Black History Month Reading: Day 14

I’m close to finishing Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair (one chapter left to go) and have pretty much loved it. The thing about Phoebe Robinson is that you (or at least I) feel like she’s standing right there talking to you. She’s funny, direct, and honest. First off, I learned a lot about hair. Black hair in general and women’s in particular. You might not care about this, but I found it fascinating, and it has given me a new appreciation (and the occasional silent wow) for black women’s hair. Don’t touch it. Don’t ask to touch it.

Moving beyond hair, Robinson addresses stereotypes, or what she calls the monolith of black, which I totally got when I read:

Blackness is not a monolith. There’s nerdy black, jock black, manic pixie dream black, sassy black, shy black, conscious black, hipster black . . . the list goes on and on.”

After a nanosecond of introspection, I realized I have a bit of this monolith perspective myself. (This comes up in many of the books I’m reading—the perceptions, the expectations, the stereotypes. My eyes are opening a bit. I read on.)

Because I am an introvert and tend to analyze everything social, this, in particular resonated with me:

I don’t know about other black people, but that Greek chorus of “But what will the white people think?” has been a constant in my brain for much of my life. “Man, I truly am going to be late, not because of CPT but because of traffic. But what will the white people think?” “I really want to order certain food off this menu at dinner. But what will the white people think?” “I want to speak out about some injustice I just witnessed. But what will the white people think? That I’m a troublemaker? Guess I should keep my mouth shut.” Do you know the amount of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years that have been wasted second-guessing each and every behavior because I was wary of how I was going to reinforce or dismantle certain stereotypes?”

This is an excellent book, and I haven’t included any of the funny bits, some of which were quite exceptionally funny.

After You Can’t Touch My Hair, I decided maybe a little balance with the old school was in order, so I pulled out bell hooks and Alice Walker. I thumbed through both, decided on Alice Walker, and life was good. But then I went Stop! Why go old school? Why not read another up-and-coming (or at least on my bookshelves for less than a decade) author? So I put Ms. Walker back and pulled Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light off the shelf.

I’m not dismissing Alice Walker or any of her peers, but I think it’s time for me to get in touch with a younger generation of writers. Smith is Poet Laureate of the United States, and I’ve read a bit of her poetry, but Ordinary Light is a memoir, the story of “a young woman [born 1972] struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America.”

I am beginning to begin to understand just a wee bit of what it means to be black in America.

In the fiction world, I loved The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon. Here is what you have: a girl all about science, a boy who writes poetry. She is a Jamaican immigrant scheduled to be deported at the end of the day. He is a Korean American, the younger son, destined to become a doctor. Science meets poetry. This YA book is a wonder on many levels. First of all, it has physics and multiverses (one of my pet physics theories and my own preferred explanation of infinity), and then you add poetry and I’m a goner. So much more—lawyers, parental issues, family angst… I won’t say more except that I laughed out loud, cried (more than once), and loved it.

In the world of poetry, I have moved on to Sonia Sanchez, Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums. A beautiful book I want to read slowly but can’t. I will leave you with this:

love between us is
speech and breath, loving you is
a long river running

 –Sonia Sanchez

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Black History Month Reading Day 6

I’ve finished Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. What an excellent book! Both deeper and broader than the movie, the book covers a longer period of time, a larger swath of people (including African American men) and, occasionally, areas outside Langley and the state of Virginia. The book, Hidden Figures, is about many more hidden figures than the three highlighted in the movie.

I loved the book. I loved the movie. As is usually true, the book holds a lot more than the movie. There’s a lot of history, and many more stories in the book than could ever make it into one movie. It would have to be a documentary. Or several documentaries.

But here’s something. Almost always I will say I loved the book more than the movie (there are a few exceptions, and I’ll think of one soon—maybe The Hours). But in this case, I didn’t love the book more than the movie, but nor did I love the movie more than the book. I loved them differently, in a way that I’m not sure has ever happened to me before.

