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

Because of Winn-Dixie

img_2719Book: Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Date Read: December 2 to 9, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I was prompted to finally get this book off my to read list by two things. I happened to be sitting in on a Fifth Grade class when they started to read this as a group, and was at least a little intrigued. It happened to work out that this also fit into the December prompt for the Unread Shelf Project, which suggested reading the shortest book on your shelf. Until this, I had avoided reading this one for quite some time, as I had been told that it was sad. Considering that I knew this was a book about a dog, I made some assumptions about why it might be sad, and decided to pass—who really needs to read another book where the dog dies at the end? Well, spoiler alert: that’s not what happens. In fact, we actually get a happy ending! Of course, I did not know that going in. Perhaps the surprise of a happier than expected ending biased me some in favor of the book, but I am glad that I finally decided to pick up this quite popular children’s novel.

Our main character, Opal, has recently moved with her father, the Preacher, to a new town. Being new, she is unsure of her place in the town, and seems a bit withdrawn and certainly lonely. Enter Winn-Dixie, the stray dog she claims as her own after he has wreaked havoc in the produce section of the local grocery store. Opal’s father has taught her to help the less fortunate, and this dog certainly fits the bill: he is skinny, gangly, and generally appears to be in rough condition. Winn-Dixie quickly wins over Opal, her father, and then a large number of people throughout the town. With the help of the dog, Opal starts to meet and open up to various people around the town.

One of the things that I found interesting in Opal’s journey is that the lesson she learns through Winn-Dixie about opening up to others and not judging based on looks, is something that she already knew—sort of. Opal has a soft spot for the outsiders, which I suppose goes along well with her taking in a rough looking dog. Opal was quick to befriend Otis at the pet shop, despite being told that he had been in jail. She quickly accepted the woman whom the other children referred to as a witch. While she is willing to let these people into her world, she is quick to judge many of the others around her, especially other children and the people who belong to her father’s church.

This is a great middle and upper elementary novel, and works really well for classroom discussions. I imagine that is not a major revelation to anyone. There is good reason that this book is often taught in school. There can be a lot to unpack here, in Opal’s relationships to the town, to her father, and the catalyst for growing up a bit she finds when she brings home Winn-Dixie.

Boris’s Thoughts: “A book about a dog? Really? 1 paw.”

Fortunately, the Milk

img_3501Book: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Date Read: December 14, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was a semi-random purchase as a Christmas gift for my cousin’s son. When my family was a bit smaller than it is now, I started the tradition of buying books for the kids that came for my family’s Christmas Eve celebration. It was easy at first. When I started this, there were three; we are now up to 12. I suppose there are worse things than being known as the family member to count on for a new book, but it has become increasingly difficult to find books that the kids will enjoy, and to try to remember which ones I have already given each of them! I usually go to my cousins for ideas for their kids, but both my cousin and I were stumped on this one. He loves adventure, but can be picky. He likes graphic novels, but has read most of the popular ones. I had a few ideas, but nothing I was too excited about, so I decided to browse a bit at the store. I ended up stumbling upon this one which I think was a perfect fit: a sort of adventure, but also a lot of goofiness; not quite a graphic novel, but definitely a nice balance of pictures interwoven into the story.

One day, while Mum is away, Dad is forced to run to the corner store to get some milk for breakfast. When he takes longer than expected, the children are suspicious about where he has been, but fortunately the milk was there to save him on his wild and wacky journey back home. It all starts with a strange noise as he steps out from the corner store, and then there is no stopping this ridiculous and fun tale from unwinding. There is something here to please everyone: aliens, time travel, dinosaurs, pirates, human sacrifice, hot air balloons… all seemingly random, but strung together into the perfect narrative to entertain young and old.

Based on reading level, I think this probably works best as an independent read for mid to upper elementary children. It is novel length, but not really separated out into chapters. There are many pictures incorporated throughout the text, along with interesting text blocking to make everything flow nicely. I can see the interest level on this extending a bit younger, but could see it being a bit difficult as a read aloud book. The length is certainly too much for a typical bedtime story, but without chapters, it’s not quite as easy to break it up for multiple reading sessions.

