What’s in a Name?

The July reading theme is proper names: first name, last name, nickname—any variety of proper name (name as opposed to place or object).

I started the hottest month of the year with a graphic novel—Lumberjanes (the 11th in the series). It was a good way to start July. I’ve also finished The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton (another great summer read; Downton Abbey meets Agatha Christie only begins to give you an idea). I’m now just starting The Eleanor Roosevelt Girls, by Bonnie Bluh.

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve read a brief memoir, Grayson, by Lynne Cox (she is a long-distance swimmer and author of Swimming to Antarctica, which I have heard of but not read; I liked Grayson a lot and am now interested in checking out Cox’s other books). My current nonfiction is The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy, by Peggy Caravantes. Baker—a spy for the French Resistance in World War II—is a fascinating woman who led an amazing life, mostly in France.

For poetry, I’m nearly done with Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. This is the first time I’ve read it. Written in the last few months before her death, it probably wasn’t my best choice for a pandemic read. Next up in poetry: The Lindbergh Half Century, by Robert Lietz.

This is a marvelously rich theme, and I’m glad we have nearly three more weeks to go. Fiction is particularly enticing, and I think I’ll spend most of my time here (again: hottest month). To wit:

  • Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
  • Lizzie’s War, Tim Farrington
  • Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter, N. Nozipo Maraire
  • Adam and Eve, Sena Jeter Naslund
  • I am Morgan le Fay: A Tale from Camelot, Nancy Springer
  • Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
  • The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Alice Walker
  • Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker (1st in a mystery series)
  • Goodbye Tsugumi, Banana Yoshimoto

And that’s just the cream of the crop. For fiction. Seriously.

Nonfiction is much skimpier. Here are my top contenders:

  • The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis
  • Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Isabel Allende (with recipes and beautiful drawings)
  • Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein (a stretch for the theme, perhaps, but surely there was some person Jane referenced when naming Janesville?)

It’s only three books, but a pretty decent range. Still, I expect July to lean towards fiction. But that’s how I feel now. Tomorrow? You just never know.

Keep your cool and happy reading!

Staying at Home

There is nothing I love more than a day of solitude. After too much time out and about, nothing is better than a few days at home. But when days turn to weeks, and maybe months, the walls start closing in, and solitude starts feeling a little more like solitary—the big emptiness. Not good.

One of my ways to address this is to have a primary project every day. Often they are kitchen oriented (e.g., make applesauce, make vegetable stock), but one rainy day it was to watch movies, and one day soon it will be doing taxes (not all projects are equally fun, though I do prefer to err closer to fun).

Since spontaneity is not my strong suit, I plan my projects. If you’re floundering a little bit with all your home time, consider some of these activities:

Generic suggestions

  • Have a candlelight dinner.
  • Peruse seed catalogs and plan a garden.
  • Start a gratitude journal.
  • Go through your old photographs.
  • Send a care package to a friend.
  • Tell someone you love your favorite memory of them.
  • Start sunflower seeds indoors.
  • Write letters and send cards to friends and/or family.
  • Really pay attention to your house plants.
  • Get caught up on magazines.
  • Cook something you’ve never tried before.
  • Make a collage.
  • Put together a jigsaw puzzle.

In my world, rainy days call for movies, and I love movie themes. Here are some I’ve done and others I plan to do:

  • Hitchcock movies (this is good for many rainy days)
  • Coen brothers movies (a Minnesota must)
  • Katharine Hepburn movies
  • Cary Grant movies
  • Julia Roberts movies
  • Dance movies (e.g., Shall We Dance? Strictly Ballroom, Dirty Dancing, White Nights)
  • Musicals (e.g., The Music Man, Oklahoma! Fiddler on the Roof, Chicago, A Star is Born)
  • Heist movies (e.g., Oceans 8, 11, 12, 13; The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair—double down and see both the 1968 version with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and the 1999 version with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo)
  • Sports moves (e.g., Hoosiers, The Natural, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own, Bend It Like Beckham, Pat and Mike)
  • Star Trek
  • Star Wars
  • Lord of the Rings

That will take care of a lot of rainy days, or a yawning weekend, if it comes to that.

