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!

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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.

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?