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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.

 

Book 56/100: Pete the Cat - the Wheels on the Bus by James Dean

— feeling cat
Pete the Cat: The Wheels on the Bus - James Dean

This is my first Pete the Cat book, and I know it's not representative since it's an adaptation of the Wheels on the Bus song rather than an original story. Still, it's tons of fun! The Wheels on the Bus is one of my favorite songs from childhood, and the rhythm it provides makes this a really fun readaloud (even if my month-old baby did start crying halfway through -- I'll force this book on him again when he's older.) Also, you can't really go wrong with these droll illustrations, which serve as a fun counterpoint to the actions you can do with your child at different points in the song. The illustrations seem to tell a subversive story all their own that is completely disregarded in the text -- like, why is there a lone dog riding this bus full of cats? Is he a dog on the outside but a cat on the inside? I look forward to exploring more Pete the Cat!

Book 55/100: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness

I rarely give books five stars, but this one just gave me so many feels.

I already knew that Patrick Ness is an excellent writer, at least when it comes to his YA work. But this book was staggeringly beautiful, dealing with tragedy in a way that is real and raw and not full of the melodrama or romanticization that so often goes along with YA or middle-grade depictions of grief. Not only that, but Ness takes a look at the darker, messier sides of grieving that are universal and yet rarely acknowledged, something that is particularly important for kids to encounter: the scary things we think or feel when we are on the edge of losing someone we love are OK, normal, and understandable.

This book also strikes the perfect balance between fantasy and realism, allowing the reader to decide how much of it is "real" and how much Conor's own invention/coping mechanism. Aside from Conor's grandmother, the characters are not particularly fleshed out -- however, this type of characterization works in a story that can be read mostly as an allegory. And really, any book that makes me cry this much is definitely doing something right.

Book 54/100: I Love You Like Crazy Cakes by Rose Lewis

I Love You Like Crazy Cakes - Rose A. Lewis, Jane Dyer

A beautiful, child-friendly book about Chinese adoption written in the second-person from a mother to her daughter. Illustrations are adorable. Couldn't manage to read this one aloud without choking up a bit!

Book 53/100: Modern Romance by Anziz Ansari

Modern Romance - Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg

First off, I want to tell everyone who is interested in these comedian/celebrity memoirs that they're really wasting their time if they don't listen to the audiobook versions. Hearing Ansari's inflections, the voices he did for the various "characters" (interview subjects, etc.), and the asides to the listener not present in the printed version all lead to me not wanting to experience this book any other way, missing charts be damned.

The subject of "modern romance" (how the experience of dating, coupling up, etc., has changed over time, especially with the advent of online dating) is already an interesting one, but truth be told I had already encountered most of the information compiled in this book through earlier reading. This is basically a "literature review" with some original research thrown in, and if you haven't already read a lot of the source material or other pieces that reference the source material, this book serves as a really good overview of the subject. If you are familiar with all that stuff, Ansari's "take" on it is refreshing, insightful, and funny, which makes the experience feel new even if the information isn't.

Also, I have a ton of respect for Ansari for not just writing another celebrity memoir but instead actually delving into subject matter that interests him and offering something besides stories about his childhood that is still infused with enough of his personality to give people who read it for the celebrity recognition their "fix." And yeah, he might sort of be my celebrity crush.

(BTW, if you listen to this while being coupled up, I highly recommend sharing it with your partner. The humorous approach makes it feel far less like "work" than self-help books about relationships, but the subject matter can still open up all sorts of really worthwhile discussions.)

Book 52/100: The Blue Jay's Dance - A Birth Year by Louise Erdrich

The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year - Louise Erdrich

The postpartum period after giving birth to my first son seems like the perfect time to reread Anne Lamott's "Operating Instructions" -- unfortunately, I gave my copy to my best friend when she was pregnant, having no idea that my own pregnancy was so close at hand. I thought Erdrich's book might serve as a good stand in, which it did to a certain extent.

