Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Hai(r)ku(t) Haiku

Is your son growing
his hair out?  Nah. We just can't
schedule a haircut.

Great Clips makes it fast. 
Well.  But.  A prison barber
gives better haircuts.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

2019 Pirates Win Predictions

The grass is green.  The Lonnie Chisenhall Era begins in earnest on opening day in Cincinnati.  It's time for the Forsters to predict the Pirates' fortunes for the coming year.  Teddy, being the most optimistic last year, predicted 81 wins, and the boys of three rivers summer beat that out by winning 82 games.  Due to a meaningless rainout of a late season clash with the Marlins that was not rescheduled, they only lost 79 games for a memorable .509 winning percentage.

This year, Charlie believes the most, and I am back to being the pessimist of the bunch.

In Kyle Crick we trust!


Monday, January 14, 2019

Books of '18: Recommendations

It's pretty far into the year to look back at last year, but better late than never.  It was a grand reading year for me, and I have several titles to recommend.

Best of the Year: Non-Fiction

The Long Haul; a Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road, Finn Murphy, 2017

I read this fantastic book in a most unusual fashion for me.  Essentially in one sitting.  We were flying back to Pittsburgh from Washington state, where we'd been on vacation.  I'd just barely started the book - I believe I was still on the introduction - when what was to be a 75-minute layover in Dallas turned into 3.5-hour lightning delay.  At the gate, I set to reading the book and found that I was gobbling up pages quickly.  The infotainment on the flight consisted of free wifi if you downloaded the American Airlines app.  By then, I was well into the book, and I just kept reading.  I finished the book in bed after we arrived home at 2:30 in the morning.  So, sort of one sitting.  It's terrific.  I heard Murphy interviewed on Fresh Air.  He confesses in the book that he's always had a crush on Terri Gross's voice and because she asks interesting guests interesting questions.  He's a long-haul mover of the high-end executive type, and he just describes how he got into that field in the first place, what it's given him, what it's barred him from, and the interesting things that have happened to him over a decades-long career.  He was basically an educated middle-class guy who decided that a job job was not going to be for him and that manual labor wasn't all bad.  I loved it.  It made the whole travel nightmare feel like a boon.  

Honorable Mentions  
Liturgy of the Ordinary; Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Tish Harrison Warren, 2016
Manchild; My Life Without Adult Supervision, Alan Olifson, 2017
Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, 2011

Best of the Year: Family Reading

The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 2017

Brubaker Bradley does it again.  She followed up The War that Saved My Life, a book we read as a family last year, with The War I Finally Won.  We did the same with the sequel.  This book continues the story of Ada and Jamie, two kids subjected to different levels of abuse by a low-resource barmaid in London.  Ada is the emotional heart of the two books, and I'm very impressed with how Brubaker Bradley depicts the uneven path of a child recovering from trauma and trying to learn how to trust people and situations more.  Her characters surprise the reader in nuanced portraits of evolving behavior.  The books may be accused of anachronistically infusing current social and political mores into World War 2-era England (town and country), but I admit to rooting for that more often than not when it happens in these stories.  And she's not alone.  Exhibit A: Downton Abbey.  If there's a theme in these two books, it is empathy in some people overcoming its lack in others.  Our whole family, with boys aged 15 and 11 at the time, have been completely engaged by the storytelling.

Best of the Year: Fiction 

City of Thieves, David Benioff, 2008 

I heard Brian Koppelman talk about this book on Bill Simmons's podcast, and he said something like he'd given it away to 30 people.  On my list, it went, and I'm glad it did.  Benioff is the opposite of prolific.  This is his third and final book, and it was written ten years ago.  He is now a Game of Thrones show-runner.  City of Thieves throws together unlikely groups of people during the siege of Leningrad in World War II.  Two in particular go on a surprising quest together.  To say more would be to ruin the story, which is prodigiously page-turning.  The setting is educational without feeling like it.  The characters and plot are a little over-the-top and cinematic, but guess what?  I like movies.  A book that reads like a movie is fine by me.  It's a terrific novel.

Honorable Mentions
The Nix, Nathan Hill, 2016
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott,1868

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Books of '18: Stay-Aways

Everyone loves to review books they enjoyed, and that's great.  It may be a greater service reader-to-reader in these times of so much content and so little time to say: don't bother with this title.  Friends don't let friends....  So here goes: some books that bummed me out in 2018.

