Friday, December 31, 2010

Books of 2010: Best Non-Fiction

On the final day of the year, my final installment of book recommendations. This non-fiction list is so much more difficult than my fiction list. In any other year, an older book like Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick Knife Gun or a new book like Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus would have topped this list. The nonfiction books I read in 2010 were, however, quite extraordinary, making those titles runners up. Because I have no editor, though, I don't have to limit myself to one or even two recommendations. I've got three non-fiction books to recommend, each of them very different. In no particular order:

James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere; The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, 1993
A good friend with generally different reading tastes than mine recommended this book, and I'm glad he did. Kunstler may be a little crazy (he declared the end of the automobile age in this book seventeen years ago), but he's smart crazy. The book outlines how land development evolved in this country and how we ended up with the crappy suburbs we have today. Kunstler grew up in Manhattan and now lives in small-town Saratoga Springs, NY. Because I also now listen to his podcast (the Kunstlercast), I can't remember what I've heard there, and what's in the book, but the book lays out what makes traditional urban fabric work and what makes the suburbs so dysfunctional. It's a seminal book by a unique thinker that will make some people muse "oh yeah" and others fling the book across the room. Here at the end of the year, I realize that Kunstler has given me a structure for evaluating a built landscape as I pass through it, which is a little tedious for my friends and family.

Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers, 2001

An incredibly gripping book with some passages that are very difficult to read. I p
icked up this book because Hampton Sides (a Yale graduate) was coming to town for a Yale Club of Pittsburgh event with his brand new book Hellhound on his Trail; The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin. Hellhound was not yet available, but reading about his other work made me curious. Ghost Soldiers tells the story of American POWs in the Philippines in World War II from the Bataan Death March to the deplorable and deadly conditions in prison camps for three long years until the Americans came back to retake the peninsula they lost to the Japanese in late 1941 and early 1942. Sides alternates chapters, one unfolding the story of how the prisoners came to be in one of the worst camps in the Philippines and the next describing the newly-formed Army Rangers and the bold plan to attempt to free a group of the last, most desperate POWs. Sides did an incredible amount of research but writes history on a McCullough-esque level (yes, I said it) that draws in the reader and does not let go until the story is told. Hellhound is very good as well, but I'd recommend Ghost Soldiers over Hellhound if you had only one book left to live.

Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, 2009

A collection of personal essays about growing up and becoming a father. A really delightful book. The essays are enjoyable and engaging and demonstrate Chabon's writing ability by featuring the occasional sentence that just takes your breath away. Since being a fathe
r dominates a lot of my time and identity right now, I really identified with those essays but enjoyed the entire collection. I liked this book so much that I a) own it (a rare occurrence for a Carnegie Library devotee) and b) have lent it to two friends already. The book feels a bit like fine chocolate. You might want to take a break and cleanse your palate in the middle so you can really appreciate the experience without being overloaded by it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best friends = deep knowledge

Charlie hosted his first sleepover ever. His best friend from school came over, and I learned something about the depth of their friendship when Charlie came into the kitchen to get a cup for the bathroom for James. I pulled down a yellow cup, and C said "He'd probably prefer red, but we can go with yellow because that's his third favorite color, just like me."

I do have a best friend, and we have slept over (if camping counts), but I don't know his third favorite color.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Books of 2010: Best Fiction

Continuing my 2010 book reviews, some fiction I'd recommend. This was surprisingly difficult, and I only feel passionate about Kavalier and Clay.

Michael Chabon, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, 2001
Although I was due to read this book eventually as part of my project to read all of
the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction, I'd resisted it for a while. Its heft intimidated me. I have to be in a certain mood to commit to reading a 600+ page novel. Also, I was confused for a while and heard that it was a graphic novel. It's not, of course. It's a terrific novel that spans many years without sprawling. The graphic novel mistake derived from the fact that the plot centers around two cousins who become comic book artists just as the genre takes off before World War II. Following them as they age and experience more in their personal and professional lives, the plot impressively reinvigorates itself as developments unfold. The narrative tension feels artfully designed rather than tricky. This book could make you sad when it ends, not because of a sad ending per se but because you feel that you'll miss these characters.

