September Reading Theme: Literary Forms

Being a little late to the gate with this post, I already have several books under my belt for this month’s theme:

  • Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, Roselle Lim (fiction)
  • Sleeping With the Dictionary, Harryette Mullen (poetry)
  • Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman (fiction)
  • Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman (nonfiction)
  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye (poetry)
  • Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney
  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays, Amy Meyerson (fiction)

There are no dogs in the above list, and I’m not going to comment beyond that except to call out The Tiny Journalist, by Naomi Shihab Nye, a poetry book I loved. I don’t think people read enough poetry. I find poetry to be akin to meditation in some way. I’m not quite sure how to equate them, except that meditation can pull me out of workaday, and poetry takes me out of my everyday reading. In both cases, they are special spaces. Perhaps not quite sacred space, but close to. In-between places, I think of them. Neither quite one nor the other.

Back to literary forms. This is such a rich theme, so many to choose from. Currently at the top of the fiction list (this can change on a dime):

  • A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
  • The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry
  • History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund
  • The Reader, Traci Chee

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve just started The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith. I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I certainly agree with one of her major premises, that animals are a vital part of a natural ecological cycle on a farm. But I don’t feel a need to convince vegetarians of this. Vegetarians have a much smaller carbon footprint compared to us meat eaters, and I respect that.

Other contenders for nonfiction:

  • True Notebooks, Mark Salzman
  • Monsoon Diary, Shoba Narayan
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Briana Karp
  • I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Grace Jones

The Grace Jones book was at the top of my list, but I got it in paperback. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I hadn’t originally seen it in hardcover, with all those full-color pictures. The pictures in this book are black and white and of grainy character. I want to read it, but I want the experience I had when I first saw the hardcover. So, I guess I will track down the hardcover. Grainy black and white just does not do Grace Jones justice.

Last month’s theme was Women (in any form or reference). I read a lady, a huntress, a bride, Hagar, Invisible Women, a sister, more women, a mistress, a mother, a girl, Lumberjanes, and Sappho. A very good month for women.

Happy reading!

Favorite Books of 2018

The first week of January I usually go over the list of books I read the prior year and make a list of my favorites. Note, these are the books I read in 2018, not necessarily books published in 2018. (In fact, very few are from 2018 as I rarely buy hardcover books.) They are in approximate rank order of favorites, though on any given day the order will likely change (though I don’t think there would be much movement in the top 3).

For those of you curious about such things, I read 123 books last year (that’s a kind of fun number, isn’t it?)—more poetry than anything else, but fairly evenly balanced with fiction and nonfiction. My list, however, is not at all balanced, running heavily nonfiction. I have not been in much of a fiction place for the last year or so. A book really has to knock my socks off to make an impression. That’s probably reflected in my list. Also, I read a lot more light/escapist fiction than nonfiction. Light books can be a nice diversion, but they tend not to have staying power.

In contrast, these favorite books have staying power, often occupying my thoughts for days after I finish the book, and sometimes much longer. Here are the books that I most loved in 2018:

1. You Can’t Touch My Hair, by Phoebe Robinson is hands-down the best book I read in 2018. I recommended it to more people and learned more from it than any other book I read last year. This is a race-based book, mostly focused on black women. It is very direct, and will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but most of the friends I’ve recommended it to have also loved it. Some have even recommended it to others.

2. The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon is one of the few fiction books on the list. This is a YA novel, but I’ve been recommending it to my friends and it has been well received. I liked it so much I didn’t want to put it down, and read it in one day (344 pages—not long, but not a novella). Highly recommended to one and all, and especially people interested in immigration issues. The only thing I regret about this book is that I got it from the library, so now I don’t have my own copy.

3. Homer’s Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper was a surprise December find. It was mentioned at Thanksgiving dinner; I got it from the library in early December. I expected this memoir about a blind cat to be sad (possibly even pathetic) but it was the opposite. Little Homer is just a crackerjack; an intrepid explorer, and a charmer. If you like cats, you might want to meet Homer.

4. After the Stroke, by May Sarton. I’ve loved all of May Sarton’s journals, and this was no exception. This is the first time I’ve read this particular journal (I have reread several of her others) so that made After the Stroke particularly refreshing. This journal focuses primarily on her recovery from a stroke—both regaining her physical strength and her writing strength. A lovely book.

