June to July: Reading Themes

June has been a great month for reading. I read three green books (The Green House, The Great Green Okayness, and Now the Green Blade Rises). I’ve also read several green things, including trees, a meadow, nettles, leaves, and perhaps Appalachia.

Poetry has captured a lot of my attention in June—already I’ve finished six poetry books. The standouts so far: The Green House, by Joyce Sutphen (a favorite poet); Now the Green Blade Rises, by Elizabeth Spires (how have I not discovered her before now?); and Listening to the Leaves Form, by James Grabill. I may yet finish another book of poetry this month, possibly two. We have a couple of hot days ahead of us, and what better than to sit under the ceiling fan and read poetry?

Other books I have in progress: Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. These two nonfiction books are both beautiful reads that I don’t want to rush, and I think I will stretch them out over the summer. Also, unrelated to any theme, I am reading the third book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Kingdom of Gods. Early days yet, but I think I am going to like this third book best.

I’m already excited about July’s theme: one-word titles. I only have two books in my fiction pile, but they are both over 500 pages, and I’m really excited about both of them:

  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

To be sure, I do have more one-word fiction titles. But I am content with these two long books that I am quite looking forward to.

Nonfiction is a different story. So much to choose from, I hardly know where to start. A sampling (I am going to include subtitles, even though it detracts from the oneness of the theme, to give you a better idea of what the book is about):

  • Irresistible (The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked), by Adam Alter
  • Janesville (An American Story), by Amy Goldstein
  • Mnemonic (A Book of Trees), by Theresa Kishkan
  • Stitches (A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair), by Anne Lamott
  • Oneness (Great Principles Shared by All Religions), by Jeffrey Moses
  • Limber (Essays), by Angela Pelster
  • Domesticity (A Gastronomic Interpretation of Love), by Bob Shaccohis

Poetry is a banquet. And since it is so rich, and I am in such a poetry place, I’ll include several that particularly appeal:

  • Gate, by Ilze Klavina Mueller
  • Dolphins, by Stephen Spender
  • Oubliette, by Peter Richards
  • Swithering, by Robin Robertson
  • Shiner, by Maggie Nelson
  • Carousel, by George Murray
  • Heredities, by J. Michael Martinez
  • Curios, by Judith Taylor
  • Meteorology, by Alpay Ulku
  • Kaleidoscope, by Sweta Srivastava Vikram
  • Barter, Monica Youn

Every one of these books appeals to me, and I have only gone through half of my poetry! (I have decided to stop looking, as I already have more than I’m sure I will read.)

I am not particularly fond of hot weather. However, it does seem to lead me to sit back and read more poetry. The perfect thing for a hot summer day. All it lacks is iced tea.

Happy Summer, Happy Reading!

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Escapist Summer Reading

Last night a friend texted me, asking for some book titles for escapist summer reading, and if there were any I might lend. He cited the current news and politics, and sees hope swirling down the drain.

I asked for a bit of time to think on it. Think I did (and also scanned some bookshelves), and here is the list I came up with. It would be a different list for a different friend, but nonetheless, this is not a bad start for some escapist summer reading. Here is my emailed response, with just a few edits for privacy (I did think of deleting all the borrowing/lending notes, but thought that it might lead to an interesting comment or two on the lending and sharing of books).

Dear George,

Since you’re looking for escapist, I started with fiction, and specifically fantasy which I know you enjoy. Here are my suggestions:

(Note: All links are to Amazon, not because I like Amazon, but because you can usually click on the book and see what it looks like inside, which is a feature I really like, along with skimming the reviews.)

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. This is probably my #1 escapist fantasy recommendation. They are set in the literary world, Thursday Next is the main character (a literary detective) and the books (there are several more) are a romp. You are welcome to borrow this (if I can find it—it isn’t where I thought it was).

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. This is new (to me) and first in a trilogy. I have all three books (I finished the second one recently) but have not yet started the third. You are welcome to borrow the first if the series appeals to you. I can’t overly vouch for it because I haven’t finished it yet, but it has won several fantasy awards and she is a rising star.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. This is a YA, but it is quite brilliant and second only to Lord of the Rings, my favorite fantasy trilogy. I have this and you are welcome to borrow it. This is also highly escapist and it might actually vie with The Eyre Affair as my #1 recommend.

