A sweet lil’ reading challenge

When I browse online reading challenges, I’m usually underwhelmed by what I find at the linky parties: 30 posts in 30 days and I’m to write about my “favorite side character” (really?!); a mix-it-up challenge and I’m reading “medical thriller fiction” (what the-what the?!); or 52 books in 52 weeks? (I’ve got a life, here, folks!)  I have participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for the past two years because it’s flexible—I set my own goal, as few or as many books as I want—and that sliding bar on my Goodreads homepage is a nice nudge in the right reading challengedirection. But it’s all me. And kind of boring.

But Popsugar’s 2015 Reading Challenge (link) caught my eye, for some reason when it popped up on Pinterest. Odd because I’m not Popsugar’s demographic (18-40-year-old-women … ah, I don’t think so!), nor am I particularly interested in the hottest trends or any place “women’s passion points connect”, Popsugar’s tag line. And I have no idea what a “lifestyle brand” is. But there it was, “the ultimate reading challenge”–50 categories, all but winking at me on the screen.

There are some serious categories—book more than 100 years old, a banned book. Some light reading—a book you can finish in a day, a funny book. And some that will probably stretch my comfort level a bit—a book with nonhuman characters (Have I told you how much I hate talking rabbits?), a book that scares you. Popsugar reassures that even though they included 50 categories (or 52 with the trilogy), readers should pick and choose according to their reading tastes—which I will definitely do.

And if the categories aren’t that different from the million and one other reading challenges on the interwebs? Well, there’s something about a handy printable graphic to download (link) that caught my over-40 year-old, decidedly untrendy eye.

So there it is–printed, tucked in my Kindle cover, all 50 little checkboxes just waiting for me to add my tick marks.

Books for bitty babes

A little over a week ago I welcomed my first grandchild—little J gave his momma a run for her money, but he is (like any good Grammy would say!) the most perfect baby ever.

And just like I did with his IMG_1144 (1)momma and his uncles, I’ll be reading to him from the start. This English language of ours is beautiful and rhythmic, largely written and spoken in iambs, a rhythm that pulses through so much of what we hear—the da DUM of our heartbeat, the bah bo LINK of a backyard bird, the scritch HOP of a skip. Babies, listening to that rhythm in their water world for nine months, are finely tuned, I believe, to respond to iambs. And what better way to introduce them to our wide and wonderful world, but to cuddle them on our laps, snuggle them close, and read?

Which books are must-haves will change by age, but these are mine favorites for bitty babes. You’ll notice that there’s not a Disney book in the mix (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but if you want to choose books whose poetry and prose will sing to those little ears, these few will become a welcome chorus.  (And all are available as board books for tiny hands to touch) You can be sure at least a couple of these titles will show up under little J’s Christmas tree this year!

Goodnight Moon (by Margaret Wise Brown)

Pat the Bunny (by Dorothy Kunhardt)

Brown Bear Brown Bear what do you see? (by Eric Carle)

Each Peach Pear Plum (by Janet and Allan Ahlberg)

Let’s Play, Sleepy Time, and Babies—or any board book written and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa

How I choose my next read

I’ve already established in another post (link) that I’m a picky reader. Best Seller Lists (even the revered New York Times BSL)

love books

don’t help me much, nor do the Staff Recommends shelf talkers in bookstores.  In my book selling days, I relied on my managers and publisher’s sales reps to pass on good titles, usually as an Advanced Readers Copy.  So what’s a book junkie to do? Here are my top choices (in no particular order) for finding my next read.

