Thursday, October 31, 2013

Children's Book Review - The Dark, Lemony Snicket

The Dark


Lemony Snicket, Jon Klassen (Ill.)

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: Laszlo is afraid of the dark—until the dark introduces itself.

Rating: *** (3-star scale)

Okay. The book is creepy. But the dark is creepy. And I think the author is probably a little creepy. So you can forgive it. Can kids forgive it? I don’t know. If they’re afraid of the dark, probably not.

Still, although the book was creepy, it was also oddly gentle. The text wasn’t creepy except in how spare it was.

I was afraid of the dark as a child. Would this book have cured me? No, not even close, but I can definitely enjoy the book as an adult.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
I think so.

You might also enjoy:
Creepy Carrots!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Children's Book Review - Creepy Carrots!, Aaron Reynolds, Peter Brown (Ill.)

Thought I'd share a picture book review in honor of Halloween. (Look for another one tomorrow.)

Creepy Carrots!


Aaron Reynolds, Peter Brown (Ill)

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: Every time Jasper Rabbit passes the carrots in Crackenhopper Field, he munches on some. But is it his imagination or have the carrots started to follow him?

Rating: *** (3-star scale)

A good book for Halloween season. I read this one with my grandson, and he called the ending before I did. (I won’t spoil it here.)

I’m not normally a fan of “thriller” children’s books, but this one ended well enough that I enjoyed it. The pictures are mostly black, gray, and orange, and there’s an ominous suspenseful feeling throughout. I think little boys, especially, will enjoy this one.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. If they have no problem with a slightly scary plot.

You might also enjoy:
The Dark, Lemony Snicket

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review - Help, Thanks, Wow, Anne Lamott

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers


Anne Lamott

Category: Nonfiction: Faith

Synopsis: Lamott discusses her three go-to prayers.

Date finished: 27 September 2013

Rating: ***½

God bless Anne Lamott. I love her dearly. Even when I disagree with her. And even when she spews venomous hatred at the Bush administration and anyone else right of center (or perhaps, right of far left).

A personal story. I’ve spent time with Anne Lamott. I introduced her at a reading she did as a part of my college’s Forum and Artist Series in the spring of 1998. Her Traveling Mercies was about to be released. We stood backstage, waiting for our cue, and she was infinitely more nervous than I was. She showed me pictures of her son, Sam (who is now a father), and gave me a mint. (I still have the wrapper.) She sat down and signed each and every book I brought with me, and she obligingly inscribed my program from that night, “Bird by Bird…Anne Lamott.” A year or so later I went to a reading she gave in the Twin Cities area, and she remembered me and my name. This graciousness is how authors create life-long fans. Because I’ve since read every (non-fiction) book she’s released—including those full of aforementioned venomous spews.

So, I feel like Anne and I have some history. I’ve read about her faith evolving over the years. And mine has evolved in another direction.

This book is full of Anne’s sense of humor and neurosis. She passes on wisdom and wisecracks from her friends of various faith backgrounds. It’s a short book that focuses on petitionary prayer (Help), prayer of thanksgiving (Thanks), and prayers of awe (Wow), plus thoughts on Amen.

Is it as good as her full-length books on faith? In my opinion, no. There was something missing here.

Did I agree with what she posited about prayer? Not always, but my faith is not mainstream.

What I know is this: we pray from where we are. Anne’s treatise is not my treatise. And that’s fine. You take what you can from a book like this. And I thank Anne for writing it.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Might be a nice gift book for a struggling friend.

You might also enjoy:
Any of Lamott’s other books on faith:
Traveling Mercies
Plan B
Grace (Eventually)

and the companion book to this one (out Oct. 29):

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review - My Life in France, Julia Child

My Life in France


Julia Child

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Food & Cooking; France; Celebrities

Synopsis: Famous television chef Julia Child recounts her life in France.

