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!

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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)

The Reading Landscape

The reading theme for May is landscape/terrain. This is one of those broad themes that would encompass things like field, grassland, range, desert, marsh, and so on. I was really excited about this theme. I have a lot of landish books that I am really looking forward to reading.

But it is May. May, when the birds migrate. May, when the lilacs bloom. May, when butterflies return and the house windows are open. When the herbs are coming up and rhubarb demands picking. The month of warblers. May, when I have the binoculars right beside me even when I’m reading. Especially when I’m reading. May, when I bring binoculars into restaurants just in case we get a window seat. You never know when you’ll see a warbler wave.

I’ve only finished one book so far this month, but have several in progress: Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, by Marc Ian Barasch (later published under the title The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness); Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild; Prairie Reunion, by Barbara J. Scot (memoir); Divining the Landscape, by Diane Jarvenpa (poetry); and Joyland, by Stephen King. (Two of these are holdovers from the emotions theme. I love having books that cross themes.)

I am finding Field Notes on the Compassionate Life to be quite helpful. I tend to struggle with issues like grudges and resentment, and perhaps especially forgiveness. This book is giving me some good insights and suggests some practices that I think could be very helpful. I am reading it quite slowly (a chapter a day), because that seems to be all the compassion my wee brain/soul can absorb. And Strangers in Their Own Land promises to be fascinating, but I’ve only read the first few pages.

Report on last month’s theme (emotions): I experienced calm surrender, hate, love, happiness, disappointment, anxiety, longing, grief, moping, consolation, more happiness, wild comfort, and solace. I found emotions to be an absolutely lovely (and fun) reading theme. Best book of the month: Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, by Kathleen Dean Moore. I loved this book because sometimes I felt like I was right there with her, wherever she was talking about. If she was in the forest, I could almost smell the pines. The writing is that good. But also—there’s a spiritual element to this book which I resound with. Nature is always where I most feel god.

There are many potential landish options for the rest of the month. John McPhee’s Basin and Range is high on the list (he has two other books that also intrigue: Rising from the Plains, and In Suspect Terrain). Found poetry:

basin and range
rising from the plains
in suspect terrain

Other books of interest include Lentil Underground, by Liz Carlisle; and Of Landscape and Longing, by Carolyn Servid. And Notes From the Shore, by Jennifer Ackerman, is nipping at my brain.

Because I am a planner by nature, I always look ahead. The theme for June is celestial objects, and I am finding my pickings extremely skimpy beyond earth, moon, and stars. Any fun ideas or suggestions out there?

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.

The Changing of the (book theme) Guard

As March turns to April, the book theme turns from Literary Forms to Emotions.

Literary Forms was a lot of fun. Within the titles of the books I read were white papers, an autobiography, fieldnotes, an elegy, two tales, myths, a manual, riddles, a journal, a field guide, questions, short poems, footnotes, letters, and a lexicon. It was a great reading month, with several notable books.

The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, is a silly cat book. It is one cat’s autobiography, written for the young new cat in the house, to share his wisdom (and also because he kind of likes her, even though she’s young and silly). I always snort when I run across these books, but somehow they end up on my shelves. I ignore them for years, and then I am reading one. Honestly, I pulled it off my own shelf and thought “a stupid cat book, I almost certainly won’t read it; not with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas also in the pile” but then I read the back and the first paragraph and the first page and then several more and there you have it.

Hillbilly Elegy was another significant read of March. I was hoping it would give me a lot of answers to questions I have about our cultural landscape and current trends. I learned a lot; mostly that it was silly to expect the answer in one book. But I did feel like I got a piece of the puzzle.

A surprise star book of the month was Flat Rock Journal, by Peter Carey. This journal is one day, spent in the Ozarks—all very close to home (the book starts on his back deck, and from there he only walks). The connection to nature is deep—watching lizards on a tree, the songs of frogs, loving a thunderstorm. There are some flaky moments. Do you think we can talk to trees? Actually, I do rather think we can talk to trees, so just know that there are flakier things than that.

However, Flat Rock Journal did remind me of the primacy of nature, and how grounding and restorative it can be. I would even go so far as to say healing. And that gives me hope. Which leads me to the April reading topic of emotions.

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit, is high on my list of books to read for the emotion theme. So is The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin; Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life, by bell hooks; Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver; and Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton. Today I started Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment, by David Lykken (note: the author is involved in the University of Minnesota twins study, an unbelievable long-term gold mine of information; the local connection, good data, and inclusion of humor made this the second theme book I started for the month).

The first theme book was Calm Surrender, by Kent Nerburn; a book about forgiveness. I pulled it off the shelf for the calm aspect, and when I looked closer and saw it’s mostly about forgiveness, I almost put it back, since forgiveness wasn’t really high on my interest radar. But I like this guy (I’ve read a couple of his other books), he’s local (Minnesota), and I found almost every page I randomly turned to interesting, intriguing, or compelling. Who knows, maybe a post on forgiveness will be in my future.