If you want to be productive

  • Organize your pantry/cupboards and put the oldest food in front.
  • Clean out the medicine cabinet.
  • Organize the tool bench (or tool box).
  • Clean out the utensil drawer and get rid of things you don’t use.
  • Clean the front/coat closet.
  • Clean out your junk drawers. All of them.

If you want to play games

There are the usual board games, card games, and word games, but I most favor made-up games. These can be particularly amenable to social distancing. Examples:

A-Z game: pick a topic and go through the alphabet, alternating answers. You need fairly broad topics to encompass the entire alphabet. Plants, animals, movie titles, musical groups. Sometimes you just agree to skip over a letter (this is always fun as it stops you from planning too far ahead, as the person that can’t think of a Q just moves on to R, and now you have S instead of R, and did I mention there’s no scoring here?).

Another version of A-Z is paper and pencil. You pick a topic (any of the above, for example, but make up your own because it’s much more fun), and then you each make your own lists. You want to decide ahead of time whether you want to write your lists to match or not match. Both are equally fun.

Outside the A-Z realm, there are plenty of fun and nostalgic lists to make: TV shows you watched when you were a kid, the first popular singles you remember, indoor and outdoor games you played, foods you love, foods you hate, foods you’ve never tried. So many potentials. Usually these aren’t to match. They just make for fun memories and discussion.

Tired of lists? How about Hide the Thimble? It doesn’t have to be a thimble—you could hide a candy bar, promise of an hour’s time, a poem….

For the reading inclined

  • Reread a favorite childhood book (Charlotte’s Web, Go Dog Go, Goodnight Moon).
  • Read a poem.
  • Read a poem every day.
  • Read a book about poetry (e.g., How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch)
  • Read a play.
  • Read a short story.
  • Write a short story?
  • Read a fairy tale.
  • Read a Grimm’s fairy tale. Grim!
  • Read a book of the Bible.
  • Memorize a verse of the Bible.
  • Memorize a poem.
  • Read a fiction book if you only read nonfiction.
  • Read a nonfiction book if you only read fiction.
  • Read a book in a genre unfamiliar to you (for me that would be westerns and military novels).
  • Read a genre you eschew (paranormal romance?)
  • Read a book from a perspective really different from yours. Try to cover at least three differences: race, gender, class, liberal/conservative, age, sexual orientation, ability, immigrant/refugee, many more—so many people to get to know!

This is the tip of the iceberg of what we can do with our time at home.

There must be so much I’ve missed. What are others up to?

Rereading Books

For February, we’re doing something different with the reading theme. Instead of a topic or specific word in book titles to focus on, we are rereading books. I’m finding this theme to be much more spontaneous than our typical themes.

I’ve started the month with a small stack of books that caught my eye in the last few weeks. Fiction started with The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey. I’ve finished the first book, Dragonflight, and will likely start Dragonquest tomorrow. I read this in my 20s and loved it, and I have to say, it’s held up. I still love Lessa and the dragons and the weyrs.

After the trilogy (although I might not read all three—it depends if they hold my interest against the sway of the other books I want to read), first in line is Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor. I don’t have anything for sure after that because I think it might just be The Women of Brewster Place, also by Gloria Naylor. And when I go downstairs to get The Women of Brewster Place (the read books are in the basement), I’ll see another two or three books on the shelf that I want to reread. I just can’t tell you which. Yet.

In nonfiction, I started with Reflections on Aging, almost a coffee table book (lots of calming pictures, brief essays). I was going to give it away after I first read it, but for some reason I couldn’t let it go. Later, I wanted to reference something in it, and read nearly the whole thing again. And this month I’ve read it through with good attention. It is not a deep book, but it has good wisdom sprinkled throughout; things it’s good to be reminded of. I will keep it to read again in a few years—different years deliver different messages.