Date finished: 26 September 2013

Rating: ***½

I've always wondered why would you write a biography when a memoir has already been written? This book is my case in point. I read Dearie, the biography of Julia Child, back in March. I’m convinced it ruined me for My Life in France. It was thicker, covering Julia Child’s life before France and more of her life after France, but basically? Same book. So this felt like a re-read. And not even a very fascinating one.

My second beef about this book is that Julia Child didn’t write it. Her nephew interviewed her and wrote the book. This is revealed to us as early as the introductory pages, so I, skeptic that I am, spent the whole book guarded. Did Julia really say that? Was that an embellishment? Did Prud’Homme project there? I just wasn’t convinced this was Julia’s book.

The good news is the cynic in me that read Dearie against the grain is now satisfied that it’s probably a very faithful biography. It squares up nicely with this book.

I have very little to say about the book itself. Frankly, I think I might be Julia-ed out for a while. This is my third Julia book this year, and I have two more on the TBR shelf. But I think I’ll take a break.

And I think I should have read this book first.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
 I could go either way.

You might also enjoy:
Dearie, Bob Spitz
Julia’s Cats, Patricia Barey & Therese Burson
Julie & Julia, Julie Powell

Monday, October 21, 2013

Book Review - Maddie on Things, Theron Humphrey

Maddie on Things: A Super Serious Project about Dogs and Physics


Theron Humphrey

Category: Photography: Dogs; Projects & Adventures

Synopsis: Humphrey takes a photo of his coonhound Maddie in each of the 50 states.

Date finished: 25 September 2013

Rating: ****½

I am of two minds with this one.

First off, I love, love, LOVE the photos of Maddie. I love that you get a sense of Maddie’s nature. I love the odd perches and positions she poses in. I love the way the photos are taken. I love the processing and the square presentation.

Got it? I love these photos.

My beef is with the short introductory comments. They were bewildering to me. I read the intro twice and I still don’t have a clue what the book is about. Here’s the deal: Humphrey isn’t a writer and he wasn’t edited (I found two mistakes on one into page alone). And here’s thing two: I don’t think Humphrey really knows what the book is about either.

He could have omitted the intro, and this would have just been a great book of dog photography. But he didn’t. So, I will try to give you a synopsis here. Humphrey was growing disillusioned with corporate photography (no, I don’t know what that is, either). He wanted to do something real. So he chucked his well-paying, secure job and decided to drive around the country—through every state—and meet a person every day. He adopted Maddie to have a companion on his trip. Along the way, he discovered that Maddie’s talent was perching in precarious positions exactly as she is placed. So, we end up with a book of photos of Maddie. Wait, you say, what happened with the whole meeting people and feeling real project? How’d that pan out? Your guess is as good as mine, buddy. I’m telling you, I read the intro twice.

Had the intro made sense, this would have been a five-star book all day long.

So, in short, buy this book, love the photos, but skip the introduction. 

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, but skip the introductory comments.

You might also enjoy:
Dancers among Us, Jordan Matter

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review - The Hungry Ear, Kevin Young (Ed.)

The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink


Kevin Young (Ed)


Category: Poetry: Food

Synopsis: An anthology of 150+ contemporary poems about food and drink.

Date finished: 18 September 2013     

Rating: ****½

My best and most vivid memories involve food:

     My mother turning the kitchen upside down twice a year to make 20 dozen doughnuts for the
     church bake sales. Her doughnuts were always priced higher than the others.

     Making lefse with my Norwegian grandmother.

     The first thing I ever cooked by myself: potato soup with egg dumplings from a church cookbook
     because my mother never made soup. I was 13.

     Going through my grandmother’s refrigerator with my aunt after Grandma passed away in 2004.
     We found a bag of chopped nuts in there from 1982.

     My father teaching me to spell “mayonnaise.”

     My brothers getting jars of pickles for Christmas because they were so hard to buy for.

     Eating baked French fries out of an oval serving bowl off of upended boxes when my husband and
     I were moving into our first apartment together.

