Fifty Words (no more, no less)

My friend Jami in Colorado was recently telling me about an exercise she did for work. It’s a small company (< 10 employees), and a new person was coming on board. As part of the introductory process, each staff member wrote a 50-word autobiography. Exactly 50 words. (This is 50.)

This was not to take a long period of time. Less than 10 minutes, I think. Could it have possibly been 2 minutes? (I can barely count to 50 in 2 minutes, not if I think about each of the numbers, and how they look and feel.) Unless you’re doing this on a computer (which I was not envisioning happening in this exercise; for some reason I only thought pencil and paper), how could you possibly do this even remotely quickly, making sense and getting exactly 50?

And then I hit on it: verse. Ten 5-word lines. Here is what I came up with in about 4 minutes:

They called me Psycho Liz
I was that into psychology
Eventually I got a Ph.D.

Roommates, marriage, roommates, lover, marriage
I very rarely live alone
though I always love it

I thought I couldn’t love
then I met my match
it’s practically happy ever after

(he outlasts me in bookstores)

It was quite fun. Invigorating, even. Go ahead, try it yourself. (You don’t have to use the verse form.)

Doing it in a short time span is key. You don’t want to mull, cross out, rewrite, or start over. Some would call it stream of consciousness. I felt more like a bulldozer—just keep going, just keep going, five more, five more, up to 50, done.

I am thinking this could be a good format for pretty much anything you might want to capture: vacation moments, childhood memories, obsessions, happiness, fear. I found it a little fascinating, and I encourage you to try it to see if you experience same.

Choose your own topic (I have several I want to try). I’d love to hear back if anyone finds this as fun and fascinating as I do.

A Favorite Poet, an Excellent Book

Joyce Sutphen is one of my favorite poets, and certainly my favorite local poet. I’ve recently finished her book, Modern Love & Other Myths, and I loved it. I discovered Sutphen many years ago, and I always do a happy dance when a new book comes out. Modern Love & Other Myths elicited two happy dances (I emailed Sutphen to tell her how much I loved the book and she responded; I am always amazed when writers respond to email, just like they are regular people).

The first poem I loved, the first time reading the book, was “You.”

You

You make me think in italics; you bring
exclamations to my lips! (I never
thought in parentheses)—I always dashed
my way through everything! I

want to quote you; I want you to appear
in every footnote. I want you to be my
opening line. Yes—I have a lot of
questions; there seem to be some missing pages…

but I could live in an ellipsis; I
could become a demonstrative pronoun
(if you wanted that) or I could be a
questionnaire and you could fill in the blanks.

And now, although I’d like to say much more,
I must conclude—or what’s a sonnet for?

When I got to the unexpected ending, I laughed out loud. Now, poetry often makes me smile, it occasionally makes me weep, but it almost never makes me laugh out loud. I would have loved Modern Love & Other Myths purely for this one poem (yes, poetry can be like that sometimes), but there were several others that I loved (and thrice as many more that I very much liked but didn’t quite tip into love).

In fact, the next poem that called forth my love was a mere two pages later:

It’s Amazing

Another word for that is astonishing
or astounding, remarkable or marvelous.

It’s also slightly startling, which leads to
shocking and upsetting, perhaps a bit

disquieting, and that is troubling and
distressing—you could say outrageous

and deplorable, which leads to wicked
and more precise equations such as

sinful and immoral or just plain bad
and wrong. It’s amazing, which is just to say

bewildering and unexpected, that
it happened out of the blue, and that we went

all the way from miraculous to absurd,
within the syllables of just one word.

This poem did not make me laugh out loud, but it did make me smile. It also made me think about language and words, and word meanings, and how easily we can hop from one interpretation of a word to another, and another, until you amazingly arrive at the exact opposite or where you started. I love writing, pondering, and playing with words, and this poem has given me new ideas for word games (which can be especially fun on long drives). Can one ask for more from a single poem?

Another favorite:

Footnote

I would prefer to mention him only
in passing. How lovely to go back and

never to have met him, a connection
missed, a quiet night at home and no trip

to that city across the river where
he was waiting, but not (it turned out) for

me. I would prefer him as a footnote,
in parentheses, one small entry

in the index, the one that will baffle
the scholar who is reading carefully,

who realizes how impossible
it is for me to forget those lost years.

These aren’t necessarily the best poems in the book, they are merely my favorites. And who can say what the “best” poem is anyway? All writing demands that the reader bring something to the table, but I think with poetry that is even more true. In some ways, poetry is an act of cocreation between reader and poet. Perhaps there is no such thing as a best poem, only favorite poems.