Worst of the Year: Fiction
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti, 2017

I don't remember how this book got on my list, but it was on my competent wife's list, too.  I do know that fictional saints Meg Wolitzer and Ann Patchett blurbed it.  I don't know why.  It's a good yarn, I suppose, told in a theoretically realist fictional fashion.  The problem is that characters don't behave in a realistic fashion.  There's a level of violence that becomes literally unbelievable.  Literally.  I don't mean it's a lot of violence or more than one might expect.  I mean that I don't believe people actually live lives that are that violent or that if they set out to do so, they wouldn't live as long as the titular protagonist does.  It's not giving away too much to say that the "twelve lives" refer to this character surviving twelve bullets.  Come on.  Also, his dark and murky life of crime stretches credulity.  The family story that gets told in inverted order is somewhat interesting, but there are too many distractions.  Too many characters who emerge from a plot smoke machine.  There's enough plot teasing to keep even a reader who came to hate this book as much as I did reading in order to see where the teases lead.  Begrudgingly, I can give Ms. Tinti that.  But wait! There's more to dislike.  The omniscient narrator turns seriously omniscient - nay, pedantic - on all manner of topics: constellations, whales, dyeing and weaving yarn, fishing, first aid.  This is an author who knows how to do the work of research but lacks either the skill or the will to weave it in without announcing "I did some research!"  Tiresome in the extreme.  Don't waste any of your one life on these twelve.

Dishonorable Mentions
The Master Bedroom, Tessa Hadley, 2007
Black Panther: A Nation Under our Feet Book 2, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2016  (Note: I am done trying to like comic books, not that I've tried that hard.  If you're thinking about doing something, don't.  Nope.  Don't.)

Worst of the Year: Non-fiction

Basketball (and Other Things), Shea Serrano, 2017

There's a lot about this book that I seriously disliked.  I'm not talking about the writing yet.  I'm talking about the physical object.  The book collects Internet-column-style essays about NBA basketball written by someone with a level of basketball junkie-ness that I can appreciate.  Serrano worked at Grantland with Bill Simmons and now works for The Ringer, his HBO-backed multimedia sports and culture empire.  To supplement the essays, there are lush drawings by Arturo Torres.  Many of them are cool and evocative.  The thing is: the soft cover book is printed on square, heavy paper to support the drawings.  I mostly read in bed.  Heavy, oversized paper with a soft cover means that the heavy book flops and drops when trying to read it in a reclined position.  Fault 1.  Also, every fifth page or so is printed on a page that is covered completely in an often-dark color.  Who commits this kind of crime against legibility?  Shea Serrano, Arturo Torres and the Abrams Image corporation.  Fault 2.  Finally, a combo platter: the font of the main text of the book is pretty damn small, and then Serrano fleshes out or clarifies points in a lot of footnotes.  Footnotes can be cute or helpful, but when they are adding to what is already an illegible, physically difficult book, they're just annoying.  Fault 3.

Now, to the content.  Too cute by half.  The thing about Internet opinion pieces is that they’re usually meant as quick hits, to be easily consumed on a screen.  Also, they should have arguments or ideas that make people want to share and/or argue over them.  Serrano's essays have many of those features but not the brevity.  They can be dense, and their cuteness wears thin.  He writes in a very self-conscious way at points that I would classify in the Lena Dunham Millennial vomit-inducing category if that weren't such a broad and negative brush. Any collection of essays will have winners and losers.  You may not be surprised to know that the essay formed on the premise "Who would do better if you swapped their environment?  Karl Malone or a bear?" drove me absolutely batshit crazy.

It doesn't help that I read the majority of this book while marooned in my bed suffering through and recovering from the flu.  But actually, I'm pretty sure I would have been just as angry and dismissive if I'd been well while reading it.  The book may have induced the illness.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

2018 Pirates Win Predictions

It's opening day, and the Pirates are in first place.  There's still a little snow on the ground. All is possibility.  The McCutchen era is over.  No one in our family believes the Pirates can have a winning season, but everyone believes they will improve on last year's win total. Can I repeat as the most accurate predictor (a title I attained on my seventh try)?  Only time will tell.  Baseball!  You bet!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Books of '17: Recommendations

I read some good books in 2017.  You should read them in 2018.  And true story: a good friend pinged me for a book recommendation while I was drafting this post.

Best of the Year: Fiction

The Sellout, Paul Beatty, 2015

Marc Maron had Paul Beatty on his podcast and raved about The Sellout without managing to describe it.  Having read it, I now understand why.  This novel is a work of towering satirical genius and social commentary on race whose pages are as crammed with details, ideas, and references as James Joyce's Ulysses.  Early in my reading of the book, I found it took a lot of energy to focus and read it, especially at bedtime.  I noticed a woman reading it in the park near my office and chanced to interrupt her reading and ask her whether it was worth continuing. She immediately said yes, and I used this stranger's reassurance to soldier on.  I'm glad I did.  The Sellout is set in a fictional all-black submunicipality of Los Angeles where the eccentric protagonist was raised by an arguably-more-eccentric single father.  From a whole vein devoted to a character from the Little Rascals to a sly reference to David Sedaris, the book ranges far to depict, confront, and - perhaps most surprisingly - have fun with racial identity.  I loved it, and I'm happy I had the guts to ask a stranger in the park a book question. 