In the fiction arena (not a strong suit for me of late), I was really excited to run across Where Angels Fear to Tread, by E.M. Forster. That is definitely at the top of the list. Others of high interest: Joyland, by Stephen King, Empathy, by Sarah Schulman, and The Joy of the Game, Michael Shara.

I was a bit surprised at the paucity of breadth of emotion in my poetry collection. So many books of love and desire; multitudes of books of joy or desire. But also a few further afield: disappointment, consolation, longing, tenderness, eros.

Other emotions I’ve found on the shelves: compassion, yearning, shame, lonely, envy, grief, neglected, sorrow, brokenhearted, bitter, affection, pleasure.

A world of emotions, just in book titles. Do it! Go scan your shelves! Who knows?

A Favorite Poet, an Excellent Book

Joyce Sutphen is one of my favorite poets, and certainly my favorite local poet. I’ve recently finished her book, Modern Love & Other Myths, and I loved it. I discovered Sutphen many years ago, and I always do a happy dance when a new book comes out. Modern Love & Other Myths elicited two happy dances (I emailed Sutphen to tell her how much I loved the book and she responded; I am always amazed when writers respond to email, just like they are regular people).

The first poem I loved, the first time reading the book, was “You.”

You

You make me think in italics; you bring
exclamations to my lips! (I never
thought in parentheses)—I always dashed
my way through everything! I

want to quote you; I want you to appear
in every footnote. I want you to be my
opening line. Yes—I have a lot of
questions; there seem to be some missing pages…

but I could live in an ellipsis; I
could become a demonstrative pronoun
(if you wanted that) or I could be a
questionnaire and you could fill in the blanks.

And now, although I’d like to say much more,
I must conclude—or what’s a sonnet for?

When I got to the unexpected ending, I laughed out loud. Now, poetry often makes me smile, it occasionally makes me weep, but it almost never makes me laugh out loud. I would have loved Modern Love & Other Myths purely for this one poem (yes, poetry can be like that sometimes), but there were several others that I loved (and thrice as many more that I very much liked but didn’t quite tip into love).

In fact, the next poem that called forth my love was a mere two pages later:

It’s Amazing

Another word for that is astonishing
or astounding, remarkable or marvelous.

It’s also slightly startling, which leads to
shocking and upsetting, perhaps a bit

disquieting, and that is troubling and
distressing—you could say outrageous

and deplorable, which leads to wicked
and more precise equations such as

sinful and immoral or just plain bad
and wrong. It’s amazing, which is just to say

bewildering and unexpected, that
it happened out of the blue, and that we went

all the way from miraculous to absurd,
within the syllables of just one word.

This poem did not make me laugh out loud, but it did make me smile. It also made me think about language and words, and word meanings, and how easily we can hop from one interpretation of a word to another, and another, until you amazingly arrive at the exact opposite or where you started. I love writing, pondering, and playing with words, and this poem has given me new ideas for word games (which can be especially fun on long drives). Can one ask for more from a single poem?

Another favorite:

Footnote

I would prefer to mention him only
in passing. How lovely to go back and

never to have met him, a connection
missed, a quiet night at home and no trip

to that city across the river where
he was waiting, but not (it turned out) for

me. I would prefer him as a footnote,
in parentheses, one small entry

in the index, the one that will baffle
the scholar who is reading carefully,

who realizes how impossible
it is for me to forget those lost years.

These aren’t necessarily the best poems in the book, they are merely my favorites. And who can say what the “best” poem is anyway? All writing demands that the reader bring something to the table, but I think with poetry that is even more true. In some ways, poetry is an act of cocreation between reader and poet. Perhaps there is no such thing as a best poem, only favorite poems.

There are so many good poems in the book. Poems that I like on the first reading, thoroughly enjoy on the second, and then go oh! on the third. Nearly all poetry rewards rereading. But not all poetry is as fun to reread as Sutphen (and Modern Love & Other Myths in particular).

One more poem, that will perhaps make your next long-distance drive more interesting:

Things to Watch While You Drive

The trees, slipping
across the fields, changing places with
barns and silos,

the hills, rolling over
on command, their bellies
green and leafy,

the sun-tiger, riding
on your rooftop, its shadow racing
up and down the ditches,

a flock of birds,
carrying the sky by the corners,
a giant sheet of blue,

the road, always
twisting towards or away from you—
both, at the same time.

Sigh. I think that’s absolutely beautiful, most especially “a flock of birds/carrying the sky by the corners/a giant sheet of blue”. A poem within a poem.

Joyce Sutphen is the Minnesota poet laureate. She has published six books of poetry, and I think this is my favorite yet. Although truth be told, I went and got all the old ones off my shelf, and I can’t honestly say without reading them all again that Modern Love & Other Myths is my absolute fave. All of a sudden I want to reread Coming Back to the Body, tonight. I love this power of poetry!

And I have to say (because I have the inside skinny), Sutphen has a seventh book of poetry, soon to be released in the U.S. Why it was released in Ireland before it was released in south Minneapolis I cannot say, but it appears there will be yet another happy dance in the near future.