Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books of '16: Stay-Aways

In my annual series, I tell you which books I really disliked this year.  Fortunately, I liked a lot of the books that I read in 2016.  In fact, I have no non-fiction books to ward you away from.  My public service will be to recommend that you don't read a Pulitzer Prize winning novel from nearly a hundred years ago.  Also, some honorable mention stinkers.  Dishonorable mentions?

Worst of the Year: Fiction

Alice Adams, Booth Tarkington, 1921

Alice Adams is a bleak book that I would never have read absent my goal of reading all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction.  That project sometimes has me dipping back into the deep past for a title like this.  Tarkington won in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons, a story that captured the moment when a family's grip on power in its town gets overwhelmed by the growth and progress of the town and the culture.  That story had shadows but not like the delusional shadows of the striving Alice Adams and family in this book.  Reading about people being deceitful can be stressful.  Reading about people deluding themselves while deceiving others is downright squicky.  I will say that it's no wonder Tarkington won the 1922 prize for this novel.  It both captures a moment in the culture and feels modern enough now that it must have really appeared ahead of its time when it was originally published.  Unfortunately, a depressing and unsettling book is a depressing an unsettling book. Hollywood liked, it too; it's been made into a movie twice - once in the same year it was published and later in a more well-known version with a young, dewy Katherine Hepburn playing the title role.

Honorable Mentions
Bucky F*cking Dent, David Duchovny (whom I love), 2016
Shampoo Planet, Douglas Coupland (whom I adore), 1992

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Butter Chex Ice Cream - Third Quarter

I hope you're sitting down.  In this data update, I shall reveal that the only thing that goes on sale at my grocery store more rarely than butter is Chex cereal.  It's gonna be 'uge.

 Multiple brands attempt to manipulate shoppers into pulling the trigger on ice cream way more frequently than the store does with its own brand.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Pirates Predictions: 2016 Wrap-up

Unlike last season, when the most optimistic among us (Charlie) was closest to the final win prediction, this year, pessimism wins. Paige predicted a solid winning season, but she predicted the least solid winning season among us.  Everyone except Dad has won this contest at least once in our six years of officially competing.  Next year is my year.  I feel it.  Also, the Pirates year.  If, you know, the Cubs decide to stop playing baseball.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Butter Chex Ice Cream - Second Quarter Update

Still tracking prices on a bundle of three items: store-brand butter, Chex cereal and ice cream.  The big excitement in the second quarter was when my main grocery store was reorganizing its products and therefore sold ice cream tubs and novelties for $1.50.  I should maybe not count it in the index, but then I wouldn't get to tell you how exciting it was to buy ice cream sandwiches and Klondike bars and rocket pops for $1.50.

Interestingly, some of the name brand ice creams exceed the store brand in instances in the first half of the year in which they have been the cheapest offering.  Perhaps that's not interesting.  Perhaps I'm writing this only for myself.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Pirates Predictions - Mid-2016 Update

Well, none of us thought that the Pirates would exceed - or even meet last year's win total.  It turns out that after a very inconsistent first half, they didn't even meet the lowest prediction a member of our family made.  Here's to a better second half with young gun starters, the real Andrew McCutchen and continued magic from All-Starling Marte.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Introducing the BCI Index

After a holiday party discussion about when certain commodities go on sale, I got a hankering to collect real data to back up my intuition.  Oh, and I have intuition.  For instance, baking commodities - flour, butter, cake mixes - go on sale during Thanksgiving week, early December and, to a lesser extent, around Easter.  This seems counter-intuitive in that the stores clearly know that people concentrate their baking around these dates.  Wouldn't it be wise to jack up prices?  Apparently, they believe that price elasticity also goes up along with the baking impulse.  They need to force the vague thought about baking into action by enabling us to save x percent on pumpkin filling.

Perhaps less well known is that Chex go on sale before the super bowl.  Why?  Chex mix.  Same reason as above.

