Black History Month Reading: Day 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 –Sonia Sanchez

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

Advertisements

Black History Month Reading: Day 1

No, I’m not going to do a daily report (I don’t read—or write—fast enough to make a daily report interesting) but I hope to provide several updates throughout the month.

A few days ago I started Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain. I’m about a quarter of the way through and loving it. At least three times I’ve almost gotten up from the table to email Ms. Robinson and tell her how much I am loving her book, but coffee and inertia win out. There’s a good chance I’ll still write her. From my chair, the first two chapters of the book alone were worth the price. Already I respect black women more (yes, this is how much I don’t know). The power of hair.

To leaven the pot a little bit, tonight I read the preface of Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (on which the movie—which I loved—was based) and I got teary-eyed just with the preface. This is some fine history of the key role that black women played in the NASA space program. (If you haven’t seen the movie—oh my. I will only say I loved it. I’m sure not everyone should love it just because I loved it, but really, in this case, maybe yes. Excellent story, excellent acting. And you can get it from the library.)

I was a little surprised/disappointed that I didn’t have any African American poetry on my to-read shelf (I found several on my poetry-to-keep-forever shelf, but I find I want to go beyond what I have already read). I requested several books from the library in late January, as soon as I discovered my in-house dearth. The next day, five were already in transit. Yes! I checked online this morning, and still none had arrived. But this afternoon I took a chance and stopped by the library. You never know when the books might arrive. I headed right to the reserve books, and boo, none had arrived. So I hunted up poetry (buried in nonfiction, which surprised me, and all mixed up with essays and children’s books—I need to ask my librarian friend about this; it feels like Dewey Decimal run amok). That was fruitless, but the 10 minutes I stood trying to make sense of the shelves made a difference. I stopped by the reserve shelves on my way out, and yes! There they were, 3 (of 10) that I requested: On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove; and Morning Haiku and Under a Soprano Sky, both by Sonia Sanchez.

And while logic would have it that I start with Sonia Sanchez so that I could then read Dove and not get all samey-samey, I purely could not stop myself from starting with the Rita Dove book. I have read only the first bit, but I am happy with my choice. I love Rita Dove (2 books on the keep-forever shelf) and this is a most excellent start to the month.

I’m not new to black literature, but this immersion experience is new. I know I will learn a lot. I wonder if it will change me. It well might. This is the power of books.

I’ll keep you in the loop.

October Is for Home

The reading theme this month is house/home. When better than in October, when you’re starting to move from the outdoor of summer towards the indoor of winter. This is a repeat from last year because we both had so many books we didn’t get to. Since I’ve not been reading so much in the last couple of months, I didn’t do my usual careful gleaning of the nonfiction shelves. Still, I have a nice assortment to choose from:

  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins
  • The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (local author)
  • The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, Tahir Shah
  • February House, Sherill Tippins
  • Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • A Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp
  • The City Homesteader, Scott Meyer

Number one on my list just now is Sixpence House. I feel about ready to get lost in a town of books. I’m also quite interested in The Latehomecomer which has been on my to-read list for years now, and also February House, which is about a house shared by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, in Brooklyn during 1940 and 1941 (described as a yearlong party).

My fiction shelves surprised me. Apparently, I had been more diligent in reading my homely fiction that I realized. Still, several viable contenders:

  • At Home With the Glynns, Eric Kraft
  • Lions at Lamb House, Edwin Yoder*
  • Homecoming, Caren Gussof
  • The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald
  • The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery
  • The Newsboys’ Lodging House, Jon Boorstin*
  • The Homecoming Party, Carmine Abate

*Both of these books have William James as a character. That in and of itself makes them appeal to me, and reading them in the same month could be just the thing. Also very high on my to-read list is The Irresistible Henry House, which I think might be one of those don’t-want-to-leave-your-chair books.