Unlike "Operating Instructions," this is not really a journal or a traditional memoir but rather a series of loosely connected essays written in the year after the birth of Erdrich's third baby. As a new mother, this format makes total sense to me -- when you are writing in snatches grabbed while Baby naps or you pawn him off on someone else for half an hour, you learn to write "small" or not write at all. While this is undoubtedly part of Erdrich's personal style, I found myself bored by how often she wrote about nature and wanted her to write more about parenting a baby, since that is what drew me to this book. And when she does write about new motherhood, her writing is beautiful, aching, and insightful, whether she is delving into postpartum depression or the travails of sleep deprivation. I always was left wanting more in these sections, as well as in the sections where she wrote about the challenges of maintaining any sort of writing practice at all with a new baby in your orbit. In these moments, I had that wonderful feeling of being fully understood, of having someone give voice to questions, feelings and experiences that I was in the midst of grappling with and not yet able to articulate.

Unfortunately, this comprised only about a third of the book. In addition to the musings on nature, stories about her cats (which I didn't mind in the least), and brief glimpses into the rest of her family life (also interesting), she includes quite a few recipes. I skimmed these because most were far too involved for me to consider making them, but I understood their inclusion because food takes on a whole new level of meaning when you are pregnant and breastfeeding, especially when it is prepared by someone you love.

Book 51/100: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star by Iza Trapani

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star - Iza Trapani, Jane Taylor

A riff on the popular "Twinkle Twinkle" nursery song that sends a little girl reeling after her star friend through space. Some of the illustrations are a little awkward, like the somewhat lumpy-looking horse in its stable, but others are gorgeous -- the two-page spread of the little girl swinging off the rings of Saturn make the whole book.

Book 50/100: The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen

The Pout-Pout Fish book and CD storytime set - Deborah Diesen

This book has a nice rhythm and rhyming scheme that made it fun to read aloud, although its underlying message may be that you can self-medicate clinical depression with promiscuity.

Book 49/100: Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne  Collins

Usually I am not a huge fan of the "child falls into another world" sub-genre of fantasy, but this one was better than most.

It took quite a while to get going -- about 25 percent of the book is spent just on worldbuilding and introducing characters and the concept of "The Underland." I got a little lost in this part, admittedly, since I was listening to it in the first days after coming home from the hospital and giving birth, so I was sleep-deprived and had trouble keeping track of characters. But it all eventually straightened itself out enough for me to enjoy the world-building, which, while not intricate, was at least unique. I liked how Collins took real-world elements and morphed them into a sort of strange, half-dream, half-nightmare type society where cockroaches and bats are big enough to ride and rats are at war with humans. Some of the characters were more developed than others, but the character of the rat Ripred is probably what bumped this from a three to a four-star book to me. That, and the fact that it was not afraid to get dark in places, that the "rescue of the father" storyline reminded me pleasantly of "A Wrinkle in Time," and its ultimate message.

It doesn't hold a candle to "The Hunger Games" trilogy, but it's a solid middle-grade offering, especially within a sub-genre that is generally not my favorite. Probably won't read the rest in the series, but wouldn't hesitate to recommend for this age group.

Book 48/100: Goodnight, South Dakota by Adam Gamble

Good Night South Dakota - Adam Gamble, Mark Jasper, Ruth  Palmer

I am of course biased, but I found this to be a fun read (although when I read it aloud to my son, my husband said it sounded like I was reading him a tourist brochure. ;)). There is no plot (a common shortcoming in board books, I am finding!) but it's fun to see the various landmarks of your state in illustrated form. The illustrations are not gorgeous, but they do the various sites justice for the most part.

Book 47/100: Best Lunch Box Ever by Katie Sullivan Morford

Best Lunch Box Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love - Katie Sullivan Morford

I found out about this book while reading a review of "Beating the Lunch Box Blues," and since I enjoyed that one, I gave this one a read, too.

