Water, Water Everywhere: July Reading Theme

During the hottest month of the year, it feels good to immerse yourself in water, be it lake, river, sea, or pond. So we’re immersing ourselves in “water” books for the month of July. I’ve finished three so far:

  • Dragons in the Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle. This turned out to be the second book in the O’Keefe series, and now I have the first on order from the library. I loved the Wrinkle in Time series; the O’Keefe series is showing promise as well.
  • Daughters of the Lake, by Wendy Webb. I loved this book by one of my favorite local authors. I didn’t think she’d ever write anything I loved as much as The Fate of Mercy Alban (set in the famous Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, though it isn’t Glensheen in the book of course), but Daughters of the Lake was every bit as engaging. A contemporary gothic mystery set on the shore of Lake Superior, this one had me baffled right up to the end.
  • Skinny Dipping, poetry by Suzanne Collins (what better in July?)

I have a good selection of watery fiction to choose from:

  • The Sea, John Banville
  • The Odd Sea, Frederick Reiken
  • The Shape of Water, Andrea Camilleri (first in a mystery series set in Sicily)
  • Ocean Sea, Alessandro Baricco
  • Bay of Angels, Anita Brookner
  • The Marriage of the Sea, Jane Alison
  • Rain, Kirsty Gunn
  • Madras on Rainy Days, Samina Ali
  • The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler

Notice how almost all the authors’ surnames are from the start of the alphabet? I stopped looking through fiction after the letter G because I already had such bounty. (I did go search out The Odd Sea, though, because I knew I had it and I wanted to be able to pick between a regular sea and an odd sea). I think it’s a grand list and I hope to get several more books in yet this month. It is July, after all—lazy days on the front porch (or under the ceiling fan) reading. It makes me feel all happy inside just thinking about it.

Nonfiction is much skimpier:

  • St. Croix Notes, Noah Adams
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill
  • When the Water Smokes, Bob Simpson
  • Water and Sky, Alan S. Kesselheim
  • Seasons on the Pacific Coast, Susan J. Tweit
  • Sippewisset, Tim Traver
  • Facing the Wave, Gretel Ehrlich

I have started the Ehrlich book, just a few pages in. But earlier today, I glanced at Seasons on the Pacific Coast, and I think it may just win out. It looks so compelling, and it is so much of my mood in a July. It’s subtitled A Naturalist’s Notebook, and it has lots of beautiful illustrations (I am a sucker for illustrations; pictures, too). It’s a singularly attractive book with a siren call.

As is usually the case, there are a number of good titles in poetry. I am most looking forward to Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (current U.S. poet laureate). Sheila and I are reading this together to discuss. It’s been awhile since we discussed a book of poetry. I’m looking forward to it. Also in the poetry stack:

  • River, Fred Chappell
  • Crossing the Same River, Patricia Goedicke
  • Waterborne, Linda Gregerson
  • The Water Carrier, Steve Straight
  • Water Becomes Bone, C. Mikal Oness
  • From Where the Rivers Come, Richard Solly
  • You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Anna Moschovakis
  • White Sea, Cleopatra Mathis
  • Fleet River, James Longenbach

So many options available for long summer days. I’m picturing the front porch, a little stack of books, and a big glass of iced tea with lots of lemon.

Happy reading!

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Reading in June Is All About Size

Happy June! June brings a lot of wonderful things, like strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb and cactus blossoms. Also, a new reading theme.

The theme for June is size (think small, medium, large, and take it from there). I’ve been looking forward to this theme ever since Sheila suggested it, and I will not be disappointed.

Nonfiction is especially enticing this month. I’ve started with Small Victories, by Anne Lamott. Talk about the perfect book at the perfect time (although it’s true that I tend to like Lamott at any time, this one seems particularly perfect). Next up is likely Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver (the rare writer who has written both fiction and nonfiction that I’ve loved). Other books in the nonfiction pile:

  • Any Small Thing Can Save You, Christina Adam
  • The Big Picture, David Suzuki
  • Sleeping Giant, Tamara Draut
  • At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman
  • The Marginalized Majority, Onnesha Roychoudhuri (is a majority an amount rather than a size? It feels like a size)
  • The Big Squeeze, Steven Greenhouse
  • The Small-Mart Evolution, Michael H. Shuman
  • The Size of Thoughts, Nicholson Baker

Not bad, huh? And a nice range in topics.

My fiction stack is skimpier (but note, I have only gone through about two-thirds of my fiction). I’ve started with The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny. At first I thought “long” a bit of a stretch for the theme, but I’m good at stretching, and when I remembered drawing sticks when I was a kid (the kid who drew the long stick got to go first; the kid who drew the short stick had to do dishes—like that) I knew I was home free. Meeting with Sheila before the theme began, I started reciting my reasoning for “long,” sticks and all, and she laughed and said she already had a “long” book in her reading pile. Oh I do love my friends.

