Shout

img_1034Date Read: July 18 to 22, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I went to a small high school. There were two English teachers in the school my freshman year, and by the time I graduated that had only increased to three. We had no library, just the small collection of books each teacher had in their classroom. By my junior year, I had read them all. One of the teachers started bringing in books from home for me to read, and that was when I discovered Laurie Halse Anderson. I was so taken with her story and her writing that I bought up her other novels as soon as I saw them, without even taking the time to read the description on the back cover. It was this practice that led me to scoop up her latest book without realizing what it was—which I am considering serendipitous, as I would have likely passed on this incredible work because I thought it was “not my style.”

Shout is a novel-length memoir, told through a series of poems. Although each poem as its own subject, and there is variety in style, they combine to form a loose narrative. I was impressed with how Anderson was able to convey her troubled childhood without judgment. She acknowledges the hardships of her family life, but does not condemn her family nor ask for sympathy. The poems are divided into three sections, labeled simply: One, Two, and Three. One, which covers more than half of the book, deals with her early life into her early writing career, ending with Speak, her first successful novel (and the book that I had originally discovered back in high school). Two gets more involved in life as an author, and as a speaker. Dealing with the unexpected success, but also the controversy surrounding sexual assault and speaking about it in schools. Three was a bit less organized, but had some reflections and other pieces that did not quite fit into the rest narrative.

Overall, I was really impressed with this book. I usually am not a fan of poetry, but something about these poems really drew me in. The story was captivating and I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected when I started.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think poetry just goes over my head. It was hard enough to learn to read human, how am I supposed to understand this? 2 paws.”

Penguin Problems

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To kick off September, I have one more book to add to my collection of children’s books featuring penguins. There is something undeniably delightful about these silly little black and white waddling creatures. Of course, even penguins have problems—it’s always cold, they can’t fly, and everyone looks so much alike! Our lead penguin is having a rough day, and there is no end to his list of complaints about the world. However, he gets some advice from a wise walrus who reminds him that if you are looking for something to complain about, you will always find it. Life not always perfect, but that does not mean that you cannot find joy in what you have.

While this does not top my list for children’s literature, the book is cute, short, and easy to follow. There is not much of a story, but just enough to carry things through the pages. I can see this being popular with younger kids, which makes sense with this particular edition as a board book. The story has a touch of cynicism, which is good for at least a chuckle from adult readers, but likely would not be picked up by kids. This would be good as a read aloud story one-on-one with a younger child, who perhaps does not have the stamina to sit and attend to longer picture books.

Boris’s thoughts: “Interesting to learn about the problems of other species, but penguins couldn’t possibly have more problems than cats. Did you know I only had time for 5 naps today? 2 paws.”

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Part 2

 

img_0927Girls in Pants

Although I gave all of the books in these series a similar overall rating, I felt book three of the Sisterhood was an improvement over book two. It starts out with what has now become a tradition to begin the summer: celebrating their friendship and bringing the pants out from their winter hibernation. In this case, three of the four are planning to be home for the summer, with Bridget off to coach at a soccer camp. Her story seems to come full circle here, with her experiences with the boys on her team as well as reencountering Eric from her past. Her story does well to highlight the growing up that she has done since the end of the first book.

Tibby’s story here was not as interesting as the ones in the previous books, but there was nothing that I specifically disliked. My feelings on Carmen’s story were similar to those from her book two plot, although a bit more balanced by adding in her caring for Lena’s grandmother. Carmen’s interactions with her mother seemed melodramatic, and sometimes borderline vindictive. While I would like to say that she made some growth by the end, I am not convinced that’s true. She seemed very aware that she was behaving badly, and acknowledged how she could be better, but was uninterested in making a change.

My favorite story here was Lena’s—and I was so happy to see that her story was not centered on Kostos! The prior books mentioned her art, but did not describe it as the passion that can be seen here. Lena’s struggle between following her dreams and following the rules of her family is captivating and relatable. I love that she is able to use her love for art as well as her talent to learn more about herself, and connect that to her relationships with her family.