Boris’s thoughts: “You were supposed to take the picture before you wrapped it and put it in the Christmas bag.”

Invisible Monsters

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Book: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Date Read: February 6 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

The February prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was a book that was gifted to you. This book was gifted to me quite some time ago—I’m going to guess some time around my 25th birthday, back in 2011. My friend Kirsten and I had a tradition of celebrating our birthdays very late with the exchange of books as gifts. It was included in the first chunk of books that I added onto my official to read list on Goodreads; the 50ish books that I consider the true bottom of my to read pile. I digress. I suppose my point is that this certainly fits the bill for the purpose of this project, as it not only meets the prompt but also has been waiting for me for quite some time (sorry, Kirsten).

I had a little bit of a Chuck Palahniuk kick back around that time, which I remember talking about with my friend; I am sure part of the reason that she decided on this particular book as a gift, although I am not sure that she had read it. I read Fight Club, Choke, and then Haunted, all in fairly short succession. While I enjoyed them all, I needed a break from the madness. There is something about Palahniuk’s work that leaves me a little mentally exhausted. Invisible Monsters was no exception to that—I quickly found myself totally engrossed in this book. The writing and style are intriguing, but the story itself is like a train wreck where you cannot help but gape at the disaster.

One of the reviews printed in the first few pages of the book describes it as a “twisted soap opera,” and I feel that really hits the nail on the head. Although generally moving forward in time, the story is told non-sequentially, with many flashbacks that help each bit of this crazy puzzle fit together. The plot twists and turns, while somehow still moving forward at the hurtling speed of a runaway train. There is commentary along the way about the nature of existence, although I feel like it is up to the reader to decide how deeply this should be taken: maybe we are simply dealing with the insane ramblings of the drug-addled troupe, or perhaps there is something more there, in the need to break free from expectations and the possibilities brought forth from utter disaster and chaos.

At several points during my reading, I wondered at how the story was progressing and the direction it seemed to aim. The first chapter gives some not-at-all-subtle foreshadowing of what is to come, and while it all seemed to fit perfectly with the narrative, I felt myself feeling increasingly dissatisfied with how I expected things to turn out. No doubt that the book was entertaining, but the ending I anticipated seemed a sort of anticlimax in that it wrapped things up just a bit too neatly. I should have known better. There were a few additional twists waiting at the end, after the rest of the story and caught up to the opening paragraphs. The conclusion feels perfect, but also leaves a funny taste in my mouth, to be quite honest: an unusual combination of dark humor and philosophical thought.

Boris’s thoughts: “This is all too weird for me. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for February

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 1
  • Total Unread Books: 263

The October Country

img_2499Date Read: October 19 to December 1, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I read The October Country a few months back as a sort of reward for myself— if you have been following along, you may recall that in October I was challenged to read a book that scares me, and chose the lowest rated book on my to read shelf, which I had been putting off for quite some time. (I wrote about that here, if you’re interested.) I planned on reading this one next, as a sort of carrot for myself: finish the book I was less excited about so that I could move on to one that I was excited to read. Coincidentally, this was also a good fit for the November Unread Shelf challenge, a book from your favorite genre. I have a tough time defining a favorite genre, but I think this was a good fit for that.

This collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury turned out to be that perfect reward. Although it took me longer than I had hoped to finish, it was well worth the time spent. The October Country is introduced as a sort propensity for darkness that exists within us. A place that is not inherently evil, but perhaps a little creepy with the potential for wickedness. Despite an overwhelming sense of spookiness, I would not classify anything in this book as outright horror.

Rather than go for an upfront scare, these stories leave one with a feeling of uneasiness. Many of the endings are at least a tad ambiguous, leaving the level of horror up to the imagination of the reader. Some ease in with some creepiness, but end with a sense of sadness—a man left with a shattered self, an average person born into a family of immortals, a glimmer of hope with a grave consequence.