But the month starts with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (one of the scariest books I’ve ever read; right up there with Stephen King’s The Shining). But House of Leaves is much more complex and multilayered than The Shining, with a design that makes its own thread. I’ve read it twice before. The first time I mostly got scared and was kind of amazed; the second time I noted a lot of design detail that I missed on the first go. On this third read, I’m wondering if the scary factor will still be there. The time is right: October with its shorter days, and dark rainy damp evenings (thunderstorms as I write) is perfect for a long scary book.

The September theme (man/woman/boy/girl/child), much like the August theme, was a bit of a bust, and for the same reason: I just didn’t read that much in September. I read a child, a girl, two men, a woman, and kids. Just Kids, by Patti Smith, would be the standout. And purely because the titles are fun, I will mention Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, by Martina Newberry, and The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, by Jason Sommer (both poetry).

Happy reading, and happy belated equinox!

Men, Women, and the September Reading Theme

I believe the September reading theme started as man/woman. And then we added child. Shortly after that, we decided to read Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) together as a theme read. So girl and boy got added in. And I added kid because I want to read Just Kids, by Patti Smith.

My bookshelves were brimming with potential theme reads. Here are some of the cream of the crop.

For fiction:

  • A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
  • Woman in the Dark, Dashiell Hammett
  • Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith
  • How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall
  • The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
  • The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, Sarah Braunstein

Right now A Man Called Ove is leading the pack for my next fiction book (though the Muriel Spark book also calls).

Nonfiction that’s rising to the top:

  • How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
  • Angry White Men, Michael Kimmel
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
  • The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Boy Erased, Garrard Conley
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp

I have already picked up Just Kids (Patti Smith) though I’ve only read the preface. I hope to spend some time with it this weekend. Next up might be How to be a Woman. But who can tell? That could be days away.

And of course, poetry. So many fun/interesting titles.

  • Woman at Mile Zero, Linda Rogers
  • Missing Children, Lynn Crosbie
  • Loose Woman, Sandra Cisneros
  • The Gentle Man, Bart Edelman
  • Among Women, Jason Shinder
  • The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, Jason Sommer
  • The Silence of Men, Richard Jeffrey Newman
  • A Woman Kneeling in the Big City, Elizabeth Macklin
  • Uncoded Woman, Anne-Marie Oomen
  • Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson
  • The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, Christopher Kennedy
  • Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, Martina Newberry

I looked at that list for at least 10 minutes trying to decide which titles to cull, because it’s so long. But it’s poetry, and I can’t choose, so that is the full list and you see I have my hands full for the month of September!

Last month’s theme (The _____) was a bit of a bust. Not because there wasn’t a ton of titles (there were plenty) but because I just didn’t read all that much. I read 7 books in August (and two of those were poetry). The 3 fiction books I read were all dark, dysfunctional, and/or dystopian (I can’t say how odd this is for me, as I don’t usually go into dark or dystopian in my fiction, and three in one month is quite an aberration). For those out there that do like to go down this road, I’d recommend The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist. A blurb on the cover compares Holmqvist—a Swede—with Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood. I believe they are in good company.

But for now, I think I’ll retire to the front porch with Patti Smith.

This Poem Made Me Laugh Out Loud

Mind you, I might have a really low bar for humor in poetry. I simply do not expect poetry to be funny (or even humorous), so maybe in the field of poetry, a little humor goes a long way.

I hope you at least crack a smile.

Of Martyrs

Emma Burns is a martyr
    And stays with Jimmy
Only because she feels sorry for him, her folks like him,
    The neighbors expect it.
    And he takes their two boys fishing every Saturday.
Emma survives by a furtive affair with Frank Harris
    Every other Thursday afternoon.

Jimmy Burns is also a martyr
And stays with Emma
    Only because he feels sorry for her, his boss likes her,
    The neighbors expect it.
    And she is teaching the boys how to play the piano.
Jimmy survives by a furtive affair with Frank Harris’s wife
    Every other Wednesday morning.

The Burns boys are also martyrs.
    They hate fishing,
        But feel sorry for their father.
They also hate the piano,
    But don’t want to hurt their mother’s feelings.
They survive by smoking dope with the Harris kids.

Sin sure does have a way of keeping families together.

James Kavanaugh
(From, Walk Easy on the Earth)

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.