Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Books of the Aughts: Bottom 7 Fiction Books I've Read this Decade

If I thought it was hard to come up with a short list of books I liked, imagine books I disliked! I pity the fools who wrote these books. Actually, one pattern that emerged was that I really hated some books by authors whose other books I liked. Like hitters in baseball, authors can be inconsistent. These ones aren't even worth the trouble of sticking thumbnails of the covers in this list. Oh, just so you know, I really dislike fantasy and tend to avoid it.

Moo, Smiley, Jane, 1995
Abridged book tape. This is a light, fluffy romp through a plot of academic intrigue. Set in a midwestern university with suspiciously small-college administrators, this book weaves several stories together. Certain points of intersection between apparently unrelated characters are funny and surprising. Overall, though, I have to wonder why Smiley went through the trouble to write this out as a novel. She could have been just as successful producing it as a comic book.

The Suburbs of Heaven, Drown, Merle, 2000
Sometime last year, I read or heard a review of this book and this author's other title, Ploughing Up a Snake. I decided to read one of the books because they sounded similar to books by Carolyn Chute, a favorite author of mine. Chute writes about rural poverty in Maine, and Drown writes about a similar socioeconomic stratum in New Hampshire. There's an essential hope that I find in certain corners of Chute's books that I found lacking in this book. Drown uses the popular technique of a multi-voice narrative but with one clear protagonist, a middle-aged man who owes too much in taxes and is too beset by trouble to have any peace. His children all lead lives of desperation, one step ahead of (and sometimes tied with) death, the law, starvation and homelessness. His marriage, which appears to be healthy at the outset, is constantly threatened by forces in the environment of small-town New Hampshire. The story does crescendo to an unpredictable ending, but by then, the reader has been so bludgeoned by despair, it's hard to feel satisfied.

Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor, 1955
This is one of those books I would never have read if it weren't a Pulitzer Prize winner. (I'm in the middle of a long project to read all the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.) It's extremely long, and it took me forever (parts of at least three months) to finish. It is historical fiction about the infamous Confederate prison at Camp Sumter in Anderson, Georgia. The open pen that housed as many as 40,000 prisoners in a scant 28 acres was disgusting and inhumane. Kantor is annoying in that he continues to introduce characters in the middle of the book. Most of these characters are prisoners suffering the inhumane treatment of malnutrition, scurvy and other disease that defined the prison. The middle 400 pages (there are over 700 in all) are just about unbearable. At the end, Kantor widens his lens until the final chapter refers repeatedly to Thucidies and other classical figures associated with the morality and philosophy of war. Stay very far away from Andersonville.

Martin Dressler; The Tale of an American Dreamer, Millhauser, Steven, 1996
The first two-thirds of this book was an enjoyable, straightforward narrative of a self-made man whose fortunes grew with the 20th century in New York City. The eponymous character is a businessman whose business ventures build success upon success in the wide open economy of Gotham as development expands north visibly on the island of Manhattan. Apparently Millhauser wasn't content to write a straightforward story, though, because personal adversity mixes with fantastic exaggeration to end the book with a dissatisfying, postmodern explosion. The contour of the book truly dissatisfied me as a reader.

, Berry, Wendell, 1988
Remembering is so stultifyingly slow and boring for most of its brief length that the book felt much longer. Most of the action takes place within the damaged psyche of a middle-aged man. Again, pages at a time are devoted to topical essays that interrupt the flow of the story. While I agree with Berry's case against the corporatization of American farms and about what has been lost in the process, I'd rather read a free-standing essay on the topic than wade through a fictional character's personal analysis of the problem. I happened to read this book at a time when I was going to bed dead tired and reading a page or two a night; so a remedy might be to read the book in larger chunks, but I'm not at all sure larger chunks would improve this sleep aid.

Prince Caspian, Lewis, C.S., 1951
What is it exactly that people like about these books? We read this to Charlie at bedtime, and he really seemed disinterested. At the end, Paige asked him if he liked it; he said no. I had to agree. What a waste of time. What a lot of useless hogwash. The book even lacks the majesty of Aslan himself as resurrected Christ figure conquering hero that is at least present in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. On the one hand, I'm disappointed. I'd thought that maybe if I just gave these books a chance, I'd see what all the fuss was about. On the other hand, I feel validated. These books are pointless piles of crap, and I was right not to read them all along.

