Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books of '11: recommendations

 After saving you from bad books yesterday, today I recall two of the best books I read this year.  I enjoyed both of these a ton.  They're the kind of books that inspire the reader to make time to read them rather than do other things.

Best of the year: fiction

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, David Mitchell, 2010

I picked up this book because it made a lot of NPR 10-best lists fro 2010.  That proved to be a reliable recommendation.  I especially appreciated the quality, long-form novel because I started reading it at the beginning of a 27-hour flight to Asia.  The story’s setting in turn of the 19th century Nagasaki felt appropriate despite the fact that my destination was Vietnam.  Although the plot  keeps the reader interested, that setting in Nagasaki and its Dutch trading post is pleasingly unfamiliar.  Although I have no way of judging its accuracy, it felt historically plausible and educational.  We meet the title character when he is a newly-arriving clerk at the trading post ad follow him as he navigates the machinations of both the half-marooned population of the trading post and the complicated politics of closed, Shogunal Japan.  This is a page turner that achieved an all-too-rare feat - making me wish I didn’t have to participate in real life so I could have more time to just read the book.

Best of the year: non-fiction

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, Elna Baker, 2009

I heard Elna Baker on an incredible live episode of the incredible Marc Maron podcast.  That appearance came a few years after this book was published, but it made me very curious to read it.  In this memoir - yes, it's a memoir with that crazy long title - Baker details her life as a Mormon in New York City.  Baker is a standup comedienne, and the book is funny, but that's not what made it so gripping for me.  Baker details her struggles and questions with her Mormon faith in the midst of her lively social life in New York City.  Mormonism as much as any other faith enforces social norms of behavior that are understood to manifest in a long line of "no's".  No drinking, no drugs, no sex.  Baker shares incredibly frankly her hopes and fears in relation to remaining committed to her church while being pulled toward life outside of it.  The real action comes (not really spoiling here) when she meets an atheist whom she really, really likes.  Her family members definitely play their roles in her narrative a la David Sedaris; she lives with her older, more beautiful sister in New York.  Her parents sound like generous, awesome people.  I've been highly recommending this book for its honesty and page-turning narrative.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Books of '11: anti-recommendations

While it's important to recommend good books to each other, it may be more important that we save each other from bad books.  Tomorrow, I'll recommend two books that I really enjoyed this year, but today, I'm going to try to save you from wasting time on books that aren't worth reading.

Worst of the year: fiction

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin, 2009

First of all, who gives a rip about stories in a collection being linked?  This book falls into that rash currently afflicting literary fiction, the linked story collection.  As LitCritHulk tweeted: "HULK SMASH TREND OF HIP NOVELISTS WRITE 'LINKED' SHORT STORIES AND CALL IT NOVEL. YOU WANT WRITE SHORT STORIES, FINE. IT NOT A ####ING NOVEL"  The stories in this collection link together very tenuously with the names of some characters repeating.  They jump around in time so that we're to understand we're reading about a couple of generations of the same family, but the fact that one character is another character's son has so little bearing on a particular story that it doesn't matter.  I fail to see the point.  But that's not the big problem.  The big problem is that more than half of the stories in this collection have the same plot.  No joke.  One story in which a woman of modest means decides to "give herself" sexually to a financially successful older man only to have it end badly when he returns to the wife of his youth might have been interesting.  Six in a row can only be considered bizarre.  It's a shame because the stories at the back end of the collection when he sheds the single plot are actually pretty good.

Worst of the year: non-baseball non-fiction

Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich, 2011

I read at least one baseball book a year.  This isn't one of them, but it's one you might fall for - as I did - because of the hype.  Don't do it.  The most audacious heist in history?  Weeeeellllll.  I loved Mezrich's books about the MIT blackjack team, and I wanted to love this book.  The story is artfully told, which is nice, until you want to figure out how the thing actually went down.  That part of the book is the sketchiest.  It's difficult to read a book about someone being so deceitful.  I found it uncomfortable and a little stressful, like watching a cringe humor sitcom.  Also, the way he got caught seems so obvious in retrospect.  The book shows what happens to this person whose fantasies cloud his reality; a promising future gets lopped off really quickly through extremely bad judgment.  Woo hoo?  Not really.

