November Book Theme

The November book theme is _____ & _____, as in War & Peace, or Pride & Prejudice. Yes, think about that for a minute. I was quite skeptical when my friend originally suggested it. And yet. Here is what I gleaned from my fiction shelves:

  • Decline & Fall, Evelyn Waugh
  • Adam & Eve, Sena Jeter Naslund (I loved her book Ahab’s Wife)
  • Lost & Found, Jacqueline Sheehan
  • Aiding & Abetting, Muriel Spark
  • Fates & Furies, Lauren Groff
  • Love & Friendship, Alison Lurie
  • Flesh & Blood, Michael Cunningham
  • Gentleman & Players, Joanne Harris

And here is the nonfiction that caught my attention:

  • Garlic & Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
  • Sustenance & Desire, Bascove (edited work, “This is a book-lover’s book about food.”)
  • Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris
  • Basin & Range, John McPhee
  • Lost & Found, Kate St. Vincent Vogl (memoir)
  • Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain
  • Wolves & Honey, Susan Brind Morrow

Garlic & Sapphires is high on the list, and reading about food in November seems like the ultimate comfort read. Kathleen Norris is a favorite author of mine (leaning into the spiritual realm), but I have been warned away from Acedia & Me. Nonetheless, it’s on my shelf, and maybe at this particular point in my life it is the perfect book for me. Being warned away from it makes me approach it like fire, but approach it nonetheless.

Last month’s theme (house/home) finally saw me get back into reading mode. I read 14 books (and they weren’t all short!). Most notable was the reread of House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski—my third reading of the book, and while it still held me, it held me in different places than it had previously (perhaps the mark of a great book?). I didn’t find it quite so scary as I had the first two times (but then again, I wasn’t home alone), but I did make some new connections. One of my very favorite scary books.

And we’ve moved into scarier November. Month of Gray & Bleak in Minnesota. I’ll keep you posted.

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October Is for Home

The reading theme this month is house/home. When better than in October, when you’re starting to move from the outdoor of summer towards the indoor of winter. This is a repeat from last year because we both had so many books we didn’t get to. Since I’ve not been reading so much in the last couple of months, I didn’t do my usual careful gleaning of the nonfiction shelves. Still, I have a nice assortment to choose from:

  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins
  • The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (local author)
  • The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, Tahir Shah
  • February House, Sherill Tippins
  • Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • A Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp
  • The City Homesteader, Scott Meyer

Number one on my list just now is Sixpence House. I feel about ready to get lost in a town of books. I’m also quite interested in The Latehomecomer which has been on my to-read list for years now, and also February House, which is about a house shared by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, in Brooklyn during 1940 and 1941 (described as a yearlong party).

My fiction shelves surprised me. Apparently, I had been more diligent in reading my homely fiction that I realized. Still, several viable contenders:

  • At Home With the Glynns, Eric Kraft
  • Lions at Lamb House, Edwin Yoder*
  • Homecoming, Caren Gussof
  • The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald
  • The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery
  • The Newsboys’ Lodging House, Jon Boorstin*
  • The Homecoming Party, Carmine Abate

*Both of these books have William James as a character. That in and of itself makes them appeal to me, and reading them in the same month could be just the thing. Also very high on my to-read list is The Irresistible Henry House, which I think might be one of those don’t-want-to-leave-your-chair books.

But the month starts with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (one of the scariest books I’ve ever read; right up there with Stephen King’s The Shining). But House of Leaves is much more complex and multilayered than The Shining, with a design that makes its own thread. I’ve read it twice before. The first time I mostly got scared and was kind of amazed; the second time I noted a lot of design detail that I missed on the first go. On this third read, I’m wondering if the scary factor will still be there. The time is right: October with its shorter days, and dark rainy damp evenings (thunderstorms as I write) is perfect for a long scary book.

The September theme (man/woman/boy/girl/child), much like the August theme, was a bit of a bust, and for the same reason: I just didn’t read that much in September. I read a child, a girl, two men, a woman, and kids. Just Kids, by Patti Smith, would be the standout. And purely because the titles are fun, I will mention Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, by Martina Newberry, and The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, by Jason Sommer (both poetry).

Happy reading, and happy belated equinox!

Men, Women, and the September Reading Theme

I believe the September reading theme started as man/woman. And then we added child. Shortly after that, we decided to read Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) together as a theme read. So girl and boy got added in. And I added kid because I want to read Just Kids, by Patti Smith.

My bookshelves were brimming with potential theme reads. Here are some of the cream of the crop.

For fiction:

  • A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
  • Woman in the Dark, Dashiell Hammett
  • Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith
  • How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall
  • The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
  • The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, Sarah Braunstein

Right now A Man Called Ove is leading the pack for my next fiction book (though the Muriel Spark book also calls).

