Monday, December 31, 2012

Books of '12: anti-recommendations

Before I get to the books I enjoyed this year, let me pause and warn you against some books I really didn't like for various reasons.

Worst of the year: novella

Train Dreams, Dennis Johnson, 2011

What is wrong with the short story form?  Why must all short fiction depend on magical events to drive the plot sooner or later?  I'd heard lots about Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, and right on the front cover, it says "Winner of the National Book Award".  But that's Johnson, not this book.  He won it in 2007 for Tree of Smoke.  This book starts out normal and interesting, the tale of a small life lived quietly in western Canada.  Then, for no apparent reason, late in the book turns to this dreamlike, magical plotting that just pissed me off.  Don't read it, unless you go in for that sort of thing.

Worst of the year: newspaper serial mystery

44 Scotland Street, Alexander McCall Smith, 2005

I got duped into reading this by one of those enticing publisher ads in the Atlantic.  It was actually for a later book in what developed into a series of "Scotland Street" novels.  This book actually started life being serialized in The Scotsman newspaper.  The introduction, explaining how that came to be and what the process was like, might be the most interesting part of the book.  Maybe I just don't "get" mystery novels, or maybe this is a bad one.  Maybe the form - short daily installments that had to move the story forward - makes for a terrible novel overall.  Maybe Alexander McCall Smith is a literary dilettante not worth my time.  Maybe it's a combination.  I hated this stupid book, and nobody anywhere should ever read it again.  It was full of plot cul-de-sacs not followed up upon and unlikeable characters, enlivened only by sitcom plot manipulation.  Blech. 

Worst of the year: memoir

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver, 2007

Ugh.  Barbara Kingsolver.  Having subscribed to a community-supported agriculture farm for over a decade, I was interested in Barabara Kingsolver's family's experiment with eating locally-grown food for a year.  I borrowed this book from my boss a long time ago and had not managed to read it.  Maybe it's because I knew that Barbara Kingsolver - so popular with some - would drive me absolutely bats.  I remembered that my boss finished this book angry and confused that she'd been told for years that organic dining would save us all.  Now, it turns out if it's organic but from far away, it might as well have been pesticidally factory farmed.  Kingsolver loves her own writing most of all and her personal virtues second best.  It's enough to make the reader puke.  I can see her finishing a sentence and then stepping back to admire it, polish it with a white cloth and then move on. An example: I'm glad I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I'd heard a lot about it, and it's interesting to learn what it takes to really eat locally even for just a year. But then I come upon this description of her daughter with clementines:

"No matter where I was in the house, that vividly resinous orangey scent woke up my nose whenever anyone peeled one in the kitchen. Lily hugged each one to her chest before undressing it as gently as a doll. Watching her do that as she sat cross-legged on the floor one morning in pink pajamas, with bliss lighting her cheeks, I thought: Lucky is the world, to receive this grateful child. Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing."

Too precious by half for the likes of me. And it gets in the way. Her sanctimony clouds the narrative and her worthy points.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Overheard 2012: Runners Up

Not every cute/funny/perceptive thing the boys say in a year gets captured in our Christmas Card insert "Overheard" sheet.  Some choice morsels that didn't make the cut for 2012:

While C cracked his knuckles:
Jeff: Is Charlie allowed to crack his knuckles?
Paige: I don’t like it.
Charlie: It doesn’t give you laryngitis in your fingers!

J: Today’s a day when I wish I had my beard.
Teddy: Why?
J: Because it keeps my face warm.
T: I don’t have anything to keep me warm.  I’m just a kid.

C: Is it possible to play paper football professionally?

Charlie learned he was born in the year of the horse, which should make him rich & famous:
Teacher: You know what that means – the girls like you.
C: That hasn’t been working out so well for me, so far.

Lecturing T not to joke about people dying:
J: It would be a very bad thing for our family if Mommy died.
C: Yes, because then Daddy wouldn’t be able to support us.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Found: terrific parent poem

This was published in One of America's Great Newspapers on Saturday.  I thought it was just terrific.


by Mary Soon Lee

If I could only say
ten words today,
I wouldn't tell you
to eat your broccoli,
or inquire why there's purple ink
all over your feet.

Instead, I would lift you up
and lay my cheek
against your tangled hair
and say:
I love you;
I will always love you.
Always. Always.

But today I have
such a multitude of words to offer --
such an unrestricted store of
commands, questions, answers, anecdotes,
exclamations, explanations, exasperation,
advice, admonishments, adulation --
that I might quite easily forget
the ten words
I want to say.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Haiku: Education Funding

The wise stifle coughs
while counting their schools' box tops
for education.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Explaining Age Six

My first grader's teacher sent home some pages from a book called Yardsticks by Chip Wood (didn't catch the punniness of the author's name until just now).  The book explains child development milestone, especially how they manifest in the classroom and in the child's approach to schoolwork.  Mrs. P. sent home the pages for ages six and seven, and I found the the age six descriptions highly reassuring.  Teddy seems exactly on track with they yardsticks provided here.

