Mama Bear’s Fall 2016 Reading List

Now that we are almost a month into the new season, I’m back to deliver my fall reading list. Since I was perhaps a little overzealous with my summer list, I’ve kept this one a tad shorter. The goal is to inspire you to pick up some of these books, not overwhelm you with too many options. Happy reading!

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Fall Recommendations

Remember, I strongly encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and read something in a new genre. It’s healthy to try new things!

Biography

The Chris Farley Show

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The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts by Tom Farley, Jr.
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If you, like me, are a longtime fan of Chris Farley and all of his larger-than-life characters, then you should read this book. It chronicles Farley’s life through the eyes of his closest friends and family.

Everyone who was around in the 1990s and tuned in to popular culture knows some detail around his premature death, but this book reminds us how he was so much more than his boisterous comedic abilities and drug addiction. By all accounts, he was a kind, sincere, loyal, and tortured soul. Some stories are heartwarming and charming, others are heartbreaking, but all in all, this book does a phenomenal job of differentiating, remembering, and celebrating the man, the myth, and the legend of Chris Farley.

Fiction

Geek Love

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Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
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Geek Love is not for the faint of heart. Though it’s essentially a story of the powerful ties that can both bind and break family, its central characters are not at all as ordinary as that description makes them sound. No, they’re “circus freaks,” and proud of it; in order to secure their future as successful carnival owners, the Binewskis decide to breed their own freak family by having the mother consume chemicals, drugs, and radioactive materials during pregnancy. (Note: this was very difficult to read during pregnancy.) The survivors of such experiments include the story’s central characters: Arty, a boy with flippers instead of hands or feet, Elly and Iphy, conjoined twins, Oly, a hunchbacked albino dwarf, and Chick, a boy who looks normal but has telekinetic powers.

As bizarre as this already sounds, the story continues to darken as the children age and struggle to adjust to their familial roles. Then, of course, there’s Arty’s pro-self-mutilation cult and subsequent battle for dominance and Oly’s tailed stripper daughter to really round out the story. Stick with me.

If you can handle a little dose of horror, you’ll find that this book is beautifully and hauntingly told. While the characters are extraordinary and their actions often grotesque, each one is unmistakably human and relatable in the most unexpected of ways. This book will make you think about everything from your relationships to other people’s motives to what is right and what is wrong. It’s a pretty deep read, but one you won’t regret.

Serena

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Serena by Ron Rash
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The tale of a Depression-era timber baron, George, and his arguably more powerful wife, Serena, is one that takes readers on a bit of a wild ride. The time period alone is one that makes me shiver in its bleakness, but Rash goes above and beyond to richly pit his characters against both the unforgiving landscape and each other.

The story is interesting in itself, but the real reason I recommend this book is because Serena is one of the most interesting characters I’ve read about in a long time. She’s self-assured, confident, strong, and, well, basically just a boss. That’s not to say she’s good–she does try to kill her husband’s illegitimate son, after all–but it’s just so hard to come by such a strong female character, especially one from this time period. The thrills, passion, and heartbreak threaded throughout this novel will move you and make you feel a little like you’re staring at a car crash from which you can’t seem to turn away.

Humor

Me Talk Pretty One Day 

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Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
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I am often asked for book recommendations and this is usually the first one I suggest. Sedaris has a slew of hilarious memoirs, but this one has stuck with me the most and I think it’s because of the way he recounts trying to learn and adjust to French culture. Rather than talking about his distinct voice and trying to convey his particular brand of humor, I’m just going to quote my favorite passage.

“On my fifth trip to France I limited myself to the words and phrases that people actually use. From the dog owners I learned “Lie down,” “Shut up,” and “Who shit on this carpet?” The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly, and the grocer taught me to count. Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. “Is thems the thoughts of cows?” I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window. “I want me some lamb chop with handles on ’em.”

You’re doing yourself an injustice if you don’t pick this up. In fact, I’m doing myself an injustice by not rereading it right now.

Romance

Knitting in the City Series

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Neanderthal Seeks Human by Penny Reid (book one in series)
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At the center of this series is a group of women who are part of a knitting circle and each book features one of their love stories. (For what it’s worth, the second book was my favorite because it’s got the whole friends-turned-lovers trope, which I unabashedly love.)

Unlike many contemporary romance novels, the women in these books are multi-dimensional and smart and the men are respectful and gentlemanly. They are a reminder that good romance heroes don’t need to be borderline abusive to be sexy and that sweet and smoldering can and do co-exist.

The Virgin Romance Novelist

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The Virgin Romance Novelist by Meghan Quinn
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Here’s another friends-to-lovers book that made me laugh out loud and smile until my cheeks hurt. Rosie is an extremely awkward yet incredibly lovable aspiring romance novelist. And, as you guessed it, she’s a virgin. When she realizes she can’t possibly write sex scenes without some experience, she throws herself into the dating world. This, of course, forces her resident playboy best friend and roommate, Henry, to realize his attraction and make his move. Yes, the arc might be a little cliché, but I cringed, I laughed, I swooned, and I loved every minute of it. (Note: I wasn’t as big of a fan of the sequel, unfortunately.)

