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.

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March Books

I’ve barely searched my shelves and already have more potentials for the March reading theme than I can possibly get to. Topping the list in fiction:

  • Fishing with RayAnne, Ava Finch
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  • Woman in the Dark, Dashiell Hammett
  • Huntress, Malinda Lo
  • The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
  • Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, Elizabeth Jolley
  • The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa
  • The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
  • The Mistress, Phillipe Tapon
  • Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen

Mind you, this was without searching my shelves. These are books that practically fell into my hands while I was perusing my shelves for other purposes.

Aside: I believe I spend more time perusing my bookshelves than most people spend cooking. (That could be a seriously weird comment about me, or a comment about how much time the average person spends actually cooking these days.)

I’m guessing the March theme is fairly obvious from the above list, but in case not, here are the books that have jumped off the nonfiction shelves (again, no perusal required):

  • The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit
  • The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
  • Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
  • Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
  • Janesville, Amy Goldstein

And poetry contenders include:

  • She Says, Venus Khoury-Ghata
  • The Sisters, Josephine Jacobsen
  • The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • The Moon Is Always Female, Marge Piercy

Yes, the theme is women, timed to Women’s History Month. All things female count (including pronouns). My personal favorite is Pastrix (“A term of insult used by unimaginative sections of the church to define female pastors”). A female Lutheran pastor with tattoos. Lots of tattoos. This book will appeal to lovers of Anne Lamott.

This a great theme month. So many possibilities! Already I want to do it again. But also, I want to do a reading theme of the male variety. Again, books leap off the shelf and I’m still sitting at the computer: Maurice, Invisible Man, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, The Men We Reaped, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Angry White Men, Sons and Lovers. Lots of potential. I am working on being more bipartisan in many aspects of life. Books included.

The official reading theme for February was Day/Month/Season. I read only one book for the theme (a new and extreme low), but it was a good one: In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming—a mystery (first in the series) that has a female priest working (kind of) with the chief of police. I’m definitely intrigued enough to read the next one. What I find most compelling here is that the author goes into issues beyond the typical mystery genre. It puts me in mind of Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries, which are good purely as mysteries, but also seem spiritual in some way that is difficult to articulate.

But mostly in February I read Black History Month. It was an excellent experience of immersive reading, which I’m still processing a bit (and plus I went over into March and have only recently finished Tracy K. Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light). More on that soon.

Good books to you, happy reading, and please do let me know of excellent books that you run across.

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!

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!

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.

Going Rogue (Bookishly) for Black History Month

A funny thing happened as I was finishing up the “Love” chapter of Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Somewhere after reading longish passages from her conversations with Elizabeth Alexander (African American poet) and finishing the chapter, I decided I needed to read more black and African American literature. I decided to prioritize all the black writers in my theme pile for February.

Guess what? Not a one. Well, boo. January was great with African American writers I didn’t get to. So I decided to go rogue and push the book theme to the side (not completely) and focus on black writers in February, partly because it’s Black History Month, but mostly because I really want to do it. Sometimes I get a little too wed to the book themes. I have books I’ve wanted to read for quite some time now, but I let the themes drive my reading. (I do have control over this, there are no rules. I do have control. Really I do.)

So sometime between my second and third cup of coffee this morning, I decided to read (mostly) black/African American books in February. I was excited before I even got up from my chair. Perusing my shelves (reminder: I tend to use the book themes to read and potentially pare down the huge excess of books I have accumulated over the years), I found nonfiction quite fruitful:

  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • The End of Blackness, Debra J. Dickerson
  • Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
  • Wounds of Passion, bell hooks (plus a few of her other books that I haven’t read yet)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson
  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
  • Living By the Word, Alice Walker
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Not so very gender balanced, I will admit. But note, I still haven’t gone through memoirs or foodish books. Still, a very exciting list of prospects for the month. I expect I’ll start with You Can’t Touch My Hair, immediately followed by Hidden Figures (which I bought shortly after seeing the movie).

I’m adding another book to the nonfiction mix for February, not specific to Black History Month, but relevant nonetheless: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (edited by Sun Yung Shin). Not all the writers are black, but several are, and it’s here in Minnesota. This is what I need to hear. To learn. To understand.

I haven’t finished going through all the general fiction yet, but I’ve been a bit surprised at the sparsity:

  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Zanzele, J. Nozipo Maraire
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I might go to the “already read” shelves and pull a few favorites. Mama Day (Gloria Naylor) comes to mind. Then  Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (Ntozake Shange). And The Color Purple (Alice Walker).

