Friday, May 30, 2014

I Broke My Trunk! Mo Willems

I Broke My Trunk!


Mo Willems

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: Piggie wants to know how Gerald the Elephant broke his trunk.

Rating: ** (3-star scale)

So, do you agree with me that Mo Willems is a genius? He never seems to tire, and each book is as good as the last. While his Pigeon books are my personal favorites, I do like Piggie and Gerald an awful lot.

So, Gerald has a broken trunk and Piggie has an all-consuming curiosity. Gerald’s story, however, is as long as his trunk, and Piggie doesn’t have an awful lot of patience. And likely, neither does the book’s audience. How did he break his trunk? You’ll find out. And you’ll be surprised.

Willems is good at giving an ending a twist. And I think he gets me every time.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. It’s a good easy reader that will keep kids reading.

You might also enjoy:
Any of the other Elephant and Piggie books.
And anything at all by Willems.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Enemy Pie, Derek Munson, Tara Calahan King (Ill.)

Enemy Pie


Derek Munson, Tara Calahan King (Ill.)

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: When Jeremy Ross moves into the neighborhood, he becomes Enemy Number One. But Dad has a recipe that will take care of enemies.

Rating: ** (3-star scale)

I had this one checked out and sitting in a big stack when my grandson came over the other day. He pulled it out and said, “You HAVE to read this one.” So we sat down right then and there and read it together.

Parents, you’re going to see it coming a mile away. But it will still be worth the read.

This is a nice lesson in having enemies and making friends.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Coming Soon: Dinner: The Playbook (Aug. 26) 
I’m excited WAY in advance for Jenny Rosenstrach’s follow-up to her wonderful Dinner: A Love Story. Dinner: The Playbook is set to be released August 26.
If you’re unfamiliar with Jenny, Dinner: A Love Story, or her website of the same name, you have a couple of months to catch up. In short, though, Jenny and her husband made a commitment when their girls were small (they’re now tweens) to have family supper. They navigated the “plain food” stage, the picky eating common among children (actually, they’re not out of the woods yet) and they talk about what worked for them. They give sumptuous recipes and stories. They’re part foodie (there’s a lot of talk of Trader Joe’s and use of trendy, fancy-pants ingredients, and they seem completely unaware of anyone living west of New Englandespecially us folks in “flyover country”) and part normal parents with busy work schedules and sports practice, etc. The writing is intelligent, so even when I’m not interested in a particular dish, I enjoy reading the post. The photos are wonderful, too. Also, from time to time their girls give book reviews which are quite sophisticated.
If you haven’t read Dinner: A Love Story, give it a try. After all, you never know until you try it!
Here’s a link to Jenny’s announcement of the new book.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday (Books into movies)

This week’s topic: Top Ten Tuesday Freebie! Pick your own topic!

My topic: Books you want to see made into movies.

So often, while I’m reading a book I’ll see it play in my head like a movie. Some stories are just made to be acted out on the big screen. Here are some I think would make terrific flicks.

The Martian, Andy Weir
The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown
Mrs. Kennedy and Me, Clint Hill & Lisa McCubbin
One Summer, Bill Bryson
Kabul Beauty School, Deborah Rodriguez
The Spark, Kristine Barnett
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
Breaking Clean, Judy Blunt
The Late Homecomer, Kao Kalia Yang

And these two are coming out in December. I can’t wait to see both in the theatre.
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand
Wild, Cheryl Strayed


Friday, May 23, 2014

The Martian, Andy Weir

The Martian: A Novel


Andy Weir

Category: Science Fiction

Synopsis: Astronaut Mark Watley is left behind on Mars. Even if his ingenuity keeps him alive, will NASA be able to get him home?

Date finished: 23 April 2014

Rating: ***½ (Since I was reading something completely out of my comfort zone, I decided I could break the rules by using half-stars. I really feel it’s better than a three, but not quite a four.)


I. Read. A. Science. Fiction. Book. I know, right?

Well, I’ve been reading toward a full card in the Full House Reading Challenge—even though I haven’t signed up yet. One of the challenges is to read a Sci Fi book. My intention was to use that as my one free “Skip” because I just don’t do fiction, much less science fiction. But, it IS supposed to be a challenge, after all. And when the blog world went into buzz hyper-drive over this book, I thought I’d check it out. I watch scores of Sci Fi movies, and swarms, storms, and space are my favorite subgenres. This sounded like a movie I’d watch, so I decided to give the book a try.

