Reading Theme Update

May is underway and I’ve shifted to the May reading theme, which is Black and Blue. An odd fit for May (why didn’t we do Green?), but usually our monthly reading themes aren’t attached to the month, so there you have it.

If I recall correctly, we got to Black and Blue because we were trying to choose a color theme, and black and blue seemed the most viable. But we thought perhaps there wouldn’t be enough with just one color, so we combined them. It made sense at the time. In retrospect, though, I think the theme would have been broader had we just chosen one of the words. Say what? If we had chosen black, for example, I would certainly look for books with black in the title. But I would also include things associated with black, like night, dark, and ebony for sure; but it seems like there could be additional variations—black birds, perhaps. Blue could have incorporated the concept of sadness, all words for shades of blue, and seriously blue things, like the sky, the ocean, and sapphires.

But when it’s black AND blue, I feel compelled to limit myself to those two specific words, because in my (perhaps strange) mind, the theme loses its cohesion if I stray into all those other territories. Not that anyone would care. (I don’t think even Sheila would mind—no, I’m sure she wouldn’t. She didn’t even get annoyed last year when I only read one book for the theme month because I devoted the month to a completely different theme. She is so much more emotionally mature than I am.)

So, sticking specifically to black and blue, the gleanings from my bookshelves are pretty skimpy (I have a couple of books on order from the library). But this is not necessarily a bad thing, because May is a busy month (birding, yard, garden) and reading is a lower priority. But also, I’d rather have a few good books to choose from than a lot of mediocre ones, and I’ve got a few good ones this month.

I’m about one-third of the way through Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim. This book is basically an introduction to brilliant black women writers. It contains several lists of recommendations: classic novels by black women, books on black feminism, books about black girlhood and friendship, science fiction and fantasy books by black women, plays by black women, and poetry by black women.

Each list is followed by three essays, and the list of contributors is impressive—Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Barbara Smith, Rebecca Walker, and N.K. Jemisin, to name a few. And it’s a wonderful package, an added bonus, with illustrations (mostly small but a few full page) of each of the contributors. A book beautiful both inside and out.

For poetry, I’m reading Blue Horses, by Mary Oliver. I am not far into it, but already I love it. Much of Oliver’s poetry deals with nature and I have thoroughly enjoyed most of her books. She can string together a few words and I will feel like I’m right there with her in the marsh (except she isn’t there, it’s just me in the marsh). No other poet does that quite so well for me.

I’ve not started a fiction book yet, but I’ve decided on Blue Eyes, Black Hair, by Marguerite Duras. It has many wins in its favor: the title contains both black and blue, of course; also, it’s short—117 pages; even with that short length, there is a lot of white space—the margins are wide all around, the font isn’t small, and there’s frequent double spacing between paragraphs; and it’s a novel of erotic obsession. Granted, novels of erotic obsession can be really bad, but if this one is, it’s only 117 pages.

The reading theme for April was Men (any variety will do). I read a monk, a boy, three men, plus Jack, Jim, Tolstoy, and Arthur Truluv. I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to in April—I had so many good theme books. But we had some beautiful days, and the lure of the bike and the river held sway.

It’s hard to stay inside. My rhubarb is nearly a foot high; the lilacs are starting to flower; the crabapple is in full bloom; the forsythia has peaked and the leaves are now in. I’ve had fox sparrows (3), a Lincoln’s sparrow, and scads of white-throated sparrows in the last several weeks. The house wren is back, and I’ve had both Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes in the backyard. I do love the spring bird migration.

Happy reading (and birding)!

The Beautiful Day

Today is a beautiful day. In Minnesota, you feel guilty for staying inside on such a beautiful day (even if you’re sick, you at least try to sit in the sun). And here I am, sitting inside writing, feeling guilty. Mind you, I’ve spent much of the day outside. I’ve been for two bike rides, done some gardening (such as it is here in April), spent some time birding at the river, and also did a little birding in the yard.

I think the first bike ride was the highlight of the day. I didn’t get out on my new bicycle much last year, and I’m bound to make up for it this year. While riding up the river road biking path, I saw a very large bird swooping low—vulture or eagle? I lost the one that swooped, but when I glanced up, I saw what was clearly a turkey vulture soaring, soon joined by the other. I was pleased, as I’ve already seen an eagle this year, and the vulture was new to my year list.

After biking at a brisk pace for a distance not quite far enough to make my legs rubbery, we stopped and rested and chatted for a bit. Before long I found myself distracted by the birds I saw flitting through the trees, and try as I might I couldn’t focus on conversation. So I decided to go to the river later and do a bit of birding (I didn’t have my binoculars with me on the bike ride—why do I ever go anywhere without binoculars in spring?)