     The way my mother had hard and fast rules about meat and vegetable paring. Carrots with
     beef, corn with pork, peas with chicken and fish, squash with meatloaf. Every time. She never

We all have these memories. They’re part of what makes us who we are.

I can’t think of a better topic for a poetry anthology than food. (I’d say bees come in a close second, though. Poets do love to write about bees.)

Kevin Young did a phenomenal job of collecting a smorgasbord (sorry, couldn’t help it) of food-related poems. But what blew me away was the organization of the poems. They were arranged with the skill of a surgeon. (That’s a bad metaphor, let me try again.) They were arranged like a tailor’s tiny hand stitches. Each following the last, each leading to the next, nothing out of order. It was a marvel.

You’ll see some usual suspects, like William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” but you’ll find many, many more you’ve never read by poets you have. It’s an accessible volume, which is what I always hope for but don’t always get.

I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. The poets included are exceptional. And the poems were mouthwatering. A true meal for the ear.

My favorite poems about food that were not included:

Song, Robert Hass
The Feast, Robert Hass
The Catsup Bottle, Ogden Nash
Divorced Fathers and Pizza Crusts, Mark Halliday
Bone Handled Fork, Ted Kooser
After Forty Years of Marriage, She Tries A New Recipe For Hamburger Hot Dish, Leo Dangel
The Iceberg Theory, Gerald Lochlin

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday (Forced Reads)

This week’s Topic: Top Ten Books I Was Forced to Read

These are all books I had to read for school. I’ve listed these in order of how painful they were to read.

Top Ten Most Painful Forced Reads

1. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

2. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane

3. The Aeneid, Virgil

4. The Iliad, Homer

5. The Odyssey, Homer

6. The Stranger, Albert Camus

7. Macbeth, William Shakespeare

8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

9. Hamlet, William Shakespeare

10. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman


Top Ten Not-So-Bad Forced Reads

1. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

2. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

3. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

4. In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway

5. Dubliners, James Joyce

6. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

7. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

8. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

9. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Monday, October 14, 2013

Big Books

There are some good chunky books out right now, and I’ve added a few of them to my To Be Read shelf. I still suffer from that third-grade affliction of big books = scary, but I’m getting over it little by little.
Here are my big scary TBRs:

One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson (528 pages)

About the happenings of the summer of 1927 including such figures as Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth. Bryson is always fun, so this "history book" shouldn't be too dry.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore (464 pages)

About Ben Franklin's sister Jane, a semi-literate mother of twelve with a head full of ideas. I've not read anything by this author, nor do I know much about 1700s America, so this should be informative.

Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Monarch, Barbara A. Perry (416 pages)

There are SO many Kennedy books out right now, since we're coming up on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, but this is the Kenndy book that most captured my attention.

An Autobiography, Agatha Christie (544 pages)

How excited was I when I realized Agatha Christie had written an autobiography? Ask my husband about the IM he received one morning from his memoir- and Christie-obsessed wife.

(This book came out in 2011.)
And a couple I’ve had on my shelf for quite a while:
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand (496 pages)

The font seems so impossibly small. Plus it's about war, and although WWII is my favorite period of history, I have to be in the right frame of mind for 500 pages of it. Amazon says I bought this in January of 2011. Eeeks.

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, Sally Bedell Smith (688 pages)

I know next to nothing about the British monarch, so I'm anxious to read this. I've read reviews that warn of the anti-Diana sentiment. I'm not necessarily a huge fan of Diana, but hearing this side of the story (much like the film The Queen), should be interesting.

What hefty books are on your TBR?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review - Summer at Tiffany, Marjorie Hart

Summer at Tiffany


Marjorie Hart

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Adventure

Synopsis: The author recounts working for Tiffany and Co. in New York City during the summer of 1946.

Date finished: 16 September 2013

Rating: ****½

Chances are if you created a Wordle of my reviews, the word “charming” would be about the largest. I live to be charmed by books. That’s why I read. Well, that, and to learn. And to escape. Regardless. This book is capital-C Charming. I smiled the whole way through.

