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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 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.

How Early Motherhood Has Changed My Reading Life

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding - La Leche League International, Gwen Gotsch The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year - Louise Erdrich How to Raise a Family on Less Than Two Incomes: The Complete Guide to Managing Your Money Better So You Can Spend More Time with Your Kids - Denise Topolnicki Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne  Collins Best Lunch Box Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love - Katie Sullivan Morford Modern Romance - Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg Good Night South Dakota - Adam Gamble, Mark Jasper, Ruth  Palmer

Ten days ago, I became a mother when my son was lifted out of my abdomen behind a curtain, his cries filling the room and my heart welling up with relief. It was a long labor -- 30 hours by the time he arrived -- fraught with run-of-the-mill complications -- meconium in the amniotic fluid, a labor that failed to progress leading to a multitude of interventions I hadn't really wanted (but that I was grateful for in the end), and a baby that ultimately just wasn't in the right position or of the right size to pass through the birth canal, despite the best efforts of my husband, myself, my doula and my baby to make it happen.

 

This is my first time writing anything at all since that day, although there has been so much to say -- more to say than I can wrap my head around, and so little time in which to say it. As I write this, my son hangs off of me in a sling, sleeping in a diaper with his little chest puffing up and down. This is my first proof that I can find a way to make writing and motherhood compatible -- I failed fairly miserably at writing throughout my pregnancy, when the best I could do was book reviews and journal entries a few times a week after I soldiered through a NaNoWriMo novel while feeling like I was going to puke at any and every moment in the first trimester.

 

When my husband and I had our final meeting with our doula before labor, she reminded us that at the end of pregnancy and during early parenthood, we would have to get used to doing things on a "small" scale. Smaller meals to ward off heartburn. Small naps when the discomforts of late pregnancy made it hard to sleep through the night, and when a newborn's nursing schedule caused even more sleep disruption. Small breaks to connect with my husband, relax, watch a TV show or movie, play a game. I've noticed that my reading life has also become "smaller," although these snatches of pages that I find time for here and there somehow seem more nourishing than they ever have before.

 

Nursing and a reluctance to wake a baby who has fallen asleep on my body often confines me to the same location for hours at a time. This means I read what is within reach, and my inability to be monogamous with books has reached a whole new level.

 

At the rocking chair where I nurse my son, I have a copy of "The Blue Jay's Dance" by Louis Erdrich that I read a page or two from when I can't bear to look at my phone screen for another moment. My MP3 player is also within reach of that chair, so I listen to "Gregor the Overlander" for my book club, although I'm skeptical about whether I will finish it on time for our meeting on Thursday. Also, I listened to so much of the beginning section while sleep deprived in those first few days that I am playing catch up on who some of the major characters are. I always feel especially incompetent as a reader when I have trouble following a middle-grade novel -- and no, this is not the first time that it's happened, although I arguably have the best excuse now that I've ever had.

 

In bed, I pull "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding" down from the parenting reference bookshelf behind the bed and read it during those long late-night feedings.

 

In the basement, where I used to do the majority of my "pleasure reading," I read "How to Raise a Family on Less Than Two Incomes" while I wait for my husband to be ready to watch TV or play a game together. My time in the basement is limited -- because of the C-section, I can only do one "stair trip" a day, and I stay down there only as long as my bladder holds out. Then the books and TV set and all the baby clothes and baby supplies on that floor are again out of my reach for the rest of the day.

 

I page through cookbooks at coffee shops while I wait for my husband to finish a political meeting. I listen to Aziz Ansari's "Modern Romance" on the car's CD system as I nurse my baby between any errands that take us away from home for more than two hours. I wonder whether my son recognizes Ansari's voice from the time I spent listening while he was still inside the womb.

 

My progress through these books is very, very slow. When my son is awake and alert on my lap, I put them all aside so I can read to him from a couple board books that are also beside the rocking chair. There is a very good chance I will not meet my goal of reading 100 books this year, but I will continue to fill my eyes with words at any chance I get -- and perhaps that more than anything keeps me feeling connected to the person I have always been as I make sense of the person I have been in the process of becoming ever since I saw that plus sign on a pregnancy test at the beginning of November.

Book 40/100: Women Who Run With the Wolves - Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

So, this book took me forever to read and I had to stop a couple times to read other things for book club, etc. And it's mostly because it took me so long to read that I am now TEN books behind on my reading challenge for the year ... but I'm cool, I told myself that I wouldn't let the challenge be an excuse to not tackle longer or meatier works, so ...

I was relieved when I read the afterward in which Estes recommends reading the book slowly over a long period of time -- I guess I was doing it right! And that is one of the reasons that this book took me so long to read -- it's not the type of book you can dip into, reading a page here or there. It takes some focus and some concentration and is best enjoyed with some uninterrupted time to really sink into.

