The Joy of Rereading

This month’s reading theme—rereading, which is to say reading books we’ve read before and want to read again—has been my favorite theme of all in the 6+ years we’ve been doing monthly reading themes.

Rereading books. I used to do it a lot as a kid. I read Charlotte’s Web (checked out of the library, I only recently bought my own copy) seven times when I was a kid, and I read The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton many times, though I don’t remember just how many. But as an adult, I rarely reread. That changed four years ago, when I read Artful, by Ali Smith. In her essay “On Time,” she says:

We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.  . . . Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives. You don’t step into the same story twice.”

Rereading has always seemed like a bit of a luxury to me. Why reread, when I could be learning something new?

But after reading Ali, not only do I feel like I have permission to reread, I feel like I have an obligation! And I’ve been rereading quite a bit more ever since.

But this month, this lovely month immersing myself in reading books I’ve already read and loved, has been a grand experience (if far too short).

I started with Dragonflight, the first book in the Pern trilogy by Anne McCaffrey. I read this in the 1980s, and I still loved it in 2020. I started the second book, Dragonquest, but it was enough different from the first that the compulsion was gone, and I was able to put it down and move on to something else. Short month.

My first nonfiction was Reflections on Aging. It’s almost a coffee table book, and it is perhaps a bit fluffy, but it also has good wisdom sprinkled throughout. I will keep it to read again in a few years—different years deliver different messages. I followed this up with Fifty Day of Solitude, by Doris Grumbach. I loved this when I read it in 2002. But this month, it was—okay. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t move me. Really? Doris Grumbach? But I’ve loved all her nonfiction! So I tried another, Life in a Day this time. Ah, here is the Grumbach I love.

Why do I still love the one and not the other? In another 10 years, might the books switch places?

After Grumbach for nonfiction, I picked up 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Now here is a book I loved even more on the second read than the first. A book I think everyone should read (or at least all booklovers—also people who enjoy epistolary works). A book that can be easily read of an afternoon (97 pages)—perfect for either snowstorm or sunny day.

After revisiting fantasy with McCaffrey, I read Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen, a light book with touches of magic that I loved on the first read. The reread left me disappointed. I remembered so much more than was there (memory being a very faulty thing). I followed this up with Kindred, by Octavia Butler. This one did not disappoint.

What I love about the rereading theme, is discovering what stays with you and what doesn’t. And yet again, maybe it doesn’t right now, but will again in the future. Some places in yourself you come back to again and again and again. For me, these are the land/environment, religion/spirituality, and community (friends, family, or faith). The books that continue to captivate me even after decades nearly always roam in these areas.

A month of rereading is like coming home. It’s like rediscovering yourself. Yes! I believed this way back then!

Two years ago exactly, in February 2018, I spent the month focusing on black writers because I was appalled at the few number (1) I had read the prior year. That month of reading changed my reading habits. My reading is far more diverse now, and it feels weird when I’m reading only white authors.

I think my February of rereading is going to have a similar impact, and I’ll give even more value to rereading than I have since reading Ali Smith’s essay.

Because you just never read the same book twice.

Rereading Books

For February, we’re doing something different with the reading theme. Instead of a topic or specific word in book titles to focus on, we are rereading books. I’m finding this theme to be much more spontaneous than our typical themes.

I’ve started the month with a small stack of books that caught my eye in the last few weeks. Fiction started with The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey. I’ve finished the first book, Dragonflight, and will likely start Dragonquest tomorrow. I read this in my 20s and loved it, and I have to say, it’s held up. I still love Lessa and the dragons and the weyrs.

After the trilogy (although I might not read all three—it depends if they hold my interest against the sway of the other books I want to read), first in line is Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor. I don’t have anything for sure after that because I think it might just be The Women of Brewster Place, also by Gloria Naylor. And when I go downstairs to get The Women of Brewster Place (the read books are in the basement), I’ll see another two or three books on the shelf that I want to reread. I just can’t tell you which. Yet.