Worst of the year: baseball non-fiction

The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code, Ross Bernstein, 2008

Although this book was published in 2008, it started popping up various places in my environment in late 2010. The title and premise rock. The book...not so much. Start with the author bragging about the 30 sports books he's written in the last 20 years. That reminds me of a Pennsylvania winery I visited that produced 54 wines, none of them quite drinkable. The good Mr. Bernstein takes the volume approach. He also starts the book with three forewords by current or former baseball players. I love baseball and baseball players, but three forewords on the topic of the game's unwritten code by player types produce an unappealing drumbeat of repetition about respect and not throwing at guys' heads. It's not as if the book itself isn't littered with player quotes. Bernstein interviewed lots of people. While I admire his hard work, i wish he hadn't showed quite so much of it. The narrative, especially early on, is interrupted as much as five times on a page by block quotes in gray boxes. Obviously, players, managers and umpires have to be the source, but take a little more time and weave them into a narrative. Some of the block quotes are more than a page long. For good measure, he gives the last word to a player, block quoting Dave Winfield, saying something that doesn't really put a button on all that went before. I don't know if it's good or bad policy, but Bernstein saves his best stuff for last. The stuff about throwing at guys gets dull and goes on a long time. Summary: throw at guys when they "disrespect" you or a teammate or the game; don't throw at guys' heads. Second summary: throwing at a guy is easy, and it is really difficult. The stuff about bench-clearing brawls is better. Where he really shines, though, is in talking about stealing signs. The best part of that material, though, focuses less on the code and more on how signs work, which I, as a fan, didn't really know. I wanted more out of this book. Perhaps John Feinstein could rewrite it from Bernstein's notebook (which it felt like I was reading anyway) and come up with a worthy book.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday Haiku: Christmas Card Envy

Facebook posts about
my Christmas card make friends who 
don't get one jealous.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Overheard 2011 Runners Up Volume 2

In addition to the final installment of outtakes from Overheard 2011, I've included the outtakes from our Christmas Card photo session.  We're very grateful to Paige's mother, a talented photographer who captures this image for us every year, and to Paige's father, a notable goof who makes funny sounds and faces behind the camera so that Paige knows where to look and smile.  Well, he does that for someone in our family; it might not be Paige.  Actually, Paige had a killer migraine during this year's photo shoot, so she gets the Christmas Card medal of honor for smiling through the pain.

Bringing the Playmobil baby Jesus with a gold cup on his head
T: Look what happened to the baby Jesus.
P: He got a cup on his head?
T: Yeah, a guy dropped a cup and it got on his head, and he got the blood of a new government on his head.
P: The blood of the new government?
T: Yeah.  From God.

Teddy malapropisms:
shoulder = shurdle
sauerkraut = sourcrap

C: I can't get my coat unzipped
T (stricken): It will be on him forever!

T: When I grow up, I'm gonna buy a Camaro or a Mustang.
C: If he can afford it.
T: Yeah, I can afford a Camaro.
C: Camaros are pretty expensive.
T: OK, then I'll get a Mustang.
C: Mustangs are still pretty expensive.  Why don't you just go with a Chrysler 300?

After he presented mommy & daddy with keychains with his self-portrait on them:
T: "Mom, if you miss me today, you can look at your keys.  And then you won't."

T: A dentist is an eye doctor.
C: No, an eye doctor is not a pediatrician.
C: Dad, what’s an eye doctor called?
J: An ophthalmologist.
T: A dentist is a teeth doctor, right, Charlie?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Overheard 2011 Runners up Volume 1

It's that time of year again.  We've sent out our Christmas letter with the best of the best funny or surprising boy quotes in it.  As in past years, there was more there than we could fit.  Here are some that were nearly good enough to make the cut.

Explaining that his belly stopped hurting:
T: It said, “Oh!  I guess the kid doesn’t like this.”  And it turned back easy.

When the subject of marriage came up (extended version, longer than in the Christmas letter)
T: I’m probably going to live with some dudes when I grow up.
J: Which dudes?
C: Probably Rowan.
T: Rowan has a cut-off toe.

