Going Rogue (Bookishly) for Black History Month

A funny thing happened as I was finishing up the “Love” chapter of Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Somewhere after reading longish passages from her conversations with Elizabeth Alexander (African American poet) and finishing the chapter, I decided I needed to read more black and African American literature. I decided to prioritize all the black writers in my theme pile for February.

Guess what? Not a one. Well, boo. January was great with African American writers I didn’t get to. So I decided to go rogue and push the book theme to the side (not completely) and focus on black writers in February, partly because it’s Black History Month, but mostly because I really want to do it. Sometimes I get a little too wed to the book themes. I have books I’ve wanted to read for quite some time now, but I let the themes drive my reading. (I do have control over this, there are no rules. I do have control. Really I do.)

So sometime between my second and third cup of coffee this morning, I decided to read (mostly) black/African American books in February. I was excited before I even got up from my chair. Perusing my shelves (reminder: I tend to use the book themes to read and potentially pare down the huge excess of books I have accumulated over the years), I found nonfiction quite fruitful:

  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • The End of Blackness, Debra J. Dickerson
  • Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
  • Wounds of Passion, bell hooks (plus a few of her other books that I haven’t read yet)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson
  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
  • Living By the Word, Alice Walker
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Not so very gender balanced, I will admit. But note, I still haven’t gone through memoirs or foodish books. Still, a very exciting list of prospects for the month. I expect I’ll start with You Can’t Touch My Hair, immediately followed by Hidden Figures (which I bought shortly after seeing the movie).

I’m adding another book to the nonfiction mix for February, not specific to Black History Month, but relevant nonetheless: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (edited by Sun Yung Shin). Not all the writers are black, but several are, and it’s here in Minnesota. This is what I need to hear. To learn. To understand.

I haven’t finished going through all the general fiction yet, but I’ve been a bit surprised at the sparsity:

  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Zanzele, J. Nozipo Maraire
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I might go to the “already read” shelves and pull a few favorites. Mama Day (Gloria Naylor) comes to mind. Then  Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (Ntozake Shange). And The Color Purple (Alice Walker).

I also found a few mysteries (picked up back in the day when I was reading a lot more mysteries):

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Hidden in Plain View, Blair S. Walker
  • Easier to Kill, Valerie Wilson Wesley
  • Killer Riches, Chassie West

And a few science fiction/fantasy books (mostly purchased at WisCon, the annual feminist science fiction convention held in Madison, WI):

  • Clay’s Ark, Octavia Butler
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin
  • Filter House, Nisi Shawl

Again, a bit heavy on the women. And while that’s okay in general for reading (to make up for all those years of male classics), in this case I think I will need to add a few more male voices (since we didn’t read a lot of black male classics). Ellison’s Invisible Man immediately comes to mind. I would welcome other suggestions.

And I’ve decided that while a Black History immersion month is probably a good thing, I’ve decided to keep it up in a most modest way by resolving to read at least one African American book each month after February through the end of the year. Some might fit into a reading theme, but if not, I’ve realized I want to broaden my reading landscape more than I want to cleave to the theme.

I’m excited to bring this new focus into my life. Every once in a while, it’s really fun to go rogue.

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Monthly Reading Themes, 2018

Schedules and circumstances didn’t allow Sheila and me to get together to finalize our 2018 reading themes before the New Year. We had identified themes for the first few months, just in case it took forever to meet, but we managed to meet in early January, and now have decided (mostly, which is to say more or less, which is to say I’m leaving a little wiggle room) on the 2018 reading themes.

(Note: At present, this is for our book club of two. But all are encouraged to participate. Choose a book or books in our themes, or identify your own themes. It’s a really fun way to run across books you might not otherwise read. Or a good way to read a book a month if you aren’t a hard-core reader.)

2018 Reading Themes

  • January: Religious Words (e.g., grace, holy, divine, mercy, god, sacred, faith, redemption)*
  • February: Day/Month/Season (esp. specific days of the week, months, seasons)**
  • March: Women (lady, miss, girl, queen, Eve, she, aunt, mother, nun, etc.)***
  • April: Object/Thing (yes, it’s odd; but books that have “object” or “thing” in the title, while not highly numerous, are highly appealing)*
  • May:  Architectural Elements (e.g., tower, gable, gate, wall, roof, porch, window, stairs)
  • June: Green (trees, grass, plants, park, leaves, the word green, etc.)
  • July: One-word titles (this is a repeat theme—super fun)
  • August: Music (e.g., sonata, chime, tune, song, sing, dance, symphony, jazz, choir, soprano, band)
  • September: Animals (the word animal, or fox, rat, dog, cat, mouse, dragonfly, dinosaur, gnat, toad, etc.)
  • October: Life (and variations: live, lives, lived, living)**
  • November: Health/Wellness/Medicine***
  • December: Journey (e.g., path, pilgrimage, travel, passage)^

So much to look forward to (esp. readingwise) in the coming year.

