August Theme Reading

A new month and a new reading theme. The August theme is books titled The _____. That would be just one word. Okay, yes, this sounds absolutely silly, but it arises from a past theme: Last year we did one-word titles, specifically excluding books titled The ______. Note, we don’t have much in the way of rules for our book themes, but that was a rule we agreed on. There was no lack of one-word titles, so the rule in and of itself wasn’t a problem. But there were just so many good books that were The ______. Thus, this August theme.

So far I’ve finished two books, The Enchanted, by Rene Denfield, an oddly mesmerizing, dark yet redemptive novel; and The Unicorn, poetry by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (and some of it quite fun). I’ve just started The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier; and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I’m about halfway through The Goat, by Mervyn Taylor (poetry).

There is much to look forward to. High on my list in fiction (these are all books I’ve gleaned from my shelves; that is one of the things I love about the reading themes—they make me take a new look at my bookshelves, and I find myself getting excited to read books that have been waiting for years):

  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  • The Penelapiad, Margaret Atwood
  • The Bees, Laline Paull
  • The Soloist, Mark Salzman
  • The Blindfold, Siri Hustvedt

On top of The Canon and The Gift (both just started and dense enough reading for a good portion of August), these nonfiction books have also caught my fancy:

  • The Orchard, Adele Crockett Robertson
  • The Quartet, Joseph J. Ellis (loved his book Founding Brothers)
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

But August. Who knows what August will actually bring? Maybe I won’t read any of those books, and turn to mysteries instead (much as I turned to graphic novels in July).

The July theme was proper nouns. I had planned to focus mainly on geographic proper nouns, but books got in the way. Here are my proper nouns of July: Istanbul, Anya, Lumberjanes, St. Paul, Mars, Camelot, Xena, Crampton Hodnet, Trump, Magdalene, Greta Wells, Lahaina, Vermont, and Adam Smith. I managed to read 5 graphic novels, 3 regular novels, 3 poetry books, and 4 nonfiction books (the best being Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, by Katrine Marcal).

And if you’ve never read Barbara Pym, you couldn’t go wrong starting with Crampton Hodnet. It’s the first book she wrote, but the last published. I found it her funniest, and it’s the first glimpse at a couple of characters who appear off and on throughout the rest of Pym’s books. Also, it’s my new favourite Pym (though I still have two to go).

Happy summer reading! And please, do consider reading The _____.

July Reading Theme: Proper Nouns

One-third of the way through July, and I have barely made a dent in the stack of proper noun books I’ve been so excited to read. I have mostly focused on geographic proper nouns (Istanbul, Aberdeen County, California, Sicily, etc.) though a few names that I couldn’t resist have crept in (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, for example; also Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, and Casanova Was a Book Lover).

But mostly I am focusing on proper nouns in terms of location. High Tide in Tucson. RFD Vermont (bonus points since I’m visiting Vermont this fall). My favorite potential theme read is Greene on Capri (being a double theme read, for Greene and Capri)—a memoir by Shirley Hazzard, which also seems like bonus points since I’ve not read her but have wanted to for years.

And while I have all these really good books just waiting for me, I have hit the reading slump of the decade. Okay, perhaps an overstatement. Everything I’m reading suddenly seems to be a slog. A chapter in Oliver Sacks (An Anthropologist on Mars—I so want to skip ahead to the last chapter, which is focused on Temple Grandin—but I tried, and I just couldn’t do it); Naomi Klein’s new book; two poetry books that I have going, and the recent fiction book I finished.

The one thing that has totally captured me is Anya’s Ghost, a graphic novel which I finished today.

The dog days of summer. I’m not sure if it’s the heat or just other stuff going on, but I seem to find myself drawn to graphic novels, comics, mysteries, and memoir. My usual heavy fare of politics, economics, and science feels a burden. For the nonce.

(A summer interlude of Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Red Sonja does have a high appeal. I think I will give in.)

The June theme of celestial objects didn’t cover as much space as I expected. I encountered the moon (3 times), a galaxy, a world, Earth, the universe (twice), the sun, a star, and a satellite. Mars is so intense that it is hanging on into July. My favorite theme read was The Universe Versus Alex Woods, a novel that I read compulsively, and it so captured me that I regretted that it was from the library because I wanted to underline several bits.

Dog days. Sometimes the reading is iffy. Give yourself wiggle room. Sink into a genre. Read a few comic books. Reread a childhood favorite.

Oh dear. I’ve just thought of a childhood favorite that I haven’t read yet (but happens to be sitting on my shelf): Anne of Green Gables. Another double theme read. Hmmm.

The dog days are starting to get a lot more interesting!

In Search of New Life

A new month and a new book-reading theme. The June theme is celestial objects. I have a lot of fiction books that are calling to me: Shoot the Moon, by Billie Letts; The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold; Leaving Earth, by Helen Humphreys; Walking to Mercury, by Starhawk (loved her book, The Fifth Sacred Thing); and Turtle Moon (as well as Here on Earth) by Alice Hoffman.