There are so many good poems in the book. Poems that I like on the first reading, thoroughly enjoy on the second, and then go oh! on the third. Nearly all poetry rewards rereading. But not all poetry is as fun to reread as Sutphen (and Modern Love & Other Myths in particular).

One more poem, that will perhaps make your next long-distance drive more interesting:

Things to Watch While You Drive

The trees, slipping
across the fields, changing places with
barns and silos,

the hills, rolling over
on command, their bellies
green and leafy,

the sun-tiger, riding
on your rooftop, its shadow racing
up and down the ditches,

a flock of birds,
carrying the sky by the corners,
a giant sheet of blue,

the road, always
twisting towards or away from you—
both, at the same time.

Sigh. I think that’s absolutely beautiful, most especially “a flock of birds/carrying the sky by the corners/a giant sheet of blue”. A poem within a poem.

Joyce Sutphen is the Minnesota poet laureate. She has published six books of poetry, and I think this is my favorite yet. Although truth be told, I went and got all the old ones off my shelf, and I can’t honestly say without reading them all again that Modern Love & Other Myths is my absolute fave. All of a sudden I want to reread Coming Back to the Body, tonight. I love this power of poetry!

And I have to say (because I have the inside skinny), Sutphen has a seventh book of poetry, soon to be released in the U.S. Why it was released in Ireland before it was released in south Minneapolis I cannot say, but it appears there will be yet another happy dance in the near future.

March Reading Theme: Literary Forms

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Literary forms. Not so! There are a ton of literary forms, if you cast a broad net (and I do). Remember, it’s all about the title (and about literary forms in name only). Here’s what I’ve already started so far:

  • Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance
  • The Lexicon of Real American Food, Jane & Michael Stern
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser
  • White Papers, Martha Collins
  • The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

The first three are nonfiction (loving Hillbilly Elegy), White Papers is poetry, and Foudini’s autobiography is fiction. Again I must say, one of my favorite things about these reading themes is that it is getting me reading some books that I’ve had around for ages. And while two of the books in progress have been in hand for less than a year (Hillbilly Elegy and The Lexicon of Real American Food), Kooser’s Repair Manual has been on the shelf for 6 years and Marcia Collins for 4. The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat has been around for 16 years, and who knows why I waited so long? I am finding it silly and fun. Sometimes, a book from the cat’s perspective is just the thing.

I’ve already picked my next poetry book, Fieldnotes, by Mark Weiss (patiently waiting for 14 years). I don’t know what I’m going to read next in nonfiction. Titles rising to the top are Field Guide to the Global Economy (it seems timely), Monsoon Diary (particularly appealing because it has a subtitle: A Memoir with Recipes), Notes from the Shore, and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Fiction is more iffy. I’m still not in much of a fiction place, so who knows? One for sure is The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo (YA Newbery winner, and a local author), because I’m reading that for our March book group (of two).

If you still think you can’t find a book with a literary form in the title, leave no stone unturned. I also found the following literary forms lurking in titles on my bookshelves: ballad, book, story, report, novel, anagram, gospel, footnotes, journal, poem, notebook, narrative, riddle, haiku, question, record, and myth. Probably I missed some. And I’m sure there are lots more that aren’t on my shelf, but might be on yours.

Give it a shot. Why not? One book in March that has a literary form in the title. Maybe it will get you out of a rut. Maybe it will get you into a rut. Maybe you will discover one of the best books you’ve ever read.

Let me know what you come up with.

Reading in the New Year

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry this year—nine books so far. Most recently I finished Cloudy With a Fire in the Basement, by Ronna Bloom, which held a number of poems that I liked. Here is my favorite:

Preserves

Today I found an intact jar of plum jam at the back
of the cupboard, it opened with a satisfying suck
and plummy smell. I made that jam, had

lost track. Was probably saving it.
Stop saving everything! Julia Child cries
touching my cheek.

Poetry opens me and I’m grateful. Thank God
for Grace Paley. She writes with her heart
and peasant body. And Adrienne Rich with that brow.

Is it just the High Holidays or my age?
I feel both more
and less Jewish around them.

Spend everything! they say. Here, have a plum.
The old women of culture come back, feed us,
tell us where we came from.

