Outliers

img_2215With my focus on some spooky children’s books in September, I am a bit behind with my normal posting. This book was actually my September pick for The Unread Shelf Project—a book that you can buddy read. Surprisingly, I do not have a big group of friends that read. One of my friends has been trying to read more, so we decided it would be fun to pick a book that was on both of our “want to read” lists. We ended up deciding on this one, as the one that we thought could lead to the best discussion.

While we did not actually get in as much discussion on the book as we had expected, I am glad that we decided upon this one. This is the third of Malcolm Gladwell’s books that I have read, and I really do find much of his work fascinating. However, I feel like I have to say that I find it a bit limited. There is a ton of great research referenced here, and so many great thoughts, but in the end, this really is a work of “pop psychology.” Is there something to it? Yes, probably. But I’m also not quite prepared to take all of Gladwell’s conclusions as fact. Despite this, I think it’s a great starting place for thinking and learning. I just think that the case of “Outliers” is more complicated that laid out here.

It may seem like a strange jump, but this book made me think about my brother’s speech at his friend’s wedding this summer. My brother was the Best Man at the wedding of two amazing friends of our family, and I was lucky enough to be present at the wedding as well. In his speech, my brother referenced some incredible accomplishments shared by the couple—a self renovated home, a successful business, and the wedding itself, which was very much planned and decorated “from scratch.” My brother shared an important belief he feels is connected to all this: if there is something you want to do and you don’t do it, you didn’t want it enough.

Perhaps this is a simplification as well, but I think it speaks to one of the missing pieces from Gladwell’s conclusion. Genetic potential, opportunities to practice, and being born at the right time in the right place can put you ahead of the game—but there is still a drive to that accomplishment that is unaccounted for. It may be true that 10,000 hours of practice is a “magic number” to become an expert or a master in a field; but it is also true that it takes a certain amount of personal drive and dedication to be willing to put in that time. So you did not become a master at the task you wanted? There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; but remember: you did not want it enough to dedicate the amount of time needed to do it.

Boris’s thoughts: “The only thing I want to be a master at is napping. I think I’ve got a pretty good start on my 10,000 hours or practice. 4 paws.”

Penguin and Pumpkin

img_2482Over the years, I have amassed quite the collection of Penguin-centric children’s literature. While Tacky is certainly the character I relate to the most, the Penguin created by Salina Yoon is by far the sweetest. There are several books about Penguin’s adventures with his friends, sometimes venturing far from the ice world that is his home. In this fall adventure, Penguin learns what fall looks like away from home, and brings back a special fall surprise for his little brother, Pumpkin.

When Penguin and his friends decide to visit a farm to learn what fall looks like off the ice, Pumpkin is still too small to come on such a far journey. Penguin and the others set out on an iceberg for their long trip to the farm, with the size of their vessel gradually diminishing as they get further from home. At the farm, they discover pumpkins of all varieties, and put together a harvest package to bring home. They even build themselves a new boat for the way back, made from a giant pumpkin! Back home, Pumpkin has been imagining some fall adventures of his own, but is very curious about the real fall. He is excited to have his very own pumpkin brought back for him, but the real surprise is the extra bit of fall Penguin brought so he could see what fall really looks like– snowing leaves!

Like I started with, this is a super cute and sweet story. First of all, I think it’s adorable that Penguin has a little brother named Pumpkin. The illustrations are well done and add some fun details into the story. I love the little details like the dwindling ice berg on the journey, and Sleepy Penguin who always seems to be dozing off. There are some bits of conversation added in to the story along with the narrative text. The books are definitely aimed at younger children, with many available as board books. These are fun as read aloud or bedtime stories, with great things to point out to kids in the pictures throughout the book.

Boris’s thoughts: “Did you notice that we get both of the falls that are in this book– the snowing leaves and the real snow! Both fun to watch. 4 paws.”

The Nightmare Before Christmas

img_2396The evolution of Halloween over time puts it in a unique position among holidays and traditions. Not that there have not been changes in other holidays, of course, but the contrast between the night of literal tricks or treats mayhem in the past and the more lighthearted trick or treating of today is quite stark. This makes it a bit more difficult to define what is “classic” in Halloween—we do not have the same sort of classical tradition in film and music that is carried through with Christmas. There are classic horror films, but these are not truly constrained to or even tied to Halloween. Enter here, the bridge between these two, and I give you a Halloween classic: The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Most know this story from the movie, which we will forever be debating about—is it a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie? (Both, obviously, but I digress.) A little over a decade before this stop-animation film came to be, it was a poem written by Tim Burton. The poem is a basic outline of the story of the film, starting with its own rhyme and meter, then switching to match that of the original Christmas poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Jack Skellington is discontent in Halloweenland, and when walking through the woods stumbles upon a strange door that takes him in to Christmastown. He is excited about this discovery, wishing to bring Christmas back home with him. As in the film, the Halloween takeover leads to disaster, although it does not end with the same level of excitement of a Santa kidnapping and rescue. Santa intervenes, Jack learns his lesson; Santa does realize that Jack meant no harm, and so brings a bit of Christmas to Halloweenland to show that there are no hard feelings.

