Review: It’s a BUSLOAD of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems

It's a Busload of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion. 120 pp.

It’s a Busload of Pigeon Books! by Mo Willems. Disney-Hyperion. 120 pp.

A family friend gave my son a Barnes and Noble gift card for his birthday. She explained in the card that it was really a gift for me, because she knew how excited I was to share my love for reading with my little boy. And that gift card has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving, because it’s been almost a year and not only do we still have a little bit of money left to spend, but one of the selections has become a family favorite.

My son requests these books constantly; he loves The Pigeon. (That should be capitalized, right? He’s an institution!) My husband and I enjoy these books as well; they’re funny and easy to read aloud. The lines are simple and super-fun to add inflection to, like

Can you believe this guy?!

or

First of all, I’m not even tired.

It’s great fun to witness The Pigeon’s antics, and my son looooves being in charge of whether or not The Pigeon gets to drive the bus. (For once, he’s not the one begging for a privilege!)

These books are much smaller than the regular hardcover editions, which was disappointing at first, but I should have guessed because they’re also much cheaper. As I’ve gotten used to them, they don’t feel overly miniature any more; they’re actually a better size for my almost-two-year-old. The set also comes with an activity poster (one side activities, one side pop-art Pigeon poster) which is small but cute.

All in all: A fun addition to a child’s library. Also great for a gift; the box set nature makes it feel gift-y to me.

Review: Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. Random House. 288 pp.

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. Random House. 288 pp.

From the two-term Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins comes his first compilation of new and selected poems in twelve years. Aimless Love combines new poems with selections from four previous books—Nine Horses, The Trouble with Poetry, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead. Collins’s unmistakable voice, which brings together plain speech with imaginative surprise, is clearly heard with every word, reminding us how he has managed to enrich the tapestry of contemporary poetry and greatly expand its audience. His work is featured in top literary magazines such as The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Atlantic, and he sells out reading venues all across the country. Appearing regularly in The Best American Poetry series, his poems appeal to readers and live audiences far and wide and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. By turns playful, ironic, and serious, Collins’s poetry captures the nuances of everyday life while leading the reader into zones of inspired wonder. In the poet’s own words, he hopes that his poems “begin in Kansas and end in Oz.” Touching on the themes of love, loss, joy, and poetry itself, these poems showcase the best work of this “poet of plenitude, irony, and Augustan grace” (The New Yorker).


I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t had much experience with Billy Collins’s work before starting this collection. (I’m not very well versed in poetry, especially that of the twenty-first century. But I’m working on it.) I’d come across a poem of his here and there in anthologies but hadn’t picked up a collection of his work yet. And — like many books I’ve been reading lately — I’m disappointed in myself for taking so long to read this one. Aimless Love is a great place to start because it includes Collins’s old poems as well as new. It was a great sampler for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Collins’s poetry reminds me of the time I stood in St. Paul’s Cathedral: the world seemed so big, and as a result I felt small and insignificant, but it was overwhelming in the best possible way. I felt connected to the world around me, a small cog in a complex mechanism. (And I’m not Catholic. This may have been a sort of architectural revelation.) There are things that we all experience, and there are aspects of life unique to each of us, and good poetry (good writing of any kind, really) finds a way to bridge the gap between people until we remember that we are all part of the same underlying human experience.

All in all: Collins writes poems that are easily accessible to the reluctant reader but well-crafted enough to be admired by lovers of the written word. An excellent collection, one that would make a great gift. (I received a digital review copy but plan to purchase a print edition so I can underline my favorite lines and pencil in some marginalia.)

Review: Search Party: Stories of Rescue by Valerie Trueblood

Search Party by Valerie Trueblood. Counterpoint. 256 pp.

Search Party by Valerie Trueblood. Counterpoint. 256 pp.

I started reading this book months upon months ago, but I’m a multiple-books-at-a-time reader, and something usually ends up falling by the wayside. Sometimes it’s because the book doesn’t hold my interest, sometimes it’s because something shiny comes along, and sometimes it’s just a wrong-place-wrong-time sort of thing. I’m not sure what took me so long with this one…probably a combination of the last two. I remember reading “The Finding,” the first story in Search Party, and being pleasantly surprised by it. I read the next few stories and sort of drifted away from the book; when I picked it up again, I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to read something so wonderful.