  1. Friends. Okay, not just any friends, but inquisitive, sometimes-daring readers whose tastes run close to mine, but who aren’t necessarily my reading clone. Someone who will encourage me try something a little out of my comfort zone. For me right now, that’s friend Denice, my book store compadre and a school librarian in her previous lives. You can read her blog here (link). And friend Mary, who reads anything nonfiction, especially historical.
  1. NPR. Hands down my go-to place for reviews. I’m a big fan of their lists: Summer Books, Best Books Of …, etc. They often feature the recommendations of independent booksellers (yay!) and this blog is rich with titles I’ve found on NPR, like this, and this, and even this. I’m such a fan I was once tempted to bid on the Nancy Pearl action figure on eBay. I find the book reviews that run on All Things Considered and Fresh Air to be a bit uneven—let’s face it, it’s NPR and some of the titles run a little on the sophisticated side for my tastes. But the lists? Hands down winners.
  1. Amazon. Whatever algorithm they use to get the recommendations for the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought list of books is usually spot on. Enter a title you’ve loved in the search bar and scroll down until you reach Customers Who … I have taken a few risks and haven’t been disappointed. Like this one and this.
  1. Twitter. I’ve recently started following Huff Post books on Twitter. Great source for reviews, but also a treasure trove of all things bookish—author features, memes, video interviews. I have just begun following some of my favorite writers and bloggers, but I can already tell Twitter will lead me to more than a few good reads.
  1. Goodreads. I know, I know. More of a Facebook-for-readers, so go ahead and snub your nose at this suggestion if you must. But I like Facebook, so why not? Finding the right readers to follow takes a bit of time. I troll over bookshelves and look for titles I love and can usually find a title or two to add to my to-read shelf.  Goodreads has also given me a few opportunities to comment back and forth with authors, something that gets me quite twitterpated (which also reminds me that I also follow Goodreads on Twitter!).
  1. DRCs (Digital Reader’s Copies). NetGalley and Above the Treeline’s Edelweiss. This particular source may not work for everyone. Both websites offer booksellers, librarians, educators, and bloggers the opportunity to request and read titles before publication, just like those ARCs I used to enjoy as a book seller. It’s helpful to have a good feel for publishers and authors. But I have taken a risk on some titles and not been disappointed.

 And since it’s the season for gift giving, this list might also give you some ideas for gifting the best. present. ever. Or, when the weather and shopping or yet another holiday celebration seem just a little too much, a present to wrap yourself around for a few hours of bliss.

Grow your soul

Nothing tickles me more than reading my students’ writing when it sparkles. Last week, for instance, I read about a boy who plays baseball “for the man in the clouds”—his grandpa. In that one phrase I see the baseball field in May, those huge cumulous clouds and Michigan blue sky. I hear the crack of the bat and see this seventeen-year-old glance up for a moment as he takes the base.


Now it’s not always easy getting them here—I push. I prod. I question … my voice trails off, hoping they fill in the blanks and capture again their five-year-old selves. You remember, those kids who invent words and dance in the outfield– who tell stories about riding in a parade. Before Twitter and driver’s licenses and Snapchat and high school dances in the gym.

I thought about all this after reading this Huff Post Books article today (link). In 2006, Xavier High school students were asked to write to an author for an assignment. Five wrote to Kurt Vonnegut–and he was the only one who responded.

Now getting a letter from a writer such as Vonnegut would be treat enough. But his advice? If only.

If only my students would keep close to that five-year-old they once were. If only they would dance and sing and paint and write, they’d sparkle. Not for me, mind you, but, in Vonnegut’s words, “to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

If only we all grew our souls deeper and wider, even just a little bit, every day. Because, really, what else is there to do to make our days matter?

Paper dolls: Some Luck (review)

October 7, 2014

I heard an interview with Jane Smiley the other day on NPR. You can listen to it here (link). I am someone who has loved all things Smiley–Moo, Private Life, Ordinary Love and Good Will (0kay, so how can a writer fail with an incredible title like that last one?!)  Surprisingly, her Pulitzer Prize winner Thousand Acres isn’t one of my favorites. But knowing Smiley has a new novel out is enough to make me curious. Her latest title Some Luck will be part of a trilogy–a vast family epic spanning generations in Iowa and beyond.

The novel’s patriarch’s are Rosanna and Walter Langdon who raise their five children on an oat farm in Iowa. Rosanna is a town girl who is won over by the hard-working Walter, just returned from the first World War. They weather good times and lean together with the help of family and friends. Their firstborn, Frank, is Some Lucksomething of a Golden Boy, and in many ways their life revolves around seeing that Frank fulfills his potential. Second-born Joe lives in the shadow of his brother, not coming into his own until his twenties when he introduces new farming methods and has some success. Lillian is the gorgeous child; Henry the scholar; Claire a daddy’s girl. The novel takes them all through the second World War and into the fifties.

And if you can’t tell by the description of the children, this is a novel that leans heavily on tropes. It’s one thing to turn a classic such as King Lear into a modern cautionary tale–especially if it’s done artfully and without too much of a template. But it’s another to rely on stock characters so closely, that they seem like paper dolls: flat, stiff, and cut out of the same paper stock. (Smiley allows the characters to narrate their story as infants and toddlers which I found alternately clever and irritating.)

Much of Some Luck dragged for me–the plot plodded along as slowly as the thirty-some years the novel covered. It might be that the book will come into its own when read along with its not-yet-released brother and sister. Would I read the next two in the trilogy? Probably so. At least, I’d try.

Because it is Jane Smiley, after all.