Looking for something else downstairs, I ran across Doris Grumbach, whose memoirs I devoured in the early 2000s. I couldn’t decide between Life in a Day and Fifty Days of Solitude, so I grabbed them both. I know I loved both on first reading, and wanted to read them equally, so decided based on date of publication, and am currently reading Fifty Days of Solitude. I’m tempted to read Life in a Day next, but even moreso, I think I want to reread all the Grumbach books in order. I read them out of order the first time and loved them. But if I’m going to continue reading them, I know I’ll get a much better picture of Grumbach if I read them in order rather than willy nilly. (Our December reading theme is Wild Card—we each pick our own theme—maybe I’ll read all the Grumbach books, in order; that would be a great December reading project!)

What comes after Grumbach? So many choices! Deep Economy, Tap Dancing in Zen, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. Those off the top of my head, but who knows what I’ll decide on when I see all those other books I’ve read?

Oh, also a paired reading has occurred to me: Winne the Pooh and The Tao of Pooh. Doesn’t that seem like good February fare?

Poetry has been a wee bit of a learning experience. I started the month with What the Living Do, the first book I read by Marie Howe (a favorite poet) and my favorite book of hers. I’m about halfway through. I had a completely different memory of this book, and I’m guessing it’s based on one or two or a few poems towards the end. I have thought of this book (for 18 years) as “oh, what a good book to give a friend when someone close to them has died.” Oh so glad I didn’t. The poems are good, for sure, and pack a huge emotional punch. But so far it’s a lot of incest, not the best conveyor of sympathy. I hope by the end of the book to find the redeeming note I remember.

Next up for poetry? I think it has to be Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot. But maybe not….

Best Books of 2019

I generally do a favorite-books-of-the-year list every year. Not the top 10 or top 20. It doesn’t stop at a number; it stops when I stop saying, “Oh, yes, I loved that book.”

And these are the books I loved in 2019 (note, these are books I read in 2019, not necessarily, or even usually, published in 2019):

  1. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (nonfiction; a book that can be found in many sections: nature, science, botany/plants, indigenous studies, sustainability, ecology and likely several more)
  2. Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson (fiction)
  3. Hagar Poems, Mohja Kahf (I have corresponded with this author after writing to tell her how much I loved Hagar Poems; I love it when authors respond, and poets are particularly good at responding)
  4. A Year of Living Kindly, Donna Cameron (nonfiction—who doesn’t need more kindness in their life?)
  5. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Phaedra Patrick (an absolutely lovely and charming novel)
  6. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Margareta Magnusson (a short book about cleaning up before you die; this Swede finds it a bit more pragmatic than holding each item you own to see if it sparks joy)
  7. Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez (nonfiction about how women are underrepresented in research and why it matters, and not nearly as boring as I’ve just made it sound)
  8. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat (I will never ever look at salt the same way again. A beautiful book about cooking, with lots of illustrations and recipes.)
  9. That Good Night, Sunita Puri (nonfiction about palliative care and end-of-life issues—there’s a lot more out there than straight to hospice)
  10. What I Stole, Diane Sher Lutovick (poetry)
  11. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson (a memoir, told in verse, written for middle schoolers)
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg (first I read the book, then I saw the movie about 10 times, then I read the book again; I love the movie, but the book has elements that the movie just doesn’t have the time to capture)
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (loved this rabbity novel decades ago, and I loved it all over again last year—the same dinged-up mass market paperback I read the first time)
  • Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, Lorna Landvik (Landvik is probably my favorite local novelist, and I reread this book because I bought it for a friend and I had forgotten that it was about a bookclub, set right in my part of Minneapolis, so I read it again and I think I loved it even more, because I didn’t live here the first time I read the book)

The last three aren’t numbered because they’re rereads. I don’t like to pit rereads against first-time reads. It isn’t a level playing field.

A bit of context for the numerically inclined: I read 121 books last year, 53 fiction, 38 poetry, and 30 nonfiction. Most of my years are not quite so heavy in fiction, but 2019 was definitely a fiction kind of year.

I’ve also started tracking my diversity reading since I discovered a couple of years ago that it was almost none. In 2019, I read 31 books by people of color. That’s just over a quarter (26%) of the books I read, and a nice improvement on the 19% of the prior year.

