December Reading Theme: It’s a Winner!

The December theme is Prize-Winning Books. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this theme; in fact it’s the fourth. But I’m particularly excited about it this year because I’ve taken a new approach.

In the past, I researched awards and went through lists to see which books I might have on my shelves (or, perhaps, venture to buy or get from the library). This year, I turned that approach on its head. Instead of searching award winners, I searched the books on my shelves that I really want to read, and then checked to see if they had won any awards. Total score!

Well, not total. But a lot. More than half. What this means is that I’m pretty much looking at the cream of my crop for books this month. I dived head first into this theme on November 30, as I was ready to leave Taste (the November theme) behind. My first pick (and the first book I checked out online for a possible literary award) was No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (winner of the PEN America Literary Award). These are short essays, and they warm my heart. I keep reading one more and one more, and I’m about a third through the book already.

For fiction, I chose Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor (winner of the Locus Award, the Lodestar Award, and the World Science Fiction Society Award for Best YA Book). Note, this is the second in a series and the third is not yet published. However, if this is like the first (Akata Witch), it will have a satisfactory conclusion rather than a cliffhanger. I’m about three-quarters through this compelling book (nearly 500 pages). It’s fantasy and takes place in Nigeria. I’m loving it.

For poetry, I’m reading Billboard in the Clouds, by Suzanne S. Rancourt (winner of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas First Book Award). I’ve made good progress on this, also—nearly half done.

I have a feeling this is going to be a Really Good reading month.

Other top-of-the-line nonfiction: Call Them By Their Real Names, by Rebecca Solnit (Kirkus Prize for nonfiction), Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, by Peter Kalmus (Nautilus Book Award), Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss (James Beard Award), Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life, by David Treuer (winner of the Minnesota Book Award).

The Minnesota Book Award was quite lucrative in terms of my shelves. I also have The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang; and Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year, by Linda LeGarde Grover.

My fiction stack is even taller. Highlights: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (Orange Prize), An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones (Women’s prize for fiction, Aspen Words Literary Prize), Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (Akutagawa Prize), Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas (Oregon Book Award), Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (National Book Critics Circle Award), and that skims the surface. (I haven’t even looked at mysteries, except to find out that my next Louise Penny book has won at least one award. I feel like I’m in heaven.)

My poetry stack is not so high, but I haven’t pushed that one so much. Next up is You Won’t Remember This, by Michael Dennis Browne (thank you again, Minnesota Book Award). I didn’t read any poetry at all for the November theme, so I don’t want to push it. I do have The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (National Book Award), and that would make a fine December read.

So glad this month has 31 days. Happy reading!

On Books You Hate, and Ways of Hating Books (for book nerds only)

It is not often that I hate a book, and I was pretty sure I had a good handle on the kind of books I have learned to avoid—generations-long family sagas (where you have to develop a family tree to keep track of things), books with overt sexual violence, books with gratuitous sexual violence, and books set in Ireland (no idea where that comes from, but I also tend to avoid books set in Australia—probably I should read more books in these two geographic areas, and suggestions are welcome).

The sexual violence pretty much explains itself. The long sagas—well, I think you love them or hate them. Ireland and Australia (my aversion)—I don’t quite get that. I’d sooner visit them than read about them, and that is hugely strange to me. But there you have it: If I pick up a book (especially a novel) set in either place, I immediately put it down. It could make one wonder about past lives, but I’m not going down that road.

Instead, I’ll mention two novels I read this month that I hated. I rarely hate books, and it is exceptionally rare for me to hate two books in such a short time span. Rarer still is that they have very similar structures, and I realize that I think it’s the structure that I hate, rather than the books themselves.

The two books are quite different: Umami, by Laia Jufresa; and The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, by Sarah Braunstein. Note: Do not read the penultimate paragraph of this post if you intend to read either book, as it contains a spoiler.