On a schedule conflict between a friend’s birthday party and the Harvard-Yale game:
P: I think a friend’s party is more important than a football game.
C: But this isn’t just a football game.  It’s a traditional Ivy League rivalry.  It’s been going on since the beginning of college football, and this is like the 143rd time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

As You Like It As You've Never Seen It

Charlie had a very cool opportunity this fall to perform in the Creative Dramatics program at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.  His school and a suburban school got together, did a home-and-home series of practices ("Their school is so big, and it's just all on one level; there are no stairs at all.") and practiced at the Public's O'Reilly Theater downtown.  Last Saturday, they finally performed.  

The show was an adapted script of As You Like It. The Public will perform that later in their season.  Each kid had a brief speaking part.  Charlie's was among the first.  The video below is too long for the Internet, but if you're chairbound and can't do anything else, you might enjoy watching the whole thing.  The suburban school only had one boy in their group.  I'm proud of our urban arts magnet that so many boys - including some of Charlie's best pals - participated.  Early on, before I knew much about this program, I asked Charlie if he liked it, and he said "Well, yes, because it's basically all girls."  Oh, we're going there already in fourth grade?  Actually, looking back, that sounds right on time.

With his introduction to the story through this program, we've decided to take Charlie to the big, real production of As You Like It when it happens.  He's excited about that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Unexpected Emotions at the School Holiday Concert

Our fourth-grader played in his first holiday band concert at school tonight. When I tell you that I felt certain emotions at an elementary school band concert, you might think that I mean nostalgia or joy.  You might also ask if boredom is an emotion; the concert was a mercifully-brief 83 minutes.

Unfortunately, I felt grief and preemptive worry for Charlie's black male classmates.  The concert kicked off with the school's locally-famous drumming group playing together.  Each player drumming his or her beat contributes to an impressively complex and polished cadence.  These kids know what they're doing; they drum every morning at morning assembly.  Front and center, a group of fourth and fifth grade boys anchored the drumming group.  All but one of them were African American.  Their faces looked beautiful.  They exuded such competence and confidence, especially the one leader who took cues from the music teacher and artist-in-residence and communicated changes to the rest of the drummers.  They laughed and smiled and focused and exhibited showmanship.  They looked innocent and sweet.

While I watched, them, though, I worried for them.  I know they come from all different backgrounds and that some of them will be better positioned to succeed in life than my sons.  I also know, however, that more than likely, the road to accomplishment in life for any one of them will be much harder than it is for my two little white boys.  They will have to overcome prejudice and assumptions.  They'll be less likely to get second chances and even first chances at certain things.  The likelihood that any one of them might end up in jail is way higher than the likelihood that one of my sons will.

I try to take solace in the fact that they attend an integrated school (about 2/3 African American, most of 1/3 White and a sprinkling of Asians and Latinos) with a dynamic African American principal with a Ph.D.  I try to take solace in the fact that being young and male and black in this country in 2011 should afford more safety and opportunity in life than being young and male and black 60 years ago.  My solace falters, though, through everything I know about where things still stand in our society.  I pray that the potential I saw in Charlie's classmates tonight can overcome the many barriers they will confront.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Haiku: Self-pics

When your arm is in
the picture, it looks like you
don't have any friends.

Friday, December 9, 2011


We just added a new grace to our rotation before dinners.  We got it from a Dennis the Menace cartoon quoting a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem.  Of course.  Where do you get your graces?

Families say grace all different kinds of ways.  I grew up on the evangelical, theoretically free-form grace.  I say theoretically free-form because liturgy creeps in whether we choose it or not.  Individuals and groups establish rhythms and repeat phrases.  So, although we didn't have prescribed prayers, as each person prayed, they tended to thank for and ask for the same things habitually.

Now that we have kids, we pray a short rotation of regular graces.  The greatest hit, of course, is God is Great.  There are others, including an express grace.  More on that later. 

