#BookADay Days 5-8: Owning, Borrowing, Gifting

Catching up on the #BookADay challenge posted by Borough Press since I last posted on Day 4. (Today’s prompt, Day 9, will follow later today.)

Day 5 – Doesn’t Belong to Me.

I confess. I am a library reader. I could never afford by 100 books a year reading habit if I purchased all the books I read. In this, I am very blessed to have the resources of the Berwyn Public Library and especially its Readers Advisory Department. They faithfully order books, recommend titles and even place advance holds on my favorite authors. They literally keep me in books.

Geek LoveI do, however, have one book that fits this prompt. More than 10 years ago, I was chatting with a friend about on old title I’d like to re-read, assuming she wouldn’t know it. I told her Geek Love was my all-time favorite circus book. She brightened immediately and told me it was hers too. She lent me her copy and somehow I never managed to return it.

I don’t see Terri anymore, but every time I see this book (with her maiden name neatly penned on the inside cover) I remember the joy of having such an incredible woman in my life. We were both new moms and avid readers.  (I also think that I should really drive by her house and return her book!)


Day 6 – The One I Always Give as a Gift

Big Red BarnI love to gift books, but it’s always a very personal and emotional choice in the moment. Very few titles fit more than one person for any occasion or holiday. But recently I’ve had the pleasure of attending two book-themed baby showers. I gave both moms-to-be board book copies of Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown.

I am sure I read this book more than any other when my sons were babies. I still can recite the first fw pages by memory and find both the words and illustrations incredibly soothing as a bedtime book.


Day 7 – Forgot I Owned

See Day 5 for my lack of book ownership, but I do think there might be a box buried in my basement filled with long-forgotten titles. I know I had a slim, bound-edition of a speech given by Maya Angelou. I can’t remember the occasion but I can remember reading it and wishing I could know her in real life.  I wish I could lay my hands on that.


Day 8 – Have more than one copy

The Great GatsbyAgain, see Day 5. I am sure, however, that when my husband and I combined our properties almost 15 years ago, we both brought to our home copies of The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. Our modern-day reading tastes differ a great deal, but we share a love of these classics.



#BookADay Day 4 – Least Favorite Favorite

Continuing the #bookaday challenge posted by Borough Press. Today’s challenge to name your least favorite book by a favorite author has stirred up some Twitter and blogger controversy, and, really, what does the social media world like more?

I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Authors, even the best ones, are only human. They make mistakes. They fail. They grow better with practice. I have go-to authors and favorites. All of them have, at some point, published a book or story that disappointed me.

Let’s keep perspective here. Authors themselves would be the first to admit all books are not equal. When I saw Jonathan Tropper in person he told the story of wanting to “un-write” his book Plan B. (He also told all of us who had not read it not to bother. I’ve chosen to take his advice.)

And so…My least favorite book by a favorite author is The Magician’s Assistant by my beloved Ann Patchett.the magician's assistant

This is a perfectly lovely book. Patchett tells an interesting story about women suffering with loss in unusual circumstances. It just doesn’t live up to the strong writing I see in Patchett’s other books.

Keep in mind that I love Patchett so much that I decided to read all of her fiction and some non-fiction in 2012. I called it my Ann Patchett Project and I had to come to terms then with my disappointment in this book. You can read all about it here.




#BookADay Day 3 – Blue Cover

Continuing the #bookaday challenge posted by Borough Press. Today’s challenge is a book with a blue cover. Several books came to mind immediately, including Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen, R.J. Palacio’s YA masterpiece Wonder and the graphic novel that has stuck with me called Same Difference.

Ultimately, I had to go with my most recent 5 star read, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.

image from Goodreads

image from Goodreads

I will not be able to do justice to this beautiful, thoughtful, spirited WWII novel here. Doerr has created something exquisite in the way he crafts his characters and brings the war to life.