Jonathan Tropper, This is Where I Leave You, 2009

A perfect beach read. Or maybe I just think that because I read it at the Outer Banks o
n our visit with my wife's parents and brother. My friend Heidi recommended it when I was needing a novel. The action of the novel takes place in a week while a family sits shiva for their mostly-secular father. Traumas sapped the life of the family long ago, and they don't stop appearing during the shiva week. Forced to spend the whole week together, each of the members of the family, who are very practiced at suppressing their emotions, has the chance to confront them. The story flashes back to when the kids were little and in high school in order to explain why all these people are as screwed up now as they are. Reading this made me appreciate my real family and life circumstances, especially my marriage. It's a little on the bleak side, with some raunchy mixed in. Just what you want at the beach with your in-laws.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Books of 2010: What not to Read

This week, I'll post some reviews from my booklist for 2010. Want to contribute to the year-end zeitgeist. When I post lists like this, though, it's books I've read this year, rather than books necessarily published this year.

Over the course of the decade, I've herky-jerkily reversed my proportions of fiction versus non-fiction. I don't know why. There has been no campaign at work here; it may just reflect evolving interests.

I may be getting charitable in my old age, but I only read one book this year that I would not recommend to others. And there may be audiences for this book. Misanthropic book clubs, perhaps? Herewith, my review:

If a surfeit of hope and cheer distresses you, read Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk's 2007 set of eventually-linked short stories about suburban English housewives. A bleakness runs through these closely told lives. Cusk is a very good writer and creates a world, which is what we seek in fiction, right? The problem is that in the world she creates, there's not much to hope for. She does capture that period of parenthood when the children are very small and so very dependent that achieving one thing in a day feels like a triumph. I can see why The Atlantic recommended this novel (?); the characters run more in parallel, drawn together by the place they inhabit than really sharing lives and interacting with each other. It may be worth reading, but reader be warned: the book should come with a script for Prozac. It's not that anything awful happens; it's just that the sum total of the place where these people have arrived strikes them as so awful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Overheard 2010 Runners Up Volume 2

A second and final installment of runner up quotes from our 2010 Christmas letter:

C: I’ll turn on “I Can’t Fight This Feeling,” Teddy, to see how you feel.

After seeing Toy Story 3
T: I’m gonna bring all my toys to college.
P: What are you going to do with them?
T: Play.
P: What about me? Are you taking me to college?
T: No. I’m taking Daddy.

J: You picked the chocolate chips out of your banana bread?
T: Yep. And I ate them and ate them and ate them till I ate the whole city…(pause, laugh)…I didn’t eat the whole city.

T: Meat comes from animals. Like ham comes from fish.
P: Ham comes from pigs, honey.
T: And fish.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Tree Shopping Lessons

In our family growing up, father and children bore responsibility for acquiring the Christmas tree. Because my mother lead a women's group at church one night a week, the rest of us would take the large American station wagon and go out on that night to hunt for the tree. The tree purchase was a hunt because of my father's extreme thrift. He always wanted to be sure that he got the best deal, so in addition to a tree, we kids got lessons in persistence and bartering. We discovered market prices by driving from one tree lot to the next.

(Based on references at Thanksgiving, my dad apparently reads this blog; perhaps this post will surface him in the comments.)

A few forces contributed to our purchasing escapades: 1) my father's idea of an acceptable price for a Christmas tree and 2) the lessons he got at the knee of his father, a Boston fruit peddler.

From the outset, my father would have decided on an amount he hoped to spend on a Christmas tree. The price probably derived from equal parts memory of prior years and stubborn hope for a good deal. Arriving at a tree lot, he would not ask to see particular varieties of trees; he would ask the price range or to see the cheapest tree. If the lowest price on the lot exceeded the goal price, we would just walk away. "The walkaway" (as we came to call it) served two purpos
es. Saving us time shopping at a place we couldn't afford was the less important reason. We could jump in the car and go to the next place. The more important reason was that the walkaway could actually alter the price. When Dad said a civil "OK, thanks friend" and walked away, it occasionally elicited a question about what he was looking for. That question could lead to a discussion of how we were hoping for a cheaper tree and a deal-making walk among the trees.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, sold fruit in Boston, first from a wagon and then from a truck. The kids would help on the truck
and get a retail education. My dad learned to call out "App-o!" and "Watermel-o!" because the actual last syllables of apple and watermelon would melt away when shouted down the street. A son passed into manhood when he delivered a 50-pound sack of potatoes from the truck to the customer's house. My dad, who is built like me, tells the story of the hot day as a 13-year-old 90-pound weakling that his rite of passage arrived. After struggling to get the sack to the door of the classic Boston triple-decker, the customer said "third floor". Although his knees buckled, he managed to schlep the spuds to her apartment and return to the truck a man.

