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.

Random Questions

I have a friend in Colorado that I correspond with frequently via snail mail. In a notecard I sent a few weeks ago, I was in a kind of silly mood and asked her several random questions, just as they popped into my head. I don’t remember a single one of them, and it being written correspondence (primarily handwritten, as opposed to typed) I don’t have a record. No matter.

I got a set of random questions in response, and I found them so engaging I had to respond immediately (I believe I wrote back the very same night). Here were her questions:

  1. If you lived anywhere but Minnesota, where would you want to be?
  2. What would you want for your last meal?
  3. If you see someone in public reading a book, do you strike up a conversation or silently judge them?
  4. Ocean, mountain, meadows, valleys, lakes/rivers, or forests?
  5. What’s your favorite tree?
  6. What’s your favorite bird on your life list?
  7. If you were a spice, what would you be?
  8. What’s your spirit animal?
  9. Cruise or destination vacation?
  10. What qualities do you consider indispensable in a friendship?

Is that not a fine set of questions?

I think I had the most fun with (2) What would I want for my last meal? I don’t remember my entire response, but I do know it included fried shrimp with cocktail sauce, cocktail shrimp (also with cocktail sauce), crispy hash browns, a small green salad, some crispy bacon, and coconut cream pie. One thing I know I forgot on the list—no, two—raspberries and peaches. The menu will change every time I answer the question. Another time it will include spaghetti or lasagna, maybe red beet eggs. Potato sausage. Fresh local corn slathered in butter (and a bit of pepper).

Question (3) intrigued me. I very rarely strike up conversations with people reading in public, though I do stealthily try to see what they’re reading. I don’t like to interrupt readers (though I might make an exception if they are reading one of the most wonderful books in the world and I want to tell them I love them). But I do have an internal disposition such that I tend to think they are likely to be interesting people. I have a bias towards readers. I guess that is a judgement of sorts. Maybe more like speculating.

Perhaps you are starting to see how fun these random questions can be. Question (4): hands-down easy peasy answer for me—forests. I love trees. That made (5) fairly easy to answer—my favorite tree is the closest tree (and the older the better). I can’t pick a favorite—I love them all. Trees are like magic to me. Another favorite tree (though it’s gone now): the huge tree next door when I was growing up. It served as hiding place for Kick the Can, counting down place (Hide and Seek), goalpost for football, and company while I was reading on the porch swing. I still love that tree.

Questions (7) and (8) were difficult for me. I still am not sure of my answer for either. Is there anyone out there that said immediately, “I am X spice” as I knew immediately I was forest?

Question (10) gave me pause. First thoughts: sense of humor, things in common, and trust. My closest friendships encompass all three. But I have had very good and strong long-term friendships that are intellectually rewarding, even without the humor element.

My turn for a set of random questions. Here’s what I’m thinking:

  1. Favorite board game when you were a kid?
  2. Favorite outdoor game?
  3. Do you enjoy storms?
  4. Do you dream in color?
  5. Favorite kitchen utensil?
  6. Favorite thing in your kitchen overall?
  7. What is your favorite color of the rainbow? (Rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. I love that violet is included in the rainbow. Who talks about violet anymore? Not to bias anyone or anything.)
  8. Gravel road, county road, or freeway?
  9. What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home?
  10. Have you ever seen a falling/shooting star?
  11. What’s the last animal (not a pet) that you saw? (Or, go and look out the window now.)
  12. If you were a geometric shape, what would you be?
  13. When you double-shelve books, do you do it alphabetically, or do you put the books less likely to be read behind the books of higher interest?

I am seeking additional questions, so please feel free to chime in. (What question would You want to ask or be asked?)

It’s absolutely silly but it’s also fun. Sometimes you remember things (all those fried shrimp I ate when I was a kid), sometimes you stretch yourself, sometimes you ponder.

If you were a bird, what would you be?

Fifty Words (no more, no less)

My friend Jami in Colorado was recently telling me about an exercise she did for work. It’s a small company (< 10 employees), and a new person was coming on board. As part of the introductory process, each staff member wrote a 50-word autobiography. Exactly 50 words. (This is 50.)

This was not to take a long period of time. Less than 10 minutes, I think. Could it have possibly been 2 minutes? (I can barely count to 50 in 2 minutes, not if I think about each of the numbers, and how they look and feel.) Unless you’re doing this on a computer (which I was not envisioning happening in this exercise; for some reason I only thought pencil and paper), how could you possibly do this even remotely quickly, making sense and getting exactly 50?

And then I hit on it: verse. Ten 5-word lines. Here is what I came up with in about 4 minutes:

They called me Psycho Liz
I was that into psychology
Eventually I got a Ph.D.

Roommates, marriage, roommates, lover, marriage
I very rarely live alone
though I always love it

I thought I couldn’t love
then I met my match
it’s practically happy ever after

(he outlasts me in bookstores)

It was quite fun. Invigorating, even. Go ahead, try it yourself. (You don’t have to use the verse form.)

Doing it in a short time span is key. You don’t want to mull, cross out, rewrite, or start over. Some would call it stream of consciousness. I felt more like a bulldozer—just keep going, just keep going, five more, five more, up to 50, done.

I am thinking this could be a good format for pretty much anything you might want to capture: vacation moments, childhood memories, obsessions, happiness, fear. I found it a little fascinating, and I encourage you to try it to see if you experience same.

Choose your own topic (I have several I want to try). I’d love to hear back if anyone finds this as fun and fascinating as I do.

24 Reading Challenges

I love any kind of challenge to broaden my reading horizons, and was intrigued by a group called Book Riot that has issued a 2017 “Read Harder” challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to push readers to explore topics or formats or genres that they otherwise wouldn’t try.