Because the main characters, Marie Laure and Werner, are both so interested in the changing world, we are too. Through their eyes we explore science, radio, friendship and patriotism. Doerr even makes snails interesting! Marie Laure’s observations and strength of character are made all the more complex because she is blind. I simply fell in love with her and her resilience. Werner too is extremely sympathetic, no easy accomplishment for a Nazi soldier. Doerr interweaves their individual stories in such a smart way. The story never felt contrived.

As I devoured the 500+ pages in just a few days, I was so grateful for the balance of devastation and hope. Of course most great war novels involve resilience and courage in the face of adversity, but Doerr seems to do it in such a sensitive way. He asks the fundamental question a few times:

“Don’t you want to live before you die?”

Each character has to face the question in his or her own way. Without ever feeling manipulated I felt inspired.

A very special book with top-notch writing, complex characters, an interesting plot and honest emotions.



#BookADay Day 2 – Best Bargain

Continuing the #bookaday challenge posted by Borough Press. Today’s challenge is Best Bargain.

A couple of years ago I was browsing in my favorite bookstore, The Book Table in Oak Park, IL when I came across a rack of think paperbacks published by The American Poetry and Literacy Project. They were all under $5. I figured they were a steal and easy to throw into my purse.

Fast forward to April 2014 and I still hadn’t cracked any open. In search of poetry to read for National Poetry Month, I decided to give 101 Great American Poems a try. Turned out to be the best bargain buy I can remember getting.101 Great American Poems

From my review…

An anthology was a smart choice for me as I appreciated the variety and also feel like I’ve accomplished a sampling of America’s (at least early America’s) best-known poets. I’m frankly surprised at how much I liked some of the poets I would have shied away from, notably Longfellow.

I’m truly glad to own this book as I anticipate coming back to a few of these poems again and again.

And all for $1.50.



A Book Lover’s Challenge #bookaday

On Twitter I find the most wondrous things, including the #bookaday challenge which starts today. I’m not kidding myself that I’ll write a full blog post for every day in June, but I will attempt at least to Tweet my answers to the challenge. After all, what could be more appealing to me than “forcing myself” to stop each day and think about what books mean to me? It’s what I do.



It just so happens that I’m struggling right off the bat with “Favorite book from Childhood.” How can I choose just one? And, which part of childhood? My favorites evolved quickly from my early grade school love of Amelia Bedelia and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle to my obsession with “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. My discovery of Narnia moved on to my early teen collection to Sweet Valley High books. I’m sure I read (and re-read) every book by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume in childhood.

Childhood favorites have become even more complicated now that I’m a mom. My mind is jumbled with the favorite books I’ve read to (and with) my sons. David Shannon’s Duck on a Bike and Margaret Wise Brown’s Big Red Barn top the pile, but I could choose from dozens of well-worn titles.

You can see where I’m going with this, so I will make a choice. (It’s only a Twitter challenge, right?)

When I think of the book(s) that brought me the most hours of joy, that continues to resonate in my heart and mind and that I look back on with the most readerly affection, I have to go with Trixie Beldentrixie belden

How did I become a Trixie fan? I thank my mom of course. She had read the series (first published in 1948) as a girl and found a few of them at a garage sale. I was instantly hooked, not just by the clever mysteries, but by Trixie and her best friends Honey and Jim. Despite the dangers and drama, they lived ideal lives to me. I wanted so badly to be a Bob White. I was 11 and I wanted to be Trixie — spunky, smart, brave and living a new adventure every day.

There was a hidden treasure. They had their own clubhouse. They traveled in a classy RV. And, by the end of each book, they had solved their biggest problems.

I think these books are where by love of intrepid young female narrators first began. To this day, whenever I begin the latest Flavia de Luce book, I think of Trixie. When I watch Anne of Green Gables declare Diana her “bosom friend,” I recall the bond between Trixie and Honey.

I still own a few hard-cover copies of these classic books which my sons, unfortunately, have never shown an interest in reading. I’m not sure why I hold on to them, except that they bring a smile to my face whenever I read them.

What more could you ask of a childhood favorite?

P.S. As I’m finishing my blog post, this is what’s happening across the deck from me…let the childhood favorites continue to evolve.

connor reading 2014



Time to Read

Top Ten Tuesday: Which posts best reflect me?

