Three optimistic reads for a cold spring

Hi y’all. It’s time for an overdue report on what I’ve been reading these days. Being a bookworm, and having the kind of job with long spells of nothing to do, I have the luxury of reading in a very quiet office for at least a couple hours per day. Not to mention my reading time on the bus and train headed home in the evenings. And don’t let us forget reading time at home at night or on the weekends, with a tasty treat nearby and a warm pile of pillows and blankets all about. Okay, no more warm pile of blankets moving into the summer, but you get the idea.

My last book review was over two months ago (shivering in horror), and I’m happy to say that my friend Jenny noticed the thundering silence on the literature front and gently kicked my butt. Thanks Jenny for reminding me that writing about food is not my only calling in life and that I need to keep the ‘everything’ in the ‘Everything Blog.’

Anyway, if you’re one of those people (like me) who panics when there’s no book lying around, nab these from your library and enjoy! All three of these books are optimistic, positive, and altogether perfect for keeping your spirits high during this cold and grey spring. Can I mention that it snowed here in Chicago just last week? Yep.

Cheaper by the Dozen (by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth)

What a fun frolick through the memoir of an entirely unique family! Written by two of the dozen children of the family, this book recounts the adventures and daily life of a family with twelve kids. Frank and Lillian (the parents) are both pioneers in the field of motion study and efficiency. With twelve kids, they use their scientific background to turn a potentially chaotic household into a well-oiled family machine (I mean that in the best of senses). Their enterprising father is determined to teach his kids all he can; he instructs them in morse code by painting the walls of their summer cottage with patterns and writing them secret messages every morning, makes them play language records in the bathroom to teach them French and German as they bathe, and paints the constellations on the ceiling so that the kids learn to recognize star formations. The results: twelve industrious, smart, independent, interesting kids whose capers provide endless entertainment to the reader. I read this book when I was young, and thoroughly enjoyed it for the second time as an adult. That said, this would also be fantastic bedtime reading for kids–the chapters are short enough that you could easily do one per night. The point of view is honest but humorous.

Please note–this book has absolutely nothing to do with the movie starring Steve Martin. Nothing at all except for the fact that there are 12 children involved. I’m appalled that the movie producers were allowed to use that title when the subject matter is entirely different. What is this world coming to??

Anyway, I’m hopping off my high horse to add that the sequel, ‘Belles on Their Toes’, is equally awesome, recounting how the kids adapt and manage when their father dies suddenly of a heart attack and their mother has to go back to work. The kids form a Budget Committee, haggle for discounts to make ends meet, buy food in bulk, and truly come into their own as they live out their father’s independent, fighting spirit, always with an eye on the humorous side of life.

A Girl Named Zippy (by Haven Kimmel)

I finished this little treasure a few months ago, and I’m already itching to re-read it. It’s a memoir by a Hoosier. Along with ‘Cheaper by the Dozen,’ that fully puts me in the realm of non-fiction! Yesss!! Are you proud?

It is told in the most delightful way–though recounted from the perspective of the author as a little girl, the writing is clearly meant for adults, just like Angela’s Ashes. However, there is much less tragedy than you will find in Angela’s Ashes, in case that comparison put you off. Yes, this memoir could easily have been spun as a morose tale of difficulty and sadness with a good dose of ‘woe is me’ tossed in for good measure, but the author takes a completely different direction, and through her series of childhood vignettes manages to infuse her story with optimism and a happy kind of energy.

There are shadows of dark things around–a neighbor boy who is cruel to his pets, a creepy old woman across the way, an abusive teacher–but the memoir itself is full of light and humor and joie de vivre.

I laughed out loud many times, and I was moved to tears by it as well. Maybe because I was born in Indiana, the Call of the Midwest really hit home. I’ve met these people she talks about, I’ve seen their living rooms and I’ve had beer in their yards. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

Up The Down Staircase (by Bel Kaufman)

Please read this. Really. It’s that funny. It’s a fictional account of a teacher’s first year teaching school. Sylvia Barrett is fresh out of college, full of idealism, and ready to take on her first batch of kids at Calvin Coolidge and inspire them with a love for literature. What she encounters is a classroom full of unexpected challenges: battles with the administration, a window that won’t open, insufficient copies of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to go around, and a passionate fight for the success of kids who have given up on themselves.

This novel tells its story very uniquely, combining memos from the Principal, notes from kids that were tossed in the trash, notes from the suggestion box that Sylvia starts, and Sylvia’s personal letters to a college friend. At first I was worried that the story wouldn’t come together and would seem patchy and random, however Kaufman weaves all these ‘materials’ together beautifully into a story that is extremely funny, extremely insightful, and extremely touching all at once. Give it a few chapters, and you will be absolutely hooked to this masterpiece.