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Forever in Blue

Book four of the Sisterhood, Forever in Blue, provides a perfect wrap up to this series full of ups and downs for this group of friends. It starts with some uncertainty for all of the girls—they are not together for their traditional kick off to summer, and since they have all been apart at college they never retired the pants as they did in previous winters. I was happy to see some personal growth for all of the girls, and was especially pleased with the stories for Lena and Carmen (finally!!!). The ending, with Carmen’s friends showing up to support her at her play, and then the four girls coming together to search for the lost pants in Greece was a fitting end to this series of adventures and growing up. The loss of the pants fits well with the “magic” element that I was not too crazy about: they have served their purpose for the girls, and so have moved on.

There were some unique insights on both finding and forgetting oneself that struck me here. For the first time in the series, I found myself jotting down quotes that I did not want to forget. To end the series, I’ll share two of the tidbits I chose to capture for myself, I believe both of them coming from Carmen’s narrative:

“You couldn’t always know what would matter to you.”

“When you belonged nowhere, you sort of belonged everywhere.”

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

img_0803The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

July’s prompt for The Unread Shelf Project was a book from a series on your shelf. I did not have a ton of options for this one, as I usually read series books all together and tend not to buy a ton of them– it’s hard to get your “to read” list down if you add whole series at a time. However, I happened to be gifted this one awhile back from a book swap, and never quite got around to it. So to stick to my usual reading patterns, I opted to take on the whole series (with a little boost by starting the first book at the end of June).

This was a solid start to a series that I did mostly enjoy. The first book gives a nice introduction to the group: four friends who have been together for their whole lives, preparing to spend their first summer apart. It sets up an interesting structure that continues throughout the series, with four mostly separate narratives that overlap, intertwine, and eventually come together in the end. The “magic” element of the pants seems a little gimmicky, but using pants as the collective reminder of friendship works in a way that other items would not. Since it is something that they wear, it is something they each take with them as they experience life, not something that they simply look to as a token.

I found it noteworthy that in a book dedicated to friendship, the title object it centers on is not wholly positive—the first experience each of the girls has with the pants is negative, but they are also later able to draw strength from the reminder of their friendships to help them get through the tough parts of their summer lives. Although not a completely happy ending, there are positive turns for each character at the end of the book: Carmen has begun to make amends with her father, Lena finally connects with Kostos, Tibby begins to accept the loss of Bailey, and although Bridget is feeling of lost, she has found some solace in her return to her friends.

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The Second Summer of the Sisterhood

Book two picks up at the beginning of the following summer, with minimal reference to the time between. As before, the girls are preparing for a summer spent at least partially apart, and lay out their plans for the pants. Each of them has another storyline with some room for and elements of growth, although I saw some drastic differences in the quality of each characters narrative.

Bridget is still struggling, but seems to be at least a bit more self-aware. She is spending the summer with her grandmother in an effort to learn more about her mother, albeit under an assumed name and deceptive guise. I liked the duality of her re-finding herself here between glimpses of her family and a reconnection to the sport that she loves. I was a little irritated by the unreality of extent of her lie to her grandmother, but thought this was tempered by the admission in the end that her grandmother was suspicious and playing along. I liked Tibby’s journey of discovering and aligning her priorities through the development of her documentary.

Honestly, I found Lena’s story a bit lackluster. I can see the appeal in her story of teenage romance, but just could not get excited for her. Carmen’s difficulty with her mother beginning to date seems like an understandable issue for a teenage daughter, but her story comes off as annoying and melodramatic. In the first book, Carmen seemed justifiably angry with her father and his failure to tell her about his life until she was shoved into the middle of it. This anger with her mother feels different, and petty. I had a hard time sympathizing with her, which took away from the book as a whole.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living

img_0643Date Read: June 9 to 13, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

I have had a bit of a fascination with Poe for quite some time. Although he is often sensationalized as the “troubled artist” and associated with the dark and macabre, there is so much more to him than that! Up until a few years ago, I had only read some of his more popular works, but in March 2017 I wrapped up a yearlong project of reading Poe’s complete works. I was so pleasantly surprised with what I found there! With a little bit of distance from that project, I thought a biography would be a nice supplement to my Poe repertoire.

Collins’ biography of Poe is a quick and concise general accounting of Poe’s life, beginning with his childhood and school experiences. While giving a factual accounting of Poe’s life, the narrative is well balanced so that it does not feel like a passage in a history book. Poe is presented alongside his significant publications, though many were not recognized as such at the time. This is not only a biography of Poe the man, but also a biography of his literary works. Some present day analysis of his work is included, with some emphasis on the widespread influence of his work in the world of literature. It is certainly impossible to touch on all of the work that Poe created in his lifetime, but there was a nice balance of what are considered his great achievements along with reference to many lesser and even un-credited publications. (Boris and I particularly liked the reference to his writing of the exploits of his house cat for a family publication when he was particularly poor and in need of work.)