I also have two books by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and The Little Sister. I’m leaning more towards The Big Sleep, and I’ve just remembered I have a graphic novel of The Little Sister. Maybe I’ll read both!

Also in the pile:

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie
  • The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, Tiffany Baker
  • The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara

A short but appealing stack.

In poetry, I’ve started All the Short Poems, by Valerie Worth. This is a lovely book, with illustrations by Natalie Babbitt.

Poetry has given me some of the best titles for the size theme:

  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye
  • A Slender Grace, Rod Jellema
  • Skinny Dipping, Suzanne Collins
  • In This Thin Rain, Nelson Ball
  • Crossing the Great Divide, Jean Feraca

A new month, a new reading theme, new birds and new plants. Turning the page on the calendar. Entering the lazy season, for lolling on the porch, reading and napping. Count me in.

Happy reading (and napping) to you!

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?

Books: Not Just for Reading

I love playing with books, especially around the monthly reading themes. Usually I start thinking about next month’s book theme in the middle of this month. A friend once castigated me for that—not living in the moment enough, as it were. Pigsfoot. I have always been a big fan of anticipation, and I don’t see a thing wrong with it.

Plus, in this particular case, it allows me to play with my books in pursuit of a goal (a nice stack of interesting books to choose from for next month’s theme). It’s purely fun, and has the advantage of helping me get reacquainted with my books (which can also help in the culling process).

This is not an either/or thing. I can enjoy the monthly reading theme and also anticipate the upcoming theme. Really, it’s like winning twice: I enjoy picking and anticipating the books, and then I enjoy reading them (though not all of them, because I always select more than I can read, because it’s nice to have a lot to choose from).

Any time of the year is good for playing with books, but this last winter has especially lent itself to book play. Days inside due to the polar vortex; days inside due to snowstorms; days inside due to ice.

I got a little cabin fever and started culling my books. And while this may sound more like work than fun, think of it this way: Book culling involves handling, looking at, and sorting books; reading book jackets, paging through books, and occasionally taking trips down memory lane. A great way to spend a snowy (or rainy) day.

I’ve only gotten through three shelves so far (but that’s more than half a bookcase!) and have had to stop because the stacks are taking over the Blue Room. (Note: There were already stacks of books on the Blue Room floor; but now it has gotten to a point where there is only a wide path for walking.)

The next step is to sort the books. The cream of the crop go to an independent that buys books, and the rest get bagged up for Half Price Books (HPB). This is the dangerous time, when back-sliding occurs. (Or, more charitably, it gives me an opportunity to change my mind if I have been a little too hasty, or if I was in a particularly strong cleansing mood when I did the culling.) I don’t usually uncull many books, but knowing there is this pause ahead may make me a bit bolder in the initial culling. And I have already pulled back several books (mostly nature—why did I think I wouldn’t want to read this Cape Cod book? Acquainted With the Night, going through it hour by hour—why would I get rid of that? You see….) But probably not more than 2 or 3 out of every 50 culled. It’s a good check and balance system that works for me.

Bringing books to the store and getting cash or credit is also fun. The independents always pay much better than HPB, but they are few and far between (although I have found a new one that is particularly keen on poetry, and soon I will try branching out into other areas—nature, history, and books by local authors—things in line with the spirit of the store). But HPB takes everything, including books with underlining (I underline in some of my books—mostly books I think I’m going to keep and then sometimes it turns out I don’t want to keep them after all; underlining helps me process a book at a deeper level).

So the cream of the crop goes to the independents, and the bulk goes to Half Price Books. We have a HPB near our house and this is our new system (now that we have about 12 bags of books, and still stacks to go): two bags of books in the car at all times. Any time we drive by HPB and there’s room in the parking lot (and we have time), we bring in the two bags. When we get home, two more bags go into the car. With luck, six bags are gone within a week.

A final enjoyment: coming home and looking at the bookshelves no longer double stacked, and room on the shelf for more. Having room for new books is nice for a change (we haven’t quit buying books, after all!).

Writing this has made me realize that the memoir shelf is ready to cull. And there’s now enough room in the Blue Room for a few more stacks. Hmm. Maybe I’ll go down and just start with a smallish pile of memoirs….

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!

Joy in the Everyday (with haiku)

This winter I have realized how much joy I get out of everyday things. Last week I was out walking with a friend. It had been snowing at a decent clip for a few hours and there were already a couple of inches on the ground. Mind you, we don’t need any more snow; we already have 3 feet, thank you very much.

And still. It was breathtakingly beautiful. There’s just something magical about walking in a good snowfall—the soft fluffy snow, not the hard dry pellets or the wet sloppy mess. Everything is quieter; sound is muffled, even on a busy street. Our footprints will be barely visible in an hour.