*This might seem it would get all religiony, but trust me, it’s a finely broad-ranging theme. Of course you could make it all religiony if you wanted to (I could see wanting to focus on a specific area for an entire month—hmmm, hmmm! That could be really fun sometime. Not this month, but definitely worth pondering down the road).

**I have Saturday, August, October, February, September, June, winter, summer, spring, and a few generic day/season books.

***For Women’s History Month.

*It’s possible that “It” could be added to things and objects. It seems like a good fit, and I want to reread Stephen King’s book, It.

**An amazing number of books across the spectrum have life/lives variations in their titles.

***This was a completely new add. We already had a good list of themes we were contemplating, but we’re both interested in healthcare, the healthcare industry, big pharma, and health and wellness, and when we stumbled across this in our conversation, it became the November theme. I’m quite excited about it.

^Confession: As this theme is the furthest away, I have given it the least thought. Except for pondering whether “paradise” might be part of journey. I have several paradise books I want to read….

2018: So Many Books (and Happy New Year)

We’ve already moved into January (and I have many things to get caught up on with this blog, which is one of my New Year’s resolutions) and also into a new monthly reading theme. The theme for January is religious terms or words (or, occasionally, phrases). This is a super-rich area for book titles (some more religious than others, and some, of course, not religious at all).

Here are the fiction books that leapt off my shelves:

  • The Holy Machine, Chris Beckett
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, Kristi Belcamino
  • Can I Get an Amen, Sarah Healy
  • Grace Notes, Bernard MacLaverty
  • Minaret, Leila Aboulela
  • God on the Rocks, Jane Gardam
  • Act of God, Jill Ciment
  • Holy Fools, Joanne Harris
  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • Kabbalah: A Love Story, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Nonfiction is troubling, as there as so very many theme books I want to read, and only 31 days in the month. Calling to me:

  • Grace (Eventually), Ann Lamott
  • Living With a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose
  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • Words of Passion, bell hooks
  • Shopping for Buddhas, Jeff Greenwald
  • Lipstick Jihad, Azadeh Moaveni
  • Living by the Word, Alice Walker
  • Devil in the Details, Jennifer Traig
  • Aphrodite, Isabel Allende
  • Life is a Miracle, Wendell Berry
  • Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris

And a few poetry titles for frosting:

  • Clothesline Religion, Megan Buchanan
  • Nature’s Grace, Carolyn Zonailo
  • The Tulip Sacrament, ‘Annah Sobelman
  • The Gatehouse Heaven, James Kimbrell

As you can see, I’ve got a fine month of reading ahead of me. I have already finished Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, a reread for me. Oddly, I quite disliked this book on my third reading. I will put it back on the shelf and see how it wears in a few years. But I have to say, the strong dislike took me aback. It also makes me want to revisit Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which I especially loved).

December’s reading theme (things that fly) was a good one, and I got back into reading mode. I finished 11 books (4 fiction, 4 nonfiction, 3 poetry). The best of the theme books was The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (a marvelous reimagining of the famous feminist/abolitionist Grimke sisters). The Bees, by Laline Paull also stood out, and while it is called a dystopian novel, I didn’t find it so at all. Is one happy at the end of a dystopian novel? (She snorts, I think not.) Also in fictionland, a YA novel that I quite adored, Memoirs of a Bookbat, by Kathryn Lasky. A book for anyone who loves books or libraries, or has experienced a time in their life when books are their only friend.

In the world of nonfiction, the standout was The Geese of Beaver Bog, by Bernd Heinrich. This is a fine study of Canada geese (and other bog residents, on occasion) that I found both fun and fascinating. Canada geese are extremely common here in Minnesota (and Minneapolis), and I loved learning more about them. Most interesting to me: The white facial marking on the goose’s face varies and can be used to identify individuals. Also, Canada geese are not nearly the lifelong devoted monogamous mates that we (birders) had been led to believe. Monogamous, yes, if it’s convenient. I will no longer feel sorrow when I see a single goose winging through the air. OMG, have I put you to sleep? I think all my friends want to tell me to cut back on the bird ramblings.

I have been remiss in blogging and intend to get back on the horse in this new year. I already have a slate of topics, including New Year’s resolutions, caregiver tips (based on recent experience), 2018 reading themes (soon to be finalized), and perhaps a look back at 2017—the best birds, the best books, and other best moments. Also maybe the biggest flops.

Happy New Year to you!