Search Party is a remarkably strong collection of stories. I enjoy short fiction but, as I mentioned in my review of Lorrie Moore’s Bark, I think some of the recent stuff is highly overrated. Not this collection, though. “The Magic Pebble” and “The Stabbed Boy” just about broke my heart with their bits of tragedy; “The Blue Grotto,” a tale of a babysitter whose overnight charge has a 105-degree fever and requires a trip to the ER, terrified me; “Later or Never” (about a caretaker) and “Street of Dreams” (about a father shepherding his homeless family) were poignant vignettes; and the opening of “Who Is He That Will Harm You” reveals its events, little by little, until the full scene pops startlingly into your mind’s eye.

The main disappointment for me was the final — and titular — tale. At 45 pages, it creates a slowly-dragging finish to what is otherwise a smooth-moving collection. It’s not a bad story, but it keeps adding new elements just when you think it’s going to wrap things up. This was the only story in the book during which I found myself flipping ahead — multiple times — to see how much I had left. Don’t let that one downfall steer you away from this book, though, because you’d be missing out.

All in all: One of the better story collections I’ve read recently. I still haven’t decided whether to send my copy to a friend or not. I want to share it but also feel like keeping it for myself, which is high praise.

Review: Queen of Hearts Volume One: The Crown by Colleen Oakes

QueenOfHearts

Queen Of Hearts, Volume One: The Crown by Colleen Oakes. SparkPress. 206 pp.

I’m a big fan of retellings. I’m also a lover of all things Wonderland. So it should come as no surprise that I make an effort to get my hands on every Wonderland-revamped book I can, from Frank Beddor’s sci-fi series The Looking-Glass Wars to my personal favorite, A.G. Howard’s Splintered series. The only one I’ve seen and passed up so far is Alice in Zombieland, because I pretty much hate zombie stories (although I might make an exception for that one eventually). Is that terrible? I know zombies have been all the rage lately, but they do absolutely nothing for me. I saw 28 Weeks Later (someone else’s choice) and struggled through the entire movie, fully aware of the minutes of my life I was so tragically wasting.

So. With the exception of zombie tales, I’m always happy to visit someone else’s version of Wonderland. It just shows how many people were, like me, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s pivotal works. My favorites are the ones that coexist harmoniously with Carroll’s original tales. In Splintered, for instance, Alyssa’s ancestor was the Alice Liddell, and now she must clean up the mess her I-forget-how-many-greats-grandmother made in Wonderland. In Kellie Sheridan’s Follow the White Rabbit, Alice has come and gone, and the residents of Wonderland are scouring prophecies to find out when/if she will return. There’s a tie-in in The Looking-Glass Wars, too, but I haven’t read that one in years and can’t recall exactly how it worked.

I somewhat enjoyed reading Queen of Hearts, but not as much as I usually enjoy Wonderland retellings. I found Dinah, while not entirely likable, to be an interesting character. She was strong and independent and untraditional, and I liked that. I also liked how often she pleasantly-surprised herself when she was thrown outside of her comfort zone. Oakes’s world-building was admirable; I particularly liked the image of putting prisoners “on the tree.” It was cruel and terrifying and worked rather well.

However, this book had numerous downfalls for me. I found that Dinah’s struggles with her father weren’t entirely believable. (Why continue to seek the love of someone who treats you so horribly, parent or not? She seemed too smart for that.) I also felt like the sexual tension between her and her best friend, Wardley (what a great name, by the way!), lacked definition or resolution, and the line (I paraphrase) “She longed to one day make him her king” was included far too many times. (At least three by my count. I got it after the first time!) Also, the plot stops abruptly at the end of the book. At 206 pages, this reads like the first half of a novel instead of the first volume of a series. A longer book with a more complete story would have been preferable. There were also a handful of grammatical errors that bugged me, most notably

Morte stomped his hoov [sic] again.

Um…”hoof” is the singular form of “hooves.” (This error appears three times, so it’s not a typo.) Throughout the book, Dinah is frequently described as plump (her maid struggles to cinch her corsets tighter and tighter, and many people comment on how much daintier her half-sister is), but in one scene the author chooses to refer to her as “leaner than the average Wonderland woman…her legs lean and muscled.” Poor word choice — or using a word when you’re not quite sure what it means — is distracting. Things like this could have easily been uncovered in a round of proofreading.

Regarding the retelling aspect, the setting was so far removed from the Wonderland I know and love that it felt like it could be any old fantasy kingdom. Dinah’s world is really a new creation, which speaks well to Oakes’s creativity but was frustrating for me since I picked this book due to my love of Lewis Carroll’s work. Yes, some of the characters here are named after the ones in the original work, but there weren’t enough connections for me.

All in all: An interesting story with some noticeable flaws. Read if you enjoy fantasy and aren’t distracted by plot or grammatical errors. If you’re an Alice fan, I’d look elsewhere.

