit by a Farm and Sheepish, and loved them both; I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get to this one.

I read way too many books in the first part of the month that had to do with children and parents (and most especially girl children and parents—all those mothers and daughters started mixing together, and I started to lose track of what was in what book; I hate when that happens). Time to broaden the horizons. A different population, a different country, a different time.

Sestina

ToeI mentioned in my March Reprise that I had read three particularly good poetry books last month, including one book (Eleventh Toe) that included one of the best sestinas I’ve read in years.

A sestina is a poetic form comprising six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line stanza.

Here’s the sestina I loved in Eleventh Toe. See if you can spot the pattern.

      May Day

We stopped at a restaurant for a drink.
The first of May, and we simply felt lucky
to be alive on that auspicious evening,
caressed by the hypnotically warm
air. In conspiracy, the handsome waiter
seated us at a table beside the open window.

The table linen was pristine. The window
faced the busy street where we could drink
in the cosmopolitan sights until the waiter
returned with wine and his lucky
green eyes. He drawled in seductive warm
tones, “You’re in for a perfect evening.”

An aria floated out through the evening
din, harmonic, until a man approached the window
spouting gravelly throat sounds and a cloying warm
smell. He’d clearly had too much to drink.
He slurred, “Ladies, yer gonna get lucky
tonight,” and glanced around for the waiter.

He fumbled in his pockets before the waiter
returned, producing a perfume labeled Evening
Stars. He sprayed an acrid poof. “For you lucky
ladies, five bucks.” He stumbled against the window.
The bump jostled the table and toppled my drink.
Red wine on my white skirt, bloody and warm.

“Shorry,” he leaned so close, I felt his warm
stinking breath on my face. Our waiter
snagged him roughly by the collar. “Drink
this!” the waiter spat and, heedless of the evening
traffic, shoved the man away from that window
which separated us, the safe and the lucky,

from the stunned, limping man who was only lucky
to be alive. The waiter with his green eyes and warm
smile shooed the shocked onlookers from the window,
people staring at me, as if I had coaxed the waiter
on. The man staggered away through the evening
crowd, looking for his next drink.

We felt a little less lucky to be sitting in the window
where the warm air set the red stain on our evening,
and the handsome waiter returned with a fresh drink.

—Julie Roorda

If the pattern didn’t leap out at you (I don’t know how many sestinas I read before I realized I was reading a rather complex form), look specifically at the end words. Compare the end words for each line through the poem. See the repetition? In a sestina as well-written as this one, which keeps pulling you forward, the pattern is easy to miss.

From the Academy of American Poets: the sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line stanza called an envoi (or tornada). The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

I have tried to write sestinas and have not met with an iota of success. Yet. I figure if I keep reading poetry and writing and living, maybe one day will be my day for the sestina. If you are interested in this form, here are a few more notable examples:

Sestina, by Elizabeth Bishop

Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape, by John Ashbery

Operation Memory, by David Lehman

Sestina: Like, by A. E. Stallings