Thriller

Sharp Objects

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Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
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Lovers of Gone Girl need to read Gillian Flynn’s debut novel if they haven’t already. Sharp Objects is a psychological thriller about Camille Preaker, a journalist who is sent back to her small hometown to cover the investigation of the murder and disappearance of two young girls.

Once there, she is thrown back into the complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with her estranged mother and younger half-sister. Flynn brilliantly weaves together Camille’s tormented past as it relates to the crimes about which she is there to report, all the while leaving you unsure who can be trusted. At its core, this quick-paced novel is about secrets, family, jealousy, and mental health. You’ll read it late into the night, sweating nervously under your sheets until you finish. And it’ll be worth it.

Your Thoughts

Have you read any of these? If so, what were your thoughts?

What are your favorite books to read in the fall? Let’s start a conversation!

Mama Bear’s Summer 2016 Reading List

It’s been quite a while since my last list of book recommendations, and since I can’t in good conscience claim to be a book blog without them, here we are.

Before you hit the beach, pool, campsite, or couch, consider checking out some of my favorite summertime reads.

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Summer Picks

I’ve organized these suggestions by genre. Before you jump ahead to your tried and true favorite, I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone this summer and pick something you normally wouldn’t read. You never know what you might end up liking.

Humor

Galápagos

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Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut
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Kurt Vonnegut was an incredible author whose vast body of work would make any bookshelf better. This book in particular is my favorite and is one I’ve recommended and gifted countless times. It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit post-apocalyptic fiction, and a whole lot of satire.

The book follows a small, strange group of people stranded on an island in the Galápagos. After a pandemic leaves the rest of mankind sterile, they become the last surviving humans with the ability to procreate. Therefore their descendants alone are responsible for how human beings evolve (hint: life is a lot less complicated with a small brain). Told by an omniscient, ghostly narrator, this book will make you laugh and cringe at some of the more painfully accurate portrayals of our society.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson
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Bill Bryson is an American author—he famously wrote A Walk in the Woods–who spent a couple of decades living in the UK. This book is a collection of essays he wrote for a British paper about returning and readjusting to the U.S.

Bryson is hilariously observant as he contemplates some of the bizarre and seemingly mundane features of our culture. Though a few of the essays are a bit dated as the book was published in 2000, you can’t help but smile as Bryson artfully describes things like his nostalgia for motel room showers and the perplexing differences between American and English postal systems.

Fiction

Gone with the Wind

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
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Okay, let’s pause. If you haven’t read this book, then it should be the first on your to-read list. If you haven’t even heard of this book, then you need to climb out from under your pop culture rock.

Topping out at about 1,000 pages (I recommend reading the book on a device for this reason), it is arguably one of the finest pieces of historical fiction ever written, as evidenced its accolades, notoriety, and sheer sales volume.

Gone with the Wind is the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a persnickety and stubborn, yet intelligent and loyal Southern Belle whose life is drastically altered by the Civil War. She alone makes the book worth reading, as you will simultaneously love and hate her, but perhaps the real main character is the American South itself before, during, and after the war.

An epic, Gone with the Wind will be captivate you with its rich writing and complex characters. Though it’s long, you will not want to stop reading it, which makes for a perfect summer reading candidate. For what it’s worth, I also love the movie. If you’re not going to read it, at least make sure you watch it.

Ella Minnow Pea

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Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
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Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea is charming, interesting, and very short. Like many other books on this list, I’ve recommended it time and time again.

It’s the story of a little island that bans the usage of various letters of the alphabet. The story unfolds in a series of letters between characters, forcing the author to very creatively manipulate the English language in order to have the characters comply with their new, letter-less laws. It’s witty and clever, and makes you appreciate how much you can bend the rules of grammar and syntax all while expanding your vocabulary. Note: you really have to read this one with your eyes in order to properly appreciate it. You will not get the full effect in an audio book.

Swamplandia!

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
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This book fittingly takes place in Florida, where real life can be stranger than fiction. Like some of the other fiction on this list, it is the story of a family. In this case, it’s a family whose livelihood depends on a gator-based theme park that falls from greatness following the death of its star, the mother of the family.

An adventure builds as the main character, a 12-year-old girl, must put on a brave face in an attempt to save her home and family from spiraling out of control. This book has a little bit of everything: outlandish characters, fantastic scenery, and even a bit of mysticism.

Cold Sassy Tree

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Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
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Apparently, something about the summertime makes me want to read stories that take place in the American South. I think it’s because I like to imagine myself sipping ice-cold tea (albeit unsweetened), in a rocking chair, and on an old wraparound porch when I read them. Mosquitoes and heat aside, doesn’t that sound lovely?

Anyway, this is another great historical fiction that chronicles life in a small, turn-of-the-century Georgia town. It’s been quite I while since I read it, but I distinctly remember falling in love with the characters as they navigated the ups and downs of life as well as the gossip that runs rampant throughout it. I smiled with their triumphs, cried with their tragedies, and didn’t want it to end.

Romance

No beach or pool vacation is complete without a little dose of romance. While I used to be embarrassed and secretive about my love of love stories, I’ve come to embrace it in recent years. Say what you will, but romance is a genre that has its own literary value.