I guess you could say I got exactly what I expected. Here’s the thing with fiction, for me. Most of the fiction I’ve read in the past has been plot-heavy but light on technique, characters, and meaning. There’s very little subtly, and the plots are just too unreal. And I’m not talking about dystopian fiction, or even science fiction. I’m talking about run-of-the-mill, straight-forward fiction. I know that’s what most folks LIKE about fiction. It just has never worked for me.

So, although I enjoyed this book, I thought the plot was good, and the solutions were fabulous, it drove me nuts. I know it’s silly to expect nuance in science fiction, but I did expect great characters to go with a great plot. Instead, the characters, male and female, young and old, Americans and foreigners, administrators and peons, were all exactly the same. They were all immature, sarcastic, swearing, smart alec boy-nerds. Every NASA employee, including our main character, thought and spoke like a 15-year-old guy. It drove me bonkers.

I realize I may take fiction too seriously. But I take writing seriously. And the characterization just didn’t measure up.

But, I was able to force aside my frustration and enjoy the book for what it was, a smart out-of-this-world adventure story. (See what I did there? Snort.) I have no idea if any of the science in this book was accurate. I hoped it was, and if so, it is really quite phenomenal. The mind that can create the problems and the solutions and still write a passable book is kinda brilliant. I acknowledge that.

I just wish the entire experience would have been that smart.  

Would you recommend this to a friend?
It was fun and worth the read, yes. You’ll be light-years ahead (snort) if you know your metric conversions, though.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Watermelon Seed, Greg Pizzoli

The Watermelon Seed


Greg Pizzoli

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: What will happen when Crocodile swallows a watermelon seed?

Rating: * (3-star scale)

Award: 2014 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Winner

Sorry to be blunt, but with all the wonderful picture books I read each year, I’m very disappointed that this one won the Seuss award. I found this book so boring. I know this is a book for preschoolers, but I still think this one is a stinker and people like it mostly because it won an award. The illustrations are flat and two-color instead of full-color. The whole presentation is just sort of blah.

And then there’s this—

Do children still have a foreboding fear of a swallowed watermelon seed growing into a melon in their belly? Isn’t that a fear adults project onto children? Most preschoolers don’t understand horticulture enough to know that a seed grows into a plant and a plant produces fruit. And those who know about seeds and plant growth don’t think their stomachs will grow a melon since seeds need dirt and sunlight. Right?

And didn’t the Sesame Street gang dispel that myth once and for all in 1981? (I believe it was an orange seed….)

Is it obvious that this one made me cranky? Sorry, Mr. Pizzoli.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fortunately, the Milk, Neil Gaiman

Fortunately, the Milk


Neil Gaiman

Category: Children’s

Synopsis: A father goes out for milk…and returns with quite a tale.

Date finished: 16 April 2014

Rating: ****

If your young reader loves fantastical, epic stories, this is the book for him! I bought a copy for my grandson for Christmas, and it promptly got lost on his bookshelf. I thought I’d read it myself so I could entice him with a few juicy plot points. I have a lot to choose from!

In this book, there are:
volcano gods,
a Stegosaurus in a hot-air balloon with a time machine,…
and two kids waiting for milk.

There is also a pile of wild pen-and-ink illustrations. (I think it might be fun for a kid to take markers to the pages to bring even more imagination to the story.)

This is definitely worth the read.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. Highly.

You might also enjoy:
The Year of Billy Miller

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hunger Wide as Heaven, Max Garland

Hunger Wide as Heaven


Max Garland

Category: Poetry

Synopsis: Poems by the current Wisconsin poet laureate.

Date finished: 16 April 2014

Rating: ****

Max Garland was my poetry workshop instructor in college. I am indebted to him for what he did for my poetry writing and for bringing poetry to life for me. Anything I know about poetry I learned from others. Anything I feel for poetry, I learned from Max.

This collection, like his debut The Postal Confessions, is a fabulous group of poems that heavily employ themes of faith and the natural world. Imagery is poetry walking, and his images live, breathe, sigh, and are as earnest as clergy. These are gentle poems, subtle poems you can get into and interact with because they are poems about the human experience and the human reaction to life.

And occasionally, they’re darn funny.

A stanza from my favorite poem of the collection, “This Tree”:

The sky’s brightness on this winter day,
the way the blue fills in, coronates
and haloes the branches,
renders the linden a little ridiculous,
like a skeleton with a hairdo,
all teased out with no place to go
except through the wind’s hands
over and over.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Anything by Billy Collins or William Stafford.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bout of Books Read-a-thon check in

I'm terrible at keeping updates during the read-a-thon. I'm too busy reading to want to blog! My three days off were wonderful. I finished up one book, read a second, and got halfway into a third. Here are my stats:

So, overall, I read finished two books this week (The Signature of All Things and Glitter and Glue) and got to within 100 pages of the end of another (Moneyball). That's a total of 625 pages. I normally read 250-300 pages per week, or the equivalent of one book. I was disappointed that 75 pages of that was a book I didn't end up wanting to finish. It seems like a waste. But then I calm down and remind myself that I'm reading for enjoyment, not for numbers.