I was charmed by the 1940s naiveté of Marjorie and her friend Marty. When a prominent NYC man tells them his wife loves Tiffany’s, that he’s “worked for them for years” they think he literally works for Tiffany and use him as a reference when interviewing there!

I was charmed by the way they found themselves in the right place at the right time—at Tiffany’s when Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich walk in and in Times Square when Roosevelt announced the end of World War II.

I was charmed by their mishaps and adventures, like when Marjorie opens a case of loose pearls in the Tiffany elevator, and they skitter to the floor. Or when she’s learning to sniff brandy when the vice president of Tiffany and Co. shows up unannounced.

I was charmed by her letters home, by her romance with her military man Jim, by her wartime frugality. I was charmed by her Norwegian heritage, her mention of lutefisk and lefse (quite Norwegian myself, I grew up on lefse and own my grandmother’s ruby glass lutefisk bowl). I was charmed by her hokey gee whiz exclamations. I was charmed by her mention of Iowa sports announcer Dutch Reagan, who decades later, of course, becomes President Reagan. 

I was just charmed. I ate the book up. It was a nice refreshing romp through a sweet time in history and in Marjorie’s life. I’m so glad her writers group encouraged her to write it!

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review - Mother Teresa, Kathryn Spink

Mother Teresa: An Authorized Biography (Revised Edition)


Kathryn Spink

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Faith; Christianity; Catholic

Synopsis: Spink recounts Mother Teresa’s life and works in Calcutta, India, and throughout the world.

Date finished: 12 September 2013

Rating: ***

Okay, I know it seems sacrilegious to rate a book about Mother Teresa three stars, but I have to keep remembering that I’m rating the book, not the subject. And the book, frankly, wasn’t my cup of tea. Although well-written, it was completely and totally uninspiring, and THAT is what I would expect in a biography about a woman who spent her life immersed in enormously selfless and loving work for the “poorest of the poor.” I saved this book for several months, for when I was hungry for a good life-affirming read. I was so disappointed. I wanted to stop reading, but I kept hoping it would get better. For much of the book, I was just waiting for it to end.

The book basically amounted to a chronological résumé of Mother Teresa’s work. It listed the countless Missionaries of Charity convents and humanitarian houses she established around the world. It included excerpts from her various speeches and numerous letters, as well as the text of her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Her views on the importance of prayer, the preciousness of family, the sanctity of life were discussed. Everything you ever wanted to know about the various foundations, the numbers of Sisters and Brothers, Co-Workers, etc.—and her guidance and advice to them—it’s all right here. But there is no heart, no spark. And while I understand that focusing on the personality of Mother Teresa was counter to her mission, including only occasional anecdotes regarding her character does her a disservice. You can describe a missionary of God without taking the glory from God. And doing so would bring more prayerful (and monetary) support to the work that continues in her name.

Additionally, I was frustrated by the dropping of Catholic terms that mean nothing to a non-Catholic. There was no glossary and no definition in the text itself. I have no idea what the difference between a postulate, novice, or sister is. I don’t know what a novena is. I don’t know what/who the Holy See is. I don’t know what “first profession” and “final profession” is. I think I kind of figured it out, but I could have figured it out incorrectly. How could the author not realize that not everyone who would pick up her book was Catholic? Certainly she knew that. Mother Teresa never discriminated between Hindu, Muslim, Jew, and Christian. She didn’t speak to one, she spoke to all. She didn’t treat one, she treated all.

I was also severely irritated by the author’s unconventional use of punctuation. All the quotes inside the punctuation marks. Ugh. I noticed it EVERY TIME it happened. It was distracting. Also, she didn’t follow conventional comma usage, which was just weird.

There were times near the end of the book where the author—who knew Mother Teresa and had her blessing on her book project—would insert herself into the story. This was a bit strange. I also noticed that in the last few chapters when she discussed opposition to Mother Teresa’s work and relations, she was obviously defensive. This seemed incongruous and unnecessary and cast a shadow on the validity of the first 250 pages.