But the structures are similar: Umami has four parts. Each part usually with five chapters, told from different perspectives, and they always go backwards in time, a year for each chapter. By the time I got to the next part of the book, I had lost the thread of the previous several narrators. Going backwards in time only confounded things for me. It wasn’t always clear whose perspective I was hearing (I’m moderately sure they went in order, chronologically, backwards, but I didn’t go back to check because overall, I found it jarring and annoying and I didn’t care enough).

This was top of mind, this confusion of switching perspectives from chapter to chapter, when I started The Sweet Relief of Missing Children. I read a few chapters, I looked ahead, it seemed cohesive. I proceeded.

It had five parts. Again, the perspective changed with every chapter. The characters were hard to keep track of, time is fluid, and by the end of the book, I didn’t even care about Leonora (basically the star character) because she ends up taking just a very few pages in each part. Despite my initial caution, I had jumped into another disjointed book.

And what I realize, after reading two such different and yet similar books within a couple weeks of each other, is that both of the books change perspectives in ways that make you work to figure out whose perspective you’re hearing.

How many times did I page back though each book to figure out who was who? Who is narrating? Who’s mother-child-neighbor-friend was Goldie? How do these threads tie together?

For both books, by the time I got about halfway through, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about going backward in time, I didn’t care about Goldie, and I didn’t care about Ana’s neighbors. But I was halfway through before I realized I totally didn’t care (and was a bit annoyed to boot) so I slogged through. I just don’t want to work this hard to read a book that I can’t even figure out what it’s trying to say. They both feel like an annoying waste of time.

Also: Both books hinge on dead people, which is to say dead young women, actually girls, in particular. And this annoys me even more. I am tired of dead young women as tropes.

Has anyone out there had a similar experience? Books you’ve hated? Themes that get repeated to an annoying pitch? What have you hated and why?

The Taste of Books

November’s reading theme is Taste (as in sweet, bitter, sour, salty, umami). I don’t have a huge pile for this theme, but I have a few major winners (at least in terms of theme fit). For fiction, I’ve found Umami, by Laia Jufresa; Sourdough, by Robin Sloan; Bitter Sweets, by Roopa Farooki; Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile; and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford.

In nonfiction, I have Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss; Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat; and Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A short but very rich list.

Poetry was a major bust. My best contenders: Sesame, by Jack Marshall; and Wise Poison, by David Rivard. I had Pinion, by Claudia Emerson, until I realized I was thinking of pinyon. I may still read Pinion. I’m that desperate.

I’ll certainly go further afield than the five specific tastes mentioned above. I’ve already finished The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, by Phaedra Patrick. I also have Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell; and Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde for back-up fiction. In nonfiction, I have Honey From Stone, by Chet Raymo; and Lion’s Honey, by David Grossman.

Whoa! I just went to put some of those books back on the bookshelf, and what should I happen to notice but Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, right there big as life (hardcover, no less) on the to-read shelf. How in the world did I miss that in my initial sweep?

Still, I think Something Rotten might be my next fiction read (after Bitter Sweets, which I’m about one-quarter through and quite enjoying). I haven’t read Jasper Fforde in years, and I think I’m ready to visit his wacky literary world again (this is the fourth in his Thursday Next series, and I loved the first three).

Next month’s theme is Prize Winners. Yes, it’s early to be thinking about next month’s theme, but I’ve exhausted my search in Taste. (Despite having overlooked Sweet Tooth, I am not going to review the entire collection for other misses—far too tedious! Much more fun to look forward.) This is the fourth time we’ve done the prize winner theme, and I’ve turned my methodology on its head this year. Previously, I’d check the awards lists—Pulitzer, National Book Award, Book Critics Circle, Man-Booker, Lambda, Tiptree, Hugo, Nebula, Edgar (there are so very many) etc. Then I’d check my shelves to see which of those I had (I remember a lot of the books I have, but not all of them).

