Notes from a Public Typewriter

img_4522Book: Notes from a Public Typewriter by Michael Gustafson

Date Read: March 30 to April 1, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

A few years ago, a group of Michigan independent bookstores came together for a project that I immediately fell in love with: the Michigan Booksellers tote, which featured a map of the state on one side and a list of bookstores on the other. The tote could be used for a 10% discount on books on your first visit to each of the stores, and seemed like a fun adventure. I am not sure if I was more excited for the excuse to travel to see each of the stores, or the excuse to add more books to my collection. Along the way, I decided that in addition to picking up any books I might be looking for at the time, I would also buy a staff recommended book from each of the stores as a sort of souvenir of my bookish traveling.

Along this journey, I stopped in the Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor at the beginning of March when I was there for work. As luck would have it, rather than a staff selected book, this bookstore had a book of its own! A fun and unique feature of Literati is the public typewriter in its basement. Over the years, the owners of the bookstore (Michael and Hilary Gustafson) have collected the notes left by their community, many of which were compiled to create this endearing book. The public notes are divided into several sections introduced by the storeowner, which serve to tell the story of the bookstore and the community that it serves.

I am so happy that I found it when I did. As I said, I bought this in early March, and then read it right at the end of the month—a little more than 2 weeks in to the quarantine in my state. This book highlights the unique connections that we have to those in our community, even when we do not know the individuals directly. I could not help but feel a little spark of magic and connectedness in a time when I really needed to experience that.

I’m sure some of this was influenced by the fact that Ann Arbor holds a bit of nostalgia for me. I grew up not far from there, and spent a fair amount of time in the city when I was in high school and college. The city is full of interesting sights, and a trip there was never complete with a stop at my favorite Borders Books. In his narrative pieces, Gustafson talks about the now defunct Borders, mentioning that Literati repurposed some of their original shelving. Although I was only there for a short time, I fell a little bit in love with Literati when I visited, and this book will hold a lovely piece of that on my shelves at home.

Boris’s Thoughts: “You feel good? I feel good. 4 paws.”

The Da Vinci Code

img_4905Book: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Date Read: June 9 to 30, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I admit that I am a little behind with this one. I was intrigued by the controversy when the movie came out, but that was when I was in college and not quite ready to commit to do a ton of extra reading for pleasure. So I saw the movie, and mentally shelved the book as to read. Fast forward a few years, I’m browsing deals on kindle books, and there it is: this book that I have been intending to read. Serendipity! I added it to my kindle shelf and continued to browse. That was almost 10 years ago now, and I am just now getting around to it, thanks to the June prompt from the Unread Shelf Project which told me to pick a book from a series.

Now here’s the thing: I do not own a ton of series books, and most of the ones I do own, I have already read. Despite my very lengthy to read list, I only had a couple to choose from; and I argued with myself about which of them should actually “count.” Does it still count as reading a book in a series if you have no intention of reading any of the other books in the series? Well… ultimately, with the coaxing of a friend, I decided yes. She insisted that the book was worth it, and that it worked as a standalone if I chose not to continue with the other books… and that I did not have to read the book that actually comes before it. Then she offered to lend me the rest of the series if needed. So here I am.

After all that went in to the decision to read this one, I am coming in right at the last moment to finish this within the month of June. I really feel there is no good excuse for that, since although this book is a bit lengthy, it is a relatively quick and easy read. While I will say that overall I enjoyed this read, I do find myself a bit conflicted. It’s obvious that this is written for mass appeal, and meant to be a fast paced page-turner. There are some aspects of this that feel meticulously researched; at the same time, I feel like we are getting a very surface level understanding of something that is part truth and part conspiracy theory. I enjoyed the idea of a scavenger hunt for the Holy Grail, and the concept behind the grail being Mary Magdalene. The ideas are definitely interesting, and some pieces potentially plausible, but the idea of taking this as fact is a bit far fetched.

There was one major issue here for me though: for being a novel purported to be about the sacred feminine, it is pretty anti-feminist. I imagine that much of this relates to the fact that it is a book in a series with a male protagonist, who needs to come through as the “star” of the show. At the same time, I felt myself quite frustrated with the treatment of Sophie’s character. Most obviously, Sophie is professional code breaker, and yet she needs the help of Langdon to figure out the most basic of codes left for her by her grandfather? Seems a little ridiculous. Throughout the novel, she’s primarily used as a plot device to allow for lengthy historical explanations. She could have been so much more.