5. My Cat Saved My Life, by Phillip Schreibman. Apparently 2018 was a good year in cat books for me! This short memoir is too short to really say much about without giving away the store. If you like cats at all (or are thinking about getting a cat, or like reading books about people and animals) check it out. Can easily be read in an afternoon, though I stretched it out over several days.

6. Grace, Eventually, by Anne Lamott. Lamott is one of my favorite spiritual writers. She’s good at reminding me of things that I need reminding of; she’s got a wry sense of humor; she makes me think; and sometimes she comes up with good suggestions for every day life.

7. The Panther and the Lash, by Langston Hughes. Poetry of great power. This was a reread for me, and while I liked it the first time I read it, I loved it this second time.

8. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, by Krista Tippett. This book is based on a wide variety of people that Tippett has interviewed over the years, which she portrays through five categories: words, flesh, love, faith, and hope. I am quite sure I will reread this book.

9. Great Tide Rising, by Kathleen Dean Moore. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this book made me look forward to climate change, it certainly made me dread it less. It gave me both hope and faith, and gave me some good ideas about changes I can make and things I can do as an individual that can indeed help save the world.

10. Slow Medicine, by Victoria Sweet. Sweet, herself a medical doctor, tells the story of things she learned—both fast and slow—in medical school, internships, and residencies. Based on the concept of the slow food movement, Sweet suggests that while fast medicine is good for many things (e.g., broken bones, heart attacks) it would be well complemented with slow medicine, which is often good at those very things that fast medicine has more trouble with (chronic conditions like eczema, for example). I found it fascinating and it got me interested in traditional Chinese medicine.

11. Covering Rough Ground, by Kate Braid is an excellent, fun book of poetry that I truly enjoyed. These poems focus on her experience as carpenter, a rare woman in a world of men. A book of wonderful empowering poems.

12. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber is not your typical spiritual read, but Bolz-Weber is not your typical pastor (or pastrix, if you will—the derogatory label that she has adopted with pride). She is quite profane and takes no shit. Unconventional to be sure. Interesting? Yes. Compelling? Yes. Did I learn something? Yes. Will I read her again? Absolutely.

13. Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. I read this book after I saw the movie of the same title, which I loved. For those of you who missed it, this is the story of African American women and the roles they played at NASA and in the space program. The book is quite different from the movie, as per usual, since it’s difficult to get a whole book into a 2-hour movie. The book has a lot more background information and a lot more science, more people and more relationships. I loved both the book and the movie. Don’t make me choose.

14. Reflections on Aging, by Bruce McBeath & Robin Wipperling is almost a coffee table book. As I was reading through it, I thought it a bit skimpy and light. But. Later I went back to it, looking for a snippet I remembered, and found myself rereading huge chunks. Found myself saying, “I should reread this every five years.” And I think I will.

15. Now the Green Blade Rises, by Elizabeth Spires, is a poetry book that had been on my to-read shelf for over a decade. Why in the world did it take me so long to discover this poet? Delightful poems. And she has several more books; so much to discover!

16. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce was my final book of the year. This is a rather quirky novel about a man’s pilgrimage to visit a dying friend, and the impact the journey has on him, his relationships, and total strangers. An excellent book to wrap up the year.

That’s it. The best of 2018, from where I’m sitting in Minnesota.

What was your favorite book of 2018?

A Reading Odyssey

The reading theme for December is Journey (especially a spiritual journey). We seriously considered scrapping this theme because it seemed so narrow. But then we decided to make it personal. What book might be a spiritual journey for each of us (or just a journey in general). That opened the gates, and we decided to stick with the theme.

And then at Thanksgiving, our host was telling us about a book he had read, a memoir, Homer’s Odyssey, about a blind cat. He highly recommended it, and I realized it would be a good fit for the December theme. (Full title: Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, Or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat, by Gwen Cooper.)

I’m about two-thirds through and it’s an absolute delight. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book where a cat and a person seem like soul mates, but these two—well, they potentiate each other, they make each other stronger. It could just as well have been called Gwen Cooper’s Odyssey, but that’ not nearly so catchy in a title. A lovely book and a fantastic December read. If you like cats even a wee bit, I highly recommend this book.

Each chapter of Homer’s Odyssey begins with an epigraph from The Odyssey (by the Homer who is not a cat). It gave me a nudge to read it again (I read The Odyssey in college), and I went to get it off the shelf. I couldn’t find it! Iliad and Metamorphoses yes, but not The Odyssey.