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness. I read this several years ago when it first came out in paperback and absolutely loved it. But I didn’t want to buy the sequel in hardcover, and by the time it came out in paperback I lost track of it. But then I found book 2 and recently book 3 in the dollar bin, so I am interested in getting back to it. Yes, another trilogy. Obviously, I can’t vouch for the entire trilogy, but I loved the first book, which you are welcome to borrow.

Other Fiction:

Still Life, by Louise Penny. This is my favorite mystery series. It is wonderful, engaging, thoughtful, has an engaging cast of characters (including two artists, a cranky poet, a bookstore owner, and a gay couple who run a B&B), and perhaps best of all, it’s set in Canada, so it’s especially escapist. You may have read this already (but the cover of my book is different and looks like this).

The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicole Yoon. This is the best book I have read in years. And it’s YA. But it packs a major punch and I totally loved it. I also read it in one day (even though it’s nearly 400 pages), so it would not be a book that would get you through much of the summer, but I just can’t say enough positive things about this book. Unfortunately, I cannot loan it to you because I borrowed it from the library.

And while I started with fiction, nonfiction can also be escapist (or, in some cases, soothing), and I know you read a lot of nonfiction. Here are some recommendations:

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is a book I am currently reading (subtitled “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants) and it is beautiful. A lot of native stories, a lot of wisdom, a lot about nature, and some about history. I am only to about page 50 but am learning so much! The writing transports you into another world, and it’s starting to make me look at the world a little differently. More reverently. The author is both a Native American and a scientist, and it’s also a book about having your feet in two worlds. You can’t borrow this because I’m currently reading it (at a snail’s pace, because I like to read it in tiny segments). I would call this a highly spiritual book, but not in any sort of Christian sense of the word.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual writers. Christian, yes, but also progressive and kind of cranky. I have learned quite a bit from her. Her short books are good, too. I’ve read two of them but passed both of them on because they just seemed they needed to be shared. I have not been at all impressed with her fiction, and she also has some books about being a mother that I haven’t read. But her spiritual writing is spot on (for me). I have two more of her books on my to-read shelf that I’m planning to read in the next few months. She is very good for these times.

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. What, trees? This is another book I am currently reading and I am LOVING it. It is wild! Did you know trees communicate? By smell, and by roots touching, and by electromagnetic energy (conveyed through fungus!). This book is a total escape into a different and fascinating world. And sorry this is also unavailable as it is in my current reading pile.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is the book on which the movie was based. Quite different (not so humorous, more factual, more science, and a broader swath of characters) but equally interesting to the movie, which I loved. If you loved the movie, I think you will really like this book. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it (available at the library). I am pretty sure I still have my copy of this if you want to borrow it (the book, not the movie).

And these two because I think they might appeal to your interest in art and artists:

Hold Still, by Sally Mann. This is a memoir that I haven’t read yet, but just look inside the book at the link, and you’ll see why I think it might be captivating. You can’t borrow this because I haven’t read it yet and I don’t lend out books I haven’t read because I’m selfish that way. The moment it has left the house I want to read it.

Just Kids, by Patti Smith. This is a memoir of Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (much at the Chelsea Hotel). I’m not sure if you’re into this era or not, but I thought I’d include these last two kind of as wild cards. You can’t borrow this because it’s on someone else’s reading pile. It will be available somewhere down the road, but probably not before the next (presidential) election.

Whew! Hope you find something in here that appeals.

Happy Reading!

Liz

March Books

I’ve barely searched my shelves and already have more potentials for the March reading theme than I can possibly get to. Topping the list in fiction:

  • Fishing with RayAnne, Ava Finch
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  • Woman in the Dark, Dashiell Hammett
  • Huntress, Malinda Lo
  • The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
  • Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, Elizabeth Jolley
  • The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa
  • The Wife, Meg Wolitzer
  • The Mistress, Phillipe Tapon
  • Her Royal Spyness, Rhys Bowen

Mind you, this was without searching my shelves. These are books that practically fell into my hands while I was perusing my shelves for other purposes.

Aside: I believe I spend more time perusing my bookshelves than most people spend cooking. (That could be a seriously weird comment about me, or a comment about how much time the average person spends actually cooking these days.)