—Ronna Bloom

Another poetry book I read just a few weeks earlier—The Light of Invisible Bodies, by Jeanne Lohmann—also had a poem about plums that I loved:

Plum

Though it is early to talk of autumn
the purple asters begin to dry
into decline. Toward the end of summer
something delicious happens on a hot
afternoon when I bend over a blue
china plate to eat a ripe Satsuma plum.
Sticky and sweet, the juice slides off my chin,
the dark skin slips from the red heart
that waits for my tongue. A friend said this is
the only way to eat such plums
but love, I did not tell him of a tree
heavy with fruit, year after year
the unforgotten taste of desire.

—Jeanne Lohmann

I’ve only read two fiction books thus far, and of those the clear standout is A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. This is the 7th book in her mystery series set in Three Pines, a small village in Quebec. Since it’s the 7th in the series, I won’t bother to say anything about it other than that I loved it. If you’ve already discovered Louise Penny, you’re probably way ahead of me in the series (I am behind—there are now 12). If you haven’t heard of her and like mysteries even a little bit, consider checking her out. (The first is Still Life.) This is the best mystery series I’ve run across in years (interesting characters, good character development, an appealing setting, and I always just want to keep reading).

In the nonfiction realm, I’m currently reading The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, by Helen Russell (a Brit). I’m nearly one-third through, and it is fun, funny, and interesting. Did you know that Denmark is the happiest country in the world? They’re also ranked highest for work-life balance (I suspect those two rankings are not unrelated). I am beginning to uncover some of the roots of Danish happiness. So far I have learned about hygge—the importance of coziness. Examples of hygge include having throws and blankets on the sofa for extra coziness, and lots of pillows and cushions. But also a large dining table that will seat at least eight people for talking and relaxing around, and perhaps a designer candleholder and some Royal Copenhagen dinnerware.

Also on my nightstand: If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: Notes from Small-Town Alaska (Heather Lende) which I am just a few pages into (noted in the LA Times as “part Annie Dillard, part Anne Lamott”—perfect for February); Just One Damned Thing After Another, by Jodi Taylor (SF, also first in a series, time travel!); and The Mother on the Other Side of the World, by James Baker Hall (poetry).

In case you happened to notice that all those books have long titles, that is no coincidence. February’s reading theme is books with long titles (the minimum is five words). Loving this theme with tons of great and fun titles. How is it possible to be retired and not have enough time to read?

Monthly Reading Themes 2017

I mentioned in the last post that I’m continuing the monthly reading theme with my friend Sheila (this will be the 4th year, and I think we enjoy it more each year!).

Here are the 12 themes for 2017:

  • January: Light
  • February: Long Titles
  • March: Literary Forms
  • April: Emotions
  • May: Terrain
  • June: Celestial Objects
  • July: Proper Nouns
  • August: The ________
  • September: Man/Woman/Child
  • October: House/Home
  • Novembers: _________ & _________
  • December: Things with Wings

One of my favorite things about the monthly themes is that they cause me to look at my books through a new lens, often leading me to books that have been patiently waiting on the shelf for many years. This month for the Light theme, I finally pulled out Diane Ackerman’s The Moon By Whale Light, which I got 14 years ago! And I’m planning to start A Certain Slant of Light, by Cynthia Thayer (which has also been on the shelf for 14 years), either today or tomorrow. I’ve almost finished the poetry book, Bodies of Light, by Athena Kildegaard (4 years), and have just started Ordinary Light, by Tracy K. Smith (1 year). More Light updates as the month progresses.

I am super excited about the Long Titles theme in February (ironically the shortest month). This is purely fun. Look at these titles, and this is just from poetry:

  • Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement, Ronna Bloom
  • Like the New Moon, I Will Live My Life, Robert Bly
  • Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, B. H. Fairchild
  • The Mothers on the Other Side of the World, James Baker Hall
  • Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland
  • Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, Christopher Kennedy
  • You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Anna Moschovakis
  • Running Like A Woman With Her Hair on Fire, Martina Newberry
  • A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Adrienne Rich
  • In a Landscape of Having To Repeat, Martha Ronk
  • On the Waterbed They Sank To Their Own Levels, Sarah Rosenblatt
  • The Porch Is a Journey Different from the House, Ever Saskya
  • The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, Jason Sommer
  • Combing the Snakes from His Hair, James Thomas Stevens
  • The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson
  • Diamonds on the Back of a Snake, Pam Wynn

I mean seriously, is that a fun list or what? We had in mind a general “rule” that a title had to be at least five words to be considered Long. Quick glances at fiction and nonfiction also find significant numbers of books with long (and interesting) titles.