In nonfiction, I started with Reflections on Aging, almost a coffee table book (lots of calming pictures, brief essays). I was going to give it away after I first read it, but for some reason I couldn’t let it go. Later, I wanted to reference something in it, and read nearly the whole thing again. And this month I’ve read it through with good attention. It is not a deep book, but it has good wisdom sprinkled throughout; things it’s good to be reminded of. I will keep it to read again in a few years—different years deliver different messages.

Looking for something else downstairs, I ran across Doris Grumbach, whose memoirs I devoured in the early 2000s. I couldn’t decide between Life in a Day and Fifty Days of Solitude, so I grabbed them both. I know I loved both on first reading, and wanted to read them equally, so decided based on date of publication, and am currently reading Fifty Days of Solitude. I’m tempted to read Life in a Day next, but even moreso, I think I want to reread all the Grumbach books in order. I read them out of order the first time and loved them. But if I’m going to continue reading them, I know I’ll get a much better picture of Grumbach if I read them in order rather than willy nilly. (Our December reading theme is Wild Card—we each pick our own theme—maybe I’ll read all the Grumbach books, in order; that would be a great December reading project!)

What comes after Grumbach? So many choices! Deep Economy, Tap Dancing in Zen, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. Those off the top of my head, but who knows what I’ll decide on when I see all those other books I’ve read?

Oh, also a paired reading has occurred to me: Winne the Pooh and The Tao of Pooh. Doesn’t that seem like good February fare?

Poetry has been a wee bit of a learning experience. I started the month with What the Living Do, the first book I read by Marie Howe (a favorite poet) and my favorite book of hers. I’m about halfway through. I had a completely different memory of this book, and I’m guessing it’s based on one or two or a few poems towards the end. I have thought of this book (for 18 years) as “oh, what a good book to give a friend when someone close to them has died.” Oh so glad I didn’t. The poems are good, for sure, and pack a huge emotional punch. But so far it’s a lot of incest, not the best conveyor of sympathy. I hope by the end of the book to find the redeeming note I remember.

Next up for poetry? I think it has to be Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot. But maybe not….

My Mom Died

My mom died a few months ago. It was not unexpected; she was 98 years old. I knew she was going to die. Sometimes, I even hoped she would die—she was losing memory and functions, and, perhaps selfishly, I wanted her to know who I was to the end.

And she did. At least I think she did. We had gone up the week before, and my brother joined us and we ate pie, and Mom had two-thirds of her piece of lemon meringue. We talked about upcoming Mothers’ Day, and Mom said she wanted to go to the pizza place (this is in a small town, and they treat her like a queen at that pizza place).

But she died before Mothers’ Day arrived. No last final hurrah at the pizza place where she was so well-loved.

My brother and I were with her at hospice, as well as his wife (and my best friend in high school) and daughter and her daughter (with my mother’s name). Four generations. Great-granddaughter is a year and a half, gleeful and full of curiosity. It is difficult to be sad when there are young children around, my nephew said. So true. We sat and reminisced, each taking our time to talk to Mom, exchanging stories, laughing, sometimes crying.

Mom was not responsive, but my niece told me that hearing is the last sense to go, and I totally choose to believe that. And I know that Mom knew that we were there, and she heard every word and the love and the happiness, the memories and the occasional regrets (those were mostly the private conversations, at least on my part). But there was also a good amount of laughter in that room, and a lot of fond memories. In one of my last private conversations with Mom, I alluded to something—and I’m sorry to say I don’t know if it was talking about my favorite memory (the swan ride, though I must have done that earlier) or my most embarrassing (I’m pretty sure it was this) and I swear I saw a slight smile on her face.

Oh, I miss her. I used to call her at 6:30 every night. (Not for my entire life, but since my dad died, about 10 years ago.) Sometimes she was out and sometimes I was out, but most days we had our 6:30 talk.

So I totally expected the 6:30 pang, which I still have frequently. What I did not expect was all the fodder I collected for the 6:30 talk—oh, I have to tell Mom the rhubarb is coming in, or how windy it was, or a cardinal in the back yard or the two bald eagles overhead. This I did not expect; that so many things I see and experience every day, I marked to tell my mother about.

Not a pang just at 6:30. Many times throughout the day. A long-delayed chore completed, a bicycle ride, the first mosquito, Colorado peaches, paying the bills.