One story that particularly stood out to me was The Next in Line, which I am positive relates to the fact that I have visited the location of the story in the recent past. I have very clear memories of walking through the cemetery, and looking down the spiral staircase into the crypt. The Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato looks very different now than the room described in the story, but having seen them for myself, the thought of being haunted by the faces encountered there is by no means a stretch of the imagination.

Boris’s thoughts: “It’s always all about the spooky with you, isn’t it? 3 paws.”

Book: The October Country by Ray Bradbury

A Friend for Dragon

img_3067As a kick off to the third year of Books On My Cat, I present to you A Friend for Dragon by Dav Pilkey. This is the first book in the Dragon series of book, which I have written about several times before. Dragon is one of my favorite children’s characters. He is always getting into some sort of misadventure—in this case, Dragon falls for a prank and mistakenly assumes that an apple that has fallen on his head is actually looking to become his friend. Despite the misunderstanding, Dragon finds the apple to be a delightful friend, who is a good listener, has common interests, and shares with his friends.

I admit that this is not my favorite addition to the Dragon collection, but I think it sets a nice tone to the series. We get a good glimpse of his personality, which is then built upon in the later books. Dragon is a little naïve, but is also willing to make the most of any situation with his positive attitude. If everyone else is too busy, why not spend your time hanging out with an apple? Of course, apples do not last forever (especially when you are tricked into thinking you have a special speaking apple, and the culprit of the trick is no longer around to fake an appley voice). Although Dragon is quite distraught at the loss of his friend, he receives a pleasant surprise the summer after laying his friend to rest in the backyard.

Of course, as you may have noticed in the photo, today is also the debut of a friend of Boris: introducing Minka, a sassy little girl that joined our family at the end of December. She was found near where my dad works as a kitten in July; she was alone despite seeming too young to have left her mother. My dad began to care for her, and she moved into the office building. After living there for a few months, and with the weather starting to turn cold, he decided that it was time for her to have a more proper home and asked if Boris needed a friend. I was reluctant, as Boris has always struck me as a lone cat personality, but we decided to give it a try. The two are still getting used to having another cat around, but are starting to warm up to each other a bit. While Boris is still my number one guy, you will start to see a bit more of Minka around here!

Book: A Friend for Dragon by Dav Pilkey

How to Talk to Your Cat

img_2724This fun little non-fiction children’s book was brought to my attention by my school librarian—she noticed that the cat on the cover looks a bit like Boris, and thought he might be interested in reading! How to Talk to Your Cat provides a good introduction to cat behavior and some general information in interpreting what your cat is trying to say. Of course, as a book intended for children, it’s not a definitive guide. There are a few items of cat behavior included that I would consider a bit questionable, plus a few items that contradict things I have read recently. I suppose some of this is inevitable in a book that was published nearly 20 years ago.

The book starts with the history of domestic cats, referring to something I have heard a few times from other sources: humans did not domesticate cats; cats domesticated themselves. From there, it moves on to cat greetings, and communication via scent, sound, and body posture. The book wraps up with some more behavioral information—typical habits for indoor and outdoor cats. Along the way there is some advice in communicating and living with cats. I believe it is said a few times that cats tend to have the attitude that we belong to them, rather than the other way around. I’m not quite sold on this, but I think there is some truth to it. Boris knows that there are some limits to his running of the household. I am the keeper of the treats, after all.

Although I would still consider this a picture book, it is quite heavy on text. Most of the pictures included are for demonstration, with a few additional illustrations to fill in along the way. The drawings are fairly simple and cartoonish, which I think feels appropriate with the style of the book. There are a few photos of the author (Jean Craighead George) included, intermingled with the cartoonish cats. It feels a little silly—especially the picture of her on hands and knees rubbing heads with a cat. I suppose this is one way of keeping interest for kids who might otherwise be off put by the lengthy text passages on each page. I can see this as a good book for older kids who have an interest in cats or pets, or perhaps animals in general, but would not necessarily make a general recommendation for this one.

Boris’s thoughts: “A well read cat like me clearly has much more to say than this book would suggest. 2 paws.”