I thought celestial objects would be much broader (Alpha Centauri?) but mostly I am finding sun and moon and a very few stars. I have a galaxy and a few universes, a satellite, and two planets so far (Earth and Mercury).

In the world of fun, I have a Star Trek graphic novel: To Boldly Go. Good silly summer porch reading.

I was most surprised at the sparsity of nonfiction on my shelves. On the bright side, most of them are quite intriguing and I’m not yet sure which I will start first.

The Accidental Universe, by Alan Lightman, I will read for sure (as I am discussing it later this month in the world’s smallest bookclub with my friend Sheila). Although now that I’m looking at this book I am wondering if I haven’t already read it. But then again, if I did, it was several years ago, and it might make a completely different impression now than it did then (if indeed there was any impression at all), and reading a book to discuss always adds a nice element of interest.

Also among the few but valued celestial nonfiction books: The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dalai Lama; Earth Democracy, by Vandana Shiva; The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family, by Jeanne Marie Laskas; and Walking Gently on the Earth, by Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff.

It’s odd to have so few nonfiction books and such a plethora of fiction books (most especially as I’m mostly in a nonfiction place these last several months). But it’s June, and at least at this moment, a light novel sounds appealing, so who knows?

As for the May reading theme (land/terrain), I will report that I have learned a lesson: Never place a reading theme that you are Most Particularly Interested In during the peak of bird migration. One would think I would have learned that by now.

Nonetheless, I managed to read myself through a gorge, a field, a prairie, the shore, a couple of landscapes, a point, a quarry, and your basic land. The one book I most wanted to read for this theme I have not quite finished, but will do in a day or two: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

After reading this book, I am finally starting to understand where the tea party (and other hard-core conservatives) are coming from. This is not to say I agree, but I am beginning to understand.

I don’t often talk politics on this blog, but I am all in favor of at least Trying to understand the other point of view. I think it’s a little hard-headed to have a blanket opinion that the “other side” (are they really?) is wrong. Why do they think that way? Sometimes (not always, but sometimes), when we talk about why we disagree, we find that we in fact agree on many things. This can provide a path to resolve the things we disagree on. But even agreeing to disagree is not a bad thing. (Granted, it’s a low bar, but compared to open animosity, it seems to be a small but achievable goal.)

I am going to be very local for a moment and say that I favor cooperation and compromise (among people in general and government in particular) and am appalled at the sandbox fight taking place right now at the highest level of our Minnesota government. I don’t appreciate our Republican Legislature starting it, nor do I appreciate our Democratic governor massively upscaling it.

The anarchy model of government is starting to sound good. Oh oh. Was that left wing or right wing?

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?

24 Reading Challenges

I love any kind of challenge to broaden my reading horizons, and was intrigued by a group called Book Riot that has issued a 2017 “Read Harder” challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to push readers to explore topics or formats or genres that they otherwise wouldn’t try.

Nobody’s keeping score, and I already have my reading theme thing going on, but could I possibly resist? Well, no. I decided to overlay the reading challenge on top of the themes, figuring I’d hit several on chance, plus I could steer a few theme reads down the challenge road as they fit (and appealed, of course—always the primary criterion).

Here is the list of 24 reading challenges:

  1. A book about sports.
  2. A debut novel.
  3. A book about books.
  4. A book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
  5. A book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
  6. An all-ages comic.
  7. A book published between 1900 and 1950.
  8. A travel memoir.
  9. A book you’ve read before.
  10. A book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
  11. A book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
  12. A fantasy novel.
  13. A nonfiction book about technology.
  14. A book about war.
  15. A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ.
  16. A book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
  17. A classic by an author of color.
  18. A superhero comic with a female lead.
  19. A book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.
  20. An LGBTQ romance novel.
  21. A book published by a micropress.
  22. A collection of stories by a woman.
  23. A collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
  24. A book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

I’ve read 10 of the 24 categories so far this year (those would be the bolded titles). Given the list isn’t a driver of my reading, but rather something I remember to check in on once in awhile, 10 out of 24 doesn’t seem too bad for late April. (Most of them were also reading-theme books. Ms. Marvel would be an exception.)

I had thought that “a book about sports” would come up empty at the end of the year, but scanning my shelves I found Michael Shaara’s For the Love of the Game, a novel about baseball. Oh, I do love baseball. And I have loved Shaara’s Civil War novels, and I had no particular passion about the Civil War before I read them. But I do have a bit of a passion about baseball, so I figured he’d do well by me here as well. And he did. It’s a short, tight novel. Almost a fable.

I know I read a lot of debut novels, or at least I think I do. But it isn’t a driver of my reading. So I was ever so pleased when a friend offered to loan me HER LIBRARY BOOK COPY of Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a debut novel by Max Porter. One of the narrators is a crow. I will say no more. Except I have finished the book and will return it before it is due. And I love crows.