Sunday, May 18
By the time we sat down to supper, I was exhausted, and it was nearly bedtime. Only got in another 10 pages before I had to hit the hay.

On a side note, though, my brother called, and he asked if I'd read anything good yet this year. So we traded titles back and forth, and he--again--strongly recommended Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. He loves all things Africa, and I've enjoyed Kingsolver's nonfiction in the past, so if you see me reading The Poisonwood Bible, it's because of my brother Reggie. (I swore I'd never forgive her for Pigs in Heaven, though, so we'll see.)

Saturday, May 17
I typically don't read a page from after work on Friday until Sunday evening. But today I accompanied my husband to guitar stores, and I got a few pages of Moneyball in here and there, probably 30 total.

Friday, May 16
I never get much read on Fridays. I think I only read another 25-30 pages of Moneyball.

Thursday, May 15
My last day off to read. Read another 100 pages of Moneyball. There was a chapter on baseball statistics and statisticians that just about did me in. (I think I fell asleep as a defense mechanism.) But things picked up after that.

While I was off, I also, acting on a whim, removed from my bookshelves all my unread books and all the books I've read but didn't become favorites. I mixed them up (I generally shelve by genre: memoirs, celebrity, fiction, general nonfiction, women's studies) and made stacks and went through them. I quickly culled at least 100 books this way. Something about removing them from the shelves I'm used to seeing them on broke the mesmerism of keeping them. It has never been so easy for me to say, "I'm no longer interested in reading this book" or "I didn't even enjoy this book enough to keep it."

I cleared off two-and-a-half long shelves. Lots of room for new possibilities. Not bad for a whim!

Wednesday, May 14
Finished Glitter and Glue. It was a quick read, and while I enjoyed it, I found it quite average.

Spent a lot of time trying to decide on my next book. If I'm going to be reading all day, I want it to be a really good book. Was feeling a little burned by the Patchett book--and memoirs in general--and I still longed for the Gilbert book. So I chose something completely different. Got about 20 pages into Moneyball.

Tuesday, May 13
Read most of the day. Finished the last 70 pages of The Signature of All Things, which was out of this world. I don't normally read fiction, but I was intrigued by a blogger review, and I flew through this 500-page chunkster.

Then I started This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Unfortunately, I read 75 pages before realizing the book just wasn't for me. I started Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan before bed, and got 35 pages in.

Monday, May 12
I worked, so only read my usual 50 pages of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Well, probably more like 65 pages, considering I got to stay up late!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bout of Books Read-a-thon

Last year I loved participating in the spring Bout of Books Read-a-thon. I took off three days to do nothing but read, and it was wonderful. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to "attend" this year, though. It's finals week at the university, and my boss is recovering from heart surgery, so it's not the best time to take off time, but I woke up at one point early this morning (to a booming spring thunderstorm) and I knew I just had to try to get the days off. So I scrambled to get my last book order of the fiscal year done, invoices paid, timesheet submitted, credit card statement signed and handed in...and I'm off for the next three days to read. Glorious!

Not that you have to take time off to attend. Most folks don't, but these read-a-thons have become my favorite way of using my vacation days.

My goals during my reading staycation:

1. Finish The Signature of All Things. I am LOVING this book. As you know, I'm not a fiction reader, but I read a review of this book on Swapna Krishna's wonderful site, and I was so intrigued I had to buy a copy. It's absolutely wonderful. I adore Elizabeth Gilbert's writing. I only have about 100 pages left (it's a 500 page novel), and it's been a very quick read for me.

2. Read a good old fashion memoir. I've been reading so much "regular" nonfiction lately, it seems like it's been forever since I've read a memoir. I'll choose from Glitter and Glue, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and Mother Daughter Me.

3. Start (finish?) something else to clean up the TBR. Who knows what that might be. Another memoir? Maybe something I've been saving like Quiet or Gulp. Or maybe one of my newest acquisitions Lean In, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay. Come to think of it, a cultural book sounds really good.

4. Read through my pile of picture books. I have a couple dozen picture books due back to the library at the end of the month, and I'm woefully behind. I have some intriguing bookseven some nonfiction, so I'm looking forward to diving in.