Downtown Owl, Klosterman, Chuck, 2008
After reading Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, I was excited to see what a novel by Klosterman would be like. He should stick to aging hipster social commentary. This tale of a small town in North Dakota barely gets started before it abruptly ends. Chapters organized around different people make an interesting narrative structure for a while, but a good storyteller would have had those characters eventually intersect, their lives meaning something to each other. Instead, it's all parallel story lines full of anachronism. I lived through the early 80s, and I don't think slutty Halloween costumes for young women came in until the mid-to-late 90s, for instance. It's dull. Although he plumbs the interior lives of his characters, there is nothing there.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Books of the Aughts: Top 5 fiction books I read this decade, not written this decade.

I probably did myself no favors by posting about the non-fiction books before the fiction books. This list was much harder to pare down. A few of the novels I might have included in the top five, I left out because they're part of series, and I wouldn't have wanted to slight other books in the series. For instance, I started this decade by finishing John Updike's original four-novel Rabbit cycle. I really loved those books, but I love them as a whole set too much to single out any one. Then, with kids growing up, the decade ended with high ratings for most all of the Little House on the Prairie books, which we read aloud as a family at bedtime. I especially enjoyed Little House in the Big Woods, but again, enough to not put the others in the top five. This whole caveat paragraph may, of course, just be a copout to talk about more books I liked than just five in the category:

Top 5 fiction books I read this decade not actually published in this decade
Microserfs, Coupland, Douglas, 1995
I had never heard of Coupland, who has quite a little body of work until my
then-new coworker Carrie Richards recommended his books very enthusiastically in 2007, and she said Microserfs was a good one to start with. This was the most engaging novel I'd read in a long time, maybe since TC Boyle's Drop CityMicroserfs is about a group of Microsoft employees in the mid 90s who end up leaving to try their luck with a tech startup. The setting is so prosaic, so real that the characters and the relationships that they form end up feeling hyper-real. I was drawn in by the friendship, care, love and grief that comes to people living lives that - well, that make them complain that they have no lives. Long hours of coding and testing and geek parties. Coupland develops narrative tension that you could cut with a knife, but it feels like aside from the tech references, he's writing in all one-syllable words. Microserfs is simple, straightforward realism that - against all odds - becomes transcendent.

Out of this Furnace, Bell, Thomas, 1941

This is one of those books that every Pittsburgher (and everyone who has reason to care about the 'Burgh) should read. It helps to understand the psyche of the people and neighborhoods of the region, derived as they still are from the immigrant labor experience. Bell's story traces three generations of an immigrant family in the upper Monongah
ela Valley - Homestead, Munhall, Braddock and in the steel mills. Along the way, we view the development of a community in a new, foreign and sometimes-hostile milieu. We see the promise of prosperity maintain its near-but-unattainable distance. Along the way, there is also love and friendship, betrayal and despair. It's a gripping story with a useful dose of sociology/anthropology thrown in as a bonus.

The Things they Carried, O'Brien, Tim, 1990
My wife had read this and recommended it to me in the kind of way that one cannot ignore. A lot of people I know and like have read this book, and it turns out they wo
uld all recommend it in that way. I would too. A set of linked short stories set in and after the Vietnam war, the books is incredibly involving. An interesting attribute of the book is that the author turns often directly to the reader and talks about storytelling. Also, the way the stories are told, there is a theme about how stories get told, changed and even edited for the audience. War stories seem to be especially subject to exaggeration or suppression or eliding of details. Read. This. Book. Now.

The Fifth Business, Robertson Davies, 1970

This book was a risk in that Robertson Davies was recommended to me by my b
oss. I say it was a risk because the last time I took a boss's fiction recommendation, I wound up slogging my way through 100 Years of Solitude. But that was a different boss. With an intricate plot and original characters, Fifth Business is a gripping story that had me turning pages, especially early on. Davies wrote in trilogies, and this book left me looking forward to his other "Deptford Novels" and the rest of his oeuvre. I've enjoyed his other books but remember this one best.