Honorable Mention:
Rare Objects, Kathleen Tessaro, 2016 

Best of the Year: Family Reading

The War that Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, 2015

We read this book for family reading (which we still do with our busy teenage and pre-teen son), and I sometimes had to pass it on to someone else in the family to read because I got too choked up.  The novel tells the story of Ada and her brother Jamie, who get evacuated from war-threatened London to a small town in the English countryside.  Their mother is an abusive moron barmaid.  Ada has a club foot and is not allowed to leave their apartment.  Though the welcome is not always warm in the countryside, their evacuation achieves the goal of saving them from the violence of war.  There are worse fates than war, though, and the evacuation plays a role there, too.  The children are taken in by a gruff woman named Susan, whose stiff-upper-lip practical care reminded me so frequently of my mother-in-law.  It's a touching story that the whole family enjoyed. 
Best of the Year: Non-Fiction

Crucial Conversations; Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson; Joseph Grenny; Ron McMillan; Al Switzler, 2002

If I honestly record that it took me a calendar year to finish this book, you might think I didn't like it very much.  Far from the truth.  I pulled this book off the shelf of my friend Karen Dreyer, for whose maternity leave I was filling in at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.  She'd read it with her staff in the Southwestern Pennylvania Food Security Partnership.  During my brief tenure there, I read about 30 pages of the book during downtime.  By then, I was hooked on this practical guide to avoiding the kinds of traps that too easily happen in high-stakes conversations at work and at home.  The big theme is that all participants in a conversation should add to a pool of shared meaning.  If anyone is doing things other than that - for instance, silence of violence - the conversation isn't succeeding.  The authors describe well the many ways that conversations break down.  They also prescribe ways to spot our own failings and move conversations back to productivity.  I finished it in bits and pieces over the busy first nine months of my job at Truefit and found it valuable in my professional and personal life.

Honorable Mention:
Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz, 2014

Monday, January 1, 2018

Books of '17: Stay-Aways

It's that time of the year again.  Well, that time of two years, I suppose.  Sometimes I get my book recommendations published before the year is out; sometimes I don't.  This year, I confess, I was trying to squeeze in another book in 2017, but I fell short.  Trying to finish that book prevented me from publishing my book posts until the new year. The good news is that I have a jump start on my 2018 reading, having finished that book on New Year's Day.

A library-sponsored book trivia contest dominated my summer reading this year.  In fact, five of the 17 books I read this year were on that contest list.  Our team, Paige and the Turners, came in second out of 12-14 teams at a fun, nerdy night at Wigle Whiskey's Spring Garden barrel house.  

As is a CP tradition, before I tell you what I loved reading this year, I shall ward you away from the titles that disappointed and bugged me this year.
Worst of the Year: Fiction

The Last Boy and Girl in the World, Siobhan Vivian, 2016

This is Battle of the Books book.  A young adult novel, it's OK and 25% too long.  The story unfolds through a mist of vaguery, but basically, it's the story of teenagers in a town that is threatened by an environmental disaster.  It's not entirely clear how preventable the disaster is and to what extent its true cause is mother nature or politics.  In the heightened atmosphere of a looming potential sudden end, friendships are tested.  Relationships are formed and tested.  The possibilities of mass advocacy are tested.  And my patience was tested.  I hate-read the last 100 pages both to find out how an early plot tease resolved itself and to fulfill my duties to my teammates in the Carnegie Library's reading trivia contest.  Siobhan Vivian lives in Pittsburgh; Last Boy and Girl is set in a fictional city and an unnamed state that bear some resemblance to Western PA towns and our commonwealth.  For reasons unknown, the pizza place in the book is named Mineo's, Pittsburgh's most famous pizza shop.  This book is the novel equivalent of Sbarro pizza.  Technically, it checks all the boxes of being a thing in its category.  But I wouldn't recommend it to my sworn enemy.

Honorable Mentions
Baker Towers, Jennifer Haigh, 2005
The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville, 1999 

Worst of the Year: Non-Fiction

Grit; The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, 2016

Angela Duckworth made the rounds of my favorite nerd media outlets when Grit came out.  She gave great interviews, and there was a lot to learn about grit in the space of 20-45 minutes.  Namely that grit is equal parts passion and perseverance.  Gritty people love what they're doing so much they don't necessarily realize how much they're putting into it.  And yet, real accomplishment derives from deliberate practice of that skill, trade, art, or sport.  That's what takes perseverance.  Ten thousand hours yadda yadda.   Actually, the ten thousand hours guy is the source of the deliberate practice idea.   

I really wanted to like this book.  The problem is that when she tried to take 30 minutes of interview fodder and turn it into a 270-page book, she ran out of interesting material.  Many business best sellers do a better job of staying interesting by combining results of multiple different social science research studies.  Duckworth relies mostly on her own research, some interviews, and collected quotes from profiles of "gritty" people.  Lacking the necessary quantiy and variety of sources, she goes to the same wells too often.  Lots of swim coach quotes, for example.  Also, I called this a business best seller (aspirant, anyway), but I'm not super clear who Duckworth thinks her book is best for.  There's a "parenting for grit" chapter, but it's not a parenting book.  There's the social science research, but it's not really an academic book or a business manual.  Finally, there's a section on building one's own grit, but it's not prescriptive enough to qualify as a self-help book.  All in all, not enough there there.  It took a certain perseverance to slog through this so so book.