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. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Pirates Preditions: 2017 Wrap-up

I've rarely been so sad to a) be right and b) win a contest.  This is the first year of seven Forster family Pirates win predictions that I've been the most accurate.  I was also the most pessimistic, predicting a finish equal to 2016's record.  Unfortunately, even that gloomy forecast was a shade too sunny.  No Starling Marte for 80 games hurt the Bucs this year.  Starling Marte on the base paths when he came back also hurt them.

Wait till next year!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

2017 Pirates Win Predictions

It's a Competent Parent rite of spring.  We predict the win total our boys of summer will achieve.  For those of you scoring home, I have never been the closest.  Since 2011, Charlie's been right thrice, Paige twice, and Teddy once.  One of Paige's wins came last year, when her guess of 86 wins was the lowest, and they managed only 78 wins.  

Those who root for the Pirates should hope that Charlie's right again this year and that my streak stays intact.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Butter Chex Ice Cream - Annual Wrap-up

Many have commented on how 2016 was a rollercoaster of a year.  Those who have followed the BCI Index know that only one product in that bundle actually produces variation.

I started this silly escapade to data check my perception that Chex cereals never go on sale.  That has proven essentially true at my home supermarket.  In the process, though, I've also seen some other patterns.  I've also verified that Chex are cheaper at Target.  Hold onto your hats.  Deep dive time.

Chex went on sale precisely 3 weeks out of 47 observations, always to 4 for a dollar.  I love Chex but prefer to buy it a lower unit price than $3.99 for 12 ounces.  Butter goes on sale for key holidays - apparently Easter, Father's Day, Bastille Day, Columbus Day and Christmas.  At my particular store, they actually jacked the price just after Christmas.  Ice cream is a wild ride.

The quarterly summary actually shows that ice cream is more expensive in cold weather months in Pennsylvania.  It's cheapest in the early spring.  Buy your Chex in Q1.  They'll keep essentially all year.  Buy your butter in the fall/early winter.  Chest freezer?  Probably worth it.

The cheapest ice cream crown is well-distributed.  Although the store brand has the lowest base price, the name brands are more often the cheapest by a long shot.  Some brand is always on sale.  Don't be a sucker by paying full price.  Mmmm, Breyer's.


Monday, January 2, 2017

Books of '16: Ann Patchett Recommendations

An alert reader noticed that Ann Patchett books received honorable mentions in both the fiction and non-fiction categories of my 2016 recommendations post.  She requested a full-on Ann Patchett review post.  I'm happy to oblige.  Ann Patchett is a National Treasure.

Best of the Ann Patchett Year: Non-Fiction

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, 2013

Having previously read an Ann Patchett novel (Bel Canto) and being married to a huge A.P. fan, I was intrigued by my friend Cassie Christopher's recommendation of Patchett's collection of essays.  This is one of those books that gets produced after an author has written enough magazine articles to collect them into a bound volume.  Except this may be the best.  One.  Ever.  Reading this book brought me so much pleasure.  It didn't really feel like reading.  It felt like listening to an interview - that's how completely Patchett captures her own voice in simple, straightforward, unguarded writing.  More than that, it felt like sitting in the backyard talking with a good friend one has only just met.  I loved it.  The title essay is terrific (and cagily placed towards the end, its loaded title beckoning the reader).  Also memorable were:  "My Road to Hell was Paved," which starts as a cheesy magazine assignment to rent an RV, drive around for a week and write about it.  That could be a disaster or a bore, but not in Patchett's hands.  Also, "The Mercies" about Patchett's adult relationship with her first grade teacher.  She's such an interesting person and such a fabulous writer.  This book was a joy. 

Best of the Ann Patchett Year: Fiction

Commonwealth, 2016

Paige and I got to see Ann Patchett on her book tour for Commonwealth.  On a rainy autumn Friday night, we joined a crowd of mostly older women in the lecture hall of the Carnegie Library/Museum complex.  In one of Pitttsburgh's more forgotten beautiful auditoriums, we were charmed by one of America's most subtly brilliant novelists.  When reading an Ann Patchett novel, one is in such good hands that one doesn't notice the hands.  In unadorned language, she creates characters you care about in a world that interests you.  She regularly says that she only writes one story a bunch of different ways: two groups of people are put together in one space and forced to make a community.  In Commonwealth, those two groups are family units; broken family units pasted together into a new unit.  Patchett covers a lot of ground in time and in the lives of her characters without creating an epic.  Rather, she covers that ground in a chain of moments - pearls adding up to a shimmering whole.  I was sad when the book ended. 
The author hands Paige her signed copy

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Books of '16: Recommendations

When reading works of any length feels like a pastime in peril, choosing wisely feels more important than ever.  In service of helping you choose wisely, some recommendations from among the books I read this year:

Best of the Year: Non-fiction

Feeding the Mouth that Bites You; A Complete Guide to Parenting Adolescents and Launching Them into the World, Kenneth Wilgus, 2015

Our church's youth pastor, Alex Banfield Hicks, gave us a copy of this book.  My competent wife read it first.  Wilgus provides a framework for "planned emancipation" and points out how what adolescents need from their parents differs from what children need from their parents.  Adolescents are searching for the answer "when will I be an adult?"  He somewhat crankily calls out adults for failing to answer that question for themselves and getting confused in their own immaturity about how to relate to their teenagers.  I crankily agree with him.  Not to give away the store, but Wilgus implores us to get real about what we can't control in our teenager's lives and explicitly cede that control to them. In so doing, we trade control we didn't have for influence we still can have and which our teenagers need.  In one analogy, he says it is easier for a judge to impart moral lessons than a cop.  Because I read this at home while also reading professional books relevant to my new job at work, I found myself slogging through some of this book.  But it's very valuable and gave us a new framework through which to think about parenting adolescents and some useful tactics to put that framework into motion.

Honorable Mentions: Non-fiction
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett, 2013

Best of the Year: Fiction

Old Filth, Jane Gardam, 2004

My competent wife loved Old Filth.  Her law school classmate, Cassie Christopher, did too.  Perhaps it's because the eponymous protagonist is an English solicitor who makes his career in Hong Kong.  Filth is an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."  This sublime novel beguiles with elliptical storytelling and well-formed characters.  Gardam depicts her various settings with rich detail in sparse language.  The novel covers a long sweep of time - a lifetime - depicted in bits and pieces with flashbacks and foreshadowing.  Certain aspects of the story we never learn.  We just have to take them on faith.  Actually, we apparently don't because Old Filth is the first book of a trilogy.  The competent wife has read the second book - Last Friends - and says that that one fills in the gaps.  This would be a very satisfying novel on its own, but I feel fortunate that there is more to read and discover about this one story arc and set of characters. 

Honorable Mention: Fiction
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett, 2016