The next day the sun was out and the world asparkle. You had to squint even looking away from the sun. It was that bright.

sun high in the sky
makes the snow a sparkle-fest
I squint in reply

I love watching birds year-round, but in the starkness of winter, they are especially welcome. I spend hours sitting at the little blue table in the kitchen, reading, writing, and looking out the window at the birds (also squirrels and rabbit).

The cardinals have been the standouts this winter. Every day without fail they show up, anywhere between 2 and 20 (most commonly 6 to 10). I counted 8 males after a recent snowfall. That brilliant red against the white snow—this is beauty.

The flock of robins is still around, and there were 2 in the backyard today. (I think they may have been eating the mealworms in the new birdseed blend I recently got.) And a few days ago I had a northern flicker at my ground feeder, a first (not the first flicker I’ve seen in the yard, but the first time I’ve seen one in the ground feeder). Perhaps also after the mealworms?

perched on the birdbath
glinting in the winter sun
a single robin

a sassy blue jay
hides every single peanut
tomorrow’s dinner

Blue jays, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, house finch, goldfinch, and a variety of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied, and even pileated), and one red-tailed hawk perched on the telephone pole by the garage.

Pure joy.

Also: Wrapping my hands around a mug of hot tea.

Seeing the cat stretched out in the sun.

After the sun sets and the plates are cleared, we settle in for a few episodes of Downton Abbey. I really had no interest, but first my niece, then my brother, and then my birding friend all gushed about Downton Abbey. With such diverse gushing, I had to check it out. My brother predicted I’d by hooked by the third episode of Season 1, but I believe I was hooked by the end of the first episode. We’ve just finished Season 4 (and Season 5 is supposed to arrive Friday).

At a recent lunch during another snowfall, my friends and I got to talking about snowshoeing, and I admitted having bought snowshoes over a decade ago and never having worn them (I got them end-of-season, it didn’t snow again, and they got put away). I found them at the back of the closet and have pulled them out, with the tags still on.

Perhaps a new source of everyday joy?

The Heart of Winter

We’ve been having serious winter here lately. Polar vortex, freezing rain, snow on ice, black ice, snow and more snow, and the resulting snow emergencies (for those of you not in snow climes, this is about moving cars so streets can be plowed).

And I have hit my winter stride.

Last summer I lost interest in cooking and despaired it would ever come back. It has, and in spades. Or perhaps I should say teaspoons. All the old standbys—meatloaf, roasted vegetables, corn pudding, ham steak, baked potatoes, applesauce, etc. Plus a few new things—minestrone soup, kedgeree (a rice-lentil mix), and quesadillas (how in the world did I never try making these before? So easy!). But here is the fun part (or do I mean the frustrating part?): I cook so much that I have to stop because we have too many leftovers and we’re going to (a) waste food, plus (b) there’s no room in the fridge for anything else anyway.

Oh, the difference that six months can make.

Winter also always gives me a special appreciation for the birds. So many animals migrate or hibernate; I love the birds that stay (or arrive) for the winter. Staying closer to home in winter, I’m much more dependent on my backyard for birding entertainment. I have not been disappointed. Yesterday morning I saw my first pileated woodpecker of the year, in my neighbor’s tree. She was slowly sauntering up a limb. (Today I noticed some large fresh-made holes in a tree several houses away. I wonder if that might also have been my pileated woodpecker.)

But the stars of winter this year are the cardinals and juncos. They’ve been rather plentiful all season, but Wednesday in the snowstorm, even at its height (an inch of snow per hour) the birds were plentiful in the yard. (I went out and spread seed twice, and made sure they had water, and also put out a few peanuts for the blue jays.) I could not get a good count on the cardinals—I think maybe 12. There were a lot more juncos—40 or so? And they stayed all day. Usually the cardinals visit a few times a day. Same with the juncos—they come and go (emphasis on go). But not that day. And I couldn’t help myself. I think I spent half the afternoon watching them. (Also a few chickadees and two intrepid blue jays.)

And the other thing that winter brings me to, at its best, is going through stuff and culling. Being cooped up in a house can be very motivating that way. Most recently it was a small corner bookshelf, that must have been purchased at a clown shop. I went to empty the first shelf and there were just layers and stacks and piles of books—far more than should be allowed in such a small space. This made the culling a bit more challenging (I thought it would be a breeze to do the entire bookcase in an afternoon before I realized its clown-car aspect). On the bright side, I got a huge stack of unsightly hardcover mysteries tucked away on the bottom shelf (ungainly towers on top of the corner bookshelf—20 of them at least).

But it’s not just books. For some reason I develop this “eye” in the depth of winter: I look at everything in the house through a more critical lens. This is a great time to go through clothes, books, dishes, anything and everything. It’s like I have this roving “what can I get rid of” eye. And I find that getting rid of excess things is very refreshing.

This, to me, is the heart of winter: cooking, appreciating the nature in my own backyard, and getting the house in order.

I think this is what I love about winter. It is so close and simple.