But this year, I’m just looking at my shelves, and saying: What have I been wanting to read, but not yet gotten around to? And then I check it online to see if it’s won an award. Well. What a great idea! The very first book I checked had won an award. I’ve been running about 50/50, with half of the books I check having won an award (state awards are a great boon).

I do love playing with books.

Happy reading!

Magazine Madness

I’ve never been good at keeping up with my magazines, but about two years ago I seemed to mostly stop reading them altogether, without ending my subscriptions. Well, you might know trouble lies there.

Just recycle the lot of them, maybe keeping the newest issue of each, I hear you say. A good strategy, which worked with exactly one magazine that I found worthless (only a one-year subscription, thank goodness), and old poetry magazines that I subscribed to specifically to find out about new poetry.

It all came to a head when I was looking for a particular magazine which caused me to have to upset the precarious balance of all the magazines piled on top of my seriously overflowing magazine rack. This stack went on my chair, awaiting . . . something. After three days of not sitting in my chair, I hauled the stack to the rack and started sorting. I arranged chronologically by magazine, oldest to newest. I figured I’d read the oldest ones really fast, and slow down as I progressed. I have six magazines I can’t part with without at least glancing through: Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country, Mother Earth Living, Orion, Yes!, and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

But as I finished organizing, I thought—wouldn’t I rather read all the October issues of my cooking magazines now? When they’re talking about fall foods and recipes? Why, yes. And doesn’t the same hold true for Mother Earth Living, with the seasons and such? And certainly the Conservation Volunteer is seasonal.

Fruit basket upset! Clearly the best way to get through the magazines is seasonally, rather than some vague start with the oldest magazines and read fast sort of approach. Granted, this way it takes a year (maybe), but at least, if I stick to it, I will be caught up in a year. This is a pretty good deal to me, since the tower has been building for a few years now (I decreased magazine reading several years before stopping altogether). So I went through and reorganized the magazines by month/season.

I love it, and I’m having great success!  I started the project just one week ago, and I’ve gotten through about 20 magazines. I have all the October magazines done, as well as all the Autumn issues. I have started on November. Actually, I have a good chunk of November done, because one of the cooking magazines is October-November. As such, I read three November cooking magazines in a row. I got a lot of Thanksgiving cooking tips, and was able to do a lot of quick page flipping because how many articles do you need to read about roasting a turkey for a large crowd when you usually go out on Thanksgiving?

I have even made a spreadsheet to track my progress, with the months and seasons in the left column and the six magazines across the top. It’s nice to see two entire rows (October, fall) already completed. I like to see progress this way. When I feel the magazines are still so many, I can look and see how much I’ve already done. If I finish November early, I might read a July issue of something—sort of a vacation. In this way, I think I might get the project done in less than a year.

This is not a solution that will appeal to everyone. But if your magazines are overflowing and you truly can’t part with them, this might be the perfect approach for you. It’s certainly working for me! I love really sinking into the season across the magazines. I love that I’m honoring each magazine by looking at every page, finding good recipes, poems, ideas for saving the world, and beautiful pictures to send to friends. I also love that I’m finally doing this, after continuing to add magazine after magazine to the tippy tower. I love that already the magazines seem manageable instead of overwhelming.

This will be a good New Year’s resolution–finishing the magazines (preferably earlier than later, but no later than end of September).

Fall. It makes me plan ahead. My favorite season.

Happy autumn!

Pronouns, She Said

The October reading theme is pronouns (e.g., he, she, they, we, me, I, us, etc.). This is a great theme, rich in possibilities. Unfortunately, I’ve been otherwise committed to library books and reading groups and haven’t yet made much progress.

