A Bad Case of Stripes

img_5693Book: A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon

Camilla Creams loved lima beans. Of course, she was much too afraid to admit that to any of her friends. Everyone else thinks they are gross, and she wants so much to fit in. The trouble all starts when she is picking out her clothes for the first day of school—so worried about impressing her friends. When she finally looks at herself in the mirror, she is shocked to see herself covered in stripes! First her parents called in the Doctors, then the Specialists, and eventually the Experts; but nobody could figure out what the problem was, and things only seemed to be getting worse.

I really enjoy the combination of silliness and seriousness used here. The story is presented matter-of-factly, despite the obvious absurdity of a girl suddenly coming down with stripes. It’s a perfect attention grabber for the lesson here: it is perfectly okay to be yourself. Camilla’s affliction of stripes, spots, roots, and all else is tied to what everyone else expects from her, but the cure comes when she is able to admit what she worries everyone will think makes her weird. Turns out, the real her was in there all long just waiting to come out.

The reading level on this is a little higher for a picture book, although the text length does vary a bit from page to page. This could be a good choice to practice reading switching off between an adult and child. It is a good length for a read-aloud as well, and the colorful and interesting pictures make it a good fit for kids a bit younger too. There are tons of details to point out or ask about throughout the story, adding to the fun.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Excuse me? Is there something wrong with stripes? 1 paw.”

Post Secret

img_5165Book: Post Secret by Frank Warren

Date Read: July 8 to 10, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I cannot remember when I first discovered Post Secret, but I suspect that it was sometime around 2011 or 2012. I remember the Sunday routine of checking the website while living in my first apartment, but I am not sure if the routine started there or was perhaps solidified during that time. I do have one other Post Secret book, which I bought on a whim around the same time, but have not really been a follower of the books. This one was gifted to me by a friend who said it seemed like my kind of thing—not realizing that it was something that I follow regularly.

This is the original Post Secret book, published in 2005 when the project was not quite a year old. It is a little funny to me, thinking about this coming out 15 years ago, so soon after the project started, at a time that I imagine nobody had the faintest idea of what the project would become. While I know there is little evidence that would support the therapeutic value of sharing a secret with strangers, especially when it is done anonymously, I think there is more to Post Secret than that. Certainly, I think the sharing of a secret this way could be a jumping off point for some, but I think the community that has built up around the project is far more significant. Over the years that I have followed, I have seen huge community responses of support related to particular secrets, and I think there is a general feeling of connectedness to others when we realize that we are not alone in our peculiarities.

In some ways, the book is no different that reading secrets on the website. The secrets are arranged mostly in groups of four, although there are some that are printed larger. The book does contain some book-exclusive secrets, as well as some older secrets that I had not seen previously. However, I would have difficulty pinpointing which exactly these were. At the same time, it feels like something special to be physically holding this collection of secrets in your hands. It is nice to have something tangible to go along with something that I have primarily experienced through technology and the internet, and makes me feel a little more grounded. Although, perhaps that is just one of my personal peculiarities.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I think I like it better when you read this on the internet. This version is awful heavy. 2 paws.”

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

img_5275Book: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Date Read: July 13 to 21, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was gifted to me earlier this year. My friend told me that she knows it is not the kind of book that I would normally choose for myself, but that it was cute, fun, and light—something that we could all use a little more of this year. I always feel just a slight pressure to move gifted books up on my to read list, but I try to balance that with the commitments I have made to the books already waiting on my shelves. The timing worked out for this one, since I really needed something easy after a couple heavier reads earlier this summer.

Nina works in a bookstore and is comfortable living alone with her cat. She has a routine that she likes to stick to, although perhaps a little more strictly than most. She values the things that she has planned into her life, and is reluctant to make changes. I think she is a character that all true bookworms can relate to on some level, despite her unusual background raised in hotel rooms and then by a nanny in place of her mother.