What was I talking about? Oh, Christmas tree shopping.

My dad also gained a keen, practical understanding of supply and demand from the days on the fruit truck. For example, early in the day, they were allowed to eat all the bananas they wanted. That way, by the end of the day, the supply would go down, driving the price up and leaving them without leftover bananas. This supply and demand knowledge came in to play on the tree lot. If we were shopping early in the season, Dad knew we lacked a certain leverage. But on a cold night as it got closer to Christmas, a large tree inventory started looking like a liability. The walkaway could tap into a latent panic that trees bought at wholesale would not be sold at all.

One Christmas represents the apotheosis of Christmas tree shopping with Dad. As I remember it, we'd driven around to several places. It was getting late. The target price was 15 dollars. That might have had something to do with why we'd visited so many lots; even in those simpler days, a fifteen-dollar tree would have been a bargain. We were the only customers in a former gas station where one lonely guy, probably college-age was selling the trees. Dad looked over several trees, talked prices, executed a partial walkaway and finally got the guy down to 18 dollars. When he pulled out his wallet and started searching his pockets, the fact that he'd anchored on 15 dollars reared its ugly head. He counted out $17 in bills and then a further 42 cents in change. Why carry more if you on a night when you were getting a tree for 15 bucks? The beleaguered salesman threw up his hands and took what Dad had, and we tossed the tree in the back of the car and headed home.

Despite these lessons, I shop for a Christmas tree differently. Time feels scarcer than money these days, and I like to look at trees in the daylight if I can. I did take Teddy with me this year, but we went to only one place, under a mile from home, chose a tree only partially on price and did not barter. We paid 42 dollars and spent about 12 minutes on the errand. The memory probably won't last for Teddy like my memories have. That's a little sad, but I hope I'm passing on my hard-won knowledge in other areas of life.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

Overheard 2010 Runners Up Volume 1

We've made a semi-famous habit of including funny quotes from our kids in our Christmas letter. This year, we continue the tradition, and with it, for the second year, I hereby publish some that didn't make the main list.

While wearing corduroys:
Teddy (4): Dese make sounds. Dey make sa-wop sa-wop sounds. And when you run with spawts pants [sports pants, i.e., sweatpants], dey make sa-weet sa-woot sounds.

Charlie (8): I wish we were nocturnal because I want to see what it’s like to move around late at night.

C: I think Dancing Queen is in my top ten songs of the ‘70s, although I probably only know about ten…or maybe two.

C: For Christmas, I want a sister.
T: I want two sisters and two brothers.
C: We should get a baby.
T: A little tiny baby.
Paige: Where should we get a baby?
Simultaneous answers:
C: (whispering) S-E-X.
T: We should buy one.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I think we've covered the fact that it just would not be a good idea for me to participate in the Movember cultural phenomenon. I admire those who did, but they just don't look as creepy/sinister as I do with a 'stache. As winter has hit Pittsburgh for real, thought, I have started a winter beard.

In talking to one of my wife's long-bearded coworkers about it yesterday, I found that he and I hold polar opposite men's facial hair theories. He says that once men get over the initial grief they get when they stop shaving, they then tend to keep their goatee/beard/'stache in perpetuity. I, on the other hand, think that because men's fashion and haircut styles change so little over the years, facial hair is the only appearance change option available to the bored male.

Data points on the grow-it-keep-it side of the ledger include
my boss and Don, my self-appointed beard mentor at church. Having had a beard for a very long time, my boss likes to summarize his mid-career technology masters degree experience by saying that he had classmates who were younger than his beard.The first time Don saw me at church with a newish beard, he said "Beard looks good. Two things: Don't touch it. Shampoo it like it's your hair. Then it won't itch." As good as this advice was, I had to chuckle the next winter when I grew the beard and Don approached me and said "Beard looks good. Two things..."

Most guys that I know, though, grow something on their face as a lark for a short time. After gauging how they personally like it and how those around them react, they then keep it for some length of time before starting over with a different look.

Which theory holds for more guys? The "grow-it-keep-it" or the "I wonder how I'd look with a beard"?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Hair and Loss

When you're going bald
and look around, you see that
lots of guys are not.