As for the remainder of the series, I think I’m going to pass. I am not crazy about the trope of the brilliant leading man who continuously finds himself involved in conundrums where he is required to solve mysteries with a new beautiful woman who is obviously attracted to him. Does that seem oddly specific? Perhaps. I have no doubt that the remaining books in the series are entertaining—but I think that I will find my reading time used better elsewhere.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Are you sure this is a book? It doesn’t look like a book. It doesn’t taste like a book. Do I give paws if it’s not a book?”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 9 books, 1 found not previously counted
  • Total Unread Books: 262 books

Gift Horse

img_4872Book: Gift Horse: A Lakota Story by S. D. Nelson

If you have been following along with me for a while, you may remember that I have been making a habit of picking up books during my travels as souvenirs. I am working on collections for each state and country that I have visited. While I usually select novels, I could not pass up including a picture book this time as well. The newest addition to my picture book collection is a book that I picked up at the Wall Drug Store on a recent trip to South Dakota.

Gift Horse tells the story of a young Lakota boy’s journey to manhood, beginning with a horse that is given to him by his father. This coming of age story centers on Flying Cloud, a name given to the boy because of the cloud of dust kicked up behind his horse as he ran across the prairies. Flying Cloud tells about the rites of passage along the way to becoming a Lakota warrior, including many of the traditions and rituals that are important in the culture of the Lakota people.

Although a bit text heavy for young children, the pictures are striking and the story interesting. It provides a view into Lakota culture and explains the tribe’s relationship with nature in a way that is understandable for children. For example, he talks of hunting and thanking the buffalo for providing food and warm clothes, but also includes a tale devising a clever plan to collect the quills from a porcupine because he does not need to kill the animal to get what he needs. At the end of the book, the author includes some additional learning information to go along with the story.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Nice pictures, lots of animals. I approve. 4 paws.”

Penguins and Other Seabirds

img_3709Book: Penguins and Other Seabirds by Matt Sewell

Date Read: March 23 to 24, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

If you have been around Books On My Cat awhile, you may have noticed my affinity for penguins (especially when it comes to children’s literature). While this does not quite follow in that line, this charming little book would be a delight for penguin aficionado. It caught my eye in the discount section of a new bookstore I visited some time back, and I decided that it definitely needed a good home.

I read through this one quickly, as it is not really written to be a lengthy endeavor. It would make a nice “coffee table book”—something to set out and peruse at your leisure. The book is informational, but written much more casually than any sort of text or nature guide. There is a relatively short blurb for each bird, accompanied by a watercolor drawing. I definitely found the information shared to be interesting, but really enjoyed each of the drawings. They were well done and, well, delightful. Each was a simple and straightforward portrayal, although still managing to include a good amount of detail.

I would also like to share a laughable moment that I had while reading. As I mentioned, I thought the drawings were well done, and took note of several throughout. Midway through the book, I was a bit discouraged to find one that did not seem to be done so well: the Crested Auklet. It looked a bit like a cartoon character, with the beak bent into a sort of smile and eyes that seemed much too simplified. I decided that I needed to check out the actual bird for comparison, and to my surprise, the drawing had been spot on!

Minka’s Thoughts: “Do you think penguins would want to play with me? Maybe the hopper ones? Can we hop together? 4 paws if we can play!”

The Ice Queen

img_3455Book: The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Date Read: February 16 to March 2, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This was gifted to be by a friend who is a big fan of Alice Hoffman—and inadvertently ended up with two copies of this book on her shelf. I was not quite sure what to expect with this, as on the surface it did not appear to be the type of book that I would normally choose for myself. The back cover description makes it appear a sort of romance novel, with perhaps a slight peculiarity in that it focuses on lightning strike survivors. I will say that while there was definitely a romance element here, there was so much more than that.

The story is told in the first person, through the voice of a narrator who remains nameless throughout. She has a clear obsession with fate and death, stemming from an incident in her childhood: she wished her mother dead in anger, the same night that her mother was killed in a car accident. Since that night, she has focused her life on shutting out all emotional connection; turning herself into the Ice Queen from a fairly tale that she invented while coping with her mother’s death. Over the course of her life, she has built herself the perfect façade by going through the motions of what others expect from her, with no true emotional investment. She has convinced herself of her own power to wish ill will into the world, including a wish to be struck by lightning made in a desperate moment, just after she has agreed to move to Florida to live nearer to her brother.

After the lightning strike, she experiences many side effects, one which melds well with the icy persona she has created for herself—she can no longer see the color red. At her brother’s urging, she participates in a study of lightning strike survivors, where she meets the very limited number of acquaintances she has in Florida. This is also where she first hears rumors about the survivors that have refused to participate in the study: a man who survived multiple strikes, and chased researchers away from his home; a man who was declared dead, only to wake up nearly 40 minutes later and walk out of the hospital. She becomes fascinated with the idea of this man, referred to by others as Lazarus, seeking him out for what turns out to be an unusual love affair.