The Royal We

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The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
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If you, like me, are strangely obsessed with England’s royal family, then you should read The Royal We. It’s loosely based on Will and Kate’s life, to the point where some consider it to be fan fiction. I’d argue that it’s much more elegant than that. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I started it, but I was pleasantly surprised how engaging and intelligent it was. It’s a novel you’ll want to stay up reading.

Sookie Stackhouse series

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Dead Until Dark (book one) by Charlaine Harris
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If you’re looking for a ridiculous-but-fun series of books, here you go. These novels track the exceedingly at-risk life of Sookie Stackhouse and her friends in Bon Temps, Louisiana. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen True Blood, the HBO series loosely based on these novels.

There are 13 main books and each is more far-fetched than the last (which says a lot seeing as how the first already starts you off with vampires). The writing takes some getting used to, meaning it’s not all that great, but I seriously could not put down these books. You’ll get a nice dose of, ahem, love scenes, and have fun tagging along with Sookie and all her Southern charm.

Nonfiction

Into Thin Air

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Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
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You might be justifiably wondering why would I recommend a book set in a such a cold, severe landscape as part of my summertime list. Well, chances are good you will feel a little chilled as you read this harrowing tale. Trust me when I say that reading it in the winter when you are also freezing is a rookie mistake.

Jon Krakauer’s account of his fateful Everest misadventure is famous because it is–to most of us–unimaginable. So much so that it reads more like a thriller than a true story. You’ll read this one quickly and can use it to keep you cool at the pool. Fun fact: when I mentioned this list to Papa Bear, he said, “Oh, will you add Into Thin Air, too?” Doubly recommended.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

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Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
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Need another bitterly cold story to keep you cozy outside this summer? Let’s move from the Himalayas to the Antarctic. Endurance is also a survival story, but this time about Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross the Antarctic in 1914. Shackleton’s ship, after which the book is named, was trapped and eventually crushed by ice, leaving its crew stranded and scared for their lives.

Author Lansing had access to real diaries kept by crew members and was able to interview surviving members as he was writing this book, making it incredibly honest, scary, and arresting. As it is a tale of near hopelessness, it is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re able to read it, you’ll find yourself talking about it for a long time.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
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If keeping cool is not your goal, check out Born to Run, which is partly about the author’s path to self-discovery and partly about the history of human beings and our innate ability to run long distances.

This book was recommended to me because I like to run. And while it did inspire me to get out and run more–I only partially subscribe to McDougall’s running philosophies–it ended up appealing to me in a much broader sense, too. Anyone who is interested in learning about new cultures, meeting quirky and nearly certifiably insane characters, or anthropology in general should check this out. You might even find yourself thirsting to be outside to test his theories.

Your Thoughts

I’m going to make this a regular, seasonal feature, so stay tuned for Mama Bear’s Fall 2016 Reading List.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment with your summer favorites!

Little Free Library: A Chicago (& Worldwide) Spotlight

Little Free Libraries excites me because they encourage reading and neighborhood interaction. If you follow this blog, then you know by now that those are two things for which I’ve already demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm (here and here, for example).

A Little Free Library is very simply a free book exchange. Though they are connected through a nonprofit organization, it appears anyone can start one. For that reason, there are now more than 40,000 registered Free Little Libraries across all 50 states and in more than 70 countries worldwide. So if you’re thinking these little boxes look familiar, it’s probably because you have one near you.

The first little box I encountered (near First Slice on Ashland, one of my favorite local bakeries) piqued my interest, especially because it was so carefully decorated. Upon further inspection, I realized it’s actually affiliated with Edgewater Reads, but tomato, tomato (which really loses its pizzazz when written).

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Love at first sight at Ashland and Balmoral.

It soon became my goal to find as many of these libraries as I could. Not necessarily to collect or donate books, but rather to take in a little bit of the blocks and neighborhoods they represented.

Here are a few of my favorites from the Andersonville, Ravenswood Gardens, and Lincoln Square areas.

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Campbell and Sunnyside.

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Rockwell and Leland.
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I cannot remember the location of this one. Oops!

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Glenwood and Berwyn (woo, Andersonville and Sweden!).

Finally, after months of casually (and a little creepily) taking pictures, I decided it was high time donate. So one day, Papa Bear, Baby Bear, and I all went for a little stroll over to the Little Free Library on Eastwood near Rockwell. I love Ravenswood Gardens, so I was happy to leave a little piece of me behind.

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Donation target at Rockwell and Eastwood.

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Our contribution.

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Adiós, friends.

Plan Your Visit

Check out this map to find a Free Little Library near you. If you can’t, start one!

Unabridged Bookstore: A Chicago Spotlight

Yes, yes, yes. I’m a little late to the game, seeing as how it was voted as Chicago’s “Best New-Book Store” in 2015, but I finally made my way down to Lakeview’s Unabridged Bookstore to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day on April 30. (To clarify, “new-book store” refers to a shop where you can purchase new books instead of used books.)

