Water, Water Everywhere: July Reading Theme

During the hottest month of the year, it feels good to immerse yourself in water, be it lake, river, sea, or pond. So we’re immersing ourselves in “water” books for the month of July. I’ve finished three so far:

  • Dragons in the Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle. This turned out to be the second book in the O’Keefe series, and now I have the first on order from the library. I loved the Wrinkle in Time series; the O’Keefe series is showing promise as well.
  • Daughters of the Lake, by Wendy Webb. I loved this book by one of my favorite local authors. I didn’t think she’d ever write anything I loved as much as The Fate of Mercy Alban (set in the famous Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, though it isn’t Glensheen in the book of course), but Daughters of the Lake was every bit as engaging. A contemporary gothic mystery set on the shore of Lake Superior, this one had me baffled right up to the end.
  • Skinny Dipping, poetry by Suzanne Collins (what better in July?)

I have a good selection of watery fiction to choose from:

  • The Sea, John Banville
  • The Odd Sea, Frederick Reiken
  • The Shape of Water, Andrea Camilleri (first in a mystery series set in Sicily)
  • Ocean Sea, Alessandro Baricco
  • Bay of Angels, Anita Brookner
  • The Marriage of the Sea, Jane Alison
  • Rain, Kirsty Gunn
  • Madras on Rainy Days, Samina Ali
  • The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler

Notice how almost all the authors’ surnames are from the start of the alphabet? I stopped looking through fiction after the letter G because I already had such bounty. (I did go search out The Odd Sea, though, because I knew I had it and I wanted to be able to pick between a regular sea and an odd sea). I think it’s a grand list and I hope to get several more books in yet this month. It is July, after all—lazy days on the front porch (or under the ceiling fan) reading. It makes me feel all happy inside just thinking about it.

Nonfiction is much skimpier:

  • St. Croix Notes, Noah Adams
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill
  • When the Water Smokes, Bob Simpson
  • Water and Sky, Alan S. Kesselheim
  • Seasons on the Pacific Coast, Susan J. Tweit
  • Sippewisset, Tim Traver
  • Facing the Wave, Gretel Ehrlich

I have started the Ehrlich book, just a few pages in. But earlier today, I glanced at Seasons on the Pacific Coast, and I think it may just win out. It looks so compelling, and it is so much of my mood in a July. It’s subtitled A Naturalist’s Notebook, and it has lots of beautiful illustrations (I am a sucker for illustrations; pictures, too). It’s a singularly attractive book with a siren call.

As is usually the case, there are a number of good titles in poetry. I am most looking forward to Wade in the Water, by Tracy K. Smith (current U.S. poet laureate). Sheila and I are reading this together to discuss. It’s been awhile since we discussed a book of poetry. I’m looking forward to it. Also in the poetry stack:

  • River, Fred Chappell
  • Crossing the Same River, Patricia Goedicke
  • Waterborne, Linda Gregerson
  • The Water Carrier, Steve Straight
  • Water Becomes Bone, C. Mikal Oness
  • From Where the Rivers Come, Richard Solly
  • You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, Anna Moschovakis
  • White Sea, Cleopatra Mathis
  • Fleet River, James Longenbach

So many options available for long summer days. I’m picturing the front porch, a little stack of books, and a big glass of iced tea with lots of lemon.

Happy reading!

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Reading in June Is All About Size

Happy June! June brings a lot of wonderful things, like strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb and cactus blossoms. Also, a new reading theme.

The theme for June is size (think small, medium, large, and take it from there). I’ve been looking forward to this theme ever since Sheila suggested it, and I will not be disappointed.

Nonfiction is especially enticing this month. I’ve started with Small Victories, by Anne Lamott. Talk about the perfect book at the perfect time (although it’s true that I tend to like Lamott at any time, this one seems particularly perfect). Next up is likely Small Wonder, by Barbara Kingsolver (the rare writer who has written both fiction and nonfiction that I’ve loved). Other books in the nonfiction pile:

  • Any Small Thing Can Save You, Christina Adam
  • The Big Picture, David Suzuki
  • Sleeping Giant, Tamara Draut
  • At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman
  • The Marginalized Majority, Onnesha Roychoudhuri (is a majority an amount rather than a size? It feels like a size)
  • The Big Squeeze, Steven Greenhouse
  • The Small-Mart Evolution, Michael H. Shuman
  • The Size of Thoughts, Nicholson Baker

Not bad, huh? And a nice range in topics.