At present, Mother Teresa (now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta) is awaiting sainthood. A second intercession miracle must be validated before she can be canonized as a saint. (I think I have this right, but again, I’m unfamiliar with Catholicism.) Her work touched the lives of countless, and to those she wasn’t able to nurse back to health from starvation or sickness, she provided a dignified death. “A beautiful death,” she maintained, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.” Her calling was to give “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor” by recognizing Christ in each suffering person and to quench his thirst. She believed that in order to “understand and help those who have nothing, we must live like them…” She did “ordinary things with extraordinary love.” And her work continues.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
No. I’d recommend they try another biography.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review - The 100 Best African American Poems, Nikki Giovanni (Ed.)

The 100 Best African American Poems


Nikki Giovanni (Ed.)

Category: Poetry; African-American

Synopsis: An anthology of the best 100 African American poems, as edited by Nikki Giovanni.

Date finished: 4 September 2013

Rating: ***½

First, I must admit I am not the best person for reviewing this book. My knowledge of African-American poetry is by no means extensive. By no means.

That said, I have some opinions.

As I see it, there are two things you can comment on when reviewing an anthology of poetry. One is how well the subject (or era, etc.) of the anthology was represented. The second is how well the anthology resonates with you as a reader.

An anthology exposes the prejudices of the editor compiling it, for better or worse. Our editor, Nikki Giovanni, came of age during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. She has used her poetry and notoriety to speak out on these issues. You do not need to know that to read this collection, as it will become evident by the poems chosen. They lean heavily toward these issues. In her introduction, she talks about including poems by poets from her mother’s generation—Robert Hayden, for one—as almost an apology. (Or maybe I’m oversensitive. I believe Those Winter Sundays is one of the most wonderful poems in the English language.)

We do see the usual suspects here:
Theme for English B, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and Harlem by Langston Hughes
We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks
Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

These usual suspects are familiar and welcoming. And there is a nice mix of generations here. There were a few poets that I felt were underrepresented. I was surprised by the omission of Maya Angelou and the near omission of Rita Dove (Poet Laureate, 1993-1995), for instance.

And I have to tell you I was quite irked about the inclusion of no less than six poems by Giovanni. Six! Now, I realize there was a selection committee, but still, I would have limited my own presence in the 100 BEST to ONE of my own poems. Apparently, Ms. Giovanni is not a, shall we say, humble, woman.

As for how well the anthology resonated, I judge poems like I judge music, poem by poem, song by song. There are some gems here, there are a lot of poems important for historical reasons (poems about Emmett Till and the Freedom Riders—but Tupac Shakur, not so much, IMHO), and there are poems that a white woman simply can’t relate to, no matter how hard I try. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I did fell in love with a poem by Kwame Alexander. It was by far my favorite in the whole collection.

Overall, I’m glad I read this collection, but it didn’t live up to my excitement over discovering it. I was hoping for more new-to-me poets and less bashing of the right wing (I’m looking at you, Giovanni). It felt a little too heavily slanted toward activism, which is a comment that just might land me in know-nothing honky land, but so be it.

For the record, I read the Introduction three times and still have no idea what Giovanni means when she says she “cheated.”

Would you recommend this to a friend?
It’s a good collection for a class studying African-American poetry. But to the average reader, probably not.

You might also enjoy:
Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni – this is, to my recollection, the only book of her poetry that I’ve read, but the poem The Only True Lovers Are Chefs or Happy Birthday Edna Lewis burns me down.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday (Book Turnoffs)

This week’s Topic: Top Ten Book Turnoffs


1. ugly topics (disease, sickness, death, rape, incest, abuse, abduction, infidelity, abortion, drug use)

2. sexual promiscuity

3. hatred of non-liberals

4. poor editing & typos

5. unbelievable plots

6. books written by journalists

7. food snobbishness

8. inspirational & gift books

9. overt atheism

10. gratuitous swearing