What have all y’all been reading lately? I’m always looking for something new to pop into my library request list!

75 thoughts on “Three optimistic reads for a cold spring

  1. Jenny @ Words On Wendhurst

    Wow, all three of these books sound really good :) I loved the movie Cheaper by the Dozen (the old one) so I am sure I would enjoy the book. :) I just read Girl of the
    Limberlost again for the umpteenth time – have you read it? Such a great book.

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      I’ll have to check out the old movie, because I haven’t seen it and it sounds like a good time. And no, I haven’t read (or heard of) “The Girl of the Limberlost.” Adding it to my library hold requests now–my library is slow, so I’ll probably get to it in the next month. =)

      Reply
  2. Joanne

    I remember seeing the original movie Cheaper By The Dozen years ago, and loved it. I’m reading Adriana Trigiani’s Don’t Sing At The Table right now. It’s a beautifully written book about the wisdom she learned from her grandmothers, and she ties it in to everyday life perfectly.

    Reply
  3. Erin

    I LOVED the Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society – definitely one of my favorite fiction reads recently. It’s written in a similar style as Up the Down Staircase (told through a collection of correspondences), and it’s also an optimistic story told in a setting of hardship (wartime on Guernsey island). I’ve never read any of the three you recommended – can’t wait to add them to my list!

    Reply
  4. Virginia

    Ooh, I didn’t realize there was a companion book to Cheaper by the Dozen! It’s one of my sister-in-law’s favorite books. I’ll have to get her the other one for her birthday!

    Reply
  5. Jen

    I love “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Belles on Their toes”! It’s been years since I’ve reread them thought. The last book sounds like quite a fun one.

    Reply
  6. Sarah

    Thank you so much for visiting my blog. I was wondering why my Tasty Kitchen friend box was blowing up. I’m so glad I stopped by here. I loved reading your book reviews. I would never have picked those books out of a line up to read, but I’m so intrigued by your reviews that I think I’m going to check out “A Girl Named Zippy” soon. I think our high school did a play called Up the Down Staircase, I wonder if it’s the same story. I’m reading a young adult book called The Highest Power of Lucky. VERY GOOD even if it’s for kids.
    Thanks again! Now I have a new place to find good reads (and pictures of cute kids).

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      Cool! I really like your taste in food (your recipes all look delicious!), so I’m glad the TastyKitchen featured member thing threw me your way. =)

      Reply
  7. Kimby

    Hi, Jenna!
    Great reads! (In my humble opinion, books are always better than their “movie versions.”) Also, your little Winston-Churchill-cheeked cutie (re: Peekaboo) melted my heart…

    My latest read was Alton Brown’s cookbook/travelogue entitled, “Feasting On Asphalt.” Many happy memories and excellent recipes, too. I’m also reading The Narrated Bible in Chronological Order (by F. LaGard Smith) — puts a whole new perspective on things!
    Take care,
    Kimby

    Reply
  8. Veronica

    I will see if my library has these on CD! I do almost no book reading nowadays since I listen to them all day at work, but I did just finish reading MOON OVER MANIFEST

    Reply
  9. Veronica

    LOL, I accidentally hit enter and my comment posted b4 I was done. Anyway, it’s by a local author, Clare Vanderpool, and won the Newberry Medal. It’s children’s literature (the main character is a 12 year old girl), so I don’t know if you’d dig it, but my husband (who is even older than my ripe old age of 30) and I really enjoyed it. I read it out loud to him during our travels to Texas and finished it during our travels to his family’s home for Easter. We were both wiping tears off our cheeks when we were finished! It was a very entertaining and touching book. Some other excellent reads I’ve encountered is THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett, GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok, ROOM by Emma Donoghue and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe (yep, a little behind the times on this one but man it was good).

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      I really like children’s literature, so I’ll definitely check this out. By the way, I did read “The Help” and LOVED it (I actually have a book review of it on this blog somewhere). Speaking of classics that we discover ‘behind the times,’ I just read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for the first time. Oh my!!!! It’s amazing.

      Reply
  10. Veronica

    Just checked and my library has the first two available on audiobook but Up The Down Staircase I will have to be patient for. Thanks for the recommendations!

    Reply
  11. jms

    Wholeheartedly seconding your recommendation of Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes. I’ve read both dozens of times, and they’re both absolutely delightful; the second is, I think, even better than the first.

    I see that you also love The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird. I read the latter once every year or two, and it almost gets better every time.

    There’s nothing like a really good book, is there?