This is a romantic comedy in the form of a book. Is that its own genre? I am not well versed in this area. I usually think of romantic comedies as movies, and am more familiar with the generic “romance novel.” I am not sure this quite hits the mark there either. So after my rambling, I’m sticking with romantic comedy. The main plot is a dual storyline that fits well with the genre: Nina sees the potential for a relationship with a guy from a rival trivia team, but things get complicated when she also learns that her absent father has died and included her in his will… also connecting her to a complicated network of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews that she never knew existed. Things get messy.

It is also a book for bookworms, full of bookish references and other nerdy tidbits. There is definitely an element of predictability, but I felt the author was at least clever and a bit tongue-in-cheek about it: near the middle of the book a character even suggests how the story is going to end, saying “that’s how it happens in the movies.”

Waxman pokes fun at the trendiness of Nina’s neighborhood, full of hipsters and activists, with their competing specialty ice cream shops and quirky stores. It is the sort of joke that I appreciate and make myself—even though I know that it probably applies to me as well! One of the reviews included with my copy of the book refers to Waxman as a “modern day Jane Austen,” which I find very intriguing. Although I have added Austen onto my to read list, I have never actually read any of her work. Drawing a parallel between these authors makes me wonder if it is time for me to give Austen a chance.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Cute, fun, and light—just like me! Also stars a cat! 4 paws!”

Good Omens

Book: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Date Read: August 3 to 24, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Another month complete for 2020’s Unread Shelf Project! August was the month for buddy reading, and I did the best I could: my buddy, who chose the book, also finished it the day that I started it. I suppose I should have known better than to buddy read something with someone who aims for 100+ pages per day. For us, it was more so an easy way to choose our next book rather than an opportunity to read and discuss—although we did manage to get a bit of that in. My reading buddy is the only person that I know personally who has “to read” list longer than mine, so I suppose this one was good for both of us. We even got the cats in on this one, with her boy Rahl reading alongside Boris!

Where to begin? This is a book that I very much enjoyed, and definitely will be putting on my shelf to revisit one day. Oddly enough, these are often the very books that I have the hardest time articulating my feelings on. Good Omens was full of moments hilarity, but also included some poignant social commentary. Although originally published 30 years ago, much of the themes have held up over the years—perhaps this is more of a sad reflection on the state of the world than a compliment to the book. I especially liked the accusations of the aliens that humans could be charged with being “a dominant species while under the influence of impulse-driven consumerism.” And of course, on a day-to-day basis I cannot be sure that the apocalypse won’t be brought on by bureaucratic incompetence.

Continuing on perhaps a deeper level of the book, I also really enjoyed the discussion of good and evil as opposing sides. While it is certainly not a black and white issue, I think the point of the contrast is important—early in the book Crowley puts it well when he says that heaven and hell are merely “sides in the great cosmic chess game.” The truth behind real good and evil comes from within humanity.

I have always had a fascination with religion as a construct, although I do not specifically align myself to any particular set of beliefs. I know some of many religions, although am admittedly most familiar with the tenets of Christianity. I appreciated the inclusion of true bits of religion, along with some humorous twists. I thought the inclusion of the horsemen of the apocalypse as semi-human characters was interesting, especially the replacement of Pestilence with Pollution after too many advances in medicine.

Overall, I was very much impressed with the writing here. I have read a few works by Gaiman, but am not at all familiar with Pratchett. Having some experience with one of the authors’ writing, I thought it would be obvious which parts seemed “different,” but it was so seamless that I would never suspect that this was a co-authored book. The edition that I have includes some information on the writing process, which sounds like the authors mostly were having some fun and being silly most of the time. I suppose this is an appropriate place to comment on the humor, which I must admit sometimes evaded me. It is not too surprising that, as an American reader, I would feel like I do not quite get all of the jokes—however there is something that I appreciate about what I consider the British style of humor.