The new grace is:
For each new morning with its light
For rest and shelter of the night
For health and peace
For love and friends
For everything thy goodness sends
Father in heaven
We thank thee

Ol' Emerson stopped after the list.  The Church of the Brethren added the Father in heaven part, and we think it gives the whole enterprise the appropriate meaning.  And yes, as you know (admit it!), this was the Dennis the Menace cartoon on the Sunday before Thanksgiving this year, showing scenes of family and Thanksgiving goodness.

We also pray the full God is Great:

God is great, God is good
And we thank Him for our food
By His hands, we all are fed
Give us Lord our daily bread.

I include that one here because, as I said, it's the greatest hit of family graces.  Also, though, two people have said to us this fall that they'd never heard the second two lines.  I thought that was the international standard.  What do you know?  My brother and his wife are raising their kids to say "Thank you Lord for daily bread", which sounds a lot more grateful and trusting than our demand.  Oh well.  God is Great has a way of just being there, but it's actually a very solid, theological prayer.  We start by talking about God, not us and acknowledging his nature as both powerful and good.  We show gratitude, understanding that He provides for us.  We don't ask for too much - as in the Lord's Prayer - just bread for today.

Until Emerson, our most elegant grace came to us source unknown but probably Episcopal in nature:
For food and homes and loving care
For all that makes the world so fair
We thank thee, Heavenly Father.

That's a good one, and people who haven't heard it before ask about it and try to remember it.

Perhaps our longest grace, I learned at a Salvation Army boys' home in Malaysia where I did a short-term mission in college.  It was chanted quick-time in 6-17-year-old Malay accented English with a very specific rhythm:
Thank you for the food we eat
Thank you for the world so sweet
Thank you for the birds that sing
Thank you Lord for everything.  Amen.

It doesn't look that long written out.  In Malaysia, the prayer gathered speed as it went, so "Amen" sounded like the fourth and fifth syllables of "everything'.

Finally, our "express grace" when dinner prep has taken too long, or we need to go somewhere right after dinner is this:
For every cup and plateful,
Lord, make us truly grateful.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Trevor, you have to at least taste these Lucky Charms...

Blair's Lucky Charms (Close Up)
Flickr: Laffy4K
"Trevor, you have to at least take a bite of these Lucky Charms," said my sister-in-law to her then pre-school son in one of the most surreal parenting moments I've ever witnessed.  Born in Hong Kong and visiting his great-grandparents' house in Cincinnati for a holiday, my nephew had never tasted the magically delicious cereal that was a Cincinnati family tradition.  Children can be oddly picky, and my nephew put his mother in the very strange position of forcing him to try a sugary cereal in the same manner she might use in the case of brussels sprouts.

I thought about that moment earlier this week when I forced my five-year-old to taste Cool Whip(TM).  He's rounding the corner from being extremely picky to cleaning his plate at dinner occasionally.  Horizons beyond beige food are opening up.  When he told me that he didn't like Cool Whip, i thought "Pish posh!  This child doesn't even know what Cool Whip is!"  It's rarely in our house, actually.  We usually only acquire it when we're planning to make a jello mold (yum!).  I just knew that he would like it.  What does scripture say about people, though we are evil, knowing how to give good gifts to our children?  He tasted it and made a face like it was mayonnaise that had been left in a car on the fourth of July.  I laughed my way through the shock and let him spit it out on a plate.  I have to think that in other circumstances in which he had not already made up his mind that he wasn't going to like it, he would have enjoyed artificial whipped cream.  Call me crazy.

Just a few days before, however, I'd been in the exact same position.  When a family friend came by to take the kids to see the new Muppet movie, Teddy protested that he hated Muppets and didn't want to go.  Our friend, a professional counselor of children, said "if he doesn't want to go, he doesn't have to".  After asking her to give us a minute, I delivered a surreal speech about how I'd lived a lot longer than him and knew for a fact that he would enjoy himself at that movie.  The rousing conclusion can be paraphrased "You are going; put your shoes on."   Long story short there: He went.  He loved it.  He made no move to acknowledge my sagacity.

What do you do when your child resists something you know he/she will find awesome if he/she gives it a chance?

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Onion gets it

This Onion article drips with the Competent Parent ethos.   

Tip of the quill to Wooter for pointing it out.