The movie was a good bit of history, but its primary impact on me was emotional. I was just there with these women. Certainly I learned a lot in the movie, but when I walked out of the movie, I was all yes!—Give women a chance and a place at the table and we can do just about anything. And these black women who broke so many barriers in the face of so much discrimination—it makes me pause in awe.

The book layered a lot more history on that good feeling, which was also a good feeling.

And then somewhere in there I took a break and watched Bagdad Café again. Does anyone out there know/remember this movie? One of my all-time faves (I think it would have to be in my top 10). I loved this movie for the music first, most specifically “Calling You” by Jevetta Steele—a mesmerizing and haunting song. I am not sure I can listen to this song without being moved to tears (is there any other song that falls into that category? Oh, yes, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong).

It might not work if you haven’t seen the movie (the emotional wallop of the song, I mean), not sure—I’ve mostly only heard it watching the movie (at least a dozen times now).

But this quirky movie is worth watching if it has escaped your radar. It’s one of those movies I seem to enjoy just a bit more each time, and I never tire of C.C.H. Pounder.

And I have recently learned that this song that I have loved for decades is sung by a local musician. Yes, right here in the Twin Cities. Jevetta Steele, part of the Steele family. (Thank you dear spouse for bringing this to my attention; I have a tendency to miss things close to home.)

Back to books. In the land of poetry, I’m On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. About two-thirds through, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I especially liked the second section, “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” which contains several gems. One of the best known may be “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967,” and that certainly is a most excellent poem. I thought to include that one because I love it. But I decided on this one because it’s shorter and perhaps a little less well known.

The First Book

Open it.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well . . . maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.

Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:
You’ll never reach bottom.

It’s not like it’s the end of the world—
just the world as you think

you know it.

–Rita Dove

We’re still in serious winter here in Minnesota, so I’m going back to hibernating with my books. Stay warm (to those of you in the winter climes) and happy reading to all!

Black History Month Reading: Day 1

No, I’m not going to do a daily report (I don’t read—or write—fast enough to make a daily report interesting) but I hope to provide several updates throughout the month.

A few days ago I started Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain. I’m about a quarter of the way through and loving it. At least three times I’ve almost gotten up from the table to email Ms. Robinson and tell her how much I am loving her book, but coffee and inertia win out. There’s a good chance I’ll still write her. From my chair, the first two chapters of the book alone were worth the price. Already I respect black women more (yes, this is how much I don’t know). The power of hair.

To leaven the pot a little bit, tonight I read the preface of Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (on which the movie—which I loved—was based) and I got teary-eyed just with the preface. This is some fine history of the key role that black women played in the NASA space program. (If you haven’t seen the movie—oh my. I will only say I loved it. I’m sure not everyone should love it just because I loved it, but really, in this case, maybe yes. Excellent story, excellent acting. And you can get it from the library.)

I was a little surprised/disappointed that I didn’t have any African American poetry on my to-read shelf (I found several on my poetry-to-keep-forever shelf, but I find I want to go beyond what I have already read). I requested several books from the library in late January, as soon as I discovered my in-house dearth. The next day, five were already in transit. Yes! I checked online this morning, and still none had arrived. But this afternoon I took a chance and stopped by the library. You never know when the books might arrive. I headed right to the reserve books, and boo, none had arrived. So I hunted up poetry (buried in nonfiction, which surprised me, and all mixed up with essays and children’s books—I need to ask my librarian friend about this; it feels like Dewey Decimal run amok). That was fruitless, but the 10 minutes I stood trying to make sense of the shelves made a difference. I stopped by the reserve shelves on my way out, and yes! There they were, 3 (of 10) that I requested: On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove; and Morning Haiku and Under a Soprano Sky, both by Sonia Sanchez.

And while logic would have it that I start with Sonia Sanchez so that I could then read Dove and not get all samey-samey, I purely could not stop myself from starting with the Rita Dove book. I have read only the first bit, but I am happy with my choice. I love Rita Dove (2 books on the keep-forever shelf) and this is a most excellent start to the month.

I’m not new to black literature, but this immersion experience is new. I know I will learn a lot. I wonder if it will change me. It well might. This is the power of books.

I’ll keep you in the loop.

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.

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.