Nonfiction that’s rising to the top:

  • How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
  • Angry White Men, Michael Kimmel
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
  • The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Boy Erased, Garrard Conley
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp

I have already picked up Just Kids (Patti Smith) though I’ve only read the preface. I hope to spend some time with it this weekend. Next up might be How to be a Woman. But who can tell? That could be days away.

And of course, poetry. So many fun/interesting titles.

  • Woman at Mile Zero, Linda Rogers
  • Missing Children, Lynn Crosbie
  • Loose Woman, Sandra Cisneros
  • The Gentle Man, Bart Edelman
  • Among Women, Jason Shinder
  • The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, Jason Sommer
  • The Silence of Men, Richard Jeffrey Newman
  • A Woman Kneeling in the Big City, Elizabeth Macklin
  • Uncoded Woman, Anne-Marie Oomen
  • Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson
  • The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, Christopher Kennedy
  • Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, Martina Newberry

I looked at that list for at least 10 minutes trying to decide which titles to cull, because it’s so long. But it’s poetry, and I can’t choose, so that is the full list and you see I have my hands full for the month of September!

Last month’s theme (The _____) was a bit of a bust. Not because there wasn’t a ton of titles (there were plenty) but because I just didn’t read all that much. I read 7 books in August (and two of those were poetry). The 3 fiction books I read were all dark, dysfunctional, and/or dystopian (I can’t say how odd this is for me, as I don’t usually go into dark or dystopian in my fiction, and three in one month is quite an aberration). For those out there that do like to go down this road, I’d recommend The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist. A blurb on the cover compares Holmqvist—a Swede—with Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood. I believe they are in good company.

But for now, I think I’ll retire to the front porch with Patti Smith.

This Poem Made Me Laugh Out Loud

Mind you, I might have a really low bar for humor in poetry. I simply do not expect poetry to be funny (or even humorous), so maybe in the field of poetry, a little humor goes a long way.

I hope you at least crack a smile.

Of Martyrs

Emma Burns is a martyr
    And stays with Jimmy
Only because she feels sorry for him, her folks like him,
    The neighbors expect it.
    And he takes their two boys fishing every Saturday.
Emma survives by a furtive affair with Frank Harris
    Every other Thursday afternoon.

Jimmy Burns is also a martyr
And stays with Emma
    Only because he feels sorry for her, his boss likes her,
    The neighbors expect it.
    And she is teaching the boys how to play the piano.
Jimmy survives by a furtive affair with Frank Harris’s wife
    Every other Wednesday morning.

The Burns boys are also martyrs.
    They hate fishing,
        But feel sorry for their father.
They also hate the piano,
    But don’t want to hurt their mother’s feelings.
They survive by smoking dope with the Harris kids.

Sin sure does have a way of keeping families together.

James Kavanaugh
(From, Walk Easy on the Earth)

August Theme Reading

A new month and a new reading theme. The August theme is books titled The _____. That would be just one word. Okay, yes, this sounds absolutely silly, but it arises from a past theme: Last year we did one-word titles, specifically excluding books titled The ______. Note, we don’t have much in the way of rules for our book themes, but that was a rule we agreed on. There was no lack of one-word titles, so the rule in and of itself wasn’t a problem. But there were just so many good books that were The ______. Thus, this August theme.

So far I’ve finished two books, The Enchanted, by Rene Denfield, an oddly mesmerizing, dark yet redemptive novel; and The Unicorn, poetry by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (and some of it quite fun). I’ve just started The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier; and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I’m about halfway through The Goat, by Mervyn Taylor (poetry).

There is much to look forward to. High on my list in fiction (these are all books I’ve gleaned from my shelves; that is one of the things I love about the reading themes—they make me take a new look at my bookshelves, and I find myself getting excited to read books that have been waiting for years):

  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  • The Penelapiad, Margaret Atwood
  • The Bees, Laline Paull
  • The Soloist, Mark Salzman
  • The Blindfold, Siri Hustvedt

On top of The Canon and The Gift (both just started and dense enough reading for a good portion of August), these nonfiction books have also caught my fancy:

  • The Orchard, Adele Crockett Robertson
  • The Quartet, Joseph J. Ellis (loved his book Founding Brothers)
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

But August. Who knows what August will actually bring? Maybe I won’t read any of those books, and turn to mysteries instead (much as I turned to graphic novels in July).

The July theme was proper nouns. I had planned to focus mainly on geographic proper nouns, but books got in the way. Here are my proper nouns of July: Istanbul, Anya, Lumberjanes, St. Paul, Mars, Camelot, Xena, Crampton Hodnet, Trump, Magdalene, Greta Wells, Lahaina, Vermont, and Adam Smith. I managed to read 5 graphic novels, 3 regular novels, 3 poetry books, and 4 nonfiction books (the best being Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, by Katrine Marcal).

And if you’ve never read Barbara Pym, you couldn’t go wrong starting with Crampton Hodnet. It’s the first book she wrote, but the last published. I found it her funniest, and it’s the first glimpse at a couple of characters who appear off and on throughout the rest of Pym’s books. Also, it’s my new favourite Pym (though I still have two to go).