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 12th and runs through Sunday, May 18th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure, and the only reading competition is between you and your usual number of books read in a week. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 10 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

Friday, May 9, 2014

Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Marta McDowell

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales


Marta McDowell

Category: Nonfiction: Biography; Gardening

Synopsis: McDowell takes us on a tour of Beatrix Potter’s English gardens.

Date finished: 15 April 2014

Rating: ***

I saved this book until I couldn’t stand it any longer. This winter has been absolutely b-r-u-t-a-l brutal. And incessant. And cold. And snowy. This winter I was shoveling snow into drifts that were as tall as my shoulder. And then, our lawn between the sidewalk and street was piled so high, we ran out of any place to shovel the snow. We resorted to shoveling it into the streets. And spring has been so slow to descend. We’ll have a 60 degree day followed by a 12-inch snowfall.

All this to say, I could use a book about gardening right about now.

This book was full of loads of wonderful pictures. It was luscious eye candy. Not only were there lots of Potter’s illustrations (Peter Rabbit and the like), but there were black and white photos from Potter’s family, color photos from present day, and watercolor pictures of plant specimens. There was hardly as single page that didn’t contain an illustration. The artful display really uplifted my dark spirits.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the prose. There was no spark there. The book was divided into three parts: Potter’s life as a gardener, a year in Potter’s gardens, and a present day visit to her gardens. I found part one most interesting, as I was interesting in a glimpse into who Beatrix Potter was (the Renée Zellweger  movie was my only source of information until now). But this section did not discuss how she became a world-famous illustrator, only told us that she did, what she published and the occasional brief summary of one of her books. As disappointing as this was, the second and third parts of the book were even less appealing because there was no Beatrix in them at all. Part two focused only on the gardens. Part three was a dry step-by-step narrative of what you would see should you visit her gardens now.

If you’re looking for biographical information, I suggest you look for a different title. If you’re more interested in the gardens than the gardener, this would be the perfect balance for you. As for me, I found the illustrations satisfying, and that, rather than the narrative, is what I’ll return to.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
A gardener would love it. An illustrator, too. Likely a must-have for Potter fans.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

All Joy and No Fun, Jennifer Senior

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood


Jennifer Senior

Category: Nonfiction; Parenting & Families

Synopsis: Examines modern middleclass parents’ experiences with parenthood.

Date finished: 12 April 2014

Rating: ****

I cut my teeth on nonfiction books about parenting. Not Dr. Spock or What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but personal parenting stories. I loved them, couldn’t get enough of them. And having read so many of them, this book is nothing earth-shattering. It expounds on trends I’ve been seeing for years. Fathers who want to be more involved but feel pushed out of parenting because mothers want it done right (i.e., their way)? Nothing new. Mothers who’d rather do housework (housework!) than interact with their small children? Yup, saw it coming, too.

This book has a lot to say. Senior presents statistics and findings, but she also tags along with middleclass parents as they do the daily juggle of parenting, working, and being a spouse. She never gets intrusive enough to muddy the waters with her own opinions. The book walks a fine line between the science of parenting, or parenting as an anthropological study, and personal stories. Normally I sort of detest the journalism-y half-interview/half-exposé thing when it appears in books, but Senior did it so expertly it actually became one of my favorite parts of the book.

Although the information presented in the book is nothing new—nothing you wouldn’t find in your own home, for example—the book is quite engaging. The writing is crisp but not technical or sentimental. She doesn’t judge, though she occasionally offers observations from her own experiences as a mother.

Senior splits the book into sections that mimic parenting seasons: infancy, toddlerhood, school age, and adolescence. (And she doesn’t ignore marriage and how it’s affected by parenthood.) The section on adolescence was disturbing to me, as it shows just how much control has been yielded to the next generation and how many parents are turning a blind eye because they’d “rather not know.” Ooph! We’ll reap the thorns of that harvest.

In general, nothing here to greatly offend or greatly impress, just a nice portrait of modern parenthood with all its joy and some of its fun.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
7 Stages of Motherhood, Ann Pleshette Murphy
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua
Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman
Coop, Michael Perry
Dinner with Dad, Cameron Stracher
French Kids Eat Everything, Karen Le Billon
Honest Toddler, Bunmi Laditan
Let the Baby Drive, Lu Hanessian
The Spark, Kristine Barnett

Monday, May 5, 2014

Strings Attached, Joanne Lipman & Melanie Kupchynsky

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations


Joanne Lipman, Melanie Kupchynsky

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir; Music

Synopsis: Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupshynsky share the story of learning to play music under the intimidating Mr. K (Melanie’s father).

