Category Archives: Picture Book

Another Update

I feel like I’ve been making some serious progress on this Reading Challenge deal – although my thesis is still relatively un-done, but that’s okay… I still have two weeks to get a full draft of at least 80 pages completed… and I already have about 15… so that’s fine…

So, the update.  I’ve read:

  • something aloud to someone else (The Somethingosaur by Tony Mitton to my nephew, and then niece)
  • a middle grade novel (Pax by Sara Pennypacker)
  • a National Book Award Winner (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me)
  • a book about religion (C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters)
  • a 20th century classic (The Color Purple, which was also Emma Watson’s bookclub pick for February)
  • a book set in my home state (The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mackenzie)
  • a book translated into English (Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue)

And it’s about these last two that I just want to take a moment.

See, on Goodreads, you can only give full stars.  Which is great on one hand and terrible on another.  Because these two books deserved (in my opinion) 3.5 stars.  So I rounded down and gave them both 3.  Giving a book 4 stars means I can confidently recommend it to everyone I know (that would be interested).  Giving a book 3 stars means I enjoyed it all right, but wouldn’t go out of my way to convince someone it’s the best book in the world.

The Portable Veblen is a strange book that takes place mostly in Paolo Alto and follows Veblen and her boyfriend-turned-fiance as they try to navigate crazy families and workplaces and what makes them what they are.  And it’s… fine…?  I think I enjoyed it.  But that’s the trouble.  After 100 pages, I thought I liked it.  At 200, I didn’t think I did.  At 300, I was pretty sure I didn’t like it, but I only had a little over 100 to go, so I finished.  And I think I liked it at the end.  The best part of the whole novel is the squirrel that Veblen talks(?) to that eventually gets a chapter of his own.  I told you it was strange.

It’s just a tough book to find a way to sell to someone.  Like, I’m really grateful I borrowed it instead of buying it because I don’t like it enough to pay $$$ for it.  But I’m glad I read it.  I think.  It’s just a little too off-center for me.  (There’s a reason I like my writers old and dead.)

Enrigue’s Sudden Death is, like Veblen, tough to sell, but I think I enjoyed it more.  It’s completely bizarre.  Like, seriously, try to read any reviews of it and people say it’s riveting, it’s great, it’s intellectual, it’s brilliant.  I found it strange and kind of great.  But it’s for a special type of person that I don’t think would appreciate the completely different nature of the work.  Basically, Caravaggio (yes, that Caravaggio) is playing a tennis match against a Spaniard and they’re going to “sudden death.”  But in between points, you get transported around time and continents, hearing a story about Hernán Cortés and then about Anne Boleyn’s beheading and the creation of tennis balls from her hair and then about the writer and his attempts to write this book and then some stuff about Caravaggio and you basically get wrapped up in a million short essays that are all united by this tennis match that Enrigue has constructed and it’s boggling.  There’s a chapter in there that I really liked that focused on translation and how it changes the meanings of works.  And, knowing that I’m reading a book translated into English made me read it differently.

So again, it’s a tough book to sell to just anyone because it’s pretty much a limited audience.  It’s good, and worth a read if this is your thing, but it’s weird.  And you might not understand what you just read when you finish it.

In non-challenge news, I also read Dear Pope Francis, which is wonderful because the Pope does not shy away from the tough questions children from around the world ask him, and The Warden by Anthony Trollope (which was for class, not pleasure).  I’m also working on Barchester Towers, another Trollope, and am going to have to finish it within the next two weeks because, well, it’s required reading.  It’s better than The Warden, though, so I’m finding it less troublesome than before.

In any case, I’ve lost count of my RC2016 success (I think I’m at 15/63?), but it doesn’t matter because I’m ahead of schedule and that means I have a chance to sit myself down and really get some schoolwork done.  Whoo.

As always, find a new book at your local indie – and see if they read Veblen or Sudden Death and listen to what they think.  I’m curious how anyone else has taken either, or both.

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Quick Pics

I’m currently in the middle of about a million different books, but I thought to myself, “Self, why don’t you review a couple of children’s books?  Like, picture books?”

And then I said to myself, “Self, that’s a good idea.”

Now, there is a catch.  Namely that it’s very difficult to review a picture book without giving up vital plot points and potentially ruining the experience.  So I’m going to do my best to keep it a little vague.  Unless there’s something just so wonderful I have to share it…

In any case, here are three of my favorite children’s picture storybooks.

The Dark; by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jo...

3. The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen (book trailer here)

Let me first say that I was never all that impressed by A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I respect any author who is able to maintain a high readership with fairly formulaic books.  And let me follow that up by saying I just adored this picture book.  At the very beginning, I was reading and wondering how this could possibly be a good children’s book.  After all, it’s about the scary dark.  But as the story develops, The Dark (because it certainly does deserve to be a proper noun) is much more than just a lack of light, and the ending is simply delightful.

The story itself is worth the read, but the illustrations are the best.  They’re simple, but so hauntingly beautiful and charming.  And that’s really the best way to describe them: charming.  You’ve got to read it.

2. The Duchess of Whimsy, written by Randall de Seve and illustrated by Peter de SeveDuchessofWhimsy-jackt

The Duchess of Whimsy is known for being rather unconventional and over-the-top, but everyone who comes to her parties shares her love of the whimsical.  Except for the Earl of Norm.  Who happens to be tragically (and almost boringly) normal.  But when crisis strikes the party, it’s the Earl who helps save the day and when the Duchess and the Earl finally start to understand each other, they realize that it’s really all about moderation.  Because it’s okay to sometimes be so normal and sometimes to be wildly whimsical.

While the story is a little long, I love the illustrations and the sweetness of the story so much that I’m willing to spend a little more time reading.  My niece, maybe not, but I’m older and more worldly and more patient.  I particularly love the quiet romance between the Duchess and the Earl (which is so obviously going to happen that for most of the first time I read it I was just waiting for that moment when they realize they’re great together) because they balance each other so well.

If The Dark is haunting and beautiful and charming, The Duchess of Whimsy is delightful, sweet, charming, and just so much fun.

blueberry_excerpt1. Blueberry Girl, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess

Without a doubt, this is my favorite non-classic children’s picture book.  I loved it first because it was Gaiman, and who doesn’t love anything he does?  But I loved it second (and mostly) because it is the most beautiful book for girls in the world.  And I mean girls of all ages.

The entire poem is an inspirational prayer for “unconventional” girls.  And I cry every time I read it.  I’m not kidding.

Words can be worrisome, people complex;

Motives and manners unclear.

Grant her the wisdom to choose her path right,

Free from unkindness and fear.


Let her tell stories, and dance in the rain,

Somersaults, tumble and run;

Her joys must be high as her sorrows are deep,

Let her grow like a weed in the sun.

And maybe it’s unfair to say this is the one you absolutely must read.  But if you’re a woman, or if you have a daughter or niece or granddaughter or wife or any significant female in your life, you should read it.

And as if the words aren’t enough to make you weep, the illustrations are beautiful and magical and just perfection.  I’m tearing up just thinking about this book.

If you have any doubts, try this: the most beautiful thing you’ll ever hear.

I promise I’ll review another “grown up” book soon, but I think it’s only fair to give some time to all kinds of books, even picture books.  Because even (and sometimes especially) picture books can teach adults a thing or two.

For more on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark click here

For more on Randall and Peter de Seve’s The Duchess of Whimsy, tap your magic wand here.

And for Neil Gaiman’s young reader books, click here.

As always, be sure to check out your local independent bookstores for these and other recommendations!

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