December Flies In

The reading theme for December is Things That Fly. Or, it could be Things With Wings. Or perhaps we should have gone with the simpler, Flight. As I mulled this over while I perused my shelves, I settled more and more on Things That Fly. Because a lot of things fly. In addition to all kinds of birds, both time and the wind fly, the weekend flies, as do mosquitos and kites (which are also birds, but in this case I mean the kite that is flown with a string by a person on the ground).

I like a little wiggle room.

When you have such a very broad lens, you kind of look at your book collection in a different way. I have a very small kid/YA shelf, but it was quite lucrative:

  • The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
  • Memoirs of a Bookbat, Kathryn Lasky
  • Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
  • Dragons on the Water, Madeline L’Engle
  • The Young Unicorns, Madeline L’Engle

(Everyone does know that both dragons and unicorns fly, yes?)

I was a bit surprised at how many angels were lurking in my fiction books. I expected more birds, but dragonflies, cockroaches, bees, and even a ghost also flew onto the pile:

  • The Bay of Angels, Anita Brookner
  • Angel, Elizabeth Taylor
  • Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym
  • Angel Landing, Alice Hoffman
  • Cockroaches, Jo Nesbo
  • Ghost of a Chance, Amy Patricia Meade
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
  • The Bees, Laline Paull
  • Reel Time, Julia Willis
  • Day of the Bees, Thomas Sandez
  • The Weekend, Peter Cameron
  • The Pollen Room, Zoe Jenny
  • Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra
  • Red Sky, Red Dragonfly, John Galligan
  • The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kid
  • The Curlew’s Cry, Mildred Walker
  • Starling, Sage Stossel (Graphic novel)

You can see why I might like these monthly book themes: Most of these books have been on my to-read shelf for years, and now they’ve been dusted off and brought to light. And I haven’t even gotten to nonfiction yet:

  • The Winged Seed, Li-Young Lee
  • The Snow Geese, William Fiennes
  • The Geese of Beaver Bog, Bernd Heinrich
  • The Wind in the Ash Tree, Jeanine McMullen
  • Private Lives of Garden Birds, Calvin Simonds
  • Songbirds, Truffles, & Wolves, Gary Paul Nabhan
  • Here at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall
  • The Hidden Lives of Owls, Leigh Calverz
  • Death of a Hornet, Robert Finch
  • The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman
  • Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil
  • Under a Wing, Reeve Lindberg

So many books flying onto my plate, and I know I can’t even read the half of them! (And then of course, there’s always the other book I want to read, totally outside the theme—what’s a reader to do?)

And I haven’t even mentioned poetry. Poetry adds Cardinal, Humming Birds, Arrow, Butterflies, Kingfisher, Flies, Phoenix, Mosquito, and Spirit to the flying pile.

It’s good to be excited about reading again. I didn’t read much in November. I didn’t finish a single nonfiction book, and read just two fiction books (one short, the other light), a graphic novel (which probably held my interest the most), and two poetry books. A bleak (for me) reading month.

But I can tell December will be different. So many of the books are calling. Which of the Geese books should I read? Absolutely I will read Starling. Poetry? Who knows?

It’s good to be back. Happy reading.

November Book Theme

The November book theme is _____ & _____, as in War & Peace, or Pride & Prejudice. Yes, think about that for a minute. I was quite skeptical when my friend originally suggested it. And yet. Here is what I gleaned from my fiction shelves:

  • Decline & Fall, Evelyn Waugh
  • Adam & Eve, Sena Jeter Naslund (I loved her book Ahab’s Wife)
  • Lost & Found, Jacqueline Sheehan
  • Aiding & Abetting, Muriel Spark
  • Fates & Furies, Lauren Groff
  • Love & Friendship, Alison Lurie
  • Flesh & Blood, Michael Cunningham
  • Gentleman & Players, Joanne Harris

And here is the nonfiction that caught my attention:

  • Garlic & Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
  • Sustenance & Desire, Bascove (edited work, “This is a book-lover’s book about food.”)
  • Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris
  • Basin & Range, John McPhee
  • Lost & Found, Kate St. Vincent Vogl (memoir)
  • Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain
  • Wolves & Honey, Susan Brind Morrow

Garlic & Sapphires is high on the list, and reading about food in November seems like the ultimate comfort read. Kathleen Norris is a favorite author of mine (leaning into the spiritual realm), but I have been warned away from Acedia & Me. Nonetheless, it’s on my shelf, and maybe at this particular point in my life it is the perfect book for me. Being warned away from it makes me approach it like fire, but approach it nonetheless.

Last month’s theme (house/home) finally saw me get back into reading mode. I read 14 books (and they weren’t all short!). Most notable was the reread of House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski—my third reading of the book, and while it still held me, it held me in different places than it had previously (perhaps the mark of a great book?). I didn’t find it quite so scary as I had the first two times (but then again, I wasn’t home alone), but I did make some new connections. One of my very favorite scary books.