Opened in 1980, it’s been a neighborhood–and city–staple for more than 35 years. Given how tumultuous the last decade has been for brick and mortar bookstores, it’s incredibly impressive how much this one thrives. If you’ll recall, I’m a huge proponent of shopping locally. For the most part, locally owned businesses just care more. They are more knowledgeable about their products and provide superior customer service than the typical big box (and certainly more than online shops). This holds especially true for Unabridged.

The staff was extremely helpful and patient. I was actually a little startled when one employee immediately recognized the titles of two rather obscure children’s books I was trying to find. Though he sadly informed me they were not in stock (which he knew without having to check), he quickly offered to order them for me. After I unsuccessfully searched for a third book, he walked me straight over to where it was hiding. It was a busy day and he didn’t need to do it, but he didn’t even bat an eye. Perhaps these things shouldn’t have impressed me as much as they did, but his sincere helpfulness seems extraordinary nowadays and I really appreciated it.

I was equally impressed with the size and variety of stock Unabridged has. I expected the store to be smaller given that it is located in a city where space is limited. Since one of my favorite pastimes is lackadaisically perusing bookstores, you can imagine my delight when I discovered I was wrong. I could have spent hours exploring all the genres and shelves Unabridged carefully curates. Since I had a hungry baby at home, my first Unabridged adventure was unfortunately cut short. However, I think it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Here’s my quick virtual tour so you can see for yourself how great Unabridged is. Keep in mind that this barely scratches the surface; I only took a handful of pictures because I felt a little creepy taking any, much less any more. I suppose you’ll just have to visit to see the rest. And if you need inspiration on what to buy, you can either ask someone or browse among the several staff recommendation stickers lining the shelves.

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Baby Bear has so much story time ahead of him!

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I’d never seen such a large area devoted to classics before. A good reminder of so many books I have yet to read.

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I love anything to do with Scandinavia, so this whole wall called to me.

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This is just part of the travel section in the basement. Being in this room gave me even more of a travel bug than I already (constantly) have.

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Unabridged Bookstore has one of the largest LGBTQ book sections in the city (if not the largest). Not shown, but right by this is a huge discounted section. It had several titles I’ve been wanting to read, including newer ones that I would never expect to be on the sale shelves. 

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It was tough, but I narrowed down my bounty to the above selection. I see several visits in our near future.

Plan Your Visit

Location and hours

Unabridged Bookstore is located at 3251 N. Broadway Street, Chicago, IL 60657. It’s open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Parking and transportation

There is metered street parking along Broadway and its side streets, but I’d recommend taking the Red, Brown, or Purple ‘L’ train to the Belmont stop and walking for about 10 minutes.

Stroller or carrier

Though Unabridged is large, I’d recommend using a carrier if you plan to bring your baby. It will allow you to navigate much more easily, though it’ll be harder to bend down to read the bottom shelves.

Final Word

As someone who feels pretty well versed in bookstores, I am telling you this one is exceptional. I’d make it a point to visit, and soon.

Top 10 Book Club Books Part II

Have you finished adding all five books from the first half of this post to your to-read list yet? Or better yet, have you read any of them since last week?

If you’re anything like me, you spend an awful lot of time scouring Goodreads to decide what to read next. You’re also drawn to “best of” lists because they make you excited to read new things you haven’t come across on your own. Well, look no further. Here you’ll find the remaining five books that I think make for the best book discussions.

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Top 10 Books for Discussion: Books 5 to 1

Drum roll, please. Here are the best books I’ve ever discussed in book clubs.

5. Outliers: The Story of Success

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Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
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Malcolm Gladwell was my introduction to the “pop nonfiction” genre. His books were–and still are–everywhere. While I’ve only read the first three of his five books (in addition to Outliers, I’ve read The Tipping Point and Blink), I can see why they are so popular. He has a remarkable ability to explain complex sociological or economic issues in plain language and in a way that is interesting to the masses. In Outliers, Gladwell explores why people are so successful in their respective fields.

According to Wiki, his goal was to communicate to readers that “what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” That is to say that success is not entirely a result of an individual’s efforts, but can be circumstantial, cultural, etc.

For example, he points out that many of the best Canadian hockey players are born in the first part of the calendar year. Since the hockey league eligibility cutoff is January 1st, kids born in the first few months of the year are bigger and stronger than kids born towards the end of that year. Because of this, he says they have an “accumulative advantage” in that they are identified as better athletes than their younger peers, coached more, and given more opportunities to succeed in the sport. Though it’s been a long time since I read this book, I remember thinking about this exact theory when I found out I was going to have Baby Bear in July. If I’m not mistaken, most American sport eligibility cutoffs are aligned to the academic calendar, meaning Baby Bear will potentially be among the youngest and smallest, and therefore may not be a highly successful athlete. I’ve come to terms with it.

Gladwell also says success can be attributed to the “10,000-hour rule,” which is basically the idea that to become an expert in anything, you must have at least 10,000 practice hours. By that estimation, I should be a parenting expert before Baby Bear is 14 months. Time will tell.