Library to the rescue! But wait. There are a lot of holds on this book that is thousands of years old. What gives? Ah, a new translation. By what? A woman? A woman! Homer, translated by a woman! So I signed on. Finally, today, a copy came up for me: The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.

Yikes! It’s 582 pages! Oh, but wait. The first 100 pages are intro, maps, and notes (I skip all this except the maps and the note from the translator). At the end there are 50 pages of notes, and these include a summary for each of the 24 books in The Odyssey. (I find this a nice back-up. Good to know that if I get confused about what’s going on, I can just turn to the back of the book for a bit of clarification.) I’ve only just started, but already I’m quite excited to read it.

I’ve been dawdling through Homer’s Odyssey, simply because I’m enjoying it so much. But it’s time to get a move on. There are other journeys to be had this month. I picked up another book at the library today, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, by A.J. Swoboda. Now, doesn’t that sound like a spiritual journey? Or how about Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone? I’ve also been considering a reread of The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power, by Barbara G. Walker. So many options and only half the month left.

In the fiction realm, I’m going to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry alongside The Odyssey. And while I try to avoid reading similar books at the same time, I don’t think I’ll get confused between these two male journeys. (But wouldn’t it be funny if I did?) If there’s any time left in the month, I’m looking at After Life, by Rhian Ellis—a book I’ve had for 10 years, and I pull it off the shelf and say, “Why haven’t I read you yet?” Maybe this will be the time. Ann Patchett called it “exquisitely written and a thrill to read.”

Last month’s theme was health. My favorite book was After the Stroke, a journal by May Sarton. I have loved all her journals, but I think this is my favorite one yet (perhaps excepting Journal of a Solitude). The other best book of the month was Slow Medicine, by Victoria Sweet, M.D. This got me interested in traditional Chinese medicine, and now I’m reading a book about that. It’s complex and I’m reading it slowly, but it’s fascinating. When I know more than a gnat, I might write a post about it.

For those of you in the north, take heart—the winter solstice is only a week away, and then the days will start getting longer.

Happy reading to all!

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.

Reading Animal

I am loving the September reading theme of Animals. I started out with Langston Hughes’s The Panther and the Lash, which was excellent. Amazingly, I have had this book for 10 years and had always read the title as The Panther and the Leash. On the cover is a drawing of Langston Hughes in a stylish three-piece suit, and whenever I noted the book, I envisioned Langston Hughes, nattily dressed, walking along with a panther on a leash.

Well, no. Not the image he meant to convey. The Panther and the Lash conjures up a much different vision, evoking history, emotions, and oppression. Not a walk through the park, with or without a panther. A few of my favorite (short) poems:

Slum Dreams

Little dreams
Of springtime
Bud in sunny air
With no roots
To nourish them,
Since no stems
Are there—
Detached,
Naïve,
So young,
On air alone
They’re hung.

Justice

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Jim Crow Car

Get out the lunch-box of your dreams
And bite into the sandwich of your heart,
And ride the Jim Crow car until it screams
And, like an atom bomb, bursts apart.

Bible Belt

It would be too bad if Jesus
Were to come back black.
There are so many churches
Where he could not pray
In the U.S.A.,
Where entrance to Negroes,
No matter how sanctified,
Is denied,
Where race, not religion,
Is glorified.
But say it—
You may be
Crucified.

The Panther and the Lash brought me through a range of emotions and feelings: uncomfortable, appalled, despair, compassion, horror, sympathy, hope. Even if you don’t read poetry, I recommend this book and most especially if you are interested in racial issues.

Sticking with poetry, I followed up Langston Hughes with Horse Dance Underwater, by Helena Mesa. It didn’t speak to me. Langston Hughes is a hard act to follow. I’m now reading The Tiger Iris, by Joan Swift. I’m only just beginning, so no opinion yet. The next likely poetry book following Swift: The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, by Eleanor Rand Wilner.

My first fiction book was Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeymi. I totally didn’t get this novel. I’m pretty sure it went right over my head. At the end of the book I was confused, with a primary reaction of “What??” So I went to check out the Amazon reviews, sure they would be bifurcated, heavily weighted to 5 star (those who got it) and 1 star (those who didn’t) reviews.

The internet is a humbling thing. A near majority (45%) loved this book (5 stars) and an additional 20% really liked it (4 stars). A mere 7% gave it one star. Even the people that were confused enjoyed the book. So do not take my word for it on this one. Note: Mr. Fox might make more sense if you know the legend of Bluebeard and/or have a fondness for fables.