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is all a bit ridiculous, don’t you think? Obviously cats would have a much larger role in the end of time. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for August

  • Books Read: 1
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 263

Dinotrux

img_5525Book: Dinotrux by Chris Gall

For this month’s children’s book, I decided to stray a little from my typical choices in this area. Generally speaking, I like to feature some of the fun picture books in my school library, as well as some of the books on my own shelves that I consider to be children’s “classics.” This month is a tribute to my cool nephew Clint, with the book that I picked out for his birthday: Dinotrux. What an amazing combination, isn’t it? I know my nephew is not alone in his love for dinosaurs. With my brother’s job in trucking and frequent renovation projects, he is certainly no stranger to trucks and other large equipment. While I did choose this book with a specific kid in mind, I think there is a pretty wide appeal among children for a dinosaur and truck crossover book.

Millions of years ago, prehistoric trucks roamed the earth… Unlike trucks today, these trucks were mostly troublemakers. We are given a tour of prehistoric earth with introductions to all of the truck-dino combinations, such as the hungry Craneosaurus with his head in the trees and the Dozeratops pushing trees and boulders around. The illustrations give us some extra ideas about all the trouble these trucks caused for prehistoric man. I think my favorite were the sleepy Deliveradons, reminiscent of the brown UPS delivery trucks.

Both kids and adults can get a good laugh from this fun book. I am not quite going to predict that this will end up on anyone’s list of classic children’s literature, but I am pretty confident that my nephew is going to love it. He is four, after all, and when you’re four, what more do you need than dinosaurs and trucks?

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think… I would like to be one of these when I grow up. 3 paws.”

Everything Is Illuminated

img_4360Book: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Date Read: May 17 to June 9, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I have been sitting in front of my keyboard for several minutes thinking about how exactly I would like to start this review, but nothing quite feels right. I suppose I should say that I really wanted to like this book. In some ways I did, but it is sitting heavier with me than I was expecting. Parts of this were beautifully crafted; other parts were cleverly crafted. It all comes together into something that is sometimes tragically beautiful and sometimes irritatingly painful to read.

The premise of the story, as indicated in the back cover summary, is that this is the story of a young man who is visiting Europe, hoping to find the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. This is a vast oversimplification. There are actually three different stories here, told in an alternating fashion between characters: Jonathan, the young American searching for the past, writes the story of his grandfather’s town and his family’s past; Alex, the young man who served as his guide and Ukrainian translator, writes letters to Jonathan to tell of his family, also sending along his own writings about their journey.

Through each of these stories we are given glimpses into the past, both charming and horrifying. The story of Jonathan’s family ends with a chance escape, but we hear the heartbreaking fate of his town through the woman they encounter while searching for the long forgotten town. We also hear first hand the experience of Alex’s grandfather, who still felt the misfortune of the Nazi invasion despite not being one of the targeted Jewish people. His guilt in the aftermath felt a bit close to home with the current state of affairs. These two stories of the past have a somewhat listless ending. While the stories draw to a definite end, there is no satisfaction for finding their conclusion. The story of Alex’s family has a more satisfying, although still tragic, ending with Alex giving up his dreams for what he knows to be the right thing for his family.

I had a hard time getting into this book, partially because the style of some sections were difficult to read. I understand the use of the broken English for parts of the story, but I felt like it was overdone. It was an important aspect of the story for some things to be written like this, but it was often unnecessarily crude. While the structure of the novel was unique and often interesting, there was an underlying feeling that the author might be trying a bit too hard to come off as clever.

Despite my personal qualms with the style, the themes of truth, responsibility, and tragedy here are undeniable and well handled. We are faced with the responsibility of each individual in their place in history, as well as their responsibility in relaying their stories to future generations. Alex writes to Jonathan that he hates him for not allowing some happiness for his grandfather in his story. When viewing the past, is it the responsibility of the writer to tell the story exactly as it was, or perhaps how it should have been?

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is quite depressing for having such a cheerful cover. Deception. I like that. 4 paws.”

Tweak

img_4045Book: Tweak by Nic Sheff

Date Read: April 17 to 29, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

At its heart, this is a memoir about drug addiction and recovery. There is a ton of good information and perspective here on the subject, including Sheff’s own struggle with the concept of addiction as a disease. The memoir is divided into two parts, the first beginning with a month long drug binge in San Francisco following a previous 18 month stretch of sobriety. After exhausting all options and approaching his “rock bottom” there, Sheff returns home to Los Angeles and begins working toward recovery in Part Two. Sheff shares the roller coaster of this journey through periods of sobriety and relapse, including the influence of relationships with those around him. He seems fairly introspective throughout, and is open with readers about the roots of his issues.

