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?

Summer Remembered (Haiku)

Today for the first time I toyed with getting out my winter coat. Oh, not until at least November, please.

This seems like a really good time to recall the haiku of summer. (Yes, I’m still doing The Haiku Postcard Project—I write a haiku every day and send it to my friend in Montana. I started in 2013. I never thought I would continue it so long, but I still love it, so why stop?)

Summer haiku:

June

south side of the house
blooming milkweed and cactus
postage stamp Eden

the soul is willing
but the hands will not obey
there’s still no cooking

all night toss and turn
temp still 89 degrees
the fan blows hot air

July

sitting still writing
at the dining room table
with the ceiling fan

reading poetry
on a summer afternoon
cool running water

the oppressive heat
sucks the air out of the room
sweet hotel relief

so many monarchs
sailing around the backyard
induce happiness

a phone scrap with Mom
it felt just like the old days
a little bit fun

four fledging cardinals
flopping around the dogwoods
trying on their wings

August

orchard watering
snaking the hose twixt the trees
weaving in and out

fresh raspberry pie
one of life’s greatest delights
on such a hot day

when cicada sings
the peaches are nearly ripe
siren insect song

across the trash can
the intricate spider web
glistens in the sun

So there you have it. A summer snapshot through haiku.

It’s a very fun and surprisingly gratifying thing to do, a haiku postcard project. Doubly fun if you have a friend who enjoys getting them.

A small way of paying attention to life.

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.