Date finished: 7 April 2014

Rating: ****

I’d read stellar reviews of this book. And the reviews threw around words like “inspiring” and “poignant” and “must read.” So, in case you’ve read these reviews too, I want to clarify. I would not consider this book inspiring or life-affirming, and “poignant must read” might be a stretch. I like my “poignant must reads” to be happy. And happy was missing from this book. My adjectives would be “joyless,” “resolute,” and “tragic.”

Mr. K was a bully. He used intimidation, corporal punishment, and fear to get results. The fact that so many of his students appreciated him as adults is a little surprising to me. He pushed them to be better, yes, and I know that present-day methods of teaching using inclusivity and political correctness aren’t yielding great results either, but his constant belittling and harsh criticism turned me off. His highest compliment was “not bad.” How did so many kids thrive on that? He was not a likable character, so the book had to be carried by something else.

That something else was the narrative thread. Although the book was full of loneliness, pain, sickness, and tragedy—almost nothing happy happened in the entire book—it was infinitely readable. It even evolved into a mystery toward the end. The story was fascinating, in the way that a car accident is fascinating. You might rubberneck to see what horrible thing was happening, but afterwards you think you shouldn’t have taken that in.

That’s how I felt about this book. I went in for the story of a tough love teacher who is respected because he respects, and I came away with a heavy feeling of disconnect. There was just too much discontent, too much conditional love.

The writing was very good, but the switch in narrator from Joanne to Melanie really got in the way. I would have preferred a single narrative reference point.

I rated this based on the writing and readability.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Friday, May 2, 2014

Chaser, John W. Pilley with Hilary Hinzmann

Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words


Dr. John W. Pilley, Hilary Hinzmann

Category: Nonfiction; Science; Dogs

Synopsis: Psychologist John Pilley teaches his Border Collie, Chaser, 1,022 words, more than any animal but man.

Date finished: 2 April 2014

Rating: ****

By now you know that I love dog books. And while I don’t read a lot of science books, I enjoy the ones I read. So this book was a great combination of canine heart and scientific discovery.

This is really a fascinating discovery, and it’s written for the average person without much background in psychological experimentation. Not only does Pilley teach Chaser the names of 1,022 toys, but he teachers her to retrieve them on command. Beyond this, Chaser learns to retrieve an unknown toy from a pile of known toys by deduction. And then Pilley takes things a step further to teach Chaser the meanings of sentences with nouns, verbs, and direct and indirect objects. This is done by imitation.

These findings, published in a peer reviewed science journal, demonstrate animal intelligence that has long been denied by other scientists. Pilley’s studies with Chaser also give insight into language acquisition in toddlers.

The thing I loved above all with this book was the tone. Dr. Pilley has a zest for life and learning. He’s inherently positive. I think he might be one of those people who buzzes with energy. The book was infectious.

There are times when the writing gets a big bogged down in psychology research terms that I didn’t seem to retain. I skimmed a bit when he went into detail about how the studies were performed, and what controls were set in place.

It’s interesting to note that Pilley had to write each toy’s name on it with a Sharpie so that he could keep them straight!

Beyond his studies with language acquisition, though, I also gleaned practical tips on training a dog. Basically, you train by naming and encouraging the dog’s natural movements and actions.

And rest assured, Chaser is not Pilley’s science experiment, she’s a member of the family. She plays. She butts into conversations. She likes Frisbees and tennis balls. But given the Border Collie’s high levels of intelligence, learning comes naturally. And given the retired psychology professor’s love of discovery and demonstration, you have a pair with few limits.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Clementine, Sara Pennypacker, Marla Frazee (Ill.)



Sara Pennypacker, Marla Frazee (Ill.)

Category: Children’s

Synopsis: Clementine tells about her disastrous week…and her triumphs.

Date finished: 28 March 2014

Rating: *****

I’ve never read a book by accident before, but there’s a first time for everything, I guess. I started this book on my way to my desk after lunch one day and before I was done with work, I nearly had it finished. It was so much fun it almost read itself.

I’ve said before that my favorite characters in children’s books are spunky little girls who are sure they’ve got it all figured out. Girls like Olivia and Eloise. Well, let me add Clementine to the short list. What a hoot this kid is. She spends a lot of time “fixing” things and “helping” folks.

Likewise, she spends a lot of time in the principal’s office.

This is a fast-paced book that takes place over a week’s time. Her exploits are pretty entertaining. Her confidence and fear* fill her day in a 2:1 ratio. She finds her little brother, insert vegetable name of the day here, annoying because he’s so easy on her parents. And she learns why she “fixed” her friend Margaret’s hair—an answer that was buried beneath the surface.

This book charmed me. Completely.

*fear of pointy things and fear of being traded for an easier kid, especially

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
The Year of Billy Miller