My fiction stack is skimpier (but note, I have only gone through about two-thirds of my fiction). I’ve started with The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny. At first I thought “long” a bit of a stretch for the theme, but I’m good at stretching, and when I remembered drawing sticks when I was a kid (the kid who drew the long stick got to go first; the kid who drew the short stick had to do dishes—like that) I knew I was home free. Meeting with Sheila before the theme began, I started reciting my reasoning for “long,” sticks and all, and she laughed and said she already had a “long” book in her reading pile. Oh I do love my friends.

I also have two books by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and The Little Sister. I’m leaning more towards The Big Sleep, and I’ve just remembered I have a graphic novel of The Little Sister. Maybe I’ll read both!

Also in the pile:

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie
  • The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, Tiffany Baker
  • The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara

A short but appealing stack.

In poetry, I’ve started All the Short Poems, by Valerie Worth. This is a lovely book, with illustrations by Natalie Babbitt.

Poetry has given me some of the best titles for the size theme:

  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye
  • A Slender Grace, Rod Jellema
  • Skinny Dipping, Suzanne Collins
  • In This Thin Rain, Nelson Ball
  • Crossing the Great Divide, Jean Feraca

A new month, a new reading theme, new birds and new plants. Turning the page on the calendar. Entering the lazy season, for lolling on the porch, reading and napping. Count me in.

Happy reading (and napping) to you!

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)!

Books: Not Just for Reading

I love playing with books, especially around the monthly reading themes. Usually I start thinking about next month’s book theme in the middle of this month. A friend once castigated me for that—not living in the moment enough, as it were. Pigsfoot. I have always been a big fan of anticipation, and I don’t see a thing wrong with it.

Plus, in this particular case, it allows me to play with my books in pursuit of a goal (a nice stack of interesting books to choose from for next month’s theme). It’s purely fun, and has the advantage of helping me get reacquainted with my books (which can also help in the culling process).

This is not an either/or thing. I can enjoy the monthly reading theme and also anticipate the upcoming theme. Really, it’s like winning twice: I enjoy picking and anticipating the books, and then I enjoy reading them (though not all of them, because I always select more than I can read, because it’s nice to have a lot to choose from).

Any time of the year is good for playing with books, but this last winter has especially lent itself to book play. Days inside due to the polar vortex; days inside due to snowstorms; days inside due to ice.

I got a little cabin fever and started culling my books. And while this may sound more like work than fun, think of it this way: Book culling involves handling, looking at, and sorting books; reading book jackets, paging through books, and occasionally taking trips down memory lane. A great way to spend a snowy (or rainy) day.

I’ve only gotten through three shelves so far (but that’s more than half a bookcase!) and have had to stop because the stacks are taking over the Blue Room. (Note: There were already stacks of books on the Blue Room floor; but now it has gotten to a point where there is only a wide path for walking.)

The next step is to sort the books. The cream of the crop go to an independent that buys books, and the rest get bagged up for Half Price Books (HPB). This is the dangerous time, when back-sliding occurs. (Or, more charitably, it gives me an opportunity to change my mind if I have been a little too hasty, or if I was in a particularly strong cleansing mood when I did the culling.) I don’t usually uncull many books, but knowing there is this pause ahead may make me a bit bolder in the initial culling. And I have already pulled back several books (mostly nature—why did I think I wouldn’t want to read this Cape Cod book? Acquainted With the Night, going through it hour by hour—why would I get rid of that? You see….) But probably not more than 2 or 3 out of every 50 culled. It’s a good check and balance system that works for me.

Bringing books to the store and getting cash or credit is also fun. The independents always pay much better than HPB, but they are few and far between (although I have found a new one that is particularly keen on poetry, and soon I will try branching out into other areas—nature, history, and books by local authors—things in line with the spirit of the store). But HPB takes everything, including books with underlining (I underline in some of my books—mostly books I think I’m going to keep and then sometimes it turns out I don’t want to keep them after all; underlining helps me process a book at a deeper level).