After our equally brisk ride back, I rested for a bit, but the beautiful day and the call of the birds lured me out before long. I rode down to the river, picked a spot, sat down, and waited for the birds to reappear after the disturbance of my arrival. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes, birds started coming around. Not a lot of them—it was mid-afternoon, not the best time for birding. Still and yet, I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler of the year, as well as an eastern phoebe. Also a northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, and I heard a red-bellied woodpecker laughing. Slowly floating down the river was a group of northern shovelers.

Earlier today, I was outside at the cactus, uncovering it (again—after I had to recover it mid last week for our winter storm). I could almost feel it stretching towards the sun. I got the bulk of it done, and hope to finish the rest yet tonight (it stays light until after 8 p.m. now!). I also uncovered (again) the rhubarb, which is much further along than it was five days ago when I covered it back up. Rhubarb bread is around the corner (with cinnamon and nuts—yum).

I’ve had a few spring migrants in the backyard. For the last 10 days, I’ve had three fox sparrows, which have totally captivated me. They’ve been here pretty much all day for those 10 days, and I’ve been quite diligent about putting out fresh water and seed of various sorts (and also graham crackers). This is a particularly important time to feed birds, as often their common sources of foods (insects, buds, seeds) haven’t arrived yet or are sparse.

Several days ago, as I was watching the fox sparrows under the dogwoods, spouse came up, pointed out the window and asked, “What’s that?” to a bird that was about three feet away from my nose. A beautiful male purple finch! I’m glad I saw him then, because I haven’t seen him since. I have house finches quite often, but the purple finch is rare in my yard.

Robins are plentiful this spring, but I’m still awaiting the return of the house wren.

Do you think if I unplug the heated birdbath, winter will return?

Looking for a Few Good Men

March is drawing to a close, and I’m starting to anticipate the April reading theme—men. I’m quite excited about the possibilities and have been looking forward to this particular theme for quite some time. This is men in a broad sense, including any book with the word “man” or “men” in the title, also boy, mister, Mr., father, uncle, etc., or a proper male name.

The one book I’m most singularly excited about is Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, by Michael Kimmel. With the resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism (which are not just men, but men are the primary face) and the continuing school shootings (and other mass killings) committed primarily by white men, I am quite interested to see what Kimmel has to say. Bear with me while I quote a wee bit on this from Kimmel’s book (it has a really good index):

Take a little thought experiment. Imagine all the rampage school shooters in Littleton, Colorado; Pearl, Mississippi; Paducah, Kentucky; Springfield, Oregon; and Jonesboro, Arkansas; now imagine they were black girls from poor families who lived instead in Chicago, New Haven, Newark, Philadelphia, or Providence. Can you imagine the debate, the headlines, the handwringing? . . . . Yet the obvious fact that virtually all the rampage school shooters were middle-class white boys barely broke a ripple in the torrent of public discussion.

If it’s as interesting (and data-driven) as I expect, you will likely be hearing a bit more from me about Angry White Men. Other nonfiction books I have in the stack:

  • Men We Reaped, Jesamyn Ward
  • Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Susan Shapiro
  • The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd
  • My Father’s Paradise, Ariel Sabor
  • Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood
  • Reading Judas, Elaine Pagels & Karen L. King

I think that’s a nice selection. A little heavy on memoirs, but I do like memoirs, and they’re all pretty different. My fiction list is a bit longer, though I have been much less diligent in my search for fiction. There are just so many of them!

  • The Hanged Man, Francesca Lia Block (YA)
  • Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones
  • Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal (mystery)
  • The Bachelors, Muriel Spark
  • The One-in-a-Million Boy, Monica Wood
  • Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker (mystery)
  • The Mostly True Story of Jack, Kelly Barnhill (YA, local author)
  • The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Phaedra Patrick
  • Jim the Boy, Tony Earley (note the double win here)
  • The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Alice Walker

A nice selection, I think. Though maybe I should look at the SF/fantasy shelf for a possible addition. It seems to be the only thing missing.

Poetry is surprisingly skimpy in the male realm: only seven books after looking through six shelves of poetry! Interestingly, I scanned just two shelves for female titles and came up with nine! What is it about poetry that makes it so female oriented? I checked, and I have about equal numbers of male and female authors, so it’s not that. However, most (though not all) of the female titles are written by women. Poetry on men:

  • The Silence of Men, Richard Jeffrey Newman
  • The Gentle Man, Bart Edelman
  • Narrative of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson (note the double win)
  • Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me, Stanley Plumly
  • Gabriel, Edward Hirsch (one of my favorite poets)
  • Martin & Meditations on the South Valley, Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • The Throne of Labdacus, Gjertrud Schnackenberg

There is much to look forward to in April!

