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 _____.

The Nature of July

I am a heat wimp. I’ve spent much of July sitting at the dining room table reading under the ceiling fan. I have read 14 books so far this month. Let me quickly note that five were graphic novels (Anya’s Ghost, Camelot 3000, two volumes of Lumberjanes, and Xena, Warrior Princess). Three were poetry (average length, 113 pages). Let’s just say that heady reading has not served a large part of the July reading menu, though I do still hope to find out Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

But one can’t sit in the dining room 24/7, so when a cool morning blew in a few days ago, Kathleen and I went birding. There were not a lot of birds to be seen (in part because the cattails obscured our view of the marsh). There was one particularly noisy resident; I searched and searched for this persistent singer to no avail. Later, the same sassy song taunts me on the other side of the road. Again I seek but do not find. Finally the poor bird took pity on me, and the marsh wren flew to the top of a cattail and sang and sang and sang. It was one of those I-love-birding moments.

Another sighting: A small bird was mobbing a red-tailed hawk, and every once in awhile, it would land on the hawk’s back and ride along for a few of the hawk’s wing strokes, and then go back to its pestering. It landed and sailed along three times while I was watching. Not for long, but definitely riding on the back of the hawk. I’ve never seen such a thing.

The lack of birds wasn’t much of a problem, because I kept getting distracted by the butterflies. One beautiful butterfly in particular I memorized, and then sketched it (badly, but captured size and color) as soon as I got back to the car. When I got home and looked it up, I found it was a painted lady. I had never even heard of lady butterflies. I spent hours perusing my butterfly book. Coppers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Commas.

I have always thought of butterflies as inhabitants of sunny grasslands and prairies. But I’ve learned that some butterflies prefer moist woods, others like to be near water, others like woodland edges, some prefer shaded forest, and a whole subset favors roadsides. They seem to be pretty much everywhere. Not just sunny meadows.

In addition to thinking butterflies mostly hung out in prairies, I also thought they pretty much flew the same. You know—like butterflies. But some fly low to the ground. Some fly erratically, others sail. Some swerve from side to side. Some are fast, some slow.

And the names! Part of my enjoyment while flipping through the butterfly book was appreciating the fine names of some of these butterflies: Sleepy Orange, Fatal Metalmark, Crimson Patch, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Common Wood-Nymph, Confused Cloudywing, Dreamy Dustywing, Black Dash, Whirlabout, and California Sister. I would love to see a California Sister.

I decided to start a butterfly year list (which of course means I have a life list but I only started it last year and I forgot about it because the butterflies have been gone so long). But it is July and the butterflies are back, and I have remembered the up-side of birding in July. Butterflies.

So far I have 7 butterflies on my year list. I am hoping to get to 20. A whole new world awaits me.

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?

A Basket of Happiness

It is not so very often I start out loving a book. I started to love this book before I even got to page 1. In the introduction to Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, Kathleen Dean Moore writes:

This book moves from gladness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again.

I had set out to write a different book. I had begun to write about happiness.”

I have moved past the first part of the book, Gladness, and am now immersed in Solace. Yet a part of the gladness holds on: Moore’s concept of the happy basket.

It started as an experiment. She decided to start keeping notes of when she found herself extremely happy, “happy in that deep-down, exhaling, head-back way.” She decided to keep a basket—the happy basket—to collect these notes of what she was doing at the time she experienced these deep happy moments. The experiment was to last a year, but she cheated after about 8 months and looked. Here were some of her happy moments:

Rain, after no rain. And company for dinner, after a long time without seeing friends.

Phone message from Erin. Nothing to say, really, but she sounded content. She had a good day. I could tell by her voice she was healthy. This makes a mother glad.

Frank and I held hands in bed last night, as we often do. We lay on our backs and held hands. This makes me happy, feeling the warmth and strength of him beside me.

Walking fast in the morning, down the path to the bridge.

A patch of sun and a glass of wine after work.

She wanted to analyze the happy moments—look for patterns, possible trends. What she found was that “Almost all the happy moments take place in a pause, a slowing down from job and routine.” She also found that happiness isn’t really the opposite of sadness—she found an odd relationship between sadness and happiness, but not necessarily oppositional. She wonders “if the opposite of happiness might be something else—meaninglessness, maybe, or emptiness.” I find that worth a good ponder.

I love the concept of tracking happy moments, and I know exactly those moments of which she speaks. My description would be somewhat different: You are filled with a sense of exuberance, of awe—wonder at the universe, at nature, at your wonderful luck in life.

So I decided to do the happy basket thing, but it took several days before I had one of those truly happy moments (I feared that the basket would be empty at the end of the year, but my fears were for naught). I had one of those moments yesterday. I wrote it down, along with the date and time, on a scrap of paper. Today, I found a basket to use and a place to set it. And now there are two scraps of paper in the basket.

Can you possibly not want to do it? I am going into the project assuming that almost all my happy moments will be in nature. Based on my two measly current scraps, however, I’m thinking “almost all” might be overstated. But, the data are young and the basket is large, and I am going to the end of the year.

Do you really know what makes you happy? Do you want to find out, or at least get a clue?

And really, why not? Like a gratitude journal, a happiness basket can do no harm. And even though it would be cheating, if you’re partway through the year and hit a rough spot, reading a few scraps from the basket might give you an insight, or at least a lift.

Maybe. I don’t know. I just started today. I think I know a few things about myself. But I think this fun and easy project might teach me a lot about myself that I don’t realize.

And who couldn’t use a little more happiness in their life?