Author's note: the author's wife has always been his best and favorite editor.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Our most frequently-used parenting tool

Reflecting on my recent post about rules, I don't believe I have ever sounded more like my father than I did there. I should probably not complain about that, like I moan when someone says I'm getting to look just like my father. I'm grateful for the way my parents raised me (now) and appreciate their commitment to each other and to me.

We have a tool that unexpectedly takes center stage in our parenting: a kitchen timer. It's actually a series of timers, including the timer application on my phone. We happened into using timers to manage transitions when Charlie was little, and the tool has served us so well that we've never abandoned it.

When it's time to move from one thing to anoth
er, we warn the boys that it's going to be time to wrap it up, and we set the timer. When the timer goes off, they move from the one activity to the next. When they ask to use the computer or watch a DVD, we give them a set amount of time and set a timer. It works when we have to leave the playground or a friend's house, too. In fact, I used this tactic at a friend's house, and when the timer went off, Charlie popped up happily, said goodbye to his friends and got ready to leave. The other parent was blown away and asked "how did you do that?" I said, well, start six years ago and be consistent.

As I say, we happened into this and just found that it works. One of Charlie's childcare center teachers articulated why it works in a way we couldn't have: it makes the time and transition management definitive and takes it out of our hands. I have observed other parents giving their kids a time limit to leave a place and then lose track of time themselves or lose patience waiting. I find it difficult to actually know when three minutes have passed. The timer doesn't.

After getting frustrated with a bedtime routine that got longer and longer, we employed the timer there, too. At 8:00, the boys have to start getting ready for bed, and we set a 30-minute timer. When they're in their pajamas with brushed teeth, we read in mommy and daddy's bed until the timer beeps. If they get their stuff done quickly, we can have as much as 15 minutes to read. If they're slow, we only have a few minutes. After that, they get to read in their beds until 8:45, when the timer goes off again.

Kids do need a warning when the activity or location is going to shift, and the timer - while making transitions manageable for us - makes the transition predictable and manageable for the kids. They handle it so much better than they would if when we said 5 minutes, we meant 3-20 minutes, determined randomly case by case.

I know that it works now. I hope that it doesn't lead to painful analysis on a therapist's couch for the boys 20 years from now.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Time and Appliances

Moving into a new home has necessitated a period of learning about the differences between our new appliances and the ones we left behind across the street. You have heard me moan in this space before about my sexist dryer. I must now tout an excellent feature of my dryer while bemoaning a lack of desirable features on my oven. These pros and cons revolve around time management in these time-saving devices.

First, the cons. The prior owner of our home replaced the kitchen appliances shortly before selling. It appears that she chose the appliances based on how they would look in real estate sales photos. They're stainless steel, and they harmonize visually with each other (even if they don't harmonize with the 1991 off-white and oak of the cabinets or the Burger King tile floor). They're all hat and no cowboy, though. The fridge is small, and our normal food bows the shelves; the holidays - oi! The dishwasher is small and haunted and loud. It turns itself on spontaneously, and even when we turn it on intentionally, we have to close the kitchen door in order to have a conversation in the next room.

The oven, though, (no pun intended) takes the cake. Lacking insulation, it pours heat into the room, which is actually proving to be a boon as winter sets in. The main problems, though, derive from an overly-simple control panel. The oven has no timed bake. Although one may not need one's oven turn on automatically at a specified time and temperature for a specified amount of time that often, when one needs it, timed bake is indispensable. Also, on a more daily basis, we're annoyed by the fact that when you set the oven to a desired temperature, it displays that temperature on its little screen. Not the time. Not whether the oven has reached that temperature or not. If you're in the kitchen at the precise moment it gets to temperature, it beeps. But the display doesn't return to a clock while the oven is on. A little clock button will show you the time temporarily before reverting the display to the temperature. When my hands are covered with dough or poultry bacteria, I can't push a button to find out the time!

On a happier note, the dryer has a feature that I never knew I missed. It buzzes when the cycle's done. I know many dryers are equipped this way, but I've not had one as an adult. Now, I can start that dryer load and go back to other things and not have to remember it and check on it. Very helpful. Also, if I'm about to take a nap and don't want to hear the helpful buzz, I can turn it off. Also, there's a wrinkle guard period when it repeats the beep if unattended and starts up again to fluff the clothes without heat. I'm still opposed to the dryer's general principles, but I must applaud these time management features.