Middlemarch, Eliot, George, 1872
Going into the holiday season in 2003, I found myself in the mood for a good Victorian
romance. When I mentioned that to Paige, she said "You have to read Middlemarch. It's so good and so gripping, it's Victorian romance but so much more." She was, as usual, absolutely correct. Middlemarch is a long book, which, along with Paige's law school and Charlie's active toddlerhood, account for the over two months it took me to read it. The edition I read was one page shy of 800. Not all of those 800 pages are exciting and interesting, but an incredible majority are. Middlemarch is a story populated with lots and lots of people, whose lives intersect closely, as lives would have in a Victorian Midlands town. The determination of one's birth and heritage loom large; Middlemarch and its nearby estates function very much on a caste system, but one with porous boundaries. The characters are finely drawn and nearly all sympathetic, if clearly flawed. If I were to recommend this book to someone, I would advise that if they don't think they could read 100 pages per week to wait until a lifestage when they could. It truly is a page turner if given the chance.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Books of the Aughts: Top 5 non-fiction books I read this decade, not written this decade.

With the decade coming to a close, I'll take a look back at my book database as the year ends and the new year begins to give you my recommendations in various categories.

To start off, a list in no particular order of non-fiction works I've read this decade not actually written in this decade.

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk,
Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlish, 1999
My wife is really smart. I read this book "on assignment" from her, and found it to be transformative in my approach to communicating with our kids. Faber and Mazlish have been at this for over 20 years. The first edition of the book was published in 1980. They point out some of the most common and damaging ways that we relate to children and offer alternatives that can really work. They advise with a steady hand about something that's very nuanced and they pepper the book with examples to help the reader understand the principles.

Friday Night Lights, Bissinger, H.G., 1989
Before it was a decent movie and a great television series, Friday Night Lights was a superb work of non-fiction storytelling. A journalist moves to Odessa, Texas and writes about th
e season he spent with the Permian High School football team and its place in the life of the city of Odessa. Although I'd heard about this book from soon after it was published, I, like many, got interested in it again after a movie version was released in Fall 2004. The movie was a very condensed version, focusing on parts of the stories of the core players Bissinger focuses on in the book. The book has tons more content than was possible to put in a 2 hour movie. The phenomenon of fanatical boosterism and the decision-making process that went along with Permian's football preeminence is far too complex to reflect in a movie, the racism and unfairness suffered by minorities too ugly to get into. But Bissinger covers it all with both a journalist's eye and the fervent heart of a fan; he found the team and its Friday night games an irresistible spectacle.

Friday Night Lights made a lot of people in Odessa angry; its frankness about the fanaticism and the racism that characterized decisions around Permian cut to the quick. It was great to read Bissinger's afterword in the 10th anniversary edition, which details some helpful and hopeful things that came out of the book. It had a lasting impact, and it's an engrossing work of documentary literature.

Operating Instructions; A Journal of my Son's First Year, Lamott, Anne, 1993
This book is perfect, vintage Lamott. She tells the story of her son's birth and
how he develops through his first year. Of course, a lot of the story revolves around how she adjusts to being a single mom. Her community of friends and family are an invaluable support to her, most of all, her friend Pammy. Childless herself, she spent huge blocks of time with Anne and Sam that first year. Other big players include the people at Lamott's (almost) all black church and her mother, aunt and brother. Funny, confessional and helpful preparation for the first year that awaits us.
Stolen Season; a Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues, Lamb, David, 1991

My baseball book for the 2004 season (I try to read at least one baseball book, usually in blustery March or frosty April), this book was very satisfying. My friend Katherine Stikkers gave it to me as she was paring down her household in Pittsburgh. We've shared a love of baseball and played on a softball team together. Lamb is a journalist who has had a global career. His career started with a unique assignment covering the Braves from a distant fan's perspective for the Milwaukee Journal the year they moved from Boston to Milwaukee. The unique aspect of the assignment is that he was 14 that season.

This book is the story of a summer - 1989 or 1990 - when Lamb took off in an RV across the country going to minor league games and soaking up the lifestyle and stories integral to it. Many of his stops are chosen because the teams are part of the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system. Stops in Stockton, CA, El Paso and Peoria, AZ present the relationship of mi
nor league teams to their communities. This is a great book for baseball fans, even as it has aged. Lamb met players who have gone on to successful major league careers when they were still prospects or minor league stars. Of course, most of the players he meets never made it to the show or didn't last long enough to become household names. It's a charming book and a quick read.