South of the Border, West of the Sun was both a reread and a book set more than 5000 miles away. I love Haruki Murakami (mostly), and he rewards rereading. Definitely an author I will keep, hoping to reread all of his works (except maybe skipping short stories, which I always have good intentions about and almost always fail miserably at) in the order written. Sometimes his characters pop up in other books. I love when that happens.

Looking ahead, some of the reading challenges seem like slam dunks, even under the aegis of the reading theme: a fantasy novel, a book by an immigrant, a travel memoir, a banned book.

And then there are the serious challenges: A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as GLBTQ. Mostly sexual orientation is not included in author information. So while it may be that I have or will read books that fall into this category, I’m not sure I want to take that extra step to investigate the sexual orientation of the author. But I do read the occasional YA and middle grade book, so perhaps one will fall into my hands. It happens.

Another challenge: A book about war. I went through a Civil War phase and a World War 2 phase. Right now I am in a warless phase so that could be a challenge. Oh, here’s a big challenge: a collection of stories by a woman. I tend not to like short stories in general. I might like them a little more if they’re by a woman, but still, short stories. But it doesn’t say “short stories,” it says “stories by a woman.” Well. That could be a memoir.  Many memoirs are written as stories. Hurrah! That I can do for sure.

It’s a fun challenge, and I’ll report back towards end of year as to how it’s turning out. I’ve plucked much of the low-hanging fruit, as they say (except for the sports book). We’ll see how it turns out. I feel like I should get at least 20, but I won’t be surprised if it’s closer to 15. Anyone else out there trying this?

The Lexicon of Real American Food

Much as Speaking American taught me about regional differences in words for things throughout the U.S., The Lexicon of Real American Food, by Jane and Michael Stern, taught me a lot about regional differences in food—both specific twists on common foods, and things that seem to be pretty unique. Here are some of the things I learned:

An egg cream has three ingredients—chocolate syrup, whole milk, and seltzer. I have heard of egg creams (New York), but I always rather assumed they had egg in them.

The chow mein sandwich appears on menus of diners, drive-ins, and cafes in parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Made with crunchy noodles topped with sauced sprouts (no meat) on a plate with a bun.

Grape-Nuts Pudding, found in New England, consists basically of stirring Grape Nuts into a custard pudding. I’m not even going to venture to guess why New Englanders wish to punish themselves this way.

The Juicy Lucy is close to my backyard. A hamburger with molten cheese in the middle, it was invented in Minneapolis in 1954. Two bars take credit for it (and interestingly, they are not very far apart). I have eaten at both of them and find the Juicy Lucy at Matt’s Bar the hands-down winner.

A half-smoke can be found in Washington, D.C. Primarily street food sold in carts, it’s a fat hot dog with a coarse texture and heavy smoke flavor, served in a bun and usually topped with beef chili.

Also in the hot dog family, a ripper is a hot dog deep-fried long enough for its skin to rip. Rippers are a New Jersey thing.

Move inland to Ohio and find a different sausage specialty: the Polish Boy. Found in the barbecue restaurants of Cleveland, it consists of a large piece of crisp-cased kielbasa and comes on a bun with French fries and coleslaw, all topped with barbecue sauce.

Pico de gallo usually refers to a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, peppers, and lime juice. In Tucson, however, it is a mix of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama. This is spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with a hot chili-powder mix. Wow.

Barbecue took up more than 10 pages. I learned about pulled pork, whole hog, Kentucky mutton, Texas beef, California barbecue, plus barbecue salad (Memphis, TN and Arkansas) and barbecue spaghetti (Memphis). Chili also gets several pages (including a recipe for Texas chili). But there are also separate entries for chili mac, Cincinnati chili, Green Bay chili, green chile cheeseburger, and Minorcan chowder.

Pizza also takes up a few pages: California pizza, Chicago pizza, Detroit (square) pizza, Ithaca NY’s hot truck that invented French bread pizzas, Maryland pizza, Memphis pizza (has a major barbecue element), New Haven pizza, New York pizza, Old Forge PA pizza, Southwest pizza, St. Louis pizza, and West Virginia pizza. I had no idea.

I also learned a few new things. For example, Jell-O is Utah’s official snack food. There were a lot of red items: red beans and rice, red beer, Red Bull, red-flannel hash (beets are involved), red-eye gravy, and red hots.

I also learned to read this at least somewhat skeptically. When I got to the entry on sloppy joes, I learned that in Minnesota it is gulash. Whoa. I grew up with goulash. Also called plain “hotdish,” Minnesota goulash is a casserole (i.e., hotdish) of hamburger and macaroni in a tomato sauce. It is not put on a bun, and it is very often served with Jello-O and a pickle. We also have sloppy joes (which I also called barbeque sandwiches while I was growing up). No goulash sandwich though.

Quibble aside, this is a very fun book. Check it out from the library. Even if you don’t read every entry, it’s fun to peruse, and there are lots of fun pictures.

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?