And we’ve moved into scarier November. Month of Gray & Bleak in Minnesota. I’ll keep you posted.

October Is for Home

The reading theme this month is house/home. When better than in October, when you’re starting to move from the outdoor of summer towards the indoor of winter. This is a repeat from last year because we both had so many books we didn’t get to. Since I’ve not been reading so much in the last couple of months, I didn’t do my usual careful gleaning of the nonfiction shelves. Still, I have a nice assortment to choose from:

  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins
  • The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (local author)
  • The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, Tahir Shah
  • February House, Sherill Tippins
  • Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • A Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp
  • The City Homesteader, Scott Meyer

Number one on my list just now is Sixpence House. I feel about ready to get lost in a town of books. I’m also quite interested in The Latehomecomer which has been on my to-read list for years now, and also February House, which is about a house shared by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, in Brooklyn during 1940 and 1941 (described as a yearlong party).

My fiction shelves surprised me. Apparently, I had been more diligent in reading my homely fiction that I realized. Still, several viable contenders:

  • At Home With the Glynns, Eric Kraft
  • Lions at Lamb House, Edwin Yoder*
  • Homecoming, Caren Gussof
  • The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald
  • The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery
  • The Newsboys’ Lodging House, Jon Boorstin*
  • The Homecoming Party, Carmine Abate

*Both of these books have William James as a character. That in and of itself makes them appeal to me, and reading them in the same month could be just the thing. Also very high on my to-read list is The Irresistible Henry House, which I think might be one of those don’t-want-to-leave-your-chair books.

But the month starts with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (one of the scariest books I’ve ever read; right up there with Stephen King’s The Shining). But House of Leaves is much more complex and multilayered than The Shining, with a design that makes its own thread. I’ve read it twice before. The first time I mostly got scared and was kind of amazed; the second time I noted a lot of design detail that I missed on the first go. On this third read, I’m wondering if the scary factor will still be there. The time is right: October with its shorter days, and dark rainy damp evenings (thunderstorms as I write) is perfect for a long scary book.

The September theme (man/woman/boy/girl/child), much like the August theme, was a bit of a bust, and for the same reason: I just didn’t read that much in September. I read a child, a girl, two men, a woman, and kids. Just Kids, by Patti Smith, would be the standout. And purely because the titles are fun, I will mention Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, by Martina Newberry, and The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, by Jason Sommer (both poetry).

Happy reading, and happy belated equinox!

Men, Women, and the September Reading Theme

I believe the September reading theme started as man/woman. And then we added child. Shortly after that, we decided to read Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) together as a theme read. So girl and boy got added in. And I added kid because I want to read Just Kids, by Patti Smith.

My bookshelves were brimming with potential theme reads. Here are some of the cream of the crop.

For fiction:

  • A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
  • Woman in the Dark, Dashiell Hammett
  • Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith
  • How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall
  • The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
  • The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, Sarah Braunstein

Right now A Man Called Ove is leading the pack for my next fiction book (though the Muriel Spark book also calls).

Nonfiction that’s rising to the top:

  • How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
  • Angry White Men, Michael Kimmel
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
  • The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Boy Erased, Garrard Conley
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp

I have already picked up Just Kids (Patti Smith) though I’ve only read the preface. I hope to spend some time with it this weekend. Next up might be How to be a Woman. But who can tell? That could be days away.

And of course, poetry. So many fun/interesting titles.

  • Woman at Mile Zero, Linda Rogers
  • Missing Children, Lynn Crosbie
  • Loose Woman, Sandra Cisneros
  • The Gentle Man, Bart Edelman
  • Among Women, Jason Shinder
  • The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, Jason Sommer
  • The Silence of Men, Richard Jeffrey Newman
  • A Woman Kneeling in the Big City, Elizabeth Macklin
  • Uncoded Woman, Anne-Marie Oomen
  • Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson
  • The Girl With Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Encouragement for a Man Falling to His Death, Christopher Kennedy
  • Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, Martina Newberry

I looked at that list for at least 10 minutes trying to decide which titles to cull, because it’s so long. But it’s poetry, and I can’t choose, so that is the full list and you see I have my hands full for the month of September!

Last month’s theme (The _____) was a bit of a bust. Not because there wasn’t a ton of titles (there were plenty) but because I just didn’t read all that much. I read 7 books in August (and two of those were poetry). The 3 fiction books I read were all dark, dysfunctional, and/or dystopian (I can’t say how odd this is for me, as I don’t usually go into dark or dystopian in my fiction, and three in one month is quite an aberration). For those out there that do like to go down this road, I’d recommend The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist. A blurb on the cover compares Holmqvist—a Swede—with Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood. I believe they are in good company.

But for now, I think I’ll retire to the front porch with Patti Smith.