With that solid core to the memoir, I really wish I could have given this more stars, but there were too many places where this fell short for me. Right from the start, the writing felt disjointed, making it hard to read. Most of the first section felt like it was struggling to put out a coherent thought, with long interludes and tangents. While this may partially fit with the first section focused on his drug-addled spiral, and some of this was useful information, it was not presented well. For example, it is certainly relevant to discuss the frequent fighting between his mother and stepfather, and his recognition of the impact of childhood on his adult life; however, is it necessary to point this out every time he witnesses two people arguing or fighting?

Maybe the hardest part of this for me was that Nic is very unlikeable as a character. It is not easy to continue caring about the story of someone that is so difficult to like. He is arrogant, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of celebrity. Some of these are pointed out to him, and while he does begin to recognize his faults, much of it continues to show in his writing throughout the book. For example, at one point a therapist points out to him that he frequently name-drops the famous people he knows, seemingly as a way to enhance his own importance. He acknowledges this as a negative quality, and talks about making efforts to stop… but then he indirectly does exactly that in his book published years later! Of course for the purpose of the memoir, names were changed in interest of maintaining anonymity of others. However, he often provides enough detail about individuals that it would not be difficult to figure out.

Boris’s Thoughts: “It’s hard for me to follow your thoughts here, since I find almost everyone unlikeable. 2 paws.”

A Wolf at the Table

img_5193Book: A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs

Date Read: July 1 to 12, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

A Wolf at the Table was the pick for July’s Unread Shelf Project prompt: a book voted on by Bookstagram. I wanted to choose two books that had some sort of similarity, and found an interesting pair: two memoirs written by brothers. Unfortunately for John Elder Robison, his younger brother won this one, receiving 100% of the 4 votes cast. I admit that I was hoping for a slightly better voter turnout, but I suppose I will take what I can get!

This is not my first read from Augusten Burroughs, although I believe it is the first time that I have written about him here. This book has been suggested to be a sort of prequel to his more popular Running with Scissors, which primarily focuses on his teenage years, when he was living with his mother’s psychiatrist. The bulk of A Wolf at the Table is about the time before his parents’ divorce, focusing specifically on his relationship with his father while growing up in a tumultuous household.

I think the first thing that needs to be said is that this book was not what I was expecting it to be. While both A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors deal with some heavy subject matter at times, this book was much darker and more serious than his debut work. While there is definitely some use of humor in places, we do not get the same level of wit or whimsical absurdity that I have come to expect from Burroughs. This may sound like a criticism, but I do not intend it to be. These are very different stories, and it makes sense that they need to be told differently. I was, however, taken a bit off guard.

Through the book, we get an in depth view of the relationship between Augusten and his father—or at least the view of this relationship from the perspective of the child. For the most part, I felt that the feelings portrayed were written realistically from the child’s perspective, which I think is impressive. We all have childhood memories and feelings associated with them, but it’s difficult to explain these as an adult in the same way that we felt them when we were children. There is so much conflict expressed here: the want of affection coupled with very real fear of a man that seems to be an enigma. Throughout, Burroughs references feelings of anger toward his father, along with his worry that these feelings are manifesting to turn him into his father. The final chapters of the book jump forward into adulthood, partially addressing the impact of his early relationship with his father on later experiences.

In the back of the edition that I have, there is a list of discussion questions. Usually I glance through things like this and move on, but one question here stood out to me. Could the “wolf” of the book’s title be read as a metaphor that extends beyond the father? Can memories become more real and terrifying than the incidents or people that inspire them? Coming from the perspective of a psychologist… Yes. Absolutely. Our memories are certainly a reflection of our experiences, but how we recall those experiences is a major part of what creates our reality. I think this dovetails nicely with one thing that always comes up in discussions of memoirs: accuracy.