Okay, so that’s more information than I originally thought I’d write about this book, but it goes to show how some of these things have stuck with me over time. This is partially why I think it’s a good book for discussion; it’s memorable. My club also had some great dialogue about the case studies peppered throughout the book and tried thinking of any examples we had seen firsthand. Having become a parent, I think I’d enjoy reading this book again to try to examine how Papa Bear and I, and our community, may be setting Baby Bear up for success or failure in ways we can’t even imagine. I might have to give it another go to see.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
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rarely re-read books, but this is another I’d love to read again, and soon.

In this novel, a totalitarian regime has assumed power in what was once the United States. Based on extremist Christian ideals, The Republic of Gilead has created a caste system where women are valued mostly for their reproductive abilities. The story is told from the perspective of a handmaid whose only role is to procreate with married men in the ruling class. Once a baby is born, she must turn it over and leave for their next assignment. She, and most women, have little to no say in their lives much less any rights.

Published in 1985, this book is still incredibly relevant in terms of its social and political commentary. It made me sad, angry, and honestly a little frightful for the future. I’m always impressed by and fascinated with authors who can conjure up entirely new worlds and be so imaginative with language. Atwood does both of these things in The Handmaid’s Tale, all while telling a beautiful and moving story.

A dystopian novel at its core, Atwood interestingly prefers the term “speculative fiction” over “science fiction.” She says it’s because The Handmaid’s Tale is about something that could actually happen today rather than something that humans are unable to do yet (like travel to another universe). It’s intriguing to consider the novel from that perspective, and I think it helps explain why book clubs are drawn to dystopian novels much like they are drawn to World War II novels. Both genres have worlds that are hard to fathom, though the latter is based on a world that actually did exist. You can’t help but consider how things could come to be so appalling or reflect on how you would react in those situations. Both of these things make for fruitful discussion.

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
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This is one of the few books I have already re-read. I loved it so much in high school (which says enough right there, because what high schooler loves any book they are forced to read?) that I recommended we read it for a book club about a decade later. I was not disappointed the second time around.

A classic and oft-parodied novel, it is the story of Dorian Gray, a handsome man who becomes enamored with hedonism and begins to wish that his portrait would age instead of him. As he begins to act more and more selfishly, he notices that his wish has come true and that his portrait is, in fact, growing older and more cruel-looking. While he at first feels a little remorseful as he affects the people around him, he soon gives in and begins to conduct a life of corruption. When he at last faces his conscience, he discovers it is too late. The ending is famous, but I won’t give too much more detail in case you haven’t read it yet.

I once saw Wilde’s writing described as “sumptuous,” and I can’t really think of a better description. Reading it, I strangely felt like I was simultaneously devouring a juicy peach and riding on a thrilling roller coaster. Some of my book club friends had a hard time combing through Wilde’s long-winded prose, but the story is so enthralling and Wilde is so witty that everyone ended up enjoying the book and had plenty to discuss. Wilde’s only novel, published in 1890 and considered to be extremely controversial, Dorian Gray‘s themes are extremely significant today. Hedonism, morality, and the importance of public appearance…dare I say we could talk politics here too? I hate to imagine what some of our politicians’ hidden portraits look like given how they act in public!

Fun fact: the Albright painting that was commissioned for use in the 1945 film of the same name now resides in the Art Institute of Chicago. Hometown folks, go check it out!

2. The Shining

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The Shining by Stephen King
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Yes, this is a horror novel and I know it’s scary. But don’t skip over it! This is seriously one of the best books I have ever discussed in a book club. It didn’t even stop with book club, actually. I kept asking everyone I came across if they had read this because I wanted to talk about it all the time. Partially because I was scared but mostly because it was so good.

Most everyone knows this story. Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic already haunted by his own demons when he moves his family to the isolated (and haunted) Overlook Hotel. He is to be the off-season caretaker. His son, Danny, has a supernatural ability, called “the shining,” which allows him to see and experience the horrible things that have occurred in the hotel. (Remember the confession bear meme I posted in this post? I shudder to think about it.) The you-know-what really starts to hit the fan when the family is snowed in and the hotel decides it wants to “keep” Danny by way of Jack. This will make more sense if you read it.

There are two things you must know.

  1. The movie is almost nothing like the book. Yes, the plot is loosely the same, but there are several serious differences [spoilers in the article]. So many that King has publicly stated his dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. So if you think you know everything about the book because you’ve seen the movie, you’re mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is wonderful for a lot of reasons. But it’s not the same story and the characters are totally different.
  2. It’s not just a horror novel. While it does have some of the scariest and most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever read (those hedges though!), this is a complex story with highly developed characters. King did an especially incredible job building humanity into Jack. We are witness to his slow descent into madness, try as he might to fight it. It really makes you wonder what’s scarier, what your mind and body are capable of or a haunted house?

It was really fun to discuss King’s writing style, especially because it blew us away. Obviously King is an extremely successful author, but we had no idea how deep this story would be. We talked a little about what scared us the most, but most of the time we focused on the characters and their development throughout the novel.

For even more fun and discussion, watch the movie after you discuss the book. My book club always reads a scary book in October (so original), and for this one we made it into a combo book and movie night. It was fun!

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
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When I first decided to write this post, I immediately knew this would be my number one book. We had such a tremendously engaging discussion about it that, to me, it was the model of what all book discussions should be like.