Literary Forms (March) is another theme I’m particularly looking forward to, encompassing any book with a literary form in its title: diary, letter, narrative, poem, story, field notes, footnotes, recipe, lexicon, etc.

April is for Emotions. I know I have a lot of happiness books (The Happiness Paradox, The Happiness Project, I Care About Your Happiness, and two books simply titled Happiness), but that much Happy might get a little samey over a month. Calm! I have a couple of books in the calm realm. And then there’s Stephen King’s Joyland. I expect a scan of the mystery shelves might yield some fear, and fantasy might have—enchantment?

May is Terrain. Terrain is a catch-all for landscape, prairie, farm, desert, field, land, mountain. I have until just this moment thought of this theme entirely in terms of nonfiction (having so many rural, prairie, farm, field, land, etc. books). Poetry should be okay; poetry covers a lot of land. But what of fiction? I have at least one desert and one prairie. Hmmm. This will be interesting. Stretching is always optional, of course.

June is Celestial Objects. Probably we could do just sun, moon, and stars, but why limit ourselves? Planets, constellations, galaxies, the universe!

July is Proper Nouns. This has a lot of potential, as you might guess. I’m going to focus mostly on geographic proper nouns—I have so many books, fiction and nonfiction, with a city or country in the title. But it could also be a park, or an ocean, or a mountain range. Or Wrigley Field (which would also work for the Terrain theme in May…).

August is The _______. This theme arose completely and totally from a theme we had last year which was one-word titles (The Wedding would not count as a one-word title; we were unusually strict in specifying that “The” was not allowable). Of course we both ran across a ton of The ________ books that we wanted to read. We will be reading at least some of those in August.

September is Man/Woman/Child. This is far out enough that I haven’t given it a lot of thought, except to notice I’ve at least got a few books in poetry. And I’m for sure planning to read Just Kids (Patti Smith) for this theme, which is already coloring just a bit outside the lines. It will be interesting to see how this falls out. I think children will be seriously underrepresented in my collection!

October is House/Home, a repeat from 2016 because we both had so many books left over that we still wanted to read. And plus we realized that we had forgotten a House book we both love, House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski. House of Leaves is a beautiful package in and of itself, one of the scariest books I’ve ever read (excepting The Shining, by Stephen King), and perhaps one of the most brilliant. Note: The basic premise of House of Leaves is that a house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. This does not sound at all scary. But as I was glued to this book, reading alone, in a large house, I started to get quite freaked out about the closet behind me…. Anyway, Sheila and I specifically chose October for House/Home and we plan to reread House of Leaves together.

The November theme is ______ & _____ (e.g., Lost and Found, Pride and Prejudice). This is so far off I haven’t thought about it at all except to note I have a few poetry books that fit the bill, and two books called Lost and Found (one fiction, one nonfiction).

December is Things with Wings. This is an expansion from an initial thought of birds. Things with wings will also include bees, butterflies and moths, airplanes, mansions and hospitals, flies, bats, and chairs. This will continue to evolve as it is still nearly a year away.

Read along! Pick a theme that appeals to you or intrigues you, and see what you find on your shelves or at the local library. For Light in the month of January, I can’t recommend anything more highly than All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Let me know what you read—and whether you like it or not.

Happy Reading!

The Books of 2016

I love reading books, I love buying books, I love browsing books, and I love playing with and organizing books. Books are one of the major things in my life.

Throughout the year, I track the number of books I buy on a monthly basis. You may find that strange, but when you find large portions of your budget going into one category, you like to drill down and see what’s going on. In 2008, I bought 267 books (I like to think this is the peak, but the truth is, I haven’t compiled the data from the prior years; it is possible, and not improbable, that the actual annual peak was even higher than 267).

I do not read anywhere near 267 books in a typical year. The problem isn’t that I wasn’t reading. It’s that I was buying at least twice as much as I was reading, which led to a space-flow (as opposed to a cash-flow) problem. Small house, double-shelved books, piles of books on various surfaces. So I started cutting back with a goal of buying only as many books as I read in a given year. It has been a long road, but this year I bought only 85 books while I read 154. A serious improvement!

Of the 154 books I read, excluding the rereads,* 13 books came out on top as the best books of 2016.