This is a memoir written in the form of a novel; there are many conversations included, many of them occurring when the author was quite young. There are many places where he presumes the emotion in others. How much truth is there really in the details? To that, I would pose a counter question: How much does that matter? Regardless of the individual details, there are certain overarching patterns in behavior, clearly marking our subject as a victim of some type of abuse. If this is an accurate reflection of his memory, is the accuracy of each individual word important?

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not like that man’s relationship with animals. Can I give no paws?”

Unread Shelf Progress for July

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 260

Where The Wild Things Are

img_5145Book: Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

When it comes to sharing children’s books, I often browse the shelves of the school library which is obviously much more extensive than my personal collection. However, with the abrupt end to in-person school this spring, I am forced to turn to my own shelves for the time being. Many of the picture books that I have in my collection are those that I consider classics—this one included.

I cannot say for sure when I first encountered this particular book, but it was definitely one of my favorites in childhood. Long before I was able to read any of the words, I would page through the book to look at the pictures of the wild things, especially the scenes of the wild rumpus! Even as an adult, I am fascinated by Sendak’s use of pictures and words to tell the story. The sparse, carefully chosen words combined with the vibrant pictures are uniquely engaging. This is a fun read aloud, and perfect to inspire a love a books.

While I certainly remember the basic stories of many of my childhood favorites, it’s always interesting to me to revisit these from a new perspective. Of course Max’s story of sailing away on a private boat to where the wild things are is enthralling for children. Who would not want to rule over the wild things and declare a wild rumpus? Digging a little deeper into the story, it’s possible to pull out a tale that is just as relatable for children: Everyone is wild sometimes. That is okay, but sometimes comes with consequences. When our wildness has run its course, we will be homesick for things familiar. Even though Max’s mother needed to punish him for his mischief, she is still there to take care of him.

Boris’s Thoughts: “Are you trying to imply something with this book choice? Only one of us is wild. 1 paw.”

Minka’s Thoughts: “It’s me! I’m the wild thing! 4 paws!”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

img_3982Book: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Date Read: April 8 to 16, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I have seen this book all over Bookstagram for the last few months, so when I saw it in a small bookshop I decided that I needed to give it a try. I feel like this is a little outside my normal reading realm, as I am not usually a historical fiction reader. (I know this is based on a true story, but as it is not purported to be a fully accurate factual account of events, I think it should still be considered a work of fiction.) I wish I could give a good reason for my tendency to steer away from historical fiction, but I cannot quite put my finger on it. I suppose this genre just does not seem to jump out to me in the same way that others do.

That all said, I quickly found myself totally engrossed in this story. The cover declares it to be a story of “love and survival,” although I feel like those two descriptors should be reversed. No doubt this is a love story that will satisfy any romantics out there, but I personally found the survival aspects of the more intriguing. Both Lale and Gita must fight for their survival, constantly walking the line of making life bearable and endangering themselves and others.

An interesting aspect of the story is the fear associated with their positions—Lale as the Tätowierer and Gita simply as a person put to work. Despite their treatment as prisoners, they are at risk for being labeled as conspirators against their own people. Lale is reluctant to become the Tätowierer, but rationalizes this with his own survival, and the thought that he can at least try to treat new prisoners humanely as he does his work. It is an interesting perspective on difficult choices: is it realistic to think that they would refuse to work when the other option is death? Although not quite overtly stated, the guilt associated with his assigned work is the driving force in his dangerous efforts to help others in the camp.

I suppose I would be remiss to completely disregard the love story aspect of the novel, since I imagine that is what held the appeal for many readers. Of course, I cannot blame them—it is beautiful as a love story as well. While I always give an internal eye roll at the “love at first sight” trope, this definitely goes beyond that in its depth. Lale and Gita find themselves in a harrowing time and situation, forcing their relationship to develop in a nontraditional manner. There are countless obstacles at hand to separate them, and so much uncertainty in their lives that this bit of happiness seemed a saving grace for them both. The relationship was certainly against the odds—both in surviving the camps, and then locating each other afterwards when they were forced to flee independently.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Hmmm. This is different. I like it! 3 paws.”