A few excerpts:
"The importance of friends now rivals the importance of parents and teachers in the child's social development.  Classrooms full of six year olds are busy, noisy places.  Talking, humming, whistling, bustling are the order of the day.

"'ndustrious' describes the overall behavior at six.   S/he is now as interested in school work as spontaneous play.  Children delight in cooperative projects, activities and tasks.  No job is too big, no mountain too high.  However, their eyes can be bigger than their stomachs or skills, and sixes risk and overpowering sense of inadequacy and inferiority as they tackle new frontiers.  Teachers and parents need to remember that, at this age, the process is more important than the product."

For a parent focused on achievement and competence, that last sentence and the whole notion of new ambition in my six-year-old were helpful reminders.  Spelling comes, eventually.

Finally, the narrative closes with a statement whose superlative tone struck me:

"The eagerness, curiosity, imagination, drive and enthusiasm of the six year old is perhaps never again matched in quantity or intensity during the life span."

Wow.  OK.  Savor those qualities and do not quash.  Savor those qualities and do not quash.  Six - like every age - passes so quickly.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Haiku: Now that's good looking

My son's good-looking,
but he's not good at looking.
Dude!  Your hat's right here!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday Haiku: First Base?

I still like it when
she holds my hand, even if
it's just to warm hers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wednesday Chart: Pirate win prediction results

I know I usually post charts on Mondays, but as they say, it's Monday somewhere.

As is so often the case, Paige was right.  She nailed the Pirate win prediction exactly.  A winning season must wait at least another year.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tasty Spam

If all of my spam comments were like this one, I would just write my blog in such a way as to maximize spam comments.

Friday, August 17, 2012

How I know my son likes his camp counselor

Charlie's cabin, with counselor Ben

So, we dropped Charlie off for camp on Sunday, and we pick him up tomorrow.  It's his first trip to sleepaway camp, and we're grateful for the eCamp service that does two things.  We can send him emails that get printed and distributed at mail call, and the camp posts photos of each days activities.  Comb through several hundred photos of several hundred kids, and you can ID yours to get proof that he/she is still alive.

We met Charlie's counselor, Ben, when we dropped him off and signed him in.  I felt a surprising surge of anxious emotion when we actually hugged the boy goodbye and walked to the parking lot.  After all, we believe we can trust this Christian camp to treat him well, but we don't really know anyone there.  We weren't able to arrange for him to go during a week when he has a buddy there.  And I never had to go to camp alone; my twin brother was always in my cabin (for good and ill).  When I saw Charlie in a picture from late in his camp week, I felt reassured that he at least likes his counselor.  I deduce that from the fact that when we met Ben, he had his baseball cap on backwards.  In every photo we've seen of Ben, he has his cap on backwards.  He may not be aware that a hat can be worn with the bill in the front.  When I spied Charlie playing a big group game, his cap was backwards.  I can't remember the last time I saw him wearing his cap backwards at home.  He clearly wants to emulate the recent college graduate who herds him and his cabin-mates around.  I hope that means he's a good guy who's made Charlie - a new kid - feel at home.
Offense wins games.  Defense wins championships.

Of course, Charlie feels at home just about everywhere, which is one thing that makes him an awesome kid.  We didn't deeply fear that he would have a bad week.  It's very likely that he's made lots of new friends and thrown himself in whole hog.  My apprehension at leaving him, though, derived not just from thinking about his phyiscal safety far from home.   He's headed into fifth grade, and children aren't necessarily nice people.  Would he - a game, intense, skinny kid with glasses and a short haircut - fit in with the under-armor-sporting, flat-brim hat, Bieber-haircut suburban kids who are clearly the cool crew at this camp?  Has he finally gotten to an age where being eager and sensitive and warm will enable his feelings to get hurt more?  Middle school looms.

One final note in what has become a long dispatch from a first-time sleepaway camp parent: Teddy has reacted to Charlie's absence in a variety of ways.  He envied Charlie going to camp when he wasn't.  He has grieved the lack of his consistent playmate.  At the same time, he has relished being able to choose how to play both by himself and with the babysitter and his parents.  He has enjoyed choosing what to play on the Wii without his bossy brother dictating terms.  Bedtime has bewitched a few times.  One night, he came out crying after getting into bed.  He couldn't fall asleep without Charlie there; they've shared a room his whole life.  I asked him if he wanted to email Charlie, and he said yes (thanks, eCamp!).  Through tears, he dictated, and I typed.  When he bawled "I want you.", I said that people usually say "I miss you."  He agreed to that edit.  "What else?", I asked.  "I hope you're having a good time." he said, which I found to be a very loving thing to say, even if it is formulaic.  "What else?"  "That's it."  He went off to bed.  Their reunion tomorrow should be very interesting.  I wonder if Teddy will start wearing his hat backwards.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Warmup Exercise

We just assembled the pile of stuff to pack for Charlie's first week at sleepaway camp.  Why does it feel like tomorrow we'll be assembling a much larger pile for his departure for college?