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!”

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.”

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 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.”

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Part 1

Book: A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Date Read: December 12, 2019 to February 5, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I realized toward the end of November that I was not quite on track to meet my total book goal by the end of the year. As I often do at that time of year, I looked through my shelves for the shortest books on my to read list, hoping to give myself a little boost to end of the year and start 2020 on a positive note. I ended up settling on a book series that was on my mental to read list, if not my actual shelves: A Series of Unfortunate Events. It had been recommended to me several years ago, and I knew it was available for free from my school’s online library.

This series is aimed at late elementary or middle grade children, but has elements of wit and humor that would be more appreciated by adults. There were several moments that caused me to smirk, but would likely be skimmed over by younger readers. This includes references in characters and actions to other works, as well as some humor in interpretations of vocabulary. For the majority of the series, the youngest Baudelaire, Sunny, talks in baby talk which is interpreted by her siblings. While most of these are straightforward nonsense words, there are a few that include real words or other references that were clearly targeted for adult readers. These are worked in to the style of the story naturally, which perfectly expands the potential for enjoyment across age groups.

Each book works as a stand-alone story, although the later books in the series are more clearly linked together. Any references to events in previous books are given proper explanation at the time, which is nice for continuity. I liked that the stories became increasingly complex throughout the series, but still kept to a consistent style. Although I did enjoy reading these, I have to say that the series is aptly named: all of these books are quite unfortunate. Each one starts with a warning to the reader about the wretched lives of the Baudelaire orphans, suggesting that perhaps it may be a good idea to find something a bit less depressing to read. Although the story lines are brought to a conclusion with each book, and in many ways things work out in favor of the orphans, each “happy ending” is not quite happy.

img_3034The Bad Beginning

Where else to start, but with the bad beginning? This book sets up the misery in the lives of the Baudelaires, beginning with the death of their parents in a fire. We get an introduction to each of the main players here: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, with their inventions, books, and teeth to add to their resourcefulness. And then of course our villain, Count Olaf. As their first guardian after the loss of their parents, Olaf makes it clear early on that he is more interested in the children’s inheritance than the children, and hatches his first scheme to get his hands on their fortune by forcing Violet into a marriage. Of course, the children are too clever to let him get away with it. We are just in sight of a happy ending when we get another twist, and Mr. Poe, the banker in charge of their parents’ will, sends them on to their next guardian.

This book sets the stage for the remainder of the series, as well as establishing some stylistic elements that carry throughout. The narrator tells a parallel story, focusing on the Baudelaires, but giving occasionally hints as to his own misery and questionable situation. The book uses some vocabulary that would be somewhat advanced for the target audience of these books, but does a nice job of explaining terms with a bit of humor. These start quite reasonably, but become a bit more grandiose and absurd as the series progresses. I felt this was a solid start for the series, as it left me wanting to know what happens next, but satisfied with the conclusion.

img_3142The Reptile Room

After their experience with their first guardian, the Baudelaires are understandably reluctant to meet their next guardian: their Uncle Monty, a herpetologist whom they have never met. Things go well for a while, with the children’s talents put to good use with Uncle Monty’s collection of pythons, vipers, and other reptiles. For the first time since the death of their parents, they find some happiness in their new home and are excited to accompany Monty on an expedition to search for new reptile species. That is, until Uncle Monty’s new assistant arrives—whom the children immediately recognize as Count Olaf in disguise. Despite their efforts to warn Uncle Monty, Olaf always seems a step ahead in threatening them to keep quiet. He launches another scheme to get their fortune, beginning with murdering Uncle Monty, making the death appear accidental.

This kicks off a theme that remains through most of the series: adults being oblivious to the treachery that is obvious to the Baudelaires. I think this is a theme that resonates with younger readers: adults seem unaware of what it is like to be children, and because the Baudelaire orphans are children, much of what they say is dismissed. This is especially prevalent with Mr. Poe, who begins to use the excuse that the Baudelaires “see Olaf everywhere” after their first traumatic experience, despite the fact each time they claim to see Olaf, they turn out to be correct.

img_3146The Wide Window

The third book in the series follows the same pattern as the previous, beginning with the Baudelaires on their way to meet a new guardian, Aunt Josephine. This guardian turns out to be another kind, but imperfect, guardian: since the death of her husband, she has become fearful of nearly everything. She is fanatical about grammar, but excited about little else. The children fall into a routine until, as expected, Count Olaf shows up in disguise as a Captain Sham. As usual, their guardian does not initially believe the children, although she does eventually realize Olaf’s plot. The problem, of course, is that she is too afraid to do anything about it.

In this book, we get a clearer glimpse into Klaus’s particular talents: reading and research. When Aunt Josephine discovers Olaf’s plot and flees, she leaves a coded message in the form of a purported suicide note. Klaus recognizes the code from the many grammatical errors included, and uses this information to find where she has hidden herself. As with previous books, we come to our not quite happy ending: Olaf’s plot is foiled, but with the loss of Aunt Josephine and the children are sent on their way to another guardian.

img_3022The Miserable Mill

With the miserable mill, there is a slight break from the typical guardian routine. The Baudelaires are sent to a new guardian, who is the owner of the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. Rather than take an interest in the children, their guardian, Sir, puts them to work at the mill and has them living in the quarters with the other employees. Even without the issues of child labor here, the mill is run in a fashion of borderline slave labor, with the employees paid in coupons rather than money and provided with only one meal per day. As always, Olaf is lurking just around the corner, but this particular plot is a bit more convoluted and relies on several of Olaf’s henchman. The guardian Sir is much more concerned about the smooth operation of his mill than anything else, and with the help of a hypnotist, Olaf attempts to monopolize on their guardian’s ambivalence to the orphans.