I also found a few mysteries (picked up back in the day when I was reading a lot more mysteries):

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Hidden in Plain View, Blair S. Walker
  • Easier to Kill, Valerie Wilson Wesley
  • Killer Riches, Chassie West

And a few science fiction/fantasy books (mostly purchased at WisCon, the annual feminist science fiction convention held in Madison, WI):

  • Clay’s Ark, Octavia Butler
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin
  • Filter House, Nisi Shawl

Again, a bit heavy on the women. And while that’s okay in general for reading (to make up for all those years of male classics), in this case I think I will need to add a few more male voices (since we didn’t read a lot of black male classics). Ellison’s Invisible Man immediately comes to mind. I would welcome other suggestions.

And I’ve decided that while a Black History immersion month is probably a good thing, I’ve decided to keep it up in a most modest way by resolving to read at least one African American book each month after February through the end of the year. Some might fit into a reading theme, but if not, I’ve realized I want to broaden my reading landscape more than I want to cleave to the theme.

I’m excited to bring this new focus into my life. Every once in a while, it’s really fun to go rogue.

Looking Back

PoohI’ve been looking back at 2014, my “year to be.” One of the main things I wanted to do in 2014 was read as much as I wanted. That turned out to be 211 books. More than anything else, I read poetry—85 books of poetry. That’s a lot, but it’s less than 2 a week, and poetry books are short, after all, so it’s really not all quite so much as it may seem.

In addition to all that poetry, I read 70 nonfiction books and 56 fiction books (mostly novels, including a few graphic novels). Here are my favorite books that I read in 2014, in order of favoritism (though the order—and possibly even the books—would change should I redo this list on a different day):

  1. Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne (How this gem of a book eluded me until midlife I know not, but Pooh still holds much wisdom.)
  2. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson (I learned so much about the Great Migration of African Americans from the south. So gripping, so well-told, I felt like I learned it in my bones.)
  3. The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin (The final book in the Tales of the City series. The content is good, but I loved it mostly because it was such a wonderful finale to the series. I love these people.)
  4. Geography III, Elizabeth Bishop (Poetry. Beautiful. Includes one of my all time favorite villanelles, One Art, and many other most excellent poems.)
  5. The House By the Sea and Recovering: A Journal, by May Sarton (I love May Sarton’s journals. I expect to read a couple more of them in 2015. Thank goodness she wrote several.)
  6. Turn Here Sweet Corn, Atina Diffley (A local organic farm story with a David and Goliath component. Atina Diffley is one of my heros.)
  7. Kate, Remembered, A. Scott Berg. (I love Katharine Hepburn and this book made me love her more. A strong, fascinating woman.)
  8. The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi. (A dystopian near future where the world is pretty much under the control of food corporations. Think of a merge of Cargill, ADM, and Monsanto. This seems so NOT science fiction that I started saving seeds immediately. Okay, I had already started before.)

In the kitchen, I was planning to report how many new dishes I had learned to cook in 2014. But I think more important than that is how comfortable I have started to become in my kitchen, and how much more I know about basic cooking in general. Recently my neighbor called, asking about cooking a chicken carcass for stock. How long? And with what? Like I am living in a different universe than I did a year ago, I had answers, and  several things on hand for use in the stock, including bay leaf, peppercorns, celery, carrot, and parsnip.

Another major kitchen marker: At the outset of 2014 I was reading a cooking/sustainable living book that said you should never turn on your oven for just one thing. My god. I only wanted to finally have one thing to put in the oven! More than one? Who could do that? (Well, my mother, for one, when I was growing up.) But the other night I made porcupine meatballs (for dinner), meatloaf (for the freezer), and roasted vegetables (for dinner, lunches, and leftovers). Four pans in the oven at once (two of vegetables—I tend to get carried away). A year ago a seed was planted, and now I am not only using my oven, but I am usually using it for more than one thing at once (at least most of the time).

2014: A good year for reading and cooking. I learned about several medicinal herbs and did a lot of writing (blog, poetry, letters, journals). I got out in nature a lot more, walking by the river and bicycling. I relied on my two best friends more, and learned that good friends can help you get through most anything.

2015: Gardening, herbs, music, and writing. Poetry. Wild card. A second year to be.