The novel is composed of letters written by a mother, Eva, who is coming to terms with the actions of her high school shooter son, Kevin. The letters are written to her estranged husband and recall their lives before Kevin was born, through his trying childhood, and up to the point of the massacre (Eva’s trips to see Kevin in prison are also highlighted). Eva’s memories make it clear she has always found Kevin to be challenging, though as he ages and she fits all the  pieces in her retrospective together, it’s clear he demonstrated sociopathic behaviors for years. Unfortunately, he usually seemed to reserve these behaviors for Eva and acted like a nearly perfect son for Eva’s husband and Kevin’s father, Franklin. Matters grew much more serious when Eva and Franklin added a daughter, Celia, to the mix and Kevin suddenly had a little sister.

Without saying too much more about the plot, I can tell you that the content is deeply disturbing, especially because of how believable it is given the pervasiveness of school massacres nowadays. Eva struggled with motherhood before Kevin was even born, and knew her relationship with him was off when he was an infant. She justly fell  into a depression, especially given that he acted so differently with Franklin. Was he always evil or did it develop over time? Can babies be born evil? The nature versus nurture debate is as old as time, but that makes it no less lively. And while Kevin is certainly the character who has the most impact in the novel, he was not the only thing we discussed.

My book club and I were also drawn to Eva’s relationship with Franklin. How would a woman react if her husband did not see any of the warning signs she did about their son? What would that do to their relationship? What would it do to her mental health? Now that I’m a mother, I’m especially flummoxed when I try to think of how I would possibly cope with a child like Kevin. There’s already so much guilt I feel as a mother (about things I logically understand I should not feel guilty about) that I cannot possibly imagine trying to cope with the legitimate worries, guilt, and fear Eva feels. Unfortunately, there are parents of high school shooters out there who must face the fallout of such horror in real life. Luckily, we only examined Shriver’s fictional account, but it felt chilling nonetheless.

What Are Your Thoughts?

What books have sparked your book club’s most interesting discussions? What would you change on this list? Let’s start a discussion about discussions.

Top 10 Book Club Books Part I

I could talk about books all day long. In fact, I’d love to do just that. But since it’s not exactly practical, and it would take forever to type up an entire day’s worth of discussion, a wee blog post must suffice. Well, two blog posts.

I previously mentioned that I’ve been part of several book clubs over the last decade or so. I also suggested a few of my book club dos and don’ts to help others either get started or just maintain momentum for their own clubs.

Here, I’d like to continue exploring that topic by presenting some of my favorite book club books so far. It should be noted that I have a horrible–absolutely awful–memory and yet these books have stayed with me because they sparked such rich conversations.

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Let me preface this list with a small clarification. While there is certainly some crossover between these books and my all-time favorites, they are not necessarily the same. Some books lend themselves to thought-provoking conversations but still may not be completely up my alley. Similarly, some of the books that I think are just mind-blowing may prove to be uninspiring to others.

“Did you like the book?” “No. I don’t even have much to say about it.” “Okay, great discussion. Have some more hummus.” On the positive side, food. On the other side, that’s not why we’re here today. Focus, Mama Bear. Focus.

While I loved all of the following books, they are my favorite specifically for discussion. My all-time favorite list will eventually come up in a different post.

Top 10 Books for Discussion: Books 10 to 6

Without further adieu, here is the first half of the list of books I’d recommend you add to your book club’s to-read list. For what it’s worth, the order is fairly insignificant. They’re all very good.

10. And the Mountains Echoed

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And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
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This heart-wrenching novel tells the tale of three generations of one family: parents forced to make a horrifying decision, children torn apart and never fully able to recover, and a granddaughter trying to make sense of her own life. Hosseini’s beautiful storytelling ability evoked several emotions from our group and made us discuss familial sacrifice and belonging.

9. Man’s Search for Meaning

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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
[Source]

This short nonfiction work was not the easiest for some of the book club members to finish, but it was one of the most impactful for those who did. It’s only 165 pages and is broken into two sections: one about Frankl’s time as a Nazi death camp prisoner and one about the existential search to find meaning in one’s life. World War II books seem to attract book clubs (as evidenced by the next recommendation actually), but this one was incredibly different from any other I had ever read.

Unlike many other accounts of prison camps, Frankl provides more of an analysis of people’s psyches than detailing what exactly occurred in the camp. Though it’s been several years since I read it, I remember being especially affected by the idea of a prisoner finding humanity in some prison guards and finding a lack of humanity in some fellow prisoners.

Furthermore, his theory of “logotherapy,” which he details in the second half of the book, really resonated with me when I read it. The main idea behind this concept is that human beings are driven by the need to discover their individual meanings in life, that all lives have meaning, and that people are free to find this meaning (even those in horrific situations). Though I luckily cannot relate to being a prisoner, I read this when I had just finished college and was going through a bit of a quarter life crisis. This book helped me examine the meaning in my own life in terms of what was ahead. And while the other members of my book club were very mixed in terms of age and life experience, it made everyone take a look at their own lives in a similar way. Any book that can do that is worth discussing.