Does it matter—diversity in reading? I think it does. Reading helps you to walk in other people’s shoes. I find I’m much more likely to examine things through a racial lens when I’ve read beyond my usual white menu (no surprise there, I guess). I like this trend. And the happy thing I’ve found is that the more diversely I read, the more diversely I want to read.

The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

Virtues & Vices: Reading in the New Year

The reading theme for January is Virtues and Vices. This includes the formal virtues and vices (faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance; and wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony) as well as everyday virtues and vices. For example, the other day when I was looking at my poetry shelf, I decided Simplicity was a virtue, whereas Materialism is a vice.

Since we’re halfway through the month already, I’ve got several books under my belt. My first book of the year was Book Love. What could be more appropriate? This 137-page graphic novel by Debbie Tung was a gift from my reading friend in Colorado. A perfect start to the reading year.

Moving to the Vice end of the spectrum, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly was an eye-opening book, even for this feminist. For those of you who like numbers, there’s a lot of data here (lots of endnotes, too).

Back to Virtues: The Lost Art of Gratitude, the 6th book in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith, was one of my favorites so far. A philosopher by trade (and editor of a philosophy journal), Isabel is more philosophical than usual in this book, and I enjoyed watching her work through her dilemmas. Staying in the land of virtue, I next read Faithful, by Alice Hoffman. Not my favorite Hoffman, but it certainly won’t put me off reading more of her in the future.

I’ve finished one poetry book, A Slender Grace, by Rod Jellema; and I’m about three-quarters through The White Lie, by Don Paterson. My current nonfiction book is Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Subtitled Finding God in the Faith of Others, I am loving this book as it evokes happy memories from the Comparative Religion course that I took decades ago. I had forgotten how cool Hinduism is: Recognizing people are different, it offers different paths to union with the divine (e.g., meditation, devotion, scholarly study). I’m only a quarter through, and it’s ridiculously early in the year to say, but this book has the potential to be one of my favorites of the year.

There are nearly two weeks left in January. Plenty of time for a few more Virtues & Vices. Most of my remaining potentials are virtues, but there are a few vices to be found. For fiction, I’m considering New Mercies, by Sandra Dallas (she can be perfect on a snowy day); Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym (this would be a reread, but I’m considering it purely for the Prudence); Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles (surely Civility is a virtue?); and An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon (I’ve decided Unkindness is a vice, as I wanted to add a science fiction book to the pile).

In nonfiction, my next book will likely be All About Love by bell hooks. I’m also very interested in White Rage, by Carol Anderson, but I think maybe one book of rage a month is enough. Instead I might move on to Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. Oh, I also have a fast-read gift-type book from the library, Life in the Sloth Lane (because who could resist Sloth?)

I think Sloth will win. It’s winter, after all.

Pronouns, She Said

The October reading theme is pronouns (e.g., he, she, they, we, me, I, us, etc.). This is a great theme, rich in possibilities. Unfortunately, I’ve been otherwise committed to library books and reading groups and haven’t yet made much progress.

I have finished one book, I Still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg. The book was fine, but Fannie Flagg is in a difficult position with me, because Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is one of my favorite books (the movie is good too, but not so good as the book), and now every time I read Fannie Flagg, it’s no Fried Green Tomatoes. However, I Still Dream About You did have Flagg’s signature humor, and I would add that she’s in fine form on that count in this book. There were at least four times I started laughing so, I had to stop reading. Not a tee-hee or under your breath heh-heh, but neither a guffaw. Rather, a long chuckle that’s almost a giggle. A chuggle?  Not many books make me laugh out loud, much less invent a new word, so I’d have to say I Still Dream About You was definitely worth my time.

Currently in progress: So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. I’m reading this to discuss with Sheila, and while I’m not far into it, I can tell I’m going to learn a lot (of course what I don’t know about race is immense, so that isn’t difficult). I kind of think it might change the way I think about race (as of p. 33).  I’m also reading Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right, by Ken Stern (part of my ongoing effort to understand and help bridge the partisan divide).

In poetry, I’m reading You and Yours, by Naomi Shihab Nye. I recently loved her book The Tiny Journalist and am appreciating You and Yours as well.