I have finished one book, I Still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg. The book was fine, but Fannie Flagg is in a difficult position with me, because Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is one of my favorite books (the movie is good too, but not so good as the book), and now every time I read Fannie Flagg, it’s no Fried Green Tomatoes. However, I Still Dream About You did have Flagg’s signature humor, and I would add that she’s in fine form on that count in this book. There were at least four times I started laughing so, I had to stop reading. Not a tee-hee or under your breath heh-heh, but neither a guffaw. Rather, a long chuckle that’s almost a giggle. A chuggle?  Not many books make me laugh out loud, much less invent a new word, so I’d have to say I Still Dream About You was definitely worth my time.

Currently in progress: So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. I’m reading this to discuss with Sheila, and while I’m not far into it, I can tell I’m going to learn a lot (of course what I don’t know about race is immense, so that isn’t difficult). I kind of think it might change the way I think about race (as of p. 33).  I’m also reading Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right, by Ken Stern (part of my ongoing effort to understand and help bridge the partisan divide).

In poetry, I’m reading You and Yours, by Naomi Shihab Nye. I recently loved her book The Tiny Journalist and am appreciating You and Yours as well.

I only finished Fannie Flagg a couple of days ago and have yet to pick up a new novel. Top contenders (as of this moment; it will be different by the time you read this):

  • Sister of My Heart, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • The Love of My Youth, Mary Gordon
  • Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Why She Left Us, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

One of the best things about the reading theme is that it brings to my attention books that have been on my to-read shelf for years. The above books have been patiently waiting for 18 years, 12 years, 6 years, and 15 years, respectively. Before I started the reading theme, I mostly read the books I had most recently purchased. And since I purchased more than I read, a lot of the books over the years have gone unread. (I happily have my problem under control now and purchase far fewer books than I read.)

Back to pronouns. Other books I’m looking at for nonfiction (the elite of the moment):

  • Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit
  • Through No Fault of My Own, Coco Irvine
  • Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly
  • This Much I Can Tell You: Stories of Courage and Hope from Refugees in Minnesota, compiled by Minnesota Council of Churches and Refugee Services
  • I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl

Of these, I’m most interested in Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Voices. This book isn’t a diatribe but a broad look at how women are allowed to express (or more often, repress) their anger, complete with more than 60 pages of notes and an index. Even as a woman who has experienced this, I think it will be eye opening.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the most recently purchased book of the bunch, having been in the house a mere two months. The Solnit is relatively new, at 1 year. Irvine has been around 4 years, and the Refugees for 8. Hampl is the outlier here: I’ve had this since 2003. I’ve read many of her other books since, but still not this one. Perhaps this month?

Poetry at the top of the pile:

  • The Way She Told Her Story, Diane Jarvenpa
  • They Tell Me You Danced, Irene Willis
  • I Think of Our Lives, Richard Fein
  • The Girl with Bees in Her Hair, Eleanor Rand Wilner
  • Combing the Snakes from His Hair, James Thomas Stevens

Here there is no question, Jarvenpa will be next. She’s local, and I’ve already read several of her books of poetry, usually focused on nature. She’s also a musician (in the name Diane Jarvi, and in fact she sang at our wedding 12 years ago, so I’m a little biased).

And I will admit the only reason I included the last two poetry books is that I love the titles, most especially one above the other. It’s tempting to shelve those two together, even though I’m obsessive about alphabetizing my poetry. And for those of you that are interested in such things, I’ve had these books for 1, 13, 14, 11, and 13 years, respectively.

We’re in one of my favorite times of year, autumn—so beautiful. Yesterday we drove across the Mississippi, and the leaves in the river valley are seriously starting to change. Gorgeous, even on a cloudy day. On a sunny day it will be stunning.

Happy reading to you all—enjoy the fall!