Another thing I miss is sharing coupons. Mom clipped coupons from forever, and so of course I picked this up as well. We’d often send coupons back and forth (if not in person). I still sometimes stop and almost clip the coupons for her favorites.

And what I haven’t missed yet but know I will is the cards. My mother was the queen of the card. She remembered birthdays and anniversaries for relatives and friends alike. Even if everyone else forgot my birthday, I always got a card from Mom. People mostly do email and Facebook birthday greetings now. It’s just not the same. I intend to continue the tradition of birthday and anniversary cards via snail mail. Also the occasional Valentine’s, Thanksgiving, and Halloween card.

My mother absolutely loved life. It didn’t take much to make her day—a trip to the grocery store, a compliment from a friend, tulips blooming, a cardinal in the backyard, a surprise visitor.

I think she instilled a little of that in me—that love of life (with a little help from her sister, my godmother). A gift that has made so much of the world interesting.

Sometimes (not often) around 7:00 p.m., I go into a kind of panic of “I haven’t called Mom for several days! WHY??? Call Now!” and then I remember she’s dead. I still miss her.

And now, when I think about her, I think about much more of her life than the day-to-day that we always focused on. I remember how she walked me to kindergarten almost every day (I hated kindergarten); and all those times we bicycled to Grandma’s (often with the dog running along).

Death does not have to be a bad thing. Even the funeral arrangements were fun in their own way—no squabbling, no disagreements of any sort. More the opposite, in fact. There were three women at the arrangements—me, my sister-in-law, and my niece. We all had a specific dress for my mom in mind, and we all said we had a specific dress in mind as soon as the first person brought it up. And we all three wanted the same dress. It was all like that. We looked at pictures, laughed about good memories.

The funeral was more of the same. People who loved my mom or my family, so much love, so many good memories. When we got back to the church after the graveside service, everyone had finished going through the line, but lots of people had stayed specifically to talk to one or the others of us. Friends from elementary and high school, cousins not often seen, old neighbors.

I left town missing Mom, but also with a buoyancy from what really was a celebration of her life. I knew she had a lot of friends, but I had no idea how many people loved her. And I also felt like I had a place to return to, even without the reason of visiting Mom.

It surprised me what a happy experience it was, in the overall scheme of things, and I felt pretty weird about it. I had written a thank-you note to my niece for her wonderful eulogy, and she wrote back. In her card, she said something along the lines of, “it feels so weird to say this, but the planning of the funeral and all of it—it was actually kind of fun. I didn’t expect that at all.”

Neither did I. It pulled us together and brought out the best in all of us. Mom would have loved it.

Emotional Maturity

I honestly thought (assumed, really) that by the time I got well into adulthood, I would become wise and emotionally mature. No more temper tantrums or sulking. No jealousy, no resentments (that I can’t get past no matter how hard I try).

Holy cow, was I wrong.

While it’s true that I don’t sulk nearly as much as I used to, that’s only because a friend called me on it. We were on a road trip, and I didn’t get my way on something, and after an hour of me sulking in the car, she said something along the lines of, “So are you just going to sulk all day, or what?” Well.

Apparently, I thought in my wee mind that nobody noticed my sulking. Or at least if it was noticed, there was a tacit rule that it not be mentioned. But I think mostly I thought it was somehow not that noticeable. Why, I cannot say. Is there any behavior more annoying in a friend than sulking? It’s annoying in children and even more annoying in adults.

I’m embarrassed to admit that this event took place in my 40s. I’m pleased to admit, however, that it effected immediate change. What? You can see my sulk? That behavior ended that very day. Not without an occasional backslide, I’m sure. But it was quite a verbal slap to the face, and I am ever grateful to my friend for pointing out my poor behavior. I still feel sulky once in a while, wishing I had gotten my way. But now I usually either say something or just get over it. The hours-long sulk is behind me. Which goes to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

And resentment. Don’t get me going on resentment. I don’t think I’ve made one iota of progress on that front. When I was young I could carry a grudge longer than god, and that hasn’t changed much. Oh, except that I don’t get grudgeful nearly as often. But still the grudge is inside and it festers. Why can’t I let these things go? Years ago I said something that offended a friend. They demanded an apology. I said I wanted to tell my side. They said I didn’t have a side, and apologize or the friendship is over. Well, I apologized, but of course as you know, the friendship was over.