Nobody’s keeping score, and I already have my reading theme thing going on, but could I possibly resist? Well, no. I decided to overlay the reading challenge on top of the themes, figuring I’d hit several on chance, plus I could steer a few theme reads down the challenge road as they fit (and appealed, of course—always the primary criterion).

Here is the list of 24 reading challenges:

  1. A book about sports.
  2. A debut novel.
  3. A book about books.
  4. A book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
  5. A book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
  6. An all-ages comic.
  7. A book published between 1900 and 1950.
  8. A travel memoir.
  9. A book you’ve read before.
  10. A book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
  11. A book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
  12. A fantasy novel.
  13. A nonfiction book about technology.
  14. A book about war.
  15. A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ.
  16. A book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
  17. A classic by an author of color.
  18. A superhero comic with a female lead.
  19. A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.
  20. An LGBTQ romance novel.
  21. A book published by a micropress.
  22. A collection of stories by a woman.
  23. A collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
  24. A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

I’ve read 10 of the 24 categories so far this year (those would be the bolded titles). Given the list isn’t a driver of my reading, but rather something I remember to check in on once in awhile, 10 out of 24 doesn’t seem too bad for late April. (Most of them were also reading-theme books. Ms. Marvel would be an exception.)

I had thought that “a book about sports” would come up empty at the end of the year, but scanning my shelves I found Michael Shaara’s For the Love of the Game, a novel about baseball. Oh, I do love baseball. And I have loved Shaara’s Civil War novels, and I had no particular passion about the Civil War before I read them. But I do have a bit of a passion about baseball, so I figured he’d do well by me here as well. And he did. It’s a short, tight novel. Almost a fable.

I know I read a lot of debut novels, or at least I think I do. But it isn’t a driver of my reading. So I was ever so pleased when a friend offered to loan me HER LIBRARY BOOK COPY of Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a debut novel by Max Porter. One of the narrators is a crow. I will say no more. Except I have finished the book and will return it before it is due. And I love crows.

South of the Border, West of the Sun was both a reread and a book set more than 5000 miles away. I love Haruki Murakami (mostly), and he rewards rereading. Definitely an author I will keep, hoping to reread all of his works (except maybe skipping short stories, which I always have good intentions about and almost always fail miserably at) in the order written. Sometimes his characters pop up in other books. I love when that happens.

Looking ahead, some of the reading challenges seem like slam dunks, even under the aegis of the reading theme: a fantasy novel, a book by an immigrant, a travel memoir, a banned book.

And then there are the serious challenges: A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as GLBTQ. Mostly sexual orientation is not included in author information. So while it may be that I have or will read books that fall into this category, I’m not sure I want to take that extra step to investigate the sexual orientation of the author. But I do read the occasional YA and middle grade book, so perhaps one will fall into my hands. It happens.

Another challenge: A book about war. I went through a Civil War phase and a World War 2 phase. Right now I am in a warless phase so that could be a challenge. Oh, here’s a big challenge: a collection of stories by a woman. I tend not to like short stories in general. I might like them a little more if they’re by a woman, but still, short stories. But it doesn’t say “short stories,” it says “stories by a woman.” Well. That could be a memoir.  Many memoirs are written as stories. Hurrah! That I can do for sure.

It’s a fun challenge, and I’ll report back towards end of year as to how it’s turning out. I’ve plucked much of the low-hanging fruit, as they say (except for the sports book). We’ll see how it turns out. I feel like I should get at least 20, but I won’t be surprised if it’s closer to 15. Anyone else out there trying this?

The Backyard Birds of Winter

Bird diversity certainly declines in the winter in Minnesota, but there are still a goodly number of birds out there. Of the 38 different kinds of birds I’ve seen so far this year, 20 have been in (or viewed from) my backyard. Twenty isn’t bad for early March.

A few days ago I glanced out the back window and saw a bird I hadn’t seen for many months: my first mourning dove of the year. The following day I was coming home from grocery shopping and something caught my eye in the woodpecker tree (this is the neighbor’s tree which hangs hugely over our back yard). I quick ran inside for my binoculars, and I’m glad I did because it was a brown creeper. These are fun little birds that climb tree trunks like nuthatches, but they tend to be a bit more elusive. And their coloring  is such that they blend right into the trunk. If the bird hadn’t been moving, I’d never have espied it. Even through binoculars it blended into the tree. The awesome of nature.

I have many of our common birds on my backyard list: house sparrow, American crow, rock dove, European starling, Canada goose. Also the usual Minnesota winter birds that keep me smiling through winter. Topping that list would be the black-capped chickadee along with the northern cardinal. Not far behind are the blue jay and the white-breasted nuthatch (both of which I often hear before I see). And it’s close to impossible to see a junco and not smile.

There are four kinds of woodpeckers on my yard list so far this year, all of them seen in the woodpecker tree: the first to appear was the hairy woodpecker, seen on New Year’s Day. The first downy woodpecker was sighted on January 14. On the 21st, I was thrilled to see a northern flicker (not nearly as common in the backyard as the downy and hairy). And then on February 24, the red-bellied woodpecker showed up.

The woodpecker tree is a huge maple (it would take two or three of me to circle the trunk), and it has one large limb that is hollow (I know this because I can see the sky through the woodpecker holes at certain angles). We get pileated woodpeckers too, but I haven’t seen one yet this year. I keep watching.

Also visiting the back yard this winter: American goldfinches, robins (first seen on January 3, which is not typical), a house finch or two, and a bald eagle (soaring overhead). Not bad for early March.

On a broader note, the spring birds are starting to come back, some of them quite early. Last weekend I saw trumpeter swans, red-winged blackbirds, and pied-billed grebes. Many shorebirds are also being reported.

Time to get out of the back yard and into the field. Spring migration has begun!