The narrator and Lazarus turn out to be an odd pair, the self proclaimed woman of ice involved with a man whose lightning strike side effects include an unusually high body temperature. Although she does not realize it at the onset, this relationship sparks the journey she needs to discover the meaning of love and cope with the losses in her past. For a time, she pushes all other things in her life aside in her obsession with Lazarus—tentative friendships, her job, her relationship with her brother. However, everything becomes blurred for her when she allows her curiosity to put the relationship at risk, simultaneously throwing her other poor relationship behaviors into the spotlight.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I always appreciate a book with a cat, but feel like she was not quite fair to the cat. 2 paws.”

100 Grumpy Animals

Before jumping into a book, I have a mini-announcement! For some time now, I have been posting picture books to start the month, and then wrapping up the month with an update on the Unread Shelf project. Starting with June, I am going to flip that. I was having some issues with my reading total numbers, since my USP project posts where I update these did not actually fall on the last day of the month. Going forward, I will wrap up the month with a children’s book, and then post for the Unread Shelf Project in the first week of the following month.

Since I already posted for the Unread Shelf Project for May last week, and I am pushing the children’s book back to the end of the month, I have this week a transition book:

img_4488Book: 100 Grumpy Animals by BeastFlaps

www.grumpyanimals.com

I woke up one morning to find this book on my doorstep. It was unexpectedly gifted from a mystery friend, and came to me “hot off the presses” – about a week after its publication on May 10, 2020. Why am I calling this a transition book for this month? Well, it does follow my usual habit of posting picture books on the first week of the month, but unlike my usual picture books, this one is not quite intended for children.

This is a collection of single-panel style comics, many of which were originally featured on the BeastFlaps Instagram account (link above). Each page features a cartoon animal, with a reason that it is grumpy, ranging from a cheetah who can never prosper to a woodpecker who feels like he’s just banging his head against the wall. Along the way, there are a few mildly inappropriate inclusions—nothing I would call offensive, but enough to say that this is not a picture book intended for the kids. Of course, many are spot on: I have certainly encountered more than a couple geese that were saying “honk honk mothercluckers!”

It was definitely good for a few pun-ny laughs, as well as some clever comments based on each animal’s characteristics. At the end of the book, there is a list of notes for anyone who may not have “gotten” some of the cartoons. There’s a nice spot on my shelf for it to join its kindred spirits: All My Friends Are Dead and I Could Pee On This; among others, of course.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I was napping, you know. I am grumpy animal 101. 1 paw.”

Noir

img_4487Book: Noir by Christopher Moore

Date Read: May 1 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

In May, the Unread Shelf Project challenged everyone to read a “backlist” title from their shelves. I had to put a little work into this one, because that is honestly not something that I usually track. I have some obvious new(er) release books, but often buy based on recommendations, so do not always end up with the latest that is out there. While I was debating the best way to choose a title, I received a notification that a book I had pre-ordered awhile back would be out this month—which reminded me that I had never gotten to this author’s previous release! Serendipity.

I am going to start out by admitting a slight bias: I really enjoy this author. His writing has a unique combination of humor, intelligence, and absurdity that I love. I was intrigued by the idea of a noir novel, although I confess that I only really have a general idea of what makes something “noir.” Throughout reading, I felt that this became clearer to me, and I think it was done well—although I’m not familiar with noir literature, this definitely had the feeling of film noir, and I could picture scenes on a movie screen in black and white.

Appropriately, it all begins when a dame walks into a bar. From there, we end up with a fair amount of scene setting: a slew of characters, and several possibilities of where the story many be going. Everyone seems to be “working an angle,” and although there was some general predictability, the pieces come together interestingly. We have the girl who we know is going to be trouble for the leading man Sammy, and then a mystery when she disappears. The story is told from a double perspective, sometimes first person by Sammy and sometimes from the perspective of an unknown narrator. Early on, the second narrator mentions that he is part of the story, but will not reveal himself yet.

The first two thirds or so of this novel were a nice set up to the main plot and problem of the narrative. There were several pieces included that seemed secondary to the plot, but were woven in nicely to the conclusion. It was a bit different from what I usually expect from Moore: while it was definitely his brand of humor, there was less outright absurdity than I have come to expect. Not a bad thing of course, just something a bit different. Of course, Moore came through with just the right touch of lunacy to round things out in the end, including the revelation of the secretive second narrator.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not approve of how this book talks about cats. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for May

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 253
  • Also: 1 book unshelved, removed 1 book double counted, 1 book started

Dead is the New Black

img_4346Book: Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez

Date Read: December 9 to 17, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I read this back in December, as part of a mad rush to finish as many books as possible by the end of the year. This was a book that I had gotten as a daily deal on Kindle quite some time ago, and it was the perfect fit for a reading spree: short and something that does not require a ton of mental energy.