Review: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden

PoemsThatMakeGrownMenCry

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony & Ben Holden. Simon & Schuster. 336 pp.

Grown men don’t cry.

But in this fascinating anthology, one hundred men—distinguished in literature and film, science and architecture, theater and human rights—confess to being moved to tears by poems that continue to haunt them. Representing twenty nationalities and ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 80s, the majority are public figures not prone to crying. Here they admit to breaking down when ambushed by great art, often in words as powerful as the poems themselves.

Their selections include classics by visionaries such as Walt Whitman, W.H Auden, and Philip Larkin, as well as contemporary works by masters including Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, and poets who span the globe from Pablo Neruda to Rabindranath Tagore.

Seventy-five percent of the selected poems were written in the twentieth century, with more than a dozen by women including Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Their themes range from love in its many guises, through mortality and loss, to the beauty and variety of nature. Three men have suffered the pain of losing a child; others are moved to tears by the exquisite way a poet captures, in Alexander Pope’s famous phrase, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.

From J.J. Abrams to John le Carré, Salman Rushdie to Jonathan Franzen, Daniel Radcliffe to Nick Cave, Billy Collins to Stephen Fry, Stanley Tucci to Colin Firth, and Seamus Heaney to Christopher Hitchens, this collection delivers private insight into the souls of men whose writing, acting, and thinking are admired around the world.


You don’t have to say it: I am fully aware that I am not a man. Also, I’m an embarrassingly easy crier and will shed a tear at the drop of a hat. (I’ve recently taken to speed-reading through sad scenes in books because otherwise I’d have to tag far too many reviews with “Made Me Cry.”) So what made me request this one from Edelweiss? Basically, I figured that this had to be a collection of damn good poems in order to move so many eminent men so deeply. Also, the range of contributors seemed pretty broad, and it included a lot of my favorites. I’m always interested in finding out if my tastes match the tastes of the writers/performers/etc. I admire.

The editors allowed each contributor to include a brief piece explaining why he chose his particular poem. I found it particularly interesting when two men chose the same poem for different reasons, which happened more than once. After the poem, there’s a brief bio on the selector. Although I recognized most of the names, there were a few I didn’t, and I found this feature helpful.

The poetry itself comes from various time periods and languages, though most were written in English in the last 100-150 years. Some are beautiful but not particularly emotional, some seemed chosen for strictly personal reasons (and therefore felt a bit distant for me), and some left me pacing the floors of my home while sobbing.

Some of the poems didn’t make me cry, but they opened my eyes to a new poet and a style that I admired (I’ve included links when I could find them): Abioseh Nicol’s “The Meaning of Africa,” chosen by James Earl Jones, with its sweeping descriptions; Elizabeth Bishop’s powerfully evocative “Crusoe in England,” chosen by Andrew Solomon; Philip Larkin’s terrifying “Aubade,” chosen by William Sieghart; and — one I’d read previously and forgotten about — Bukowski’s “Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame,” chosen by Mike Leigh.

Other poems’ messages moved me: Consantine P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka,” chosen by Walter Salles, and Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love,” chosen by Tom Hiddleston.

Poems that hit me the hardest — the ones that made me out-and-out cry — were the ones about family, whether having/losing a parent (Tony Harrison’s “Long Distance II,” chosen by Daniel Radcliffe) or being one (John N. Morris’s “For Julia, In the Deep Water,” chosen by Tobias Wolff; Victoria Redel’s “Bedecked,” chosen by Billy Collins; and Rabindranath Tagore’s “Those Who Are Near Me Do Not Know,” chosen by Chris Cooper).

All in all: There’s something for everyone in here. Buy a stack of copies and gift them!

Review: The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick. Harper. 304 pp.

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick. Harper. 304 pp.

Call it fate. Call it synchronicity. Call it an act of God. Call it . . . The Good Luck of Right Now. From the New York Times bestselling author of The Silver Linings Playbook comes an entertaining and inspiring tale that will leave you pondering the rhythms of the universe and marveling at the power of kindness and love.

For thirty-eight years, Bartholomew Neil has lived with his mother. When she gets sick and dies, he has no idea how to be on his own. His redheaded grief counselor, Wendy, says he needs to find his flock and leave the nest. But how does a man whose whole life has been grounded in his mom, Saturday mass, and the library learn how to fly?

Bartholomew thinks he’s found a clue when he discovers a “Free Tibet” letter from Richard Gere hidden in his mother’s underwear drawer. In her final days, mom called him Richard—there must be a cosmic connection. Believing that the actor is meant to help him, Bartholomew awkwardly starts his new life, writing Richard Gere a series of highly intimate letters. Jung and the Dalai Lama, philosophy and faith, alien abduction and cat telepathy, the Catholic Church and the mystery of women are all explored in his soul-baring epistles. But mostly the letters reveal one man’s heartbreakingly earnest attempt to assemble a family of his own.