I’ve been enjoying my geographic peregrinations this month. I visited both coasts: The San Francisco Haiku Anthology, New York (Will Eisner), and Another Brooklyn (Jacqueline Woodson). After New York I hopped up to Maine (J. Courtney Sullivan) with a stop in Radio Free Vermont (Bill McKibben). I also spent quite a bit of time in the Heartland (Sarah Smarsh) and the Kitchens of the Great Midwest (J. Ryan Stradal). I have recently left the country for Rain in Portugal (Billy Collins). Spring in Portugal is lovely.

Quick bird note: Spring in Minnesota is pretty good too! Yesterday I saw my first chipping sparrow as well as my first white-throated sparrow of the year. Spring migration has begun!

Of Winter Birds and Books

I had some fine winter birding today without even leaving the house. A few birds caught my eye as I was folding clothes this afternoon—a small flock of robins! I haven’t seen many robins since early September, so it was nice to see several. (While most robins move further south for the winter, a smallish number, about 10%, overwinter here.) I am hoping this flock stays in the neighborhood all winter. There’s nothing to bring a smile to your face in the winter like a flock of robins.

I watched the robins for quite a while. And then I noticed one that had a—what? Wait—a yellow band on the end of the tail? Really? I grab the binoculars at the top of the stairs, and sure enough, exactly what I thought: a cedar waxwing! But only one? How odd. Where you see one, usually there are several. Sometimes dozens. Of course I kept watching. And true to form, I spotted several more.

Cedar waxwings are not uncommon, but neither do I see them often around the house, so that was a special treat.

I looked closely at each waxwing, hoping one would turn out to be the much more elusive Bohemian waxwing, but no such luck. No complaints on that count, though.

Later in the back yard, I had cardinals (two male, one female), blue jays, and, for a brief period, a singing robin (not so very common in November and a lovely bit of cheer on a grey day).

For over a week I have had a small flock of cardinals visiting my feeders and bird bath, but recently the (heated) bird bath went on the fritz and I haven’t seen them in the last few days. I got a new heated bird bath, but then I was having trouble with the outlet (not so very bright not to check that first), but I think I may have gotten it fixed. Tomorrow will tell (it’s getting down to 17 degrees tonight).

And while I was watching the birds out the window, I decided it was finally time to compile all my lists of books read over the years into one spreadsheet. Right now, some are in a three-ring binder, some are lists in Word, and some are still in my desk calendars (which is where I track it through the year). I’m kind of excited about this and have already started. I have decades of lists of books that I’ve read. A good winter project.

When I went to get the three-ring binder, I discovered I had not written down the first names of any of the authors in the first year. This did not surprise me. But what horrified me is that I continued this. I didn’t bother to record the author’s first name for SEVEN years. The lists do evolve over time. After a few years I start adding book ratings. Years after that, I start making those ratings more consistent. And at some point, I started adding the length of the book.

And now, the next evolution: the searchable spreadsheet. All those titles in one place. Imagine!

I’m kind of excited about the whole thing. I’ve already done the first year. A fine trip down memory lane. (Wow, I was really into mysteries!)

Life After Animals (Book Themes)

The September reading theme (Animal) was great fun. I read a panther, a horse, a fox, two dogs and a parrot, a cat, a tiger, birds, monkeys, and one generic animal. The Panther and the Lash, poetry by Langston Hughes, was my favorite of the bunch. The essays in B.K. Loren’s Animal Mineral Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food also stood out.

The October reading theme is Life. I had two animal books that didn’t quite make it into September, but that’s okay because they fit the October theme too (I love when I can do this). The first was Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, by Kyo Maclear—a memoir about urban birding (in Toronto) over the course of a year. As you might imagine, being an urban birder myself, I loved this book. It’s not just all nature, though. It also has an introspective and spiritual aspect as well. A lovely mix.

The other book I’ve finished this month is Lives of the Animals, poetry by Robert Wrigley. I absolutely loved the first part of this book. The last half didn’t resound so much, but I will definitely read more Wrigley. I followed up Wrigley with another poetry book, What the Living Won’t Let Go, by Lorna Crozier. I am a Crozier fan, and the book is not disappointing. Next up in poetry: People Live, They Have Lives, by Hugh Seidman; or, possibly, Like the New Moon, I will Live My Life, by Robert Bly (I love that both the titles have two versions of life in them, and both comprise two phrases; how odd that these exact two floated to the top).

In nonfictionland, I’m reading Life Without a Recipe, by Diana Abu-Jaber. This is her second memoir. I loved her first one, The Language of Baklava. I’m about one-third through Life Without a Recipe, and so far it has focused primarily on the influence her German grandmother (who loved to bake) and her Jordanian father (who loved to cook) had in her early life. I find myself wanting to bake cookies one minute and cook something deliciously spicy the next. (Note: Abu-Jaber also writes fiction. If fiction is more your thing, I highly recommend her book Crescent.)