I’m still not sure to this day whether I’m more outraged or flabbergasted, that a friend would tell me in any kind of disagreement, “You don’t have a side.” Who says that? A judge, perhaps. A dictator, certainly. A czar, a despot, a tyrant.

Forgiveness. Definitely not my strong suit.

It all feels so petty. I thought I would be past this by now.

In a somewhat different realm is worry. Worry can be useful if it reminds you to do things. But once you’ve done everything and you’re still obsessing, worry becomes less useful, and it can even become debilitating. I used to swirl in worry, but I’ve learned (or been taught) some tricks: food and drink often serve as an excellent distraction, especially if the food is good and the drink is hoppy. Getting out in nature almost always soothes my soul, and if I can manage at least two hours, sometimes the worry moves away like the clouds. I can also find solace in physical activity: raking, weeding, doing dishes, cleaning out storm drains.

So this is a bit of progress, a bit of maturity. I’ve found some productive outlets (detours?) for my emotions.

I began drafting this post weeks ago (some posts are tougher than others) and just a few days ago I got an amazing (to me) gift from a friend. A book, A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, by Donna Cameron. While kindness is not exactly an emotion, it sure seems to be tied to a lot of emotions that would not well entertain things like sulking, resentment, and worry.

I am intrigued. I was originally going to write, “I don’t think kindness is a panacea for my emotional immaturity” but I couldn’t do so, because now that I think about it, it might indeed be a cure. I mean, if you really think about it, kindness might well be the cure for many things. Maybe even for everything.

Could kindness save the world? Stay tuned.

Favorite Books of 2018

The first week of January I usually go over the list of books I read the prior year and make a list of my favorites. Note, these are the books I read in 2018, not necessarily books published in 2018. (In fact, very few are from 2018 as I rarely buy hardcover books.) They are in approximate rank order of favorites, though on any given day the order will likely change (though I don’t think there would be much movement in the top 3).

For those of you curious about such things, I read 123 books last year (that’s a kind of fun number, isn’t it?)—more poetry than anything else, but fairly evenly balanced with fiction and nonfiction. My list, however, is not at all balanced, running heavily nonfiction. I have not been in much of a fiction place for the last year or so. A book really has to knock my socks off to make an impression. That’s probably reflected in my list. Also, I read a lot more light/escapist fiction than nonfiction. Light books can be a nice diversion, but they tend not to have staying power.

In contrast, these favorite books have staying power, often occupying my thoughts for days after I finish the book, and sometimes much longer. Here are the books that I most loved in 2018:

1. You Can’t Touch My Hair, by Phoebe Robinson is hands-down the best book I read in 2018. I recommended it to more people and learned more from it than any other book I read last year. This is a race-based book, mostly focused on black women. It is very direct, and will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but most of the friends I’ve recommended it to have also loved it. Some have even recommended it to others.

2. The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon is one of the few fiction books on the list. This is a YA novel, but I’ve been recommending it to my friends and it has been well received. I liked it so much I didn’t want to put it down, and read it in one day (344 pages—not long, but not a novella). Highly recommended to one and all, and especially people interested in immigration issues. The only thing I regret about this book is that I got it from the library, so now I don’t have my own copy.

3. Homer’s Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper was a surprise December find. It was mentioned at Thanksgiving dinner; I got it from the library in early December. I expected this memoir about a blind cat to be sad (possibly even pathetic) but it was the opposite. Little Homer is just a crackerjack; an intrepid explorer, and a charmer. If you like cats, you might want to meet Homer.

4. After the Stroke, by May Sarton. I’ve loved all of May Sarton’s journals, and this was no exception. This is the first time I’ve read this particular journal (I have reread several of her others) so that made After the Stroke particularly refreshing. This journal focuses primarily on her recovery from a stroke—both regaining her physical strength and her writing strength. A lovely book.