Way back in August, I saw a meme on BookSpeakVolumes which I always meant to try. So, on the first Tuesday of the new year, I offer my own Top Ten. (And I thank Leah for the inspiration, even though it took me months to use it.)

top ten tuesday

Which 10 posts best reflect my blog? I’ve tried to combine personal favorites plus those that struck a chord with readers. Surprisingly, they aren’t primarily book/review related. The ones that stick are those that reflect my real life outside of books. Go figure.

1. Love and Guacamole ~ March 22, 2012

One of my first WordPress posts, it remains one of my favorites. It reflects my love of family and tradition. Plus, my Lita made the best guacamole ever and I provide the recipe.

2. World Book Night with a little help from my son ~ April 24, 2012

In one post I was able to combine so many passions — my sons, books, sharing my opinions about books, photography and Twitter. Really, it’s a doozy.

3. Goodbye Dad ~ September 17, 2012

Opening up about my father’s illness and death was a natural part of grieving for me. I am still so grateful for the love and prayers I received in response to this post.

4. I said “yes.” Now what? ~ May 23, 2012

I laid my insecurities bare and felt the immediate love of the blogging community. As my life took a sharp, blind turn, I was consoled by my ability to write as a way to process fear.

5. Monday Quote: Say Yes ~ May 7, 2012

Somewhat related to the above, I really enjoyed the few months when I always started my week with a quote from literature and personal reflection. This was one of my favorites.

6. Monday Quote: Resilience ~ July 16, 2012

First and foremost, I am a mom. I make a conscious effort not to write “too much” about my boys (for both their sakes and mine), but when I do write about them, it always turns out well.

7. Secret Relief ~ March 29, 2012

And then there’s mom-guilt, always a great topic for a blog post. This is one of those posts that touched a nerve with other people. I think we’ve all been here as parents.


My favorite book reviews of the year  round out my list. These are the cases where I really took my time to provide a thoughtful and intriguing review.

8. Girlchild sparks a raw memory ~ July 7, 2012

9. The Best Book I’ve Read All Year – Tell the Wolves I’m Home ~ November 19, 2012

10. Just as great the second time: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake ~ June 20, 2012


It was amazingly difficult to choose 10 posts that best reflect Alena’s life. How’d I do?

My 2012, A Year of Momentous Change

change aheadA year ago I could not have predicted the momentous changes in store for me in 2012, both personally and professionally. I was just kind of rolling along, balancing several jobs, taking care of our sons, finding time for family and reading. I had committed to reviewing all the books I read on Goodreads and was just dabbling in the wider world on blogging, via Tumblr.

For the past 13 years, I had always thought that I’d have time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life once my kids were “a little older.” I was so fortunate to have a built a good part-time job around my needs, working for Chicago Parent. But I was feeling restless, and seriously concerned about sending three boys into private high school in a few years.

Early in 2012, I met with a long-time friend in a more professional capacity. Patti is a former boss who years ago had made the decision to give up the 9-5 security and launch her own business, Go Girl Communications.  She connects mom-bloggers with businesses. And, seriously, I thought it was some kind of make-believe profession. Then we started to talk about this growing “social media” potential and I discovered how easy WordPress made it to combine words, books and pictures.

So in March 2012 I launched alenaslife, half-part a whim and half-part a plan to commit to writing as my professional future. I put myself “out there” and redoubled my efforts to pick up new assignments and make contacts outside my Chicago Parent world. I read other blogs, did research and talked to anyone who was willing to share their advice. I immersed myself in social media – WordPress, Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, Pinterest.  I could do this and still be a mom, I thought.

But 2012 had other designs.things will not stay

While searching for a summer camp for my sons, I happened upon a job opening in public relations at my alma mater. I had stayed only loosely connected to my high school, but the job description seemed so absolutely perfectly, that I took a chance and applied.

I got the job.