This is a more traditional "cookbook" in that it actually has lunch recipes in it, but its approach is similar. The recipes are simple and would satisfy a diverse palate -- again, I perused this for ideas for my husband's lunches, not for kids, and there's plenty here for adults to enjoy. None of the "recipes" has more than 10 ingredients or so, and most of them only have about 5. This book is also a little more health and budget-conscious than "Lunch Box Blues." Taken together, there's lots of inspiration to be had for lunches, whether for school, work, or the occasional picnic!

Book 46/100: A Spiritual Guide Through Pregnancy by Margaret Hammer

Spiritual Guide Through Pregna - Margaret L. Hammer

This book definitely fills a gap in addressing the spiritual side of pregnancy rather than just addressing the physical/medical/emotional aspects of it. However, it falls short in that it makes a lot of assumptions about the type of woman who is reading it -- it always refers to a woman's partner as her "husband," for example, as if only those who are traditionally married would have an interest in the spirituality of pregnancy. There is no acknowledgment of single motherhood or of other sorts of partnerships -- same-sex partnership, committed relationships that are not marriages, etc. The spirituality is distinctly Christian, which is OK, although it seems then that the title should be a little more explicit since "spiritual" is such a broad term. But some of the meditations are moving and insightful, and the questions could provide some really good journaling prompts. I wish I had found the book earlier in my pregnancy so that I wasn't rushing through all the meditations during the final trimester -- the reflections are definitely more meaningful when read at the proper time in the pregnancy journey.

Book 45/100: Beating the Lunch Box Blues by J.M. Hirsch

Beating the Lunch Box Blues: Fresh Ideas for Lunches on the Go! (Rachael Ray Books) - J. M. Hirsch

All I can say is, man, I wish J.M. Hirsch packed MY lunches.

Instead, he wrote a photo-heavy book so you can pack your own lunches the way he would do it. I was surprised that this is not a "cookbook" in that it does not have any actual recipes. Instead, it's full of photos of lunches with little notations about what's in the lunchbox so that you can duplicate it on your own and give it your own style. So it's really more a book of "ideas," which, once I got over it not being a traditional cookbook, I found that I liked, since I was mostly looking for ideas, anyway.

However, I don't believe for a moment that these lunches actually only take 10 minutes to put together. Still, if you're looking for some drool-worthy inspiration to make lunches for yourself or someone else, this book is a fun place to start. No need to have school-aged kids to enjoy it, either -- I looked for ideas for lunches for my husband, and most of the ideas are sophisticated enough to appeal to an adult palate.

Book 44/100: Through the Evernight by Veronica Rossi

Through the Ever Night - Veronica Rossi

I didn't go back and read my review of the first book in this series, but I'm pretty sure whatever I said there probably applies here, too. This is not an impressive dystopia -- it relies on  its love story because the world-building is only so-s0, but unfortunately the love story is only so-so as well. I just don't feel invested in Aria and Perry's relationship, so it was hard to really care when a bit of a love triangle (or love square? It was hard to tell whether there was supposed to be something romancy happening between two of the characters) that developed here, especially since it was more-or-less devoid of any real tension because the other love interest was not fully developed or compelling in any way, although she had the feeling of a character that was created by trying too hard to do something interesting.

There were some moments when Perry just seemed dumb, like in allowing his clanmates to tattoo Aria in a ceremony with the potential to be dangerous even though he knew a bunch of them hated her -- I could have seen the way that would turn out, so why couldn't he? He might be a little too naive to make a good clan leader. There were also parts of this audiobook I had to listen to more than once because I lost interest and then lost the thread of the story; there were other places where that happened and I decided it just wasn't worth it to go back and catch myself up.

This book wasn't horrible, hence the ubiquitous three-star rating, but you won't miss much if you skip it, either. I'm certainly not going to bother reading the final installment in the trilogy.