5. My Cat Saved My Life, by Phillip Schreibman. Apparently 2018 was a good year in cat books for me! This short memoir is too short to really say much about without giving away the store. If you like cats at all (or are thinking about getting a cat, or like reading books about people and animals) check it out. Can easily be read in an afternoon, though I stretched it out over several days.

6. Grace, Eventually, by Anne Lamott. Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual writers. She’s good at reminding me of things that I need reminding of; she’s got a wry sense of humor; she makes me think; and sometimes she comes up with good suggestions for every day life.

7. The Panther and the Lash, by Langston Hughes. Poetry of great power. This was a reread for me, and while I liked it the first time I read it, I loved it this second time.

8. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, by Krista Tippett. This book is based on a wide variety of people that Tippett has interviewed over the years, which she portrays through five categories: words, flesh, love, faith, and hope. I am quite sure I will reread this book.

9. Great Tide Rising, by Kathleen Dean Moore. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this book made me look forward to climate change, it certainly made me dread it less. It gave me both hope and faith, and gave me some good ideas about changes I can make and things I can do as an individual that can indeed help save the world.

10. Slow Medicine, by Victoria Sweet. Sweet, herself a medical doctor, tells the story of things she learned—both fast and slow—in medical school, internships, and residencies. Based on the concept of the slow food movement, Sweet suggests that while fast medicine is good for many things (e.g., broken bones, heart attacks) it would be well complemented with slow medicine, which is often good at those very things that fast medicine has more trouble with (chronic conditions like eczema, for example). I found it fascinating and it got me interested in traditional Chinese medicine.

11. Covering Rough Ground, by Kate Braid is an excellent, fun book of poetry that I truly enjoyed. These poems focus on her experience as carpenter, a rare woman in a world of men. A book of wonderful empowering poems.

12. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber is not your typical spiritual read, but Bolz-Weber is not your typical pastor (or pastrix, if you will—the derogatory label that she has adopted with pride). She is quite profane and takes no shit. Unconventional to be sure. Interesting? Yes. Compelling? Yes. Did I learn something? Yes. Will I read her again? Absolutely.

13. Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. I read this book after I saw the movie of the same title, which I loved. For those of you who missed it, this is the story of African American women and the roles they played at NASA and in the space program. The book is quite different from the movie, as per usual, since it’s difficult to get a whole book into a 2-hour movie. The book has a lot more background information and a lot more science, more people and more relationships. I loved both the book and the movie. Don’t make me choose.

14. Reflections on Aging, by Bruce McBeath & Robin Wipperling is almost a coffee table book. As I was reading through it, I thought it a bit skimpy and light. But. Later I went back to it, looking for a snippet I remembered, and found myself rereading huge chunks. Found myself saying, “I should reread this every five years.” And I think I will.

15. Now the Green Blade Rises, by Elizabeth Spires, is a poetry book that had been on my to-read shelf for over a decade. Why in the world did it take me so long to discover this poet? Delightful poems. And she has several more books; so much to discover!

16. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce was my final book of the year. This is a rather quirky novel about a man’s pilgrimage to visit a dying friend, and the impact the journey has on him, his relationships, and total strangers. An excellent book to wrap up the year.

That’s it. The best of 2018, from where I’m sitting in Minnesota.

What was your favorite book of 2018?

A Reading Odyssey

The reading theme for December is Journey (especially a spiritual journey). We seriously considered scrapping this theme because it seemed so narrow. But then we decided to make it personal. What book might be a spiritual journey for each of us (or just a journey in general). That opened the gates, and we decided to stick with the theme.

And then at Thanksgiving, our host was telling us about a book he had read, a memoir, Homer’s Odyssey, about a blind cat. He highly recommended it, and I realized it would be a good fit for the December theme. (Full title: Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, Or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat, by Gwen Cooper.)

I’m about two-thirds through and it’s an absolute delight. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book where a cat and a person seem like soul mates, but these two—well, they potentiate each other, they make each other stronger. It could just as well have been called Gwen Cooper’s Odyssey, but that’ not nearly so catchy in a title. A lovely book and a fantastic December read. If you like cats even a wee bit, I highly recommend this book.

Each chapter of Homer’s Odyssey begins with an epigraph from The Odyssey (by the Homer who is not a cat). It gave me a nudge to read it again (I read The Odyssey in college), and I went to get it off the shelf. I couldn’t find it! Iliad and Metamorphoses yes, but not The Odyssey.