In July, I re-entered the world of full-time employment. The change to my life (my children’s and husband’s lives too) was immediate. I know I made the right choice, but it’s not easy to go from keeping my own schedule to having a starting and ending time to my job. We are all still adjusting.

On the positive side, I love the school for which I work and the people, now friends, I’ve come to know. But, timing is everything, and starting a new job meant I lost the traction I had with my blog and my writing. I quite simply do not have the time to read and write the way I would wish.

Meanwhile, I was still trying to spend as much time as possible with my father, who was suffering the debilitating effects of ALS. Since he lived almost an hour away, I couldn’t see him as much as I wanted, but I tried to be there for him, for his wife, for my brother, for me. He was so excited about my new job, about my growing sense of confidence in myself, in his grandsons.

Then, in September, too soon, he died. I am grateful he is no longer suffering; but I am still dealing with the knowledge that my dad is gone. Even if we went weeks without talking to each other, I always knew he was there. Now, he is not. It’s strange and sad.

things changeSo, here I am as 2012 draws to a close, wondering what changes I can expect in 2013. I know “change is good,” but I sincerely hope that 12 months from now I am not contemplating a life with a new job and a major personal loss.

I wish you all a peaceful and happy new year.

Jonathan Tropper – a review and a meeting

Jonathan Tropper has rescued loser middle-aged white men as lead characters for me. After basically writing off any more books about whiny men (The Ask, Freedom, A Hologram for the King), my last two Tropper reads have reminded me that these men are not without redemption.

His latest novel, One Last Thing Before I Go, tells the story of Silver. (Silver has a last name, but no one used it. Everyone, including his daughter, just calls him Silver. Not Gold, not Bronze, just middle of the road Silver.) Still reeling from his days as a one-hit-wonder drummer in the Bent Daisies, Silver’s life is a downward spiral of divorce, drink and the occasional one night stand. Then his estranged daughter shows up pregnant.

Amidst all of this and driving the plot forward, Silver discovers he is “living” with a torn aorta that’s causing strokes and mini blood clots to swirl around. This condition causes him to speak all of his thoughts out loud, much to the chagrin of the people he’s with. No filter. He declines the life-saving surgery, leading to the book’s many scenes of friends, family and foes trying to convince him to save his own life.

If this all sounds a bit contrived, it is. But in Tropper’s hands it’s also brilliant and funny and heartbreaking. Once again, his characters are so complex and lifelike that I can’t help but root for them. Far-fetched scenarios seemed completely believable because Tropper invests those moments with sincerity and a great deal of wit.

He always felt this way around distressed women, that there’s something they’re waiting for him to say, and if he could figure out what that is, he could soothe the thing in them that needs to be soothed…he always believed that if, just once, someone had given him this vital piece of information, his entire life would have shaken out differently.”

This book is, quite simply, a great read – one of those novels I never want to put down. And, I certainly didn’t want it to end. But, once it did, I gave a rare “Hooray” for an author choosing a brave, smart ending that trusts his readers to figure the rest out on our own. Loved it.

Full disclosure: I read this book a week after meeting the author at a book reading. I’d been following @jtropper on Twitter and saw that he was going to be at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville so my mom and I made the last-minute decision to go see him.

Not being the type of person who normally does things like that, I did not know what to expect. What I found was exactly the man I would have expected to write This is Where I Leave You. Tropper is smart and funny, somewhat foul-mouthed, brutally honest and adoring of his family. He was self-deprecating at times, but unafraid to state his opinions.

He skewered Random House, admitting he basically found working with them so intolerable that he paid the publishing house to get out of writing another book for them. (He is now published by Dutton, a seemingly much happier arrangement.) He also admits he wrote his first book Plan B, just to prove he could follow a formula and get a book published. He definitely does not recommend it – and wishes instead that he could “unwrite” Plan B.

I just did not expect an author trying to sell his books to be so forthright about the industry. I should have. Tropper speaks the way he writes. I would go see him again in a heartbeat.

Hello Mojo

Last week I complained (maybe I even whined a little) that I had lost my mojo. I was in an undeniable funk and I put it out there for the world to share.