I’m guessing the March theme is fairly obvious from the above list, but in case not, here are the books that have jumped off the nonfiction shelves (again, no perusal required):

  • The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit
  • The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
  • Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
  • Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
  • Janesville, Amy Goldstein

And poetry contenders include:

  • She Says, Venus Khoury-Ghata
  • The Sisters, Josephine Jacobsen
  • The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • The Moon Is Always Female, Marge Piercy

Yes, the theme is women, timed to Women’s History Month. All things female count (including pronouns). My personal favorite is Pastrix (“A term of insult used by unimaginative sections of the church to define female pastors”). A female Lutheran pastor with tattoos. Lots of tattoos. This book will appeal to lovers of Anne Lamott.

This a great theme month. So many possibilities! Already I want to do it again. But also, I want to do a reading theme of the male variety. Again, books leap off the shelf and I’m still sitting at the computer: Maurice, Invisible Man, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, The Men We Reaped, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Angry White Men, Sons and Lovers. Lots of potential. I am working on being more bipartisan in many aspects of life. Books included.

The official reading theme for February was Day/Month/Season. I read only one book for the theme (a new and extreme low), but it was a good one: In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming—a mystery (first in the series) that has a female priest working (kind of) with the chief of police. I’m definitely intrigued enough to read the next one. What I find most compelling here is that the author goes into issues beyond the typical mystery genre. It puts me in mind of Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries, which are good purely as mysteries, but also seem spiritual in some way that is difficult to articulate.

But mostly in February I read Black History Month. It was an excellent experience of immersive reading, which I’m still processing a bit (and plus I went over into March and have only recently finished Tracy K. Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light). More on that soon.

Good books to you, happy reading, and please do let me know of excellent books that you run across.

Black History Month Reading Day 6

I’ve finished Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. What an excellent book! Both deeper and broader than the movie, the book covers a longer period of time, a larger swath of people (including African American men) and, occasionally, areas outside Langley and the state of Virginia. The book, Hidden Figures, is about many more hidden figures than the three highlighted in the movie.

I loved the book. I loved the movie. As is usually true, the book holds a lot more than the movie. There’s a lot of history, and many more stories in the book than could ever make it into one movie. It would have to be a documentary. Or several documentaries.

But here’s something. Almost always I will say I loved the book more than the movie (there are a few exceptions, and I’ll think of one soon—maybe The Hours). But in this case, I didn’t love the book more than the movie, but nor did I love the movie more than the book. I loved them differently, in a way that I’m not sure has ever happened to me before.

The movie was a good bit of history, but its primary impact on me was emotional. I was just there with these women. Certainly I learned a lot in the movie, but when I walked out of the movie, I was all yes!—Give women a chance and a place at the table and we can do just about anything. And these black women who broke so many barriers in the face of so much discrimination—it makes me pause in awe.

The book layered a lot more history on that good feeling, which was also a good feeling.

And then somewhere in there I took a break and watched Bagdad Café again. Does anyone out there know/remember this movie? One of my all-time faves (I think it would have to be in my top 10). I loved this movie for the music first, most specifically “Calling You” by Jevetta Steele—a mesmerizing and haunting song. I am not sure I can listen to this song without being moved to tears (is there any other song that falls into that category? Oh, yes, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong).

It might not work if you haven’t seen the movie (the emotional wallop of the song, I mean), not sure—I’ve mostly only heard it watching the movie (at least a dozen times now).

But this quirky movie is worth watching if it has escaped your radar. It’s one of those movies I seem to enjoy just a bit more each time, and I never tire of C.C.H. Pounder.

And I have recently learned that this song that I have loved for decades is sung by a local musician. Yes, right here in the Twin Cities. Jevetta Steele, part of the Steele family. (Thank you dear spouse for bringing this to my attention; I have a tendency to miss things close to home.)

Back to books. In the land of poetry, I’m On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. About two-thirds through, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I especially liked the second section, “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” which contains several gems. One of the best known may be “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967,” and that certainly is a most excellent poem. I thought to include that one because I love it. But I decided on this one because it’s shorter and perhaps a little less well known.

The First Book

Open it.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well . . . maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.

Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:
You’ll never reach bottom.

It’s not like it’s the end of the world—
just the world as you think

you know it.

–Rita Dove

We’re still in serious winter here in Minnesota, so I’m going back to hibernating with my books. Stay warm (to those of you in the winter climes) and happy reading to all!

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.

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.