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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May-June Book Themes

May has gotten away from me, as it often does. So much going on, what with spring and all. For most of May I’m either outside or looking outside unless it’s raining or nighttime. You just never know when an ovenbird might show up in your yard. (It’s been back twice since. Maybe it will nest!)

Back to books. The May theme is architectural elements. So far I have read a staircase, a kingdom (perhaps a stretch), medicine chest, bridge, and fountain. In process are a picture window, stairway, and corridor. May is not one of my stronger reading months. I just don’t care so much about books. The birds are migrating, the catnip is coming up, the cactus is singing. I may still love books, but I can’t seem to focus on them.

June gets a little more down to earth. Still plenty to see and discover, but a bit more time for books as well. The theme for June is “green.” This includes any book with the word “green” in the title, and also green things (e.g., grass, trees, plants, parks, leaves, salads, envy).

I’ve not yet done a scouring of the shelves. Even so, I’ve likely found more than I can read. So far for fiction:

  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
  • Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas
  • Murder on Sagebrush Lane, Patricia Smith Wood
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

For nonfiction:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, Gayla Marty
  • The Green Boat, Mary Pipher
  • Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (a bit iffy on direct theme fit, but the greenest book of them all, and I really want to read it, subtitled: “The ecological crisis through the lens of faith.”)

Poetry often adds fun variations on the theme:

  • Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer
  • Green Soldiers, John Bensko
  • Nettles, Betty Adcock
  • Flower Wreath Hill, Kenneth Rexroth
  • Now the Green Blade Rises, Elizabeth Spires
  • You Speak to Me in Trees, Elana Wolff
  • The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri

With luck I will read five or six of these. You just never know what you’ll be in the mood for. And I’ll probably find half as many again before June even starts!

Happy reading to you, and happy summer as well!

Black History Month Reading: Coda

Last February, I decided to focus on black writers to honor Black History Month. I wondered if an immersive reading experience would have any kind of long-term impact. What might I learn?

Here’s what I read (in order, because I think that matters):

  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly (nonfiction, quite different from the movie but equally excellent)
  • On the Bus With Rosa Parks, Rita Dove (poetry, loved this)
  • The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon (YA, I loved loved this book which I read in one day, which was really cool because it takes place over the course of one day)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson (nonfiction, I learned huge amounts from this book—much of it about myself)
  • Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums, Sonia Sanchez (poetry)
  • Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Vashti Harrison (children’s nonfiction, 40 black women—many I knew, but some not—I learned quite a bit!)
  • Morning Haiku, Sonia Sanchez (poetry)
  • Sula, Toni Morrison (fiction; I generally find Morrison’s fiction difficult. I expect she rewards rereading)
  • In Montgomery, Gwendolyn Brooks (poetry)

One thing I noticed as February progressed is the more I read, the more my interest in black literature increased. Since February I have read:

  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith (memoir)
  • We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (nonfiction; this is the first of her books I’ve read. I have Americanah on the to-read shelf)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (fantasy, first in a trilogy; I got books 2 and 3 before I finished—but after I started, so that should tell you something. I think I might have to read all of her books.)
  • The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (fiction)

This last (The Underground Railroad) is still in process, but I felt compelled to include it because there seems to be a slight skew to books by women. Although I do want to say that overall, I believe women do a better job of including and representing men in their work (fiction and nonfiction) than men do of including and representing women. This is to be expected, as women have learned to navigate this world that is mostly run by men.

I find a parallel in black literature: Black people do a better job of including and representing white people in their work than white people do including and representing black people. I learn a lot about white people from black people. Not so much the other way around. Black people have learned to navigate this world that is mostly run by white people.

People tell their story and the story of the people that dominate them.

Here is a big thing I learned from my immersion reading: The experiences I have as a woman experiencing discrimination in a man’s world are very different from the experiences of black people navigating a white world. I used to think it was similar. But there have been many times in my life when I have been in mixed male-female company and not felt like I had to keep my guard up at all. This is not so much the case with black people, because you just never know when someone might say something nasty. Always ready, just in case the insult comes. Because it does.

Another thing I learned was the importance of stereotypes. It is so easy—practically default—to go down the stereotype road. As I walk down the street towards three black men, do I think shy musical students? Well, no, not usually. But I did find after a month of intensive reading, I was looking at black people completely differently. I mentioned this to my librarian friend, and she suggested that all this reading has made black people more three-dimensional to me. It’s true. Through books I’ve met black scientists, physicists, computer programmers, immigrants, comedians, artists, and U.S. poet laureates.

Up next: Finishing Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and then getting back to the N.K. Jemisin trilogy. Lots of nonfiction to consider, but for now that will remain a tantalizing possibility.

April Reading: Objects and Things

This month’s book theme is objects and things, which mostly means books with either the word “object” or “thing” in the title. As I was perusing my shelves, it seemed that “it” was often interchangeable with “object” or “thing,” so I added “it” to my mental list. And it didn’t take long for me to consider rereading It, by Stephen King. I loved it when I read it 25 years ago or so. Would it hold up?

I have just reached page 1000 (153 more to go). Sometimes you need to take a break. I’ve spent much of the afternoon reading King, and believe me, once I finish this post I’ll be right back to It, fully planning to finish tonight. I’m reminded of why I loved it so much the first time: While it is a horror novel, at its heart it’s a story about friendship and love and trust. With maybe a dash of faith.

I’ve got two poetry books going, The Plural of Some Things, by Desi Di Nardo; and One Secret Thing, by Sharon Olds. I’m liking the Olds in particular, but I’m also feeling like reading it slowly (often a good sign with poetry). A couple more poetry books that I’m looking forward to this month: Things and Flesh, by Linda Gregg; and Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney.

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve finished Rich People Things, by Chris Lehmann, which I didn’t care for at all. I had expected whimsical essays on economics and social issues, but what I got was economic pedantics at its most deadly boring. Economics can be fun and interesting. Really! This, however, would not be a good example.

I’ve followed Rich People Things up with Objects of Our Desire, by Salman Akhtar. Early days, yet, just a quarter through, but so far I’m liking it. In this first part, he’s talked about clutter versus collections, why people collect, and what people collect. (Lots of people collect things. I collect bookmarks from independent bookstores, and it is fun reading Objects of Our Desire through the lens of that collection.) I’m not sure what I’ll read after this one. Maybe Nothing (Nica Lalli).

There are a few fiction books I’m looking forward to after It: An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (a novel about the art world that includes beautiful color reproductions—an intriguing and beautiful book); Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, by Katharine Weber (I loved her novel The Music Lesson, but never read beyond that and I don’t know why); and Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection (I’ve read at least one of his books and enjoyed it, and this is his first).

Last month’s theme was women (in any way, shape or form), in honor of Women’s History Month. I read a girl, a pastrix, female, geek feminist, she, Temperance Dare (local author Wendy Webb), sisters, and a mother. My favorite book of the month was Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It stretches your ideas of Christianity, this tattooed female priest, this pastrix. The love just pours out of the book. A different kind of Christianity than what I experienced growing up. I will definitely seek out more of her books.

Now I’ll return to Stephen King. A battle awaits me.

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!

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!