So the cream of the crop goes to the independents, and the bulk goes to Half Price Books. We have a HPB near our house and this is our new system (now that we have about 12 bags of books, and still stacks to go): two bags of books in the car at all times. Any time we drive by HPB and there’s room in the parking lot (and we have time), we bring in the two bags. When we get home, two more bags go into the car. With luck, six bags are gone within a week.

A final enjoyment: coming home and looking at the bookshelves no longer double stacked, and room on the shelf for more. Having room for new books is nice for a change (we haven’t quit buying books, after all!).

Writing this has made me realize that the memoir shelf is ready to cull. And there’s now enough room in the Blue Room for a few more stacks. Hmm. Maybe I’ll go down and just start with a smallish pile of memoirs….

Looking for a Few Good Men

March is drawing to a close, and I’m starting to anticipate the April reading theme—men. I’m quite excited about the possibilities and have been looking forward to this particular theme for quite some time. This is men in a broad sense, including any book with the word “man” or “men” in the title, also boy, mister, Mr., father, uncle, etc., or a proper male name.

The one book I’m most singularly excited about is Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, by Michael Kimmel. With the resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism (which are not just men, but men are the primary face) and the continuing school shootings (and other mass killings) committed primarily by white men, I am quite interested to see what Kimmel has to say. Bear with me while I quote a wee bit on this from Kimmel’s book (it has a really good index):

Take a little thought experiment. Imagine all the rampage school shooters in Littleton, Colorado; Pearl, Mississippi; Paducah, Kentucky; Springfield, Oregon; and Jonesboro, Arkansas; now imagine they were black girls from poor families who lived instead in Chicago, New Haven, Newark, Philadelphia, or Providence. Can you imagine the debate, the headlines, the handwringing? . . . . Yet the obvious fact that virtually all the rampage school shooters were middle-class white boys barely broke a ripple in the torrent of public discussion.

If it’s as interesting (and data-driven) as I expect, you will likely be hearing a bit more from me about Angry White Men. Other nonfiction books I have in the stack:

  • Men We Reaped, Jesamyn Ward
  • Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Susan Shapiro
  • The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd
  • My Father’s Paradise, Ariel Sabor
  • Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood
  • Reading Judas, Elaine Pagels & Karen L. King

I think that’s a nice selection. A little heavy on memoirs, but I do like memoirs, and they’re all pretty different. My fiction list is a bit longer, though I have been much less diligent in my search for fiction. There are just so many of them!

  • The Hanged Man, Francesca Lia Block (YA)
  • Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones
  • Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal (mystery)
  • The Bachelors, Muriel Spark
  • The One-in-a-Million Boy, Monica Wood
  • Bruno, Chief of Police, Martin Walker (mystery)
  • The Mostly True Story of Jack, Kelly Barnhill (YA, local author)
  • The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Phaedra Patrick
  • Jim the Boy, Tony Earley (note the double win here)
  • The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Alice Walker

A nice selection, I think. Though maybe I should look at the SF/fantasy shelf for a possible addition. It seems to be the only thing missing.

Poetry is surprisingly skimpy in the male realm: only seven books after looking through six shelves of poetry! Interestingly, I scanned just two shelves for female titles and came up with nine! What is it about poetry that makes it so female oriented? I checked, and I have about equal numbers of male and female authors, so it’s not that. However, most (though not all) of the female titles are written by women. Poetry on men:

  • The Silence of Men, Richard Jeffrey Newman
  • The Gentle Man, Bart Edelman
  • Narrative of the Brown Boy and the White Man, Ronaldo V. Wilson (note the double win)
  • Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me, Stanley Plumly
  • Gabriel, Edward Hirsch (one of my favorite poets)
  • Martin & Meditations on the South Valley, Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • The Throne of Labdacus, Gjertrud Schnackenberg

There is much to look forward to in April!

I’ve been enjoying my geographic peregrinations this month. I visited both coasts: The San Francisco Haiku Anthology, New York (Will Eisner), and Another Brooklyn (Jacqueline Woodson). After New York I hopped up to Maine (J. Courtney Sullivan) with a stop in Radio Free Vermont (Bill McKibben). I also spent quite a bit of time in the Heartland (Sarah Smarsh) and the Kitchens of the Great Midwest (J. Ryan Stradal). I have recently left the country for Rain in Portugal (Billy Collins). Spring in Portugal is lovely.