8. All the Light We Cannot See 

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
[Source]

Our February 2016 pick, this Pulitzer Prize winner is the most recently discussed book on the list. Another World War II book, this time fictional, it tells the story of two young people trying to survive the war. The first is a blind French girl who must leave her home in Nazi-occupied Paris and adjust to life in a small seaside town that is increasingly affected by the war. The second is a German orphan who is more or less coerced into joining Hitler Youth and becoming a technical specialist of sorts. They both encounter several memorable characters before their paths collide.

Even though it was a bestseller for so long, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now I am so glad we read it. The chapters are short and the story is captivating, so the other group members and I found ourselves reading it rather quickly. That said, it was the kind of book that made me want to slow my pace a little to actually savor the prose. Put simply, this book is beautifully written. Its imagery is profound; I felt like I could run my hands along the streets of Saint-Malo and smell the salty sea air myself. There was a lot to discuss in this book, from Doerr’s writing style to the war and its effects on the people on both sides. Plus, a book that everyone ends up enjoying is a big bonus.

7. The World Without Us

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
[Source]

If you ever want to feel like a terrible human being, but in a positive, I-will-be-better kind of way, read this book.

The World Without Us is a thought experiment conducted by Weisman, the premise of which is, “What would happen to the Earth if humans suddenly didn’t exist anymore?” To find out how long it would take nature to reclaim what is rightfully hers and to see what legacy humans would leave behind (answer: so.much.plastic.), Weisman interviewed scientists and other experts and used abandoned sites such as Chernobyl, Ukraine to illustrate his findings.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t focus too much on what humans are doing wrong so much as the world we would leave behind. Even still, this book really makes you think about the impact of your actions. I’ve always had a crunchy side to me, but reading about how something as commonplace as a plastic bag will be here for thousands of years to come made me cringe, hold my baby close, and whisper to him, “Please be a positive change in this world.” While it’s unlikely humans will ever just disappear without some damage to the animals or environment around us, it’s somewhat comforting to know that if we did, it wouldn’t take too long for things to start growing over what we’ve claimed as ours.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d say “eye-opening.” Our discussion was rife with ideas of how to make changes in our own lives, even small ones. Any book that forces you to think outside yourself is a good one to discuss.

6. In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
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This was one of the first books I ever read for a book club. It’s a nonfiction crime story detailing the murders of four members of a small-town Kansas family. Capote was culturally significant in his own right, but this book is particularly interesting because it is considered by many to be the first piece of literary nonfiction. Capote himself called it a “nonfiction novel” and it reads exactly like that. It includes dialogue and narrative from multiple perspectives, and is full of suspense. These qualities made for an extremely engrossing read.

Critics have said there are a number of discrepancies from what actually occurred and what is represented in the novel, which it seems Capote repeatedly denied. This was one of the things that made our book club discussion so engaging. We talked about the prose and the overall writing style, sure, but we also had a little debate about how much we personally believed and about how much it mattered either way. Journalism ethics for the win!

To Be Continued…

Check back soon to read part two of this list where I’ll reveal my top five favorite book club books. I might even have to throw in an honorable mention section because this is so hard!

In the Meantime

What are your favorite book club books? Or your favorite books that you’re dying to discuss but haven’t had the opportunity yet? I want suggestions!

 

 

 

 

 

Baby Bear’s Favorite Children’s Books

Years ago, I was a member of the Mad Hatters, the Junior League of Chicago’s volunteer performance troupe. We would read, sing, dance, and act out children’s books and poems at various libraries and locations across the city.

Being part of a children’s literacy program is something else; seeing kids smile and engage with books during the great screen age of our time is quite incredible, really. As a member of that group, I reconnected with several children’s books that I had either long forgotten or never paid much notice. It also made me look forward to the day when I could read, sing, dance, and act out children’s books with my own kid. I correctly anticipated that it would be one of my favorite parts of parenting.

Within days of bringing Baby Bear home, Papa Bear and I made reading to the babe a nightly routine. When he was that young, it was much more for our own benefit since he couldn’t be bothered to stay awake during story time. Now, at nearly nine months, he is much more interested in what we are reading. Well, he’s at least interested in trying to grab and chew the books we are reading. But it’s a start.

The Short List

Here are our favorite children’s books so far.

C is for Chicago 

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C is for Chicago written by Maria Kernahan and illustrated by Michael Schafbuch
[Source]

I have major hometown pride, and this book just fuels that fire. In fact, I love it so much that I will only read it to Baby Bear while he’s in his high chair because I don’t want him to tear the pages. (Note: I did see a board version available, but a smaller size would do this book an injustice.)

The illustrations are gorgeous. They are bold, bright, and really hold baby’s attention (which is no small feat). The rhymes for each letter are clever and do a wonderful job of showcasing some of my favorite things about this city. My favorite spread is, “H is for hot dogs on steamed poppy seed buns. With a garden full of toppings it’s hard to eat just one.” Imagine the artwork on that one or do one better and buy the book for yourself. I’m sure many of Chicago’s bookstores sell it, but I grabbed a copy (and a few for friends) at Enjoy, An Urban General Store.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
[Source]

A classic, this was one of my favorites when I was in Mad Hatters. When kids are older, you can invite them to act it out with you. It’s especially fun when you come to the ending and have to open the door, rush up the stairs, go back downstairs, etc., because kids are great at capturing that hurried excitement.