    Reply
  12. Mikalee Byerman

    Great tips — I’m always happy to see what others are reading. I’m always intimidated at the assertion that “Great writers are great readers,” because I know I write much more than I read. Ugh…

    BTW, the photo of you and the baby: PRICELESS!

    😉

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      Oh man–I’m totally the other way around–I read a lot more than I write. =) I find reading to be such a peaceful and relaxing endeavor, whereas when I write I have to be really focused and–though I enjoy it–it takes a lot of energy.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  13. Coco's Vanity Cards

    Thanks for the recommendations. The last book I read was The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. I was really impressed and immediately put it on my fave-books-list! I meant to post a review of it on my blog, but haven’t come round to it yet :-s….

    Another good book is The Room by Emma Donogue. I liked the way a horrible and traumatic experience is told from a child’s point of view- somehow you don’t end up pitying the mother and realize she’s a very strong woman.

    I wish I had more time to read (and write). Like you said Jenna- a good book feeds the soul!

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      Well thank you for your recommendations in return! I’ll have to look up the books you mention. Right now I’m immersed in a quite long book (“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen), but once I finish, a massive trip to the library is on the agenda.

      Reply
  14. Victoria

    Wow! I feel like I just stumbled upon a treasure trove of literary delicacies! I have downloaded some of the “free” ones to my ereader already and can’t wait to dig in. These will be my reward (and motivation) for finally completing The Brothers Karamazov!

    Reply
  15. Kimba

    Hi! I am a voracious reader too, and love tip-offs! My favorite is long, involved, mostly historical fiction, (I just finished Thomas Pynchon’s book, Against the Day, wow!) but occasionally non-fiction sneaks in for a thrill, like Barbara Tuchman, revered as one of America’s greatest writers in the mid-20th century (she wrote The Guns of August, and my favorite, A Distant Mirror.) But for pure joy of life and thought provoking insight I recommend Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It shot up to my all time favorite book list before I even finished it. She has written a fictional novel more recently too, called The Living.

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      I also love long, involved fiction–have you checked out ‘Pillars of the Earth’ and/or ‘World Without End’? (I have reviews of both of those on my ‘books’ page). Thanks for your recommendations! I’m especially intrigued by that last one you mention.

      Reply
  16. Eileen

    Jenna,
    Freckles, and Girl of the Limberlost, are by Gene Stratton Porter. Laddie, and Keeper of the Bees, are excellent books by the same author.
    If you’re looking for Regency Romance with fiesty heroines and a bit of mystery, you can’t go wrong with books by Georgette Heyer!

    Reply
  17. maryelizabethslife

    haven kimmel is my very favorite – both her fiction and non. i’ve read “zippy” so many times, but you must move on to the next one. you’ll love it.
    thanks for the post and the recommendations!

    Reply
  18. Adam

    Might have to look at adding your suggestions to my stack of books to read. I’ve got a decent list on my blog, and the main thing I do there is review books, so if you want to check it out the reviews are all there. As for a book to suggest that isn’t on there (because I read it before I started my blog) I’m always quick to suggest The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I absolutely tore through all 3 of those books. Another favorite series of mine is the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. All three books are fun and the ending of the trilogy is the coolest ending I’ve ever read.

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      I loved the Hunger Games–there were so thrilling and fast-paced. I’ll check out the Mistborn–never heard of the series, so thanks for the heads up.

      Reply
  19. cassieee90

    I haven’t read it lately, but recently the film was released of the Australian hit series, ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’. It is an amazing and inspiring set of novels about the fictional take-over of country Australia. If you get the chance, and don’t mind a bit of international reading, have a quick peek at it. They are by John Marsden, probably my favourite author, who made me determined to keep writing. The collection is extremely simple to read, yet very intricate with the dialogue and action. Love it!

    http://www.hearttangles.wordpress.com

    Reply
  20. Pingback: Three optimistic reads for a cold spring (via Jenna’s Everything Blog) « A Bit of Everything

  21. An Embarrassment of Freedom

    I really loved your mix of photography (lovely baby!), excellent recepies and book suggestions. Some great new inspiration for me.Iif you like a spoof of english literature ( rather like a parody of D. H. Lawrence) try Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It was written back in the day 1930’s and it cracked me up when I read it but mainly because my of my experience with old style traditional literature. Not for everybody. Also just read The Sweetness At The Bottom of The Pie by Alan Bradley… an English mystery told by a precocious child who is a chemist. She is rather like a humourous Sherlock Holmes.

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      Oooh, I LOVE The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie! I actually did a review of it on this blog, heh heh. The sequels to that are excellent–you should check them out.