This supernatural detective novel is written as if it were realistic fiction. There is no real world building here—this book takes place in a normal town in California, just with the understanding that fictional creatures like werewolves and vampires are real. Our protagonist, Daisy Giordano, is the daughter of a psychic who is known to assist the local police. Her sisters have similar abilities, but Daisy reports herself to be a “normal.” Daisy is determined to help her mother solve a case that she is stuck on: all while navigating life as a high school student. There is high school romance, girl drama, cheerleaders, and every other young adult cliché you can think of.

Despite the clichés, I thought this was well done for what it is. The story was interesting, the writing reasonable. There were a few predictable developments, but also some surprises along the way. I discovered while reading that this is the first book in a series, and while I did enjoy this first book, it is not something that I feel I need to run out and read the rest. That said, I am happy to report that this was serviceable as a standalone novel. I can definitely see where there is room left open for further development with the characters, but the main plot of the story is wrapped up well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Cheerleaders and girl drama? Can’t you make the new cat read these ones from now on? 1 paw.”

Harbor Me

img_3633Book: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Date Read: March 19 to 21, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Every year, I make an effort to read the book that is chosen for the One Book, One City program in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grand Rapids Public Library partner on the project that provides a copy of the book to all 5th grade students in the city, as well as classroom resources for teachers and an online community for students to participate in. The program makes an effort to choose diverse books, and books that lend themselves to engagement and discussion from students. Honestly, they have outdone themselves with their choice for 2020.

Unlike previous years, I almost missed my opportunity to read this book. In the past, we have received at least one additional copy of the book that I have been able to borrow from the librarian. However, this year we only received exactly the number we needed for students and classroom staff. I was disappointed, but heard talk around the school: this was shaping up to be the best year yet for the program. Students were connecting with the book in ways that they have not in the past; classrooms were having open and honest discussions about real issues, initiated and lead by students. And then—COVID-19 reached our state. Within days, schools were shut down and teachers were left lamenting the cancellation of their wonderful plans. Me being the optimist, I am trying to be grateful for the fact that the school closures landed an abandoned copy of the book in my hands before I headed home.

The story focuses on six students from different backgrounds, who are all in the same small class at school. One Friday afternoon, their teacher takes them to an empty classroom, and leaves them to use the space to talk to each other without direction or interference from adults. Over time, each of the students opens up to their friends, as they start to recognize that although they are each living their own stories, their lives overlap with the stories of others. Although there are a couple ongoing storylines, this book is not heavily plot driven—the focus is more on the feeling and memories associated with a group of friends.

While I think I would have enjoyed this one any time, I think the time that this book fell into my hands amplified how I felt about it. There is an immense sense of community here; a sense of recognizing oneself as a part of something larger. At the same time, there is a recognition of each individual’s one story: a realization that everyone around us is living a life full of its own complications, and while we may be center stage in our own minds, we may only be a background character in the life of someone else. In a time of solidarity through solitude, I find something comforting about this.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I’m center stage in your mind though, right? 3 paws.”

Extra Yarn

img_4077Book: Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett

A few years ago, a group came to my school to read a book to all of the First Grade students. They really hyped up the guest coming to read to them, and then when the story was over, each student received a copy of the book to take home with them. This was that book, and such a lovely choice for a project like that!

Annabelle is walking outside one day in her cold, grey town, when she finds a box of brightly colored yarn. She makes herself a sweater, but finds that she still has extra yarn. So she makes a sweater for her dog. And then she makes one for her friend. And eventually there are sweaters for the whole town. She seems to always have some extra yarn to make something for someone. That is, until the evil archduke comes to town demanding that she sell him her box of yarn. When she refuses, he steals the box and runs away. Unfortunately for him, when he returns to his castle he finds that there is no yarn in the box for him!

This is a great book for a younger age group. The text is fairly easy without a ton of words on each page, and the story is easy to follow. The pictures are simple, yet interesting: most illustrations are a watercolor mixture of blacks and browns on a white background, with some bright contrast for the rainbow of colors in Annabelle’s yarn. This is a cute, simple story is pretty straightforward story about kindness. There is a clear “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic, with a victory for good without a ton of conflict. Annabelle is able to continuously give to others from her magic box of yarn, but there is no yarn left for the selfish archduke who wants it all for himself. I’m sure if he had asked nicely for a sweater, she would have made him one. But I suppose that was not likely to happen—who makes a better villain than an archduke anyway?

Minka’s Thoughts: “Do you think she would make me a sweater to play with? 3 paws.”