A few comments:

Artful, by Ali Smith, completely revised my view of rereading books: She suggests that one would never say one “knows” a symphony or is done with a symphony after listening to it one time. You listen to it again and again, and each time you understand it better; a different nuance, a different mood. But people read books one time, and then they’re done. Rereading is rare, and reserved only for the best. As for myself, I tend not to reread even the books that I love, because there are so many new books out there that I want to read. But Artful has called me back to rereading, reminding me that there always seems to be something new in a book, every time you read it.

House of Coates, by Brad Zellar, left me wondering. Is it true? Not true? A compelling book no matter what, but especially if you’re from Minnesota, or have ever driven past the House of Coates, in Coates, MN.

A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockheart, unexpectedly and completely rekindled my interest in mathematics. It actually made me happy-excited about numbers again—a feeling I last had in the early stages of algebra.

Speaking American, by Josh Katz, is pure entertainment for people interested in regional language differences. In MN we say pop while most other places say soda, and we make a hotdish while most of the rest of the country makes a casserole. This fun book with maps explores these differences throughout the United States. It’s hard not to read in one sitting.

The rest of the best of 2016:

  • A Year in Japan, Kate T. Williamson (beautiful book)
  • Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton
  • All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • The Senator Next Door, Amy Klobuchar
  • Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Elinore Pruitt Stewart
  • Real Food, Nina Planck
  • Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, Jennifer Ackerman
  • Nimona/Lumberjanes, Noelle Stevenson (graphic novels)
  • The Preservationist, David Maine (a retelling of the story of Noah)

*The reread books are The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien; and Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton. Both of these books would be in my top 10 all-time favorite books, always worth rereading.

Also in 2016, I have managed to get rid of many many bags of books. Most to bookstores (and a few to Little Free Libraries). A conservative figure would be 200, but I think it’s closer to 350 (books, not bags).

I think one of the reasons I bought fewer books this year is because the monthly reading themes keep me focused more on my own collection. What books do I have that I might have forgotten about that fit this theme? Every month I look at the shelves with new eyes. Two of my favorite themes from last year were one-word titles (e.g., Georgia, Pinhook, Fidelity, Nimona); and work/occupation (purely fun just finding the titles: Auto Mechanic’s Daughter, A Mathematician’s Lament, The Orchardist, The Senator Next Door, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, The Cartographer’s Vacation—so many to choose from!).

The themes for 2017 have been decided. January’s theme is Light. If I hadn’t just read it a few months ago, I’d reread All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr—the best fiction book I read last year. If anyone out there is interested in following along with the monthly reading themes, I couldn’t recommend a better Light book for the month of January.

I’ll leave the rest of the themes for a later post. They are their own exuberance.

June Reprise

June was your basic lazy summer month. I read 11 books (4 each fiction and nonfiction and 3 poetry). The theme for the month was award-winning books (any award will do). There was a pinch towards the end of June as I tried to finish up multiple books at once (the one drawback of having a monthly reading theme), but I managed to pull it off (even though I perhaps gave short shrift to the last 100 pages of Slaves in the Family).

There were two major league standouts: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (fiction), a novel that takes place during WW2, from alternating perspectives of a young French girl who is blind, and a German boy who becomes a soldier (at age 16) even though he doesn’t believe in the Nazi creed. Short compelling chapters made for several fine afternoons of reading on the front porch.

The other particularly notable book of June was Things That Are, by Amy Leach. One could call these nature essays, or one could call them flights of fancy. They could also qualify as prose poetry; the writing is often playful and sometimes humorous, delightful and whimsical. I also learned a lot about sea cucumbers and jellyfish.

I’ve been tending the garden, harvesting rhubarb, blueberries, and calendula and just starting to see raspberries. I opted out of growing any vegetables this year, since with the exception of tomatoes I tend to fail miserably. More room for rosemary and chamomile!

A major highlight of June was seeing South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater. I had never seen it before (either the play or the movie) and it was wonderful! I knew many of the songs, including “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” which I associated with Clairol hair coloring, but not a musical. Good humor and great dancing. I Love the Guthrie; it rarely disappoints.

Minor highlights: I got rid of several more bags of books (what a good feeling!); of course this makes room for more books, which is also a good feeling. One of my favorite restaurants closed—Le Town Talk Diner. A sad day. And I continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, sent on postcards to my friend in Montana)—nearly three years now! Here are some of my favorites from June:

another bag gone
gently used books seek new home,
a new adventure

adieu Le Town Talk
you have loved and served us well
I will miss your quiche

out the front window
two swallowtail butterflies
in the lilac tree

award-winning books
just a few days to finish
six hundred pages

Happy summer and good reading!