Book 43/100: Pregnant Butch by A.K. Summers

Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag by Summers, A. K. (2014) Paperback - A. K. Summers

Memoir graphic novels are my favorite of the genre, and I loved that this one addressed such a unique, underrepresented subject matter. Through it, Summers explores the shift or challenge to her identity that she experienced when she decided to get pregnant as a butch lesbian, and was confronted with the extreme "feminization" of all things pregnancy. She refused to wear traditional maternity clothes and found, surprisingly, that being "bigger" because of pregnancy actually allowed her in some instances to come off as burlier and more masculine, while at other times she felt somewhat trapped or at the mercy of her body.

This examines a lot of assumptions people have about butch lesbians and lesbian parenting in general -- that it will happen through adoption, that the more "femme" half of the couple will be the one to carry and birth the child, etc. But it also touches on some pretty universal experiences of pregnancy, too, and as I read it in the final weeks of my own pregnancy, I found a ton to relate to. I even ended up thinking about this book and paraphrasing Summers' insights on labor to my doula while I was in labor myself! (At one point, Summers realizes that the pain and intensity of labor isn't "supposed" to get better -- it just builds until your baby is finally in the world.)

The art style is somewhat uneven in places -- I like it best when it is straightforward rather than more cartoony or stylized. My main complaint about the book is that it was compiled from a series of comics that were originally published in an episodic manner, so at times it feels truncated and choppy. There were a lot of places where I wanted a certain issue to be more deeply explored, and instead the next page jumped to something else. This also made the timeline a little confusing in places. But overall, it was a worthwhile read, and a voice that is good to have out in the world.

Book 42/100: Far Out Fairy Tales by Various

Far Out Fairy Tales - Louise Simonson, Otis Frampton, Benjamin Harper, Joey Comeau, Sean Tulien, Otis Frampton, Fern Cano, Jimena Sanchez S., Omar Lozano

These short, graphic-novel retellings of popular fairy tales are meant for middle-grade readers, and unfortunately they have very little crossover appeal for an older audience. They all introduce something "far out" or "edgy" into the traditional fairy tales -- Cinderella is a ninja, Hansel and Gretel are zombies, Red Riding Hood is a super hero, etc. The problem is that these seem to be changes for the sake of changes -- there is nothing about them that hooks into the original tale and makes you think, "Aha, this interpretation makes perfect sense when you look at it that way!" (Such as Neil Gaiman's interpretation of Snow White as a vampire in "Snow, Glass, Apples.") The "Snow White and the Seven Robots" retelling was my favorite of the bunch, and the others were all sort of meh.

The artwork is passable -- very much manga-styled and quite energetic, but not the sort of illustrations that cause you to linger on the page.

Book 41/100: California by Edan Lupecki

California - Edan Lepucki

This felt more like a novel about a cult that happened to take place in a post-apocalyptic world than a post-apocalyptic novel.

That was OK with me. I like science fiction and fantasy that veers toward the literary, and that is definitely what "California" has going on, using the setting as a backdrop to explore complex human relationships, particularly between the married couple protagonists and the wife's charismatic brother. Still, this was not the sort of "meditation on marriage" that I've heard other reviewers call it; something about Frida and Cal's relationship always felt a little bit flat to me -- I was never fully invested in it. I was far more invested in the relationship between Frida, Cal, and Mikey, the charismatic leader of the community they find themselves attempting to be a part of after they have lived on their own in the wilderness for a couple years.

Frida's pregnancy, the inciting incident that convinces her they need to seek a wider community, raised interesting questions about what it means to parent and to plan for a future in a world that is dangerous and uncertain. The resolution to this question was not wholly satisfying. I also could have done with stronger world-building -- I got a sense of what the world was like post-apocalypse, but not exactly what had precipitated it, except something about an oil crisis? But I guess that's par for the course in "literary" science fiction -- it tends to leave the hardcore world-building to the hardcore genre writers.

So that's a fair amount of criticism for a book that I ultimately still gave four stars, but the book, the world, and the character dynamics did hold my interest from beginning to end. Wasn't thrilled with the narration, though, so probably wouldn't recommend the audio version.