This does not mean it's a difficult book, necessarily. If you enjoy and have some familiarity with the concepts Estes is riffing on -- the collective unconscious, Jungian psychology, the symbolism and importance of storytelling, etc. -- it's pretty accessible. However, if your mind starts to wander you'll have to read sections again, so it does require some focus. And a focused reading also yields the greatest results, because this is a book that I think is meant to evoke connection to and reflection upon your own life and evolution as a woman.

Some of the chapters were longer than I would have liked, while others were too short, probably reflecting Estes' interest in various developmental stages. But every chapter was interesting and relevant in its own way, allowing new ways to look at both well-known and obscure fairy tales and myths as well as, more importantly, your own life path. I have lots of page flags in this one and will be holding onto it because it's clearly a book that will reward future visits.

Book 39/100: This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

This World We Live In - Susan Beth Pfeffer

This book was a disappointment after the first two in the series, both of which were vivid and riveting. Fortunately, I had been forewarned that this one was a bit lackluster, so I didn't go into it with expectations that were too high.

Mostly, it felt like a sequel that didn't really need to be written. I think the author (or publisher) felt compelled to tie the first two books together, but both of them are strong standalones and tying them together in this third volume felt forced. Plus, a lot of what happens in here is not very different from what happened in the earlier books -- the struggle to find enough food, the windfalls and disappointments, the highs and lows of living through an apocalypse, you know, that sort of thing.

And even though it's shorter than the other books in the series (I think), it has a lot more characters, so there was quite a bit to keep track of in the second half. The book started to feel "crowded" since several of the characters were not developed all that well. Also, I noticed some really weird gender things in this book that either were not present in the other two books or that just didn't strike me in the same way. But I think that Pfeffer might have some internalized sexism going on ... Miranda's mother was always very insistent that Miranda stay home while the boys were able to strike out and explore/adventure/etc., and Alex seemed to think that for some reason he got to decide what his sister's fate would be even though she was old enough to have some say in the matter. (Also, I think the decision the author made regarding Julia's storyline was absolutely atrocious). I liked Alex less in this book than in the book that is actually about him -- in this volume he came across as controlling and almost stereotypically pious.

For whatever reason there is yet one more book in this series, which I may or may not read. The first two books are great, but as far as I'm concerned you wouldn't be missing too much if you just stopped there.

Book 38/100: Finding Me - A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed by Michelle Knight

Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings - Michelle Knight

This is one of the best memoirs I've read of this type -- regular person (not a writer) goes through something traumatic, interest is generated in her story, she writes a book with the aid of a ghostwriter to satisfy people's curiosity/voyeuristic tendencies/etc.

This book felt less "ghost-written" than most of the others I've read, and Knight's memory for detail is very strong. I think this is partly because she actually wrote about her experience in journals, poetry, etc., as it was happening. I felt like I got a much more vivid picture of the personal hell she lived through than in a lot of these types of memoirs -- I could see the room and house where she was imprisoned, got a sense of the personalities of the other girls and of her kidnapper. This all amounts to an incredibly harrowing story.

Knight's story is also unique because she was not snatched out of a perfect or idyllic life, nor does she romanticize her life pre-captivity. By the time she was kidnapped, she had already run away from home, dealt with neglect, poverty, and sexual abuse in her home, and experienced teenage pregnancy and an ensuing custody battle. The outcome of that particular thread of her story is one of the most heartbreaking of all.

Ariel Castro was truly an evil man, and I am amazed by Knight's ability to survive him.

SPOILER ALERT!

Book 37/100: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King - Lev Grossman

I found the first book in this series to be a little lackluster, but I'm glad I continued on to the second book, anyway.

Whereas "The Magicians" seemed to spend a lot of time flailing and worldbuilding and finding its way, in this book the world is richly established from the beginning. Although similar to the first book it takes a little while for the main story line to get going, it is incredibly immersive from the start. The balance of literary fiction and fantasy seemed just right, for the most part, and it was easy to sink into this world. As soon as it was finished, I wanted to return by way of the third book -- but I don't have that one readily available so it might be a while.

For those who are unsure about this series after reading the first book, I would recommend continuing. The characters, the writing, and the worldbuilding all do a lot of "growing up" in this installment, and it tackles much bigger themes than the first one as well, feeling less like a riff on fantasy that has come before and more like it has come into its own.

Despite my enjoyment, docked a star mainly because of a few sort of ishy "male narrative" scenes. [Like, why are male writers so obsessed with scenes where unassuming dudes get seduced by women in ship cabins? Seriously, I think every writer thinks he's doing something new and incredibly erotic, when this is the third such time I've encountered this trope. Also, a man attempting to write a rape scene from the female victim's perspective always feels voyeuristic and yucky to me, and there's a pretty explicit one here that didn't sit very well with me.]