Although it well predates the film, the poem was not published until the time of the film’s release. This particular edition is a special release for the 20th anniversary of the original publication and film release. The poem is set up into a picture book with original illustrations by Tim Burton. I believe some of these are from the original publication, but there are some new illustrations added to the anniversary edition. As a fan of both the poem and the film, this was a fun look behind the scenes for me. The illustrations are reminiscent of the animation, perhaps serving as a bit of a storyboard around which the film was fleshed out with its songs and plot additions. This book holds a special place on my shelf year-round, but is out for display this time of year. I love the detailed simplicity of this gold and white cover, with the iconic scene of Jack on the hill, bordered by some lovely little drawings of Zero the ghost dog.

Boris’s thoughts: “It could use a few more black cats, but otherwise I approve. 3 paws.”

Creepy Pair of Underwear

img_2154What a perfect mix of fun and spooky! While shopping at the underwear store, Jasper Rabbit convinces his mother that he needs something more than just “plain white”– he needs the cool green underwear in the special display. His mother is worried that they are a little creepy, but he assures her that he’s not a little bunny anymore, and the underwear are not too creepy for a big rabbit. That night, he proudly wears his new underwear to bed. But then, after the lights are out, he realizes they might be a little creepier than he thought: the underwear are giving off a ghoulish green glow that he cannot get out of his head. Jasper stuffs them in the bottom of his hamper and goes back to sleep. Then the next morning… they are back! Jasper makes several attempts to rid himself of the underwear, but they continue to show back up in his drawer. When Jasper finally finds a way to keep the underwear away, he has another realization… he has become accustomed to that gentle green glow, his bedroom is awfully dark without the creepy glowing underwear.

This book is super silly, with just the right amount of spookiness twisted in. There is a nice, creepy aesthetic to the illustrations, all in black and white with dark backgrounds, except for the green glow of the creepy underwear. I can see this one enjoyed by kids off all ages, with an engaging story and ridiculous premise. A story about underwear is going to be funny to kids, and the idea of being haunted by creepy underwear is obviously hysterical to anyone under the age of 10 (and probably a lot of us adults too).

Boris’s thoughts: “Okay, it’s funny… but don’t get any ideas. If you start stringing glowing underwear around the house, I’m leaving. 2 paws.”

Boris and Bella

img_2141Happy October! I am so excited for the turn of the weather, and all the spookiness that comes along with October. In the spirit of the season, I plan to keep things spooky for my next few posts! I saw this book on display in the library, and it immediately caught my eye– the cover is a bit creepy-chic, and one of the title characters has a great name (coincidentally, my mother also has a dog named Bella to pair with my Boris).

As it turns out, this is not just an eye catching cover with a personal connection in the title– it is a cute story about friendship with a Halloween-ish theme.  Bella Legrossi and Boris Kleanitoff are neighbors, who are not particularly fond of one another. Bella is the messiest monster, and Boris is a neat freak who goes as far as polishing his pythons daily! Neither of them are popular with the other monsters in Booville, which only complicates things when they try to show each other up by throwing competing Halloween parties– which nobody attends because of Boris and Bella’s tiresome personal habits. As often happens in children’s books, Boris and Bella are able to find some common ground: first in their anger about the party everyone attended instead, and second in a shared love of dancing. While neither of these characters give up their ways, they do ease up enough to become friends.

Although the story does feature a Halloween party, this is not exactly a Halloween book. Halloween-ish? Halloween-lite? Despite monstrous characters, the story itself is about the ability to look beyond differences to find friendship in unlikely places. Nonetheless, the monster theme does make this a nice fit for the season. The illustrations are very detailed and compliment the story, with a color scheme that maintains a spooky mood to the setting. There is also some pun-ny humor for those who appreciate that sort of thing, and some really great kid humor– Baggo Bones connects his hipbones to his neckbone just for fun!

Boris’s thoughts: “I hope you’re not trying to suggest that I am persnickety like this other Boris. 1 paw.”