Perhaps the more ardent fans of Poe did not need this, but I also enjoyed the added context given to his work as well as some well-known quotes. I have seen reference to his statement on how he “became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” in many places, but this is the first I have seen comment on his intention with these words—the cyclical nature of his poverty and drinking, combined with the prolonged illness of his much loved wife.

This is a great starting place for anyone interested in knowing more about Poe and his work. Collins’ portrayal of Poe is sympathetic, but without romanticizing the hardship he endured throughout his life.

Boris’s thoughts: “So if someone wrote a book about a guy who wrote about his cat… do you think someone will write a book about us one day?”

Rumple Buttercup

b4b5340f-eb2b-4750-b6e2-b3d19fc3d5dbI have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for the weirdos of the world, and this story of bananas, belonging, and being yourself written by the wonderfully weird Matthew Gray Gubler perfectly fits the bill. (I know you all must be shocked to hear this, from the girl who puts books on her cat.) With his 5 crooked teeth, 3 strands or hair, green skin, and left foot slightly bigger than his right, Rumple Buttercup is weird. He worries that people will be afraid of him, so lives a lonely life hiding in a rain drain beneath his town. He is so intrigued by the outside world that he sneaks up to look around from time to time—but only under cover of his trusty banana peel.

Rumple’s story is told in a unique format that feels part picture book and part graphic novel. The story is told in three picture filled chapters, spanning 136 pages. Despite the length, this is a quick read due to the interspersed drawings and minimal text. The style of Gubler’s art really lends itself perfectly to children’s literature. The format and length make it a little difficult as a whole group read aloud, but I can see this as a good fit for beginning readers or a one-on-one read aloud with kids. It is a sweet story that can be appreciated by both children and adults, celebrating that weirdness that makes each of us special.

Boris’s thoughts: “It’s a great story, but I can do without the banana peel. 3 paws.”

Land of Stories Companions

img_0673The Mother Goose Diaries

The Mother Goose Diaries purports to be just that—a diary written by the zany Mother Goose character from the Land of Stories. Honestly, I had some pretty high hopes for this one, but it left me feeling a little… meh. I love the eccentric Mother Goose that Colfer created for this series, the misfit fairy who is a bit wild and always up for adventure, but generally has good intentions. That is not quite the Mother Goose that seems to have written this diary. This Mother Goose comes off as more obnoxious than eccentric, and is perhaps too wild. The drug and alcohol references were more blatant and more frequent than expected, considering that this is a middle grade level book. There were definitely interesting uses of history in some places in the book, but at other times the history included seemed flippant and a little annoying.

I think my biggest issue with the book is that I had a hard time seeing it’s connection to the rest of the series. The diary follows Mother Goose through history, but there is minimal mention of the work of the fairies to spread stories of the Fairy Tale World. It is included, but generally glossed over rather quickly. Although the series talks about fairies sharing stories with authors like the Brothers Grimm, they are never mentioned. Nor are the twins, or any of the events from the series brought up at all. I realize that as a companion book this is intended to be separate from the primary series, but felt like there should have been something tying it to the other books.

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Queen Red Riding Hood’s Guide to Royalty

As we near the end of our journey through the Land of Stories, we come to Queen Red Riding Hood’s Guide to Royalty, another companion book authored by a character from the series. This book was a pleasant surprise for me. While I find Red’s character hysterical, she often becomes annoying. I thought that a whole book dedicated to her might be a little too much, but I think this was done perfectly. It was a short and quick read, which definitely helped it from being too “over the top.” I really enjoyed reading this, but I suspect that anyone who was not a fan of the original series may not fully appreciate the humor here.

In the later books in the series, Red finds an affinity for reading books from the “Other World,” although she often does not understand them or remember the correct names of authors. It is one of those books that inspired her to write this one, The Prince by “Nicole Macarena.” The book includes a little bit of back story to Red and her place in the kingdom that was not included in the original books, but the majority of it is taken up with her advice. As would be expected from her character, most of it is written rather condescendingly, and much of the time she presents as ridiculous and outrageous. However, there are actually some good points and advice included there, despite their somewhat ludicrous presentation.