Library to the rescue! But wait. There are a lot of holds on this book that is thousands of years old. What gives? Ah, a new translation. By what? A woman? A woman! Homer, translated by a woman! So I signed on. Finally, today, a copy came up for me: The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.

Yikes! It’s 582 pages! Oh, but wait. The first 100 pages are intro, maps, and notes (I skip all this except the maps and the note from the translator). At the end there are 50 pages of notes, and these include a summary for each of the 24 books in The Odyssey. (I find this a nice back-up. Good to know that if I get confused about what’s going on, I can just turn to the back of the book for a bit of clarification.) I’ve only just started, but already I’m quite excited to read it.

I’ve been dawdling through Homer’s Odyssey, simply because I’m enjoying it so much. But it’s time to get a move on. There are other journeys to be had this month. I picked up another book at the library today, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, by A.J. Swoboda. Now, doesn’t that sound like a spiritual journey? Or how about Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone? I’ve also been considering a reread of The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power, by Barbara G. Walker. So many options and only half the month left.

In the fiction realm, I’m going to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry alongside The Odyssey. And while I try to avoid reading similar books at the same time, I don’t think I’ll get confused between these two male journeys. (But wouldn’t it be funny if I did?) If there’s any time left in the month, I’m looking at After Life, by Rhian Ellis—a book I’ve had for 10 years, and I pull it off the shelf and say, “Why haven’t I read you yet?” Maybe this will be the time. Ann Patchett called it “exquisitely written and a thrill to read.”

Last month’s theme was health. My favorite book was After the Stroke, a journal by May Sarton. I have loved all her journals, but I think this is my favorite one yet (perhaps excepting Journal of a Solitude). The other best book of the month was Slow Medicine, by Victoria Sweet, M.D. This got me interested in traditional Chinese medicine, and now I’m reading a book about that. It’s complex and I’m reading it slowly, but it’s fascinating. When I know more than a gnat, I might write a post about it.

For those of you in the north, take heart—the winter solstice is only a week away, and then the days will start getting longer.

Happy reading to all!

Plant Dreaming Deep

It was five years before the plum trees I had planted flowered, five years before the oriole came back to weave his flame in and out of the clusters of white. I shall soon have been planted here myself for ten years, and I have a sense that the real flowering is still to come, and all I have experienced so far only a beginning. . . .

Now the adventure before me siezes me in the night and keeps me awake sometimes. Growing old . . . why, in this civilization, do we treat it as a disaster, valuing, as we do, the woman who ‘stays young’? Why ‘stay young’ when adventure lies in change and growth?

It is only past the meridian of fifty that one can believe that the universal sentence of death applies to oneself. At twenty we are immortal; at fifty we are too caught up in life to think much about the end, but from about fifty-five on the inmost quality of life changes because of this knowledge.”

–May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

Extra Innings: Not about Baseball

InningsI recently read Extra Innings by Doris Grumbach. This is the second of five memoirs that she’s published (though I found an article in The American Scholar that included an essay, “The View from 90” by Grumbach, which noted that the essay is part of a larger memoir, Downhill Almost All the Way, so hopefully the future holds at least one more memoir from this lovely, occasionally irascible woman).

For some reason I did not bother to read these in order, which is often a liability with memoirs. If I remember correctly, it is because I first stumbled upon her book Fifty Days of Solitude which I absolutely loved. I then read Life in a Day, which I also loved, and I’m not sure where in there I read Coming into the End Zone, which was her first memoir.