I only finished Fannie Flagg a couple of days ago and have yet to pick up a new novel. Top contenders (as of this moment; it will be different by the time you read this):

  • Sister of My Heart, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • The Love of My Youth, Mary Gordon
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Why She Left Us, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

One of the best things about the reading theme is that it brings to my attention books that have been on my to-read shelf for years. The above books have been patiently waiting for 18 years, 12 years, 6 years, and 15 years, respectively. Before I started the reading theme, I mostly read the books I had most recently purchased. And since I purchased more than I read, a lot of the books over the years have gone unread. (I happily have my problem under control now and purchase far fewer books than I read.)

Back to pronouns. Other books I’m looking at for nonfiction (the elite of the moment):

  • Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit
  • Through No Fault of My Own, Coco Irvine
  • Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly
  • This Much I Can Tell You: Stories of Courage and Hope from Refugees in Minnesota, compiled by Minnesota Council of Churches and Refugee Services
  • I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl

Of these, I’m most interested in Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Voices. This book isn’t a diatribe but a broad look at how women are allowed to express (or more often, repress) their anger, complete with more than 60 pages of notes and an index. Even as a woman who has experienced this, I think it will be eye opening.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the most recently purchased book of the bunch, having been in the house a mere two months. The Solnit is relatively new, at 1 year. Irvine has been around 4 years, and the Refugees for 8. Hampl is the outlier here: I’ve had this since 2003. I’ve read many of her other books since, but still not this one. Perhaps this month?

Poetry at the top of the pile:

  • The Way She Told Her Story, Diane Jarvenpa
  • They Tell Me You Danced, Irene Willis
  • I Think of Our Lives, Richard Fein
  • The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Combing the Snakes from His Hair, James Thomas Stevens

Here there is no question, Jarvenpa will be next. She’s local, and I’ve already read several of her books of poetry, usually focused on nature. She’s also a musician (in the name Diane Jarvi, and in fact she sang at our wedding 12 years ago, so I’m a little biased).

And I will admit the only reason I included the last two poetry books is that I love the titles, most especially one above the other. It’s tempting to shelve those two together, even though I’m obsessive about alphabetizing my poetry. And for those of you that are interested in such things, I’ve had these books for 1, 13, 14, 11, and 13 years, respectively.

We’re in one of my favorite times of year, autumn—so beautiful. Yesterday we drove across the Mississippi, and the leaves in the river valley are seriously starting to change. Gorgeous, even on a cloudy day. On a sunny day it will be stunning.

Happy reading to you all—enjoy the fall!

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!

Reading Theme Update

May is underway and I’ve shifted to the May reading theme, which is Black and Blue. An odd fit for May (why didn’t we do Green?), but usually our monthly reading themes aren’t attached to the month, so there you have it.

If I recall correctly, we got to Black and Blue because we were trying to choose a color theme, and black and blue seemed the most viable. But we thought perhaps there wouldn’t be enough with just one color, so we combined them. It made sense at the time. In retrospect, though, I think the theme would have been broader had we just chosen one of the words. Say what? If we had chosen black, for example, I would certainly look for books with black in the title. But I would also include things associated with black, like night, dark, and ebony for sure; but it seems like there could be additional variations—black birds, perhaps. Blue could have incorporated the concept of sadness, all words for shades of blue, and seriously blue things, like the sky, the ocean, and sapphires.

But when it’s black AND blue, I feel compelled to limit myself to those two specific words, because in my (perhaps strange) mind, the theme loses its cohesion if I stray into all those other territories. Not that anyone would care. (I don’t think even Sheila would mind—no, I’m sure she wouldn’t. She didn’t even get annoyed last year when I only read one book for the theme month because I devoted the month to a completely different theme. She is so much more emotionally mature than I am.)

So, sticking specifically to black and blue, the gleanings from my bookshelves are pretty skimpy (I have a couple of books on order from the library). But this is not necessarily a bad thing, because May is a busy month (birding, yard, garden) and reading is a lower priority. But also, I’d rather have a few good books to choose from than a lot of mediocre ones, and I’ve got a few good ones this month.