When they’re little, kids are drawn to repetition and changes in tone and volume during the ‘noise’ pages (e.g., “Splash splosh!”). Plus, the variation between black and white and colorful illustrations provides a visually appealing contrast for all readers.

Fire! ¡Fuego! Brave Bomberos

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Fire! ¡Fuego! Brave Bomberos written Susan Middleton Elya and illustrated by Dan Santat
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As someone who was at one time fluent in Spanish but now needs to practice a lot more than I do, I’d highly recommend this book. It creatively mixes English and Spanish to tell the story of four brave firefighters (bomberos) as they are called to extinguish a fire.

This is one of my favorite books to read aloud because each line just rolls right off the tongue. For example, “Firemen raise the ladder high. ‘I’ll go. I’ll go.’ ‘Let me try!’ ‘Hey, compadres, momentito! Let me save that poor gatito.'”

The art really complements the treatment of the text; each Spanish word is bolded and there are several callouts. As a bonus, there’s a glossary of Spanish terms at the back of the book. For non-Spanish speakers, the glossary reviews pronunciation too.

INDESTRUCTIBLES™ nursery rhyme book set

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Indestructibles™ illustrated by Jonas Sickler
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These are perhaps the best books a baby can have. According to their description, “INDESTRUCTIBLES are built for the way babies ‘read’: with their hands and mouths. INDESTRUCTIBLES wont’ rip or tear and are 100% washable. They’re made for baby to hold, grab, chew, pull, and bend.” From my experience, this all true. They are made from a nontoxic, paper-like material and they can seriously take a beating. In fact, I’ve often wondered as Baby Bear is playing with these if I’m teaching him that it’s okay to treat books like chew toys, but I’ve learned that he’ll chew a book regardless. At least these are meant to be chewed.

If you’re like me and you couldn’t remember the words to these nursery rhymes (I wish I were kidding), you’re in luck because all of the words are printed on the back. Each line corresponds to a different page with its own dazzling illustration. The colors are vibrant and the images almost seem textured as the illustrator made use of many different patterns. As if all of these things weren’t great enough, each book is extremely lightweight and makes for a perfect diaper bag toy.

The Butt Book

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The Butt Book written by Artie Bennett and illustrated by Mike Lester
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Baby Bear’s cousin has given us several great books so far, including the INDESTRUCTIBLE set above, but this is my personal favorite. Very cheeky (no pun intended), this book talks all about butts, a topic that I’m sure will be endlessly entertaining to Baby Bear as he grows older.

The book starts off, “Eyes and ears are much respected, but the butt has been neglected. We hope to change that here and now. Would the butt please take a bow?” How could that not make you giggle at least a little bit? That’s what’s so great about this book: it’s delightfully funny for adults and kids alike. It’s hard to choose, but perhaps my favorite line is, “Some names for butts have foreign flair: tuchas, keister, derriere!”

Appropriately, all of the illustrations show different kinds of butts, from a mummy butt to a rhino butt to a teddy bear’s butt. I never thought I’d so thoroughly enjoy a book about butts, but I do!

God Bless You & Good Night

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God Bless You & Good Night written by Hannah C. Hall and illustrated by Steve Whitlow
[Source]

This is the last book we read before bed every night. As I’m sure is the case with many parents and Goodnight Moon, both Papa Bear and I know each of the adorable ten stanzas by heart. The book is beautifully illustrated and shows a parent (hey, it could be a mommy or daddy) animal with its baby as they go through different parts of a bedtime routine. My favorite line to read to Baby Bear is, “You’re ready now to cuddle down. There’s one last thing to do. I’ll hold you near so you can hear me whisper, ‘I love you.'” I look forward to that little snuggle every single time.

As you may expect based on the title, there are a few God references in this book. For example, “Let’s settle down and settle in and close our eyes to pray. You’ve wrestled, raced, and run and chased. ‘God, thank You for this day.'” While I’m not a big fan of overtly religious text, these don’t faze me as it’s such a sweet book overall.

Goodnight Little One

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Goodnight Little One written Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Rebecca Elliott
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Another charming bedtime book, this one from the author of Goodnight Moon also follows different kinds of animals as they close their eyes to go to sleep. For example, “Little pig that squeals about, make no noises with your snout. No more squealing to the skies, little pig now close your eyes.”

The text is cute and the use of repetition is great for little readers, but the illustrations are by far my favorite part of this book. Each little animal looks so sleepy and cuddly, I can’t help but lull myself to sleep along with my babe.

Shop Local

You’ll notice that, with the exception of C is for Chicago, which sends you to a different local shop, each link sends you to the Book Cellar, my local bookstore. As I mentioned in my recent board game post, I am a firm believer in “shopping local” and supporting my community’s small businesses. If you don’t want to go into the store, the Book Cellar will ship directly to you. If you’d prefer to support your favorite local bookstore, I’m sure they can order these books for you if they’re not already in stock. Help the little guys out!

Your Favorites

I can’t recommend these seven books enough, but what are we missing? Comment and share your and/or your kid’s favorite books. We are always looking to grow our library.