Extra Innings follows up two years later, and a bit of the book is about the reviews and responses to her first memoir. The overwhelming response that she noted was reviewers calling her grumpy or cranky, suggesting that perhaps she was not growing old as gracefully (or thankfully) as she should. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember having that feeling at all after reading any of her books. Certainly she’s not all chipper and spice; she’s direct and to the point, and calls shit shit (though not in such a vulgar manner). And she has a fine, sardonic sense of humor. I loved where relatively early in Extra Innings, a friend writes to say that she went to a bookstore to get her (previous) memoir, Coming into the End Zone, which they had in stock but couldn’t find on the nonfiction shelf. Her friend finally found it in the Sports section. A friend from New York sent her a postcard: “Loved your football book.” Grumbach muses:

There is a lesson in all this. Mary McCarthy once told me she was very good at naming books, as indeed she was: she provided me with the name for the biography I wrote of her, The Company She Kept, to echo the title of her own book, The Company She Keeps. On the contrary, I have a genius for misnaming books. Chamber Music [a novel] found itself on the Music shelves of bookstores, The Missing Person, a novel about Hollywood in the silent days, ended up among the Mysteries, and now there is my new football book. . . .”

This made me laugh out loud.

Another thing I love about Doris Grumbach: She loves words. Reading the recommendations in a book, Plain Words, first published in 1954, she notes that one is advised to use ‘get’ or ‘buy’ or ‘win’ rather than ‘acquire’; ‘rich’ rather than ‘affluent’; and ‘near’ rather than ‘adjacent.’ I couldn’t disagree more! For one thing, there is more at stake here than plainness, there is detail and accuracy, the conveyance of information. I have two neighbors adjacent to my house, but I would call at least 10 additional houses ‘near.’ The two words convey different information. Plainness is not a virtue if you lose detail and depth. Grumbach is not convinced that plain words are the answer, as you can tell in her writing—rich and diverse, with many words that call for a dictionary at hand.

Also in the world of words, later in the book she makes note of mistaken definitions—words that you thought you knew the meaning of, and then find out they mean something completely different. (I find this experience both embarrassing and exhilarating.) Two examples she gives: ‘pericope’ (which she thought was a variation of a word for a sea instrument, but instead it is an extract or section from a book); and ‘alewife,’ which she knew was a woman who ran a pub, but it is also a type of fish.

I have similar word experiences as I expect we all do. I always think ‘laconic’ means slow and/or lazy; lackadaisical. A laconic speech would be a slow,
meandering one. Wrong! Laconic means brief, concise, terse, or short. The satyrsexact opposite! And I always think ‘limpid’ means limp and having no depth, but in fact it means perfectly clear or transparent. I recently found out that ‘sartorial’ has nothing to do with goats or celebrations involving wine, but refers to tailors and clothing.

And this is why I loved Extra Innings. Grumbach always sends me down some garden path or another.

Any other examples of mistaken definitions out there?

August Reprise

books2August was a perfect month for reading on the front porch, so that’s exactly what I did. I read 18 books in August, mostly poetry (8) and nonfiction (6) with just a few (4) fiction books in the mix. Most of the books were short—only two of them were over 300 pages and 14 of them were less than 200 pages! One of the fiction books I read (and one of my favorites for the month) was Winnie-the-Pooh (which I wrote about last week).

Nearly all of the books were related to the August reading theme, which was “time.” What a great theme! Scads of poetry books fell under this umbrella. Here are the ones I read:

  • The Time Tree, by Húu Thinh
  • Quick, Now, Always, by Mark Irwin
  • When it Came Time, by Jeri McCormick
  • Timepiece, by Jane Flanders
  • Why I Wake Early, by Mary Oliver
  • Sleeping Late on Judgment Day, by Jane Mayall
  • The Last Usable Hour, by Deborah Landau
  • Time & Money, by William Mathews

Among the nonfiction were two standouts. In the Beginning, by Karen Armstrong is an excellent exegesis of Genesis. I have a great appreciation for Armstrong’s scholarly but very accessible writing, and In the Beginning is no exception. At the outset of the book, she says,

What we need to understand is that the Bible does not present its truths to us in this [straightforward, or factual] way. Reading it demands the same kind of meditative and intuitive attention that we give to a poem. We often have to wrestle with the text, only to learn that we are denied the certainty of a final revelation.

And a few pages later: “The first chapter of Genesis . . . was not intended to be a historical account of the beginning of life but a meditation upon the nature of being itself.” If you are even a teeny bit intrigued, I urge you to read this book. It’s short (only 195 pages, and nearly 100 of those pages are the book of Genesis, which she has included so you don’t have to scamper for a Bible every time you run across a passage of interest).