A struggling priest, a “Girlbrarian,” her feline-loving, foul-mouthed brother, and the spirit of Richard Gere join the quest to help Bartholomew. In a rented Ford Focus, they travel to Canada to see the cat Parliament and find his biological father . . . and discover so much more.


Here’s the thing about Matthew Quick: he’s an ace at writing an unreliable, disturbed narrator. (Note that I haven’t read all of his works; I’m judging this by Silver Linings Playbook and The Good Luck of Right Now.) The problem with that (for me, at least) is that I find it infinitely frustrating to read a book by a narrator that’s hiding something, not just from me, but from himself. It’s the literary equivalent of banging your head against a wall, and I don’t particularly enjoy it. (Exception to this: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I found it stunning the first time I read it, and it was just as strong when I re-read it last year.)

Even though I find his narrators frustrating, there’s no denying Matthew Quick’s talent. He creates memorable, unique characters, and I enjoy watching things happen to them. His stories are sweeping and personal, all at once. The pain and struggles are universal, but the characters are still one of a kind and experience these things in their own ways.

Here are a couple of trends I’ve noticed in both books which make me think that, even though he’s a gifted writer, Quick might need to branch out a bit in his settings and themes:

  • main character is in denial/disconnect about a negative experience
  • M.C. is physically large and intimidating to others
  • MC has profound thoughts, but everyone around him assumes that his thinking is simplistic
  • M.C.’s family feels the need to protect him from the world
  • absent father/misunderstood by father
  • setting: suburb outside of an industrial northeast city

None of these elements makes for a bad story; I just like to see more diversity in an author’s body of work. This may be why I’ve stopped picking up Chuck Palahniuk’s stuff. If you like a very specific type of book, he cranks ’em out. But if you want something new, look elsewhere. Is this the case with Matthew Quick? I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to read more of his stuff to decide.

All in all: Not a bad book by any means, but with all the other excellent books out there, I wouldn’t be quick (ha!) to recommend this one.

Review: Bark by Lorrie Moore

Bark by Lorrie Moore. Knopf. 208 pp.

Bark by Lorrie Moore. Knopf. 208 pp.

I’ve been thinking about my short story preferences. It seems that a lot of collections that get rave reviews from others do nothing for me. There’s this dry, detached style that seems to be getting a lot of attention lately, and I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It makes me feel like a bad reader, because I’m talking about stuff published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and literary publications like Tin House or One Story. Side note: I’ve found stories to love in all of the aforementioned publications, so please don’t think I’m knocking them. It’s just that sometimes I read something and think, You’re a world-class journal and can choose from the best of the best, and this is what you chose to run this month?! And then I wonder if I’m missing something because it falls so terribly flat for me.

This, sadly, is how I feel about Lorrie Moore. Is she a bad writer? Not in the least. But her writing makes me feel…well, nothing. You know, sort of like Priscilla Lopez sings about in A Chorus Line. Moore has a solid vocabulary, sure, and she tells stories about real things happening to real people, and her work isn’t bad, per se. I just wouldn’t recommend it. And I can’t put my finger on why. I’ve read short fiction — by greats like Hemingway as well as by current writers like George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and virtually the entirety of authors featured in The Best American Short Stories 2012 — that has blown me away. I crave short fiction that just needs to be devoured and that, by the end, leaves me stunned by what I’ve just experienced. For me, with the exception of one story, this collection didn’t come anywhere near my admittedly-high standards.

A bit more (more/Moore! ha!) about the collection itself. The stories are mostly realistic (“The Juniper Tree” features a seance-y scene that’s sort of dreamy and surreal) and focus on the personal aspects of the everyday: marriage, divorce, single parenting, mental illness. Basically, this is a collection of people surviving all the things life throws as them. Although the subject matter isn’t bad, the characters aren’t likable. And I’m not talking about that King Joffrey, love-to-hate-them kind of thing. I simply didn’t care about any of them. (Maybe liking characters is too important to me. I’ll have to examine this in a future post.)

The one exception: “Wings,” an excellent story about a struggling musician past her prime who gets close to an elderly neighbor in the hopes of being left an inheritance. It’s full of people looking for something — or someone — to use, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s got the heart of a novel but the length of a short story, and it really stands out.

All in all: If you’ve enjoyed Moore’s other work, you’d probably enjoy this. (I read A Gate At the Stairs, and the style is the same.) Personally, though, I wouldn’t recommend it.