Also in process (but at a slower pace because, in hindsight, it wasn’t a good idea to follow a book of essays with another book of essays) is Alice Walker’s Living By the Word. These essays are good, but for the interim I’m going with the flow of the memoir. After Abu-Jaber (who completely grabs my attention), I will be able to give Walker the attention she deserves.

Fiction is going a little more slowly. I’ve started off with a graphic novel, Get a Life, by Dupey & Berberian. I’ve been having an off-and-on relationship with fiction for the last year or so. I want to read fiction, but nothing appeals to me. This does not seem to happen with nonfiction. I’m hoping the fiction bug comes back, because I do have a couple of books I’d like to read: Lost Among the Living, by Simone St. James (sort of a gothic mystery/thriller), and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, by Alice Walker (after I finish her book of essays—I really do like Alice Walker, as you may have guessed).

Nonfiction is even more compelling. Top of the pile is The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, a memoir; Still Life in Harlem, by Eddy L. Harris, also a memoir; and Life Is a Miracle, by Wendell Berry. And if none of those appeal when the time comes, there’s always The Lion in the Living Room.

Truly, Life is a banquet.

May-June Book Themes

May has gotten away from me, as it often does. So much going on, what with spring and all. For most of May I’m either outside or looking outside unless it’s raining or nighttime. You just never know when an ovenbird might show up in your yard. (It’s been back twice since. Maybe it will nest!)

Back to books. The May theme is architectural elements. So far I have read a staircase, a kingdom (perhaps a stretch), medicine chest, bridge, and fountain. In process are a picture window, stairway, and corridor. May is not one of my stronger reading months. I just don’t care so much about books. The birds are migrating, the catnip is coming up, the cactus is singing. I may still love books, but I can’t seem to focus on them.

June gets a little more down to earth. Still plenty to see and discover, but a bit more time for books as well. The theme for June is “green.” This includes any book with the word “green” in the title, and also green things (e.g., grass, trees, plants, parks, leaves, salads, envy).

I’ve not yet done a scouring of the shelves. Even so, I’ve likely found more than I can read. So far for fiction:

  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
  • Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas
  • Murder on Sagebrush Lane, Patricia Smith Wood
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

For nonfiction:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, Gayla Marty
  • The Green Boat, Mary Pipher
  • Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (a bit iffy on direct theme fit, but the greenest book of them all, and I really want to read it, subtitled: “The ecological crisis through the lens of faith.”)

Poetry often adds fun variations on the theme:

  • Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer
  • Green Soldiers, John Bensko
  • Nettles, Betty Adcock
  • Flower Wreath Hill, Kenneth Rexroth
  • Now the Green Blade Rises, Elizabeth Spires
  • You Speak to Me in Trees, Elana Wolff
  • The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri

With luck I will read five or six of these. You just never know what you’ll be in the mood for. And I’ll probably find half as many again before June even starts!

Happy reading to you, and happy summer as well!

Post-Blizzard Birding

Last night when I went to bed, I had seen 31 bird species so far this year (including wild turkey and great egret just yesterday). Most (60%) I have seen from my house or yard and nearly all the rest have been spotted while driving (mostly to visit my mom).

(Reminder: We had a blizzard here last week that gave us 20 inches of snow. I’m pretty sure I was shoveling at this time one week ago.)

Today, I added 39 new birds to my year list.

That just sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? But not so much if you’ve been socked in by winter for far too long, and the birds were having none of it.

Our first stop was a marsh that I was sure would be all open water with our current temperatures in the 60s. Shocked we were to see it frozen as we approached, and we nearly turned around. Oh, let’s check it out. And so we did.

Not completely frozen over; open water around the edges. We see red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, coots, pied-billed grebe, ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, wood duck, bufflehead, and lesser scaup. Also flying around: barn swallows, tree swallows, and at least one northern rough-winged swallow. Horned lark, song sparrow, killdeer, eastern bluebirds, northern flickers, brown-headed cowbirds and one ring-necked pheasant. We were glad we didn’t turn around.

And while we were already exceptionally pleased with our birding morning, we continued on to a nearby lake. Who knows? And our luck continued: white pelicans, Bonaparte’s gulls, hooded mergansers, red-breasted merganser, horned grebe, ruddy ducks, green-winged teal, and common goldeneye. In the trees and surrounding area: western meadowlark, mourning dove, yellow-rumped warbler, eastern phoebe, and gray catbird (heard only, but there’s no mistaking that sound; they are a frequent backyard bird here).

We leave the lake—sated with birds and craving food. Moseying down the road, we flush a bird from a shrub near the road. This is not a shape I see often. I watch—this familiar not familiar sight—American woodcock! A life bird for me, completely and totally unexpected.

A week ago I was shoveling out from a blizzard. Today I added 39 birds to my year list.

I love Minnesota.