      Reply
  22. charlie nitric

    Hello Jenna –

    Thanks for the review. I loved the movie “Cheaper by the Dozen,” but had no idea that the book is entirely different than the funny movie that Steve Martin did for us. These books sound very interesting. Happy Saturday to you. :)

    Reply
  23. sheila7697

    Hey, thanks for the suggestions. My kids could never understand how I could actually prefer reading to watching tv or playing a video game!

    I loved the book The Help…I grew up in Mississippi, a little later than the author of that book, but still, a lot of the message rang true.

    Have you ever read anything by Kathleen Thompson Norris? She wrote novels, primarily stories of women navigating the difficulties of life in the era of the early 1900s…there is a quaintness to some of the writing, some of her philosophy, but her books have touched me as nothing else I’ve read. You can find her work through Amazon or used book sites.

    Another writer I love is Elswyth Thane. She wrote a series of novels about a family and took the stories through many generations. These are the Williamsburg novels. You can find them through Amazon as well, or perhaps in your library.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    Sheila

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      No, I’ve never heard of Kathleen Norris–I’ll be looking up her books and adding them to my library requests (a growing list thanks to all this lovely feedback!). Thanks for the recommendation!

      Reply
  24. golden retriever

    Wow those books do sound great but I’am more interested in Up The Down Staircase. I haven’t been reading that much lately, I hope to get back to the library to pick up some books!

    Reply
  25. I Made You A Mixtape

    I have ordered Up the Down Staircase from Amazon based on your recommendation. I love to read and I’m always looking for new suggestions! I work in a school… this sounds hilarious!

    Reply
  26. halfwayto50

    I have been trying to find Up the Down Staircase in our local libraries for a couple of years and they never have it! As a fairly new teacher, this sounds like something I would love! I stand by the idea that turning a classroom into a reality TV show would be hysterical! Yes, it probably wouldn’t be the most ethical thing to do, but there are so many funny moments that I enjoy alone. The world needs to hear about it!

    Reply
  27. Alaina Mabaso

    If you enjoyed “Cheaper by the Dozen” as I did, and if you like non-fiction, you should check out a fascinating biography about Lillian Gilbreth, the Cheaper by the Dozen matriarch. I think it’s called “Making Time.” The children’s original memoir and especially the old film focus almost exclusively on their larger-than-life father. But the truth about how involved Lillian was in her husband’s incredible career, even before his death, is really interesting. We’ve always cast this remarkable family in Mr. Gilbreth’s light, but the story of his wife is even more interesting (I thought), especially since her professional contributions were not always recognized in her time.

    Reply
    1. Jenna

      Oooh, that definitely sounds like something I would love. I really like her character, and you’re right–the ‘larger than life’ father can overshadow her. Thanks!

      Reply
  28. Jess Witkins

    A Girl Named Zippy is quite possibly in my top 5 books of all time, especially if I get to have a non-fiction specific list. Hilarious and charming! I read it just this last fall and want to reread it again too. It inspired me to record my own childhood growing up in a small town. Excellent recommendation! And Cheaper by the Dozen sounds like one I’d like, I’ll add it to my lists!

    Reply
  29. Kathy

    Will lhave to see if I can get a copy of Cheaper by the Dozen to read to my grandkids. Thanks for the suggestion! Congrats on being FP’d.

    Reply
  30. Kathy Parker

    Enjoyed your post on what you had been reading. Cheaper By the Dozen is still one of my favorites and Belles on Their Toes is a must to follow up with.
    If you’d like to find more books to read, please stop by my book blog site: http://www.marianslibrary.wordpress.com
    I’ve been a school librarian for over 30 years and I love sharing book lists and reviews for all ages.
    Best,
    Kathy

    Reply
  31. Mindy R

    I liked Up the Down Staircase a lot, but I haven’t read the other two. I’ll have to check them out.

    I just finished The Big Machine by Victor LaValle, and I really liked it.

    Reply
  32. TheEverydayMuser

    Yes. Finally a blogger asks what I’ve been reading.
    Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella. It’s a hilarious book about how someone who forgot three years of her life manages to piece things together again, albeit with a lot of craziness involved. I love it, so far. It’s a great book, have a read. Not sure whether you’ll get it here in the States, I had my copy sent over as a gift from a friend all the way across the pond in Ireland. You can try getting it on Amazon, though.
    In any case, have a look around and check out some in your library. If you do manage to have a read, please drop me a ping on my blog and let me know what you think of it!
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    Reply
  33. lsurrett2

    I read “Up the Down Staircase” in 2003 completely by accident when I was teaching in an awful setting. I’ve re-read it twice since then–so good. It definitely uses some different writing techniques, but it communicates the difficulty of teaching all too well!

    Reply

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