September Reading Theme: Literary Forms

Being a little late to the gate with this post, I already have several books under my belt for this month’s theme:

  • Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, Roselle Lim (fiction)
  • Sleeping With the Dictionary, Harryette Mullen (poetry)
  • Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman (fiction)
  • Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman (nonfiction)
  • The Tiny Journalist, Naomi Shihab Nye (poetry)
  • Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney
  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays, Amy Meyerson (fiction)

There are no dogs in the above list, and I’m not going to comment beyond that except to call out The Tiny Journalist, by Naomi Shihab Nye, a poetry book I loved. I don’t think people read enough poetry. I find poetry to be akin to meditation in some way. I’m not quite sure how to equate them, except that meditation can pull me out of workaday, and poetry takes me out of my everyday reading. In both cases, they are special spaces. Perhaps not quite sacred space, but close to. In-between places, I think of them. Neither quite one nor the other.

Back to literary forms. This is such a rich theme, so many to choose from. Currently at the top of the fiction list (this can change on a dime):

  • A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
  • The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry
  • History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund
  • The Reader, Traci Chee

In the nonfiction realm, I’ve just started The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith. I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I certainly agree with one of her major premises, that animals are a vital part of a natural ecological cycle on a farm. But I don’t feel a need to convince vegetarians of this. Vegetarians have a much smaller carbon footprint compared to us meat eaters, and I respect that.

Other contenders for nonfiction:

  • True Notebooks, Mark Salzman
  • Monsoon Diary, Shoba Narayan
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Briana Karp
  • I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Grace Jones

The Grace Jones book was at the top of my list, but I got it in paperback. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I hadn’t originally seen it in hardcover, with all those full-color pictures. The pictures in this book are black and white and of grainy character. I want to read it, but I want the experience I had when I first saw the hardcover. So, I guess I will track down the hardcover. Grainy black and white just does not do Grace Jones justice.

Last month’s theme was Women (in any form or reference). I read a lady, a huntress, a bride, Hagar, Invisible Women, a sister, more women, a mistress, a mother, a girl, Lumberjanes, and Sappho. A very good month for women.

Happy reading!

August Is for Reading Women

The reading theme for August is Women. This is such a fun theme (a repeat from last year—that’s how much we enjoyed it): any reference to a female in the title is all that’s required, common as well as proper nouns, and even pronouns. Broad. (Did I mention fun?)

I have been heavy on fiction in this first part of the month—so far I’ve read The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler; The Handmaid’s Tale (graphic novel version—so fun), Margaret Atwood; Huntress, Malinda Lo; The Bride Test, Helen Hoang (loved this); and Hagar Poems, Mohja Kahf, which I also loved.

I do have some nonfiction in progress, though. My main focus has been Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez (it’s very informative and quite depressing); Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson (I am not far in, but so far I’ve loved every page); and The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible, Joan Chittister.

We’re not even halfway through the month, so plenty of time to get in a few more women. I’m just starting Mother Love, Rita Dove, as my next poetry book (this is a reread; I loved it when I first read it many years ago). I’m pretty sure my next fiction book is going to be My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite. But until I actually start it, you never know.

Additional fiction I’d like to read for this theme:

  • Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile
  • The Fate of Katherine Carr, Thomas H. Cook
  • The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  • The Alice Network, Kate Quinn
  • The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen, Katherine Howe

I can’t imagine I’ll get more than two or maybe three more read yet this month. So hard to choose. I want to read them all.

I have a similar problem with nonfiction. I would like to read all of these this month:

  • You Play the Girl, Carina Chocano
  • The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy, Peggy Caravantes
  • The Black Girl Next Door, Jennifer Baszile
  • The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp
  • Give a Girl a Knife, Amy Thielen
  • The Crone, Barbara G. Walker

The Crone would be a reread for me. I thought I needed a crone in there to balance out all those girls. I loved it when I read it in the 1990s. I wonder if it would still strike a chord, now that I’m so much closer to cronehood?

Last month’s theme was water. Just listing the titles is kind of fun: Dragons in the Waters, Daughters of the Lake, Skinny Dipping, Watership Down, Wade in the Water, The Arm of the Starfish, River, Waterborne.

This is turning out to be a very good reading summer. I hope you are finding yours equally enjoyable.

Happy reading!