Quick bird note: Spring in Minnesota is pretty good too! Yesterday I saw my first chipping sparrow as well as my first white-throated sparrow of the year. Spring migration has begun!

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!

In Praise of Winter Hibernation

On of my favorite things to do on a snowy day is sit in a chair by a window and watch the snow. Ideally, there’s a table with the chair, and I have a mug of hot tea and a book. So I will read, and at the end of every section I look out and watch the snow. Sometimes briefly, sometimes for minutes. It’s hypnotic and relaxing and magical all at once.

On a good snowy day (which to me means at least four inches of snow), I often don’t even leave the house except to put out food for the birds along with fresh water. When it gets way below zero (-15 and colder) I also put out peanuts in the shell. Generally, I don’t like to put out peanuts because almost always the squirrels find them first and bury them all; and there are squirrels in my roof, and I hate to reward these trespassers with one of their favorite foods. However, when it’s twenty below, even I take pity on the squirrels, although I was happy to see the blue jays got to the peanuts first both of the last two times I put them out.

The birds are a great part of my joy in winter hibernation. Just today I saw a house finch at the feeder—the first one I’ve seen this year, and so brightly colored I thought it might be a purple finch. But the female showed up and I was assured they were house finches. I have had tons of juncos this year! Far more than usual. And not nearly as many chickadees as in past years, so I was happy to hear several of them when I was outside earlier today.

Hibernation is also good for reading. One of the books I’ve been reading (a surprise theme find) is The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson. Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which I haven’t read), it is a book focused on decluttering. But it’s half the length and feels much more pragmatic (mind you I’m only one-third through). Magnusson suggests starting in the attic or the basement. She suggests starting with large things. She suggests starting with easy things.

So after 40 pages I’m looking around the house for big easy things. There’s that large cloth shopping basket I’ve never used. What about this air conditioner that doesn’t work? And I have entire categories of easy things to get to—linens and shoes, for sure. (Interestingly, not winter boots. I was shocked, looking through my death-cleaning eyes, to see I have four pair of winter boots. That’s nuts! What can go? I have two pair for serious winter snow, meaning over six inches. One pair is for shoveling and outdoor work. The other is for wearing in public. For the rest of winter, I primarily wear my little black snow boots for every day wear out of the house. But for quick runs into the yard—to the compost bin or the bird feeders, I like my old cheap step-in moon boots. I have one pair of tennis shoes and four pair of winter boots? Hmmm.)

And of course hibernation almost drives one to cook. I tried a dish I’d never heard of, called kedgeree, a mix of rice and lentils with cumin, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, and likely a few spices I’m forgetting. Next time I will use red lentils, as the brown lentils I used took much longer than the rice to cook (boo!). But the taste was sound, and it would serve as a good breakfast, a side dish, or on a tortilla.

I also made my first minestrone soup. I used the slow cooker and it tasted great. However, I have a piece of advice: Don’t use a pasta in a soup that you haven’t tried on its own. I used an “ancient grains” pasta. After the allotted time, it had fallen apart. Was it the pasta or the cooking method? I am not sure, but next time I think I will cook it stovetop. Sometimes I need a little more control than the slow cooker allows. Also made in hibernation: ham steak with corn pudding, and a big batch of applesauce.

We’ve finally been getting some serious winter here. I will tell you, I will take snow over a polar vortex any day. The up side of the vortex is that now a 10-degree day feels quite comfortable. We just yesterday shoveled out six inches of snow, and we might get six more inches overnight tonight. And then maybe another six inches Thursday. So there will be a whole lot of shoveling going on.

Happily, I love shoveling snow (along with raking leaves, one of my favorite household tasks). My absolute favorite is shoveling at night. It’s so quiet; snow muffles sound. Just me and a few neighbors, the sounds of shovels scraping snow. I cannot explain why I love this. It even smells good to me.

Mind you I love the light fluffy snow (which is what we’ve been getting) and not the heart attack snow, laden with moisture (that’s more in March/April). And of course by March/April, all of the glow has worn off the hibernation, but that’s okay because the days are longer and warm days are in reach.

For now, we’re in a winter cycle at least through the end of the month. You can hate it, or you can ride it, and I’ve decided to ride it. With a shovel, some books, birdseed, and a full pantry.