What do you know? My mojo heard the call and returned to me in some pretty significant ways.

1)      I felt the blogger love. Many of you responded with kind words, funny stories and useful advice. Since so much of what we do as bloggers happens alone with just us and our computers, it’s easy to forget that we are a community. You all reminded me of that fact. I felt lifted up by friends, both those I know IRL, and those I’ve come to know virtually.

It’s much harder to remain in a funk when I know there are people waiting, watching and caring. A giant “thank you” goes out to all of you.


2)      A major milestone. (I know, I know, I’m supposed to be avoiding stats of any kind – but no one warned me that they show up on my Dashboard any time I add a new post.) Anyway, I realized last week that I have reached 100 followers. This won’t seem like much to those of you with hundreds of followers or comments or page views (or whatever measurement you use), but to me, these 3 digits seem monumental.

Even better, my 100th follow came from someone I knew in real life, and keep up with in virtual life. Justine is a smart, talented woman I once had the pleasure of directing. More recently, we have shared our love of books on social media. To see her name on my list of followers brought a huge smile to my face. To then find out she searched out my blog when looking for a good book to read…well, that just sent my mojo into a tizzy.


3)      An author encounter. I met Jonathan Tropper!!! Yes, the author of my most recent fave, This is Where I Leave You. And, the way it happened seemed fated to break my funk.

I don’t get near enough time to dwell in the world of social media. I miss twitter parties and constantly refreshing my Facebook feed, but real life has taken over. Anyway, it’s my habit to start each day with a social media check in. I just happened to see a tweet from @JTropper mentioning an appearance and Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville. How did I not know about this?

So I took a chance and asked my mom (also a fan) if she wanted to join me. You have to understand that both of us are much more likely to laze on the couch reading on any given weeknight than make a 45-minute trip to Naperville to chance a meeting with an author we may or may not like in real life.

And, miracle of miracles, we actually went. Despite considering just staying in the neighborhood and grabbing dinner together, we made the trip and ended up having a great time. (More to come on Jonathan Tropper in a future post).


Unlike”3 strikes and you’re out,” these signs seemed like “3 reasons to write.” I’m not fooling myself – I still don’t have enough time in the day to read or write the way I’d like to. I will still suffer funky slumps when nothing seems possible. I will still be waiting on the next seemingly insurmountable milestone.

But I will have this, this day my mojo returned.

Monday Quote: How do I measure success?

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.”
Susan B. Anthony

I admit it. Deep inside of me lives a numbers girl – one who wants to chart, measure and order everything. I’m convinced that if I could just assign each thing in life a place value, I could organize it. Judging by the chaos in my life, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t opt to become a mathematician.

But social media milestones are the same to me. I can become obsessed with the numbers. How many page views? Did anyone retweet? Have I posted 5 times each week? Any new Facebook comments? How close am I to my book reading goal? Has my Klout score changed?

This blog, which I began in March as a personal writing exercise, has taken on a milestone life of its own. Early on, my dear friend Patti cautioned me not to get wrapped up in WordPress stats. (Like standardized tests, they are only one measure of reach I guess.) But I’m like a junkie – checking page views and search terms, wondering when my number of followers will hit triple digits. Is it true that early week posts have more life than those posted on Fridays?

I understand how crazy this is. My blog is not commercial. I don’t have any sort of life changing mission (unless you count inspiring someone to pick up a book.) This isn’t my job.

I need to write. I like to share. It should not matter if that sharing happens with one person or one hundred. My friend Molly wrote on her blog that she writes for everyone and no one in particular. I love that idea. I just need to accept it and live by it.

And I am inspired by Susan B. Anthony. Alena’s life cannot be measured by followers or views or comments. I must measure my life, my sense of success, by “the stray dogs that amble in.” If a book moves me, I will write about it. If I have a good story to tell, I will tell it. I will choose quotes that reflect or inspire my life.

And, this week at least, I will avoid chasing milestones. I’m going stats-free for a week. Then I will see if I feel and more or less fulfilled as a blogger.

Wish me luck.