A Man Called Ove

img_1921Date Read: August 8 to 31, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my book for The Unread Shelf Project prompt for August: a book voted for you to read by Bookstagram. Since I do not have a large following, I decided that it was easier do this as a poll with two options. It was actually my first ever Instagram poll! I only had 6 participants, but enough to give a slight majority to this grumpy old man. I loved this book, so I am happy that it turned out as it did!

To those around him, Ove appears to be just a cranky old man. They aren’t wrong—he is one of the most cantankerous characters I have ever read. However, as the back cover states, there is more to Ove than meets the eye. Of course there is; we would not have much of a story otherwise. We meet Ove shortly after the death of his wife, Sonja, although this is not entirely clear in the first few chapters. He has been struggling to cope with the loss, as he views Sonja as the bright spot in an otherwise bleak existence. Throughout the novel, we jump back and forth between past and present, allowing us to see how the story of Ove’s youth, and Sonja, has influenced his attitudes: strong principles, irritability, and all. Sonja certainly brought out the best in him, and continues to do so even after her passing. Whenever faced with doing something that is inconvenient, but the right thing to do, he considers what Sonja would say to him when he joins her in the afterlife—whether that decision is about caring for a stray cat or taking in a youth who was kicked out of his home.

The two main themes that stood out here for me were Ove’s ability to find new purpose in life through his connection to others, as well as what Backman calls “time optimism”—the tendency we all have to assume that there will always be enough time with other people, until suddenly that time runs out. It’s a funny concept to think about, because I think it is a characteristic that we all share, to an extent. I know I am guilty of time optimism still, despite having several experiences to call on of time run out. I would like to say that it is something I am working on—and it is—but I think it is something hardwired in us that we may only be able to escape temporarily.

In addition to falling in love with the story of Ove, there were some literary devices the author used here that I really enjoyed. The first, and the most apparent, is the liberal use of ridiculous and hilarious similes. Things like when Ove “nods irritably, like someone squeezing an avocado and finding it overly ripe.” I can see why some readers might think the similes are overdone—but I love it. Second, and a bit subtler, is the change in narration that coincides with Ove’s shifting attitudes. At the beginning of the novel, Ove refers to nearly everyone around him by a nickname, oftentimes a rude one. His new neighbors are the Pregnant One and the Lanky One, and their children are referred to only by their ages. There is a full cast of characters in the neighborhood who have all earned Ove’s contempt. Gradually, as Ove begins to soften toward some of these characters, he begins to refer to them by their proper names; beginning with Parvaneh, the pregnant one who pushes his buttons but also pushes him to be better.

Boris’s thoughts: “He was kind of a jerk to that cat… but I’m not sure I can blame him. I think I relate more to the man than the cat. 3 paws.”

Lovecraft Country

img_1914Date Read: July 24 to August 8, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

This was definitely an interesting read, although I wanted to enjoy this book so much more than I did. I suspect that part of the problem may be my lack of background knowledge—I have never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft, and my reading of classic science fiction is admittedly lacking. However, I am not fully convinced this would have made a drastic difference in my feelings on the book, although it may have at least increased my appreciation of what Ruff was doing here.

Lovecraft Country falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, chronicling the lives of an extended African American family living in 1950s Chicago. Each chapter is written as a story centered on a different member of the family, each of them connecting to the main narrative. It includes horrors of two primary varieties: elements of classic horror fiction inspired by Lovecraft and others; the perhaps even more terrifying daily horrors of racism in America. The stories of the struggles encountered in their everyday lives, as well as their research for the “Safe Negro Travel Guide,” paints a picture of that period in American history that many may not realize existed—a bit scary considering that time is not so far back in our history. I am a generally well-read and well-informed person, and this is a perspective of America that I have never had to face myself. Although I know that side of our past exists, I have not previously encountered it in the perspective taken here. Perhaps that is my own fault.

I wish I could find more to say about this book, especially considering my unusually low (for me) rating. (You’re right, three stars is not a bad rating; however, if you have read any of my previous reviews, you know that I tend to give 4-5 stars to most of what I read. I really cannot help myself; I love books too much). With the style of the book I mentioned—the chapters that feel more like individual stories—I felt like there was something missing somewhere. There is some resolution to the overall narrative, but it feels like there is something lacking, although I cannot quite put my finger on what that is. Perhaps there could be more to the story from here? Perhaps something more is needed to fill in the gaps between each of these tales? I am not sure, but it left me feeling a bit unenthused.

Boris’s thoughts: “Curious. You lost me after that scary dog in the second story though. No thank you. 1 paw.”