A caution to wives: if your husband reads this book in spring, keep him off used RV lots.
Children of Israel, Children of Palestine: Our Own True Strories, Holliday, Laurel, Ed., 1998

My friend Maria Wahrenberger, a voracious reader, lent me this collection of personal narratives by Israelis and Palestinians in 2002. In the midst of the latest chapters of strife between the two countries, it was enlightening to read stories by people (mainly under 18 or writing from their experience at a young age) who live the strife of the two populations living side by side. Although Holliday explicitly says that she tried to maintain a balance between the polar views of the situation, the book tends to paint Palestinians in a slightly more sympathetic light than Israelis. Overall, though, the most striking thing is how violence becomes the outside actor that makes peoples' lives difficult, not the actual enemy. On both sides of the conflict, people (and especially children) live in dread of unexpected eruptions of violence. Despite green pastures that they sometimes walk in, they or their loved ones are in imminent danger almost constantly. The book brings home the blessings of freedom from genocidal violence that we enjoy in the US.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Many Faces of Ted

It's always a challenge to get a Christmas card photo of all four of us that works. Of all of us, Teddy looked good in the most pictures out of this year's attempts. He also went through the biggest variety of expressions. These crops are all in the sequence in which they were originally shot. That's how fast his face and mood change.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

J'eet? We did. Yum.

If you're not from Pittsburgh, my apologies for this post. Or rather, start planning a trip; you're going to need to get here.

A friend of mine, Bradly Richards, who's been named "the clown prince of Pittsburgh coffee" started a new job at a new cafe called J'eet in Lawrenceville. J'eet for those who don't know is the key word in the Pittsburghese conversation:
"J'eet jet"
"No, j'ew?"

I'd been meaning to get there because of (or despite) Chef Kevin's daily facebook messages with the menu. It's kind of obnoxious to clog up that inbox that I use rarely with a message a day. It's more delightfully annoying that the messages describe mouthwateringly good specials and regular menu items. They feature sandwiches and crepes, which doesn't make them unique in the East End, but the more the merrier in the crepe game, says me.

Teddy and I visited J'eet this week. We were in the middle of a string of errands, and Teddy had seen me put a bag of pretzels into my man purse just in case he got hungry. When we got out of the car at J'eet, he asked for them. When I told him that he could have pretzels but that there would probably be delicious treats inside the cafe, Teddy moaned "I don't want a delissis treat fum there!" His resistance was broken when he saw what Chef Kevin created just for him: a chocolate banana crepe with whipped cream. Teddy didn't actually like the crepe (whatevs - more for me) but enjoyed several bites of chocolate covered banana with whipped cream. The crepe was delicious, and I do want to return for one of their long list of savory crepes as well.

The real treat for me was Brad's Chai, a drink with some actual effort and artistry, unlike most Chai that comes from a prepared powder or syrup. Brad's contains honey and loose tea and spices (cardamom, cloves 'n 'at) and is served up in a french press. It's more delicate and subtle than the syrupy variant and more satisfying. We also tasted the hot chocolate, which is more drinkable than the super-thick chocolate you get in some gourmet shoppes while also being distinctly superior to the ho-hum hot cocoa available many places.

Light fills J'eet's narrow storefront, thanks to full width windowed front and back walls. It's stylish and hip without being cloying. The back deck looks lovely for better weather.

In summary, yinz want a delicious treat from there.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas Trend

I'm a bit of a data hound. And I always like it when the data shows me something different from my intuition. Don't get me wrong: it's affirming to have data that backs up my intuition, but that's not really very interesting. (Mrs. Moreland and all English teachers, pleas forgive that run-on sentence.)

We track our Christmas cards - who we send to and from whom we receive. If you asked me to tell you whether we'd been getting m
ore or fewer cards over the last few years, I'd say fewer. I'd say no one sends snail mail anymore, and few people take the time or expense to connect via the Christmas card anymore. You saw this coming, though, right? I was wrong.

According t
o our spreadsheet, we actually received more than twice as many cards in 2008 as we did in 1997. The chart was created in Google spreadsheets, btw. Now, in that time, we've also increased the number of cards we've sent. in fact, this year, we're sending way more than we received last year. But that's not actually the point. The point is that the number of cards has increased during the period in which snail mail was dying. Actually, there were two big leaps in our card-receiving: 2002-2003 and 2006-2007. I have theories to explain both.

Before 2002, we sent department store cards and didn't write a Christmas letter; we'd just sign them and write a paragraph or so. The paragraphs got shorter and shorter as we got to the end of the alphabet. In 2002, we sent our first family Christmas photo card featuring the two of us holding an adorable baby. Bam, next year, we break 50 cards received. Then, in 2005, we started writing a Christmas letter, too, and we started including funny and cute quotes by our kids. We've gotten a ton of feedback from family and friends that they really like our card, mostly the quotes. It took a while, but I think that explains the jump from 2006 to 2007 as well. The better the Christmas card we send, the more we get in return.