Measure of DaysThe other nonfiction standout was The Measure of My Days, by Florida Scott-Maxwell. Published in 1968 when the author was in her 80s, the book is subtitled One Woman’s Vivid, Enduring Celebration of Life and Aging. This is a multilayered book that will reward many readings. On the first page she says, “Being old I am out of step, troubled by my lack of concord, unable to like or understand much that I see. Feeling at variance with the times bust be the essence of age.

And just in case you are dreading old age as a time of boredom and drawing down:

Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age. To my own surprise I burst out with hot conviction.

Here is something that surprised me, and made me wonder if it will be true for me in my latter years as well: “Sensuous pleasure seems necessary to old age as intellectual pleasure palls a little.” Here I have all these books I’m saving up for my old age. What if they no longer interest me? More short bits:

“This love and pain and energy that are so strong while I am so weak, what do I do with them?”

“It is the unexpected, the unknowable, the divine irrationality of life that saves us.”

And a sentence that makes me laugh out loud every time I read it: “Excessive talk must be based on vanity, an assumption that you are the fountainhead of interest.” Another highly recommended short (150 pages) book.

Early in August I started two long tomes, No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (> 700 pages) and Blackout, by Connie Willis (500 pages). Once I realized that No Ordinary Time won the Pulitzer, and Blackout won the Hugo and the Nebula, I decided to stretch them into September, since they also fit the new monthly theme of “prize-winning books” which I think I might enjoy every bit as much as the time theme.

sageIn the garden I’ve continued to harvest tomatoes and cucumbers (only a very few) as well as calendula, chamomile, basil, sage, and thyme. I haven’t done much with any of them yet (except the tomatoes and cucumbers which we’ve eaten). That will wait for the cooler months. But my hops are nearly ready for the first harvest and I’m excited about that.

I’ve continued writing—both the blog (6 posts in August) and the daily haiku for the 10th month (though I broke form on one so it wasn’t a haiku at all, but rigidity isn’t everything in life). And of course, the weekly postcard missives to President Obama. Most recently: Dear President Obama, Time to take the military equipment and attitude out of the
police force. Replace with respect.maple

Most of the leaves have fallen from my crabapple tree, and I’ve seen the first scarlet leaves on the
maples. Fall is just around the corner.

The House by the Sea

I read May Sarton’s journal, The House by the Sea, earlier this month and oh! I had forgotten how much I love May Sarton—especially her journals. I read her Journal of a Solitude several years ago and while I remember loving it, the overwhelming remembrance that I carried over time is that she’s a curmudgeon. And yes, she certainly can be a curmudgeon (especially when woken from a nap by unexpected—and unwanted!—company) but she is also wonderfully introspective and refreshingly up-front about her perceived shortcomings.

She is also an introvert. One might even call her an introvert’s introvert. I completely seconded her comment at the end of one December:

[C]ome January first I am determined to batten myself down, tighten up, go inward. I feel the day must be marked by a change of rhythm, by some quiet act of self-determination and self-assertion. Everyone earns such a day after the outpourings of Christmas. We are overextended. Time to pull in the boundaries and lift the drawbridge.

This describes much of my January so far.

Every once in a while she has an observation or makes a statement that I just love: “At some point one has to make choices, one has to shut out the critical self and take the leap.”

I think I underlined that because I have just taken my leap—this year off to read and explore (yes—I underline in my books and sometimes I write in them too, and I frequently index them, even if they’re already indexed).

And then there is the May Sarton that makes me look forward to growing old: “There are as many ways of growing old as of being young, and one forgets that sometimes.” And this observation, on her 64th birthday, particularly makes me look forward to the coming decade: “I found myself saying to everyone, ‘Sixty-four is the best age I have ever been.’ And that is exactly what I feel.”

This is a book that I hugged to my chest when I completed it, I loved it so. And although it’s awfully early to predict, I’ll be surprised if it isn’t in my top 5 books of 2014. After the hug I went directly to Sixth Chamber Books (online) to see if they had the next journal, Recovering, but they do not. They have put me on a list. If you have a copy of Recovering that you want to get rid of, please sell it to Sixth Chamber. I’m waiting for a phone call.