One theme that had been introduced in the previous book is continued here: the presence of helpful adults who fall short of expectations. Aunt Josephine had been concerned for the children, but too fearful to act. In The Miserable Mill, the children meet Charles, their guardian’s business partner, who is kind and seems to want the best for them. He offers help when able, and quietly advocates for the children, but is too afraid to speak up too adamantly in their defense. As usual, the children are able to defeat Olaf in his plot with little help from the adults around them, ending the book with the need for a new guardian.

I Could Pee On This

img_3692Book: I Could Pee On This by Francesco Marciuliano

Date Read: March 23, 2020

In honor of my first post for the month being on April Fools’ Day, I decided to mix things up a bit with a novelty book rather than a children’s book. For the remainder of the month I will be featuring a children’s series, so I thought it would be fitting to start a little differently.

This book of cat-penned poems was given to me by my Secret Santa, along with a pair of socks featuring Boris’s face. It’s so nice when your Secret Santa truly gets you.

As I said above, this is a novelty book. It is the kind of thing you keep around for a quick laugh, but generally would not plan to read straight through. The book is separated into a few sections, each with a different theme for the poems. This is not high quality poetry; after all, how much can you expect from a cat? Most of them are silly, with an appropriate amount of cat-attitude. A few are a little difficult to get through, despite being short in length. I can roll with stupid humor, but sometimes it just does not click for me. And then, of course, there are a few that are spot on hilarious and made the whole book worth reading.

I submit for your review, a selection from this collection:

I could lie by your side for the rest of our lives

I think I’ll walk away right now

I could let you pet me for a hundred years

I think we need some time apart

I could be kissed a thousand thousand times

I think I’m needed somewhere else

I could sit on your lap forever

I said I could sit on your lap forever

Don’t you even think about trying to get up

Well, you should have gone to the bathroom beforehand

Because forever is a very, very long time

Minka’s Thoughts: “I’m confused. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

img_3594Book: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Date Read: March 1 to March 18, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

For March, the Unread Shelf Project challenged everyone to read the book that has been on your shelf the longest. Technically, I did the same last month, when I chose a book that was gifted to me, but also at the “bottom of my pile.” I suppose now is a perfect time to give that a little more context. I joined Goodreads some time in 2010, but only listed books that I had recently read. On January 1, 2o11, I decided to add my list of books to read, which was already quite hefty at that point in time. I added them all to my online to read list within the next couple days, in approximate alphabetical order. This is the bottom of my stack. I no longer have any idea what order I actually obtained these in, so I do not prioritize further. I try to make a point to choose at least a few books specifically from that group every year. There are currently 45 books still remaining from those that I initially added.

When I browsed through the list, I decided on Maya Angelou for a few different reasons. It seemed appropriate for the time of year, as we are transitioning from Black History Month to Women’s’ History Month. Maya Angelou is an author that I know immediately by name, but one that I had never read up to this point. I also have a peculiar and nostalgic back-story to go along with my particular copy: I quite literally found it in an abandoned building. For several years, my primary friend group consisted of a few photographers and other interesting characters that spent a good amount of our free time in urban exploration. We all lived near Detroit, and visited many sites around the city that were no longer in use: churches, schools, apartments, hotels, hospitals, and of course, the well known Michigan Central Station. While we had a fairly strict policy of making as little impact as possible, we did collect a few treasures along the way (no breaking in, no vandalism, and nothing else that could be considered destructive of the spaces). However, the number of unused and forgotten books found inside the old Cass Tech High School hurt my soul, and I had to give at least a few of them a new home. My soul still aches to think of all that remained inside that school when it was torn down in July 2011.

I know this seems a long introduction with little connection to the book that I am supposed to be writing about. However, something about my memories of that time fit too perfectly with my feelings reading this book, and I could not let the opportunity to share my story pass by. While the overall story of Maya Angelou’s early life is intriguing, this book is about her the journey. Born in California, Maya and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in rural Arkansas. They were raised there, then brought to St. Louis to live with their mother, returned to Arkansas, and eventually returned again to their mother’s care in California. While the places are not essential, the experiences in each of these locations shaped her character and spirit. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir told in snippets; each chapter captures a memory or a moment in time. While any one of these moments might not seem significant in the grand scheme, each is an important piece of the puzzle that has shaped the life of this woman. The story is told beautifully from the perspective of a child, but tempered with honesty and perspective gained from reflecting as an adult. Angelou’s language is vivid, but not graphic, as she tackles her experiences of discrimination, violence, rape, and others.

Boris’s Thoughts: “So… where is this bird? I’m confused. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for March

  • Books Read: 5 (plus 1 started)
  • Books Acquired: 3
  • Total Unread Books: 260