This reminds me of when we had Madeline Stanionis, an email fundraising expert speak at a work event. A woman asked in the Q&A "how do we get people to read our email and not unsubscribe?" Madeline's answer was at once brilliant, simple and challenging to execute: "Send good email."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Overheard 2009 Runners Up Volume 3

A final list of quotes from the boys that did not make our Christmas letter.

When I'm not worried that Teddy needs speech therapy, I enjoy how cutely he talks. At this age, he has a whole list of things that he says in his very own way. We never publish these substitutions in the Christmas letter, but we do enjoy them:

hundawee = hungry
tan you = thank you
fanks = thank you
smawsmallows = marshmallows

dot-dit dootie = chocolate cookie
yittew eeda = Little League

C: Dad, I don't think as much food and drinks are getting to my left muscle as my right muscle. The veins don't pop out as much on that side.

J: Oh my, that's a nasty cough. Where did that come from?

T: From my mouf.

On hockey

T: Do dey have a bastet foi deir putts (pucks)?
J: Yes, it's called a net.

T: Do dey have sumpin' dat lives on deir feet for statin'?
J: Yes, skates.
T: Yeah, state shoes.

Lobbying to pack his swimsuit for an overnight at his grandparents' house:
C: I don't think some end of summer water play would be out of order.

Pointing to a photo of Mt. Rushmore in a magazine:

C: George Washington!

P: Who was George Washington?

C: Our first white president. pause Or...our first president.

Overheard 2009 Runners Up Volume 2

More quotes from the boys that didn't make our Christmas letter.

Telling Paige that it was Grandpa's birthday:
T: Do you know who is bewfday? It's Dampa's one.

T: Yoot it! (look it) pointing to the rock 'n roll guitar on his shirt
C: Yeah, Ted. You're a rock star.
(in his sweet, affectionate voice) Rock stars always need a hug. Especially when they're little.

C: Dad, I'm going to get you that dollar that I owe you.
5 minutes pass
C: I've got two.
J: You only owe me one.
C: I want a dollar back for change.

J: Where' the ice pack?
T: In the titchen.
J: You put it on the counter?
T: Yeah. I put it on the left right side.

Holding out his finger with a booger on it:
T: I dot some nose on me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: Nurtureshock

Everyone with any child under 18 living in their home should read this book. Now.

I heard Po Bronson on Fresh Air, and he dropped all manner of interesting bits from this book. I had to read it. It belongs to a species of books that has sprung up in or before the aughts. The species is born as follows: 1) an article in the New York Times (preferably the Magazine) makes huge waves 2) the author gets a spike of interest and - ba-da-bing - a book contract 3) the article, barely edited, becomes chapter 1 of the book. Now, this species is vulnerable to a specific failing: sometimes, there was only an article's worth of interesting things to say about the subject. I thought that might be the case with Nurtureshock. The first two chapters are nothing short of fantastic. They feature unbelievable and very useful revelations about child development and what parents should do in light of the new science. The middle of the book loses some of this steam, but the authors wisely save some of the fascinating conclusions for the end. The book covers topics like childrens' responses to certain kinds of praise, the effects of
sleep deprivation on kids' brains (with 1 hour less sleep, 6th graders perform like fourth graders), the inputs that make children speak sooner and more and the impact of gratitude on attitude. Your poor loved ones when you read this book: you'll be throwing startling study results at them all the time.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Overheard 2009 Runners Up Volume 1

Every year, we spice up our Christmas letter by copying what our friends Roger and Karen did in theirs: including quotes from our children throughout the year. We have a notebook for Charlie (7) and one for Teddy (3), and throughout the year, we write down memorable things that they've done and mostly funny or interesting things that they said. With Teddy's toddler speech, we try to capture the way he's pronouncing words at the moment. Translation is provided where necesssary.

Here are some of the runners-up. I'll post the ones that made the cut (the very best) later.

Teddy, Hearing on the radio that the Pirates were trailing the Astros 6-0:
Stint [stink!] Jatt Wisson [Jack Wilson] pop up. Nyjer Mordan [Morgan] pop up. Pause. I don’t yike da pop up!

Jeff: How’s your cookie?
T: Not vewy bad.

J: Teddy, come upstairs and put your books in your backpack.
Charlie: Dad, he’s never going to do it. You’re going to have to force him.