Happy summer reading! And please, do consider reading The _____.

July Reading Theme: Proper Nouns

One-third of the way through July, and I have barely made a dent in the stack of proper noun books I’ve been so excited to read. I have mostly focused on geographic proper nouns (Istanbul, Aberdeen County, California, Sicily, etc.) though a few names that I couldn’t resist have crept in (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, for example; also Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, and Casanova Was a Book Lover).

But mostly I am focusing on proper nouns in terms of location. High Tide in Tucson. RFD Vermont (bonus points since I’m visiting Vermont this fall). My favorite potential theme read is Greene on Capri (being a double theme read, for Greene and Capri)—a memoir by Shirley Hazzard, which also seems like bonus points since I’ve not read her but have wanted to for years.

And while I have all these really good books just waiting for me, I have hit the reading slump of the decade. Okay, perhaps an overstatement. Everything I’m reading suddenly seems to be a slog. A chapter in Oliver Sacks (An Anthropologist on Mars—I so want to skip ahead to the last chapter, which is focused on Temple Grandin—but I tried, and I just couldn’t do it); Naomi Klein’s new book; two poetry books that I have going, and the recent fiction book I finished.

The one thing that has totally captured me is Anya’s Ghost, a graphic novel which I finished today.

The dog days of summer. I’m not sure if it’s the heat or just other stuff going on, but I seem to find myself drawn to graphic novels, comics, mysteries, and memoir. My usual heavy fare of politics, economics, and science feels a burden. For the nonce.

(A summer interlude of Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Red Sonja does have a high appeal. I think I will give in.)

The June theme of celestial objects didn’t cover as much space as I expected. I encountered the moon (3 times), a galaxy, a world, Earth, the universe (twice), the sun, a star, and a satellite. Mars is so intense that it is hanging on into July. My favorite theme read was The Universe Versus Alex Woods, a novel that I read compulsively, and it so captured me that I regretted that it was from the library because I wanted to underline several bits.

Dog days. Sometimes the reading is iffy. Give yourself wiggle room. Sink into a genre. Read a few comic books. Reread a childhood favorite.

Oh dear. I’ve just thought of a childhood favorite that I haven’t read yet (but happens to be sitting on my shelf): Anne of Green Gables. Another double theme read. Hmmm.

The dog days are starting to get a lot more interesting!

In Search of Warblers, or, Joy in Unexpected Places

I have not been having a very good warbler season. Usually in spring (May especially) you catch small waves of warblers—maybe 20 warblers of a variety of species. That has not happened to me once this year. I’ve seen warblers, all right, but it’s been one here, two there, with not even a wavelet to be seen.

Knowing that time is slipping through my hands, yesterday I headed to the river to see if any warblers might care to wave at me. I sat, I looked, I watched, I waited, I walked. I stopped, I listened, I looked.

I saw one American Redstart. Hey, at least I saw a warbler.

I left.

It was a little cloudier and chillier than I expected, and home seemed a good destination. But at the last minute, just because the warblers will be here only a couple more weeks at best, I decided to stop once more. Sitting on a wall looking over the Mississippi, I noticed a largish bird (not a warbler) fly up from the ground about three feet and then immediately go back down.

That got my attention. I watched. Waited. It came back up. Just a glimpse and it is back down again. I am thinking, thrush? (In addition to the robin, we have several fairly common thrushes in Minnesota.) I keep watching; up it comes for only a moment. White eye ring. Gone for the longest time. Back—for several seconds this time, but I only see the top of its head— very rufous, almost orange, the color of a robin’s breast. I know rufous goes with a particular thrush, but I can’t remember which.

Then it shifts, just a bit, and I see black dots on the breast. Score for confirming the thrush ID, but even more excitement about the black spots, because they are not so common on our thrushes. And one of the thrushes with the black spots, I know, is the wood thrush. Could this be a wood thrush? I keep watching. A few more glimpses—silhouette, head again, shape (very round). After half an hour of no more sightings, I retire to my books.

It took almost no time at all to confirm that I had indeed seen a wood thrush, a new life bird for me! The rufous head (the other rufous thrush has a rufous tail); the black spots, the round body, hurrah!

I have wanted to see a wood thrush for years (most especially after I heard one—at least I’m pretty sure it was a wood thrush—up near Bemidji maybe 15 years ago). But while I have seen all of our other common thrushes, the wood thrush continued to elude me. Until yesterday.

I love when birding gives me total fruit basket upset. I went out looking for warblers. At the peak of warbler migration, I saw exactly one warbler. And I most unexpectedly saw a wood thrush, a bird I’ve been searching for, for more than a decade. The vagaries of birding.

I wonder if, as frequently happens after you see a bird for the first time, I will start to see wood thrushes quite often from here on out. I certainly hope so.

Maybe one will sing for me again.