After giving my brain such a workout, I was ready for some mind candy and started Curiosity Thrilled the Cat, by Sofie Kelly. The lightest of fluff—a mystery with magical cats. I’m about halfway through, and it’s silly light fun. This is the first in a series, but I haven’t decided if it’s one I want to continue. Maybe a bit too light. Next up in fiction is hard to say, though just now Lamb in Love, by Carrie Brown, is leading the pack.

I’ve finished one nonfiction book, Two Dogs and a Parrot, by Joan Chittister. I didn’t like this as much as I’ve loved some of her other books, though I did rather like the section on the parrot.

I’ve currently got two other nonfiction books going—My Cat Saved My Life, a memoir by Phillip Schreibman; and Animal, Mineral, Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food, by B.K. Loren. I’m about one-third through each. I’m loving My Cat Saved My Life—it’s one of those magical books that transport you. When I pick this book up, I feel like I am right there with this man and his cat. I’m in the kitchen having the argument, I’m napping in the meadow with the cat, I’m sunning on the rock. A book to keep or a book to gift? That is the question.

Loren’s book is longer and a bit more uneven (as books of essays are wont to be), but I’ve only started Mineral and am particularly looking forward to Radical. I don’t know what will come after. Early days yet, as I’m still immersed in these two. No doubt something will leap off the shelf before too long.

Happy Reading!

Black History Month Reading: Day 14

I’m close to finishing Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair (one chapter left to go) and have pretty much loved it. The thing about Phoebe Robinson is that you (or at least I) feel like she’s standing right there talking to you. She’s funny, direct, and honest. First off, I learned a lot about hair. Black hair in general and women’s in particular. You might not care about this, but I found it fascinating, and it has given me a new appreciation (and the occasional silent wow) for black women’s hair. Don’t touch it. Don’t ask to touch it.

Moving beyond hair, Robinson addresses stereotypes, or what she calls the monolith of black, which I totally got when I read:

Blackness is not a monolith. There’s nerdy black, jock black, manic pixie dream black, sassy black, shy black, conscious black, hipster black . . . the list goes on and on.”

After a nanosecond of introspection, I realized I have a bit of this monolith perspective myself. (This comes up in many of the books I’m reading—the perceptions, the expectations, the stereotypes. My eyes are opening a bit. I read on.)

Because I am an introvert and tend to analyze everything social, this, in particular resonated with me:

I don’t know about other black people, but that Greek chorus of “But what will the white people think?” has been a constant in my brain for much of my life. “Man, I truly am going to be late, not because of CPT but because of traffic. But what will the white people think?” “I really want to order certain food off this menu at dinner. But what will the white people think?” “I want to speak out about some injustice I just witnessed. But what will the white people think? That I’m a troublemaker? Guess I should keep my mouth shut.” Do you know the amount of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years that have been wasted second-guessing each and every behavior because I was wary of how I was going to reinforce or dismantle certain stereotypes?”

This is an excellent book, and I haven’t included any of the funny bits, some of which were quite exceptionally funny.

After You Can’t Touch My Hair, I decided maybe a little balance with the old school was in order, so I pulled out bell hooks and Alice Walker. I thumbed through both, decided on Alice Walker, and life was good. But then I went Stop! Why go old school? Why not read another up-and-coming (or at least on my bookshelves for less than a decade) author? So I put Ms. Walker back and pulled Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light off the shelf.

I’m not dismissing Alice Walker or any of her peers, but I think it’s time for me to get in touch with a younger generation of writers. Smith is Poet Laureate of the United States, and I’ve read a bit of her poetry, but Ordinary Light is a memoir, the story of “a young woman [born 1972] struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America.”

I am beginning to begin to understand just a wee bit of what it means to be black in America.

In the fiction world, I loved The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon. Here is what you have: a girl all about science, a boy who writes poetry. She is a Jamaican immigrant scheduled to be deported at the end of the day. He is a Korean American, the younger son, destined to become a doctor. Science meets poetry. This YA book is a wonder on many levels. First of all, it has physics and multiverses (one of my pet physics theories and my own preferred explanation of infinity), and then you add poetry and I’m a goner. So much more—lawyers, parental issues, family angst… I won’t say more except that I laughed out loud, cried (more than once), and loved it.

In the world of poetry, I have moved on to Sonia Sanchez, Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums. A beautiful book I want to read slowly but can’t. I will leave you with this:

love between us is
speech and breath, loving you is
a long river running

 –Sonia Sanchez

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

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.