I’m about one-third of the way through Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim. This book is basically an introduction to brilliant black women writers. It contains several lists of recommendations: classic novels by black women, books on black feminism, books about black girlhood and friendship, science fiction and fantasy books by black women, plays by black women, and poetry by black women.

Each list is followed by three essays, and the list of contributors is impressive—Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Barbara Smith, Rebecca Walker, and N.K. Jemisin, to name a few. And it’s a wonderful package, an added bonus, with illustrations (mostly small but a few full page) of each of the contributors. A book beautiful both inside and out.

For poetry, I’m reading Blue Horses, by Mary Oliver. I am not far into it, but already I love it. Much of Oliver’s poetry deals with nature and I have thoroughly enjoyed most of her books. She can string together a few words and I will feel like I’m right there with her in the marsh (except she isn’t there, it’s just me in the marsh). No other poet does that quite so well for me.

I’ve not started a fiction book yet, but I’ve decided on Blue Eyes, Black Hair, by Marguerite Duras. It has many wins in its favor: the title contains both black and blue, of course; also, it’s short—117 pages; even with that short length, there is a lot of white space—the margins are wide all around, the font isn’t small, and there’s frequent double spacing between paragraphs; and it’s a novel of erotic obsession. Granted, novels of erotic obsession can be really bad, but if this one is, it’s only 117 pages.

The reading theme for April was Men (any variety will do). I read a monk, a boy, three men, plus Jack, Jim, Tolstoy, and Arthur Truluv. I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to in April—I had so many good theme books. But we had some beautiful days, and the lure of the bike and the river held sway.

It’s hard to stay inside. My rhubarb is nearly a foot high; the lilacs are starting to flower; the crabapple is in full bloom; the forsythia has peaked and the leaves are now in. I’ve had fox sparrows (3), a Lincoln’s sparrow, and scads of white-throated sparrows in the last several weeks. The house wren is back, and I’ve had both Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes in the backyard. I do love the spring bird migration.

Happy reading (and birding)!

Reading Geography

As February ends, I start looking ahead to the March book theme—geography. So broad as to be overwhelming, even if one limits oneself to one’s own books. (For those of you who don’t follow my reading proclivities, I have a lot of books—a few thousand. The book themes serve to bring some of the older titles to the head of the class, and I’ve discovered some gems.)

Back to topic: Geography. Going through the books I had pulled off the shelves (without a thorough scan) I found a lot of America. So I’ve decided to focus on America for the geography theme (all of a sudden I had a throwback to sixth-grade, where I decided to focus on Fort Snelling for my history theme project—don’t know where to go with that but remind you I’m in Minnesota, which is home to Fort Snelling, which we visited when I was a kid).

I’ve already started a nonfiction book in the March Geography theme. I finished a nonfiction book a few days ago, and towards the end of the month, I always like to move ahead into the next theme. As I perused titles, I noticed America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth. I’ve a keen interest in economics and the balance of consumerism and sustainability. I’m not against buying things, but living in our consumer culture (70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumption), which is basically just getting people to buy more things, has gotten a bit over the top for me. So I’m interested in different economic models (anything downwards of 70% is a good start).

And that, really, was the start of the America theme. Also in the nonfiction arena that pulled me in this direction:

  • What Is America? Ronald Wright
  • Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Stephen G. Bloom
  • Heartland, Sarah Smarsh
  • Still Life in Harlem, Eddy L. Harris
  • American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever
  • American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom

Fiction also has a number of stars. I am looking forward to:

  • Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Matthew Flaming
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Poetry is also falling into my subtheme, at least a little bit, with:

  • American Smooth, Rita Dove
  • American Primitive, Mary Oliver
  • The San Francisco Haiku Anthology

So I have decided to focus on America for the March reading theme; no generic city, country, state or territory (that could be its own theme for sure).

But America gets old, and I’d like to take a vacation or two. I have several options:

  • Versailles, Kathryn Davis
  • Murder in the Marais, Cara Black
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
  • A Palestine Affair, Jonathan Wilson
  • South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby
  • The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins

March looks promising. Thirty-one days. So long compared to February. And every day, three more minutes of sunlight. Happy reading all—spring is around the corner!

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?