So, on my shopping trips this year, I chose three items - store brand butter, Chex and the cheapest ice cream - and monitored prices at my grocery store, which is the rust belt Appalachian powerhouse Giant Eagle.  Below are the trends in the inaugural CBI (Chex, Butter, Ice Cream) Index, with high and low prices marked.  Note the Chex super bowl dip and the Easter butter dip.  

Butter averaged $3.91 per pound. Chex averaged $3.75 for a standard 12-ounce box of gold-standard Corn Chex.  The cheapest ice cream (er, frozen dairy dessert - why?) averaged $2.96 per 1.5 quart.  

Here are the first quarter trends:

Also, for anyone interested in the trend of what ice cream brand was cheapest week to week, here's that data:

Sunday, April 3, 2016

2016 Pirates Predictions

In 2015, Charlie lead the way in both optimism and accuracy.  This year, he shows just as much optimism by predicting only a 2-win dropoff from last year.  I have never had the closest prediction.  Paige and Teddy have each won once, and Charlie three times.  You are now equipped to wager.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Two Recent Milestones

After months of it seeming inevitable, somewhere between the New Year and St. Patrick's
After the second-tallest person in our family's
first soccer match.
Day, it happened: Charlie got taller than his mother.  They hung around at even height (or too close to call) for a while.  His Competent Mother seemed reluctant for this milestone to arrive. 

It's right, though, that children get taller than their parents.  It's one of those subtle signs of the health and prosperity that is easy to take for granted.  We got an objective measurement while at the home of friends who keep a t-square near their family measuring post in the kitchen.  Charlie is a half-inch taller than Paige, which makes him - as you can see - not much shorter than yours truly.  He's coming for me.

The second milestone we reached - again after a long period of waiting and observation - is Teddy moving out of a booster seat.  No photographic evidence to share, but he's finally tall enough that the seatbelt doesn't come across his neck in that very dangerous way.  He might have attained that height 3-4 months before we definitively tested; he's no slouch in the growth spurt department.

He'd gotten self-conscious about being a fourth-grader in a booster seat.  Sorry, kid.  Your parents love you and want to keep you safe.  No booster seats in the car feels momentous.  Heck, it's only been 13 1/2 years that we've had at least one version of a car seat in our car.  More than half our marriage.  More than three presidential terms.

A family at church that is not done making babies put out a call a week after we retired Teddy's seat to borrow a booster seat as their dominoes of booster-eligible kids just keep moving through the ranks.  Just like that, it went from in the car to out of the car to out of our house and our lives.  We told them to keep it.  We're not booster seat people anymore.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Books of '15: Recommendations

Since September, anytime anyone has asked for a book recommendation, I have enthusiastically stumped for the non-fiction book of 2015 that I will discuss in detail below.  There were other challengers, but that one made it to the top of the heap.  On the other hand, I must say that of the 10 works of fiction that I read this year, I only assigned my top rating "highly recommended" to two of them.  One of them gets the nod here, but I just have to ask: what's up with all of the disappointing fiction out there?

Best of the Year: Non-Fiction

A Kim Jong-Il Production; The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, & a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, Paul Fischer, 2015

A book that includes the word "extraordinary" in its subtitle ought to deliver, and this one does.  Kim Jong-Il loved movies and wanted North Korea to rival the world leaders in filmmaking.  Unable to create an indigenous film industry that was up to his standards, he kidnapped South Korea's best actress and best director to use them to create films in North Korea.  Any story out of the hermit kingdom is very difficult to research, but Fischer did exhaustive research.  What's more impressive is that he tells the story in a gripping way.  Some creative non-fiction authors can't get over the hump of not showing their work.  Fischer tells this story with cinematic detail.  It's just amazing.  If you read nothing else this year, read this book. 

Honorable Mentions: Non-Fiction
The Corner; A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, David Simon and Ed Burns, 1997
Against Football; One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond, 2014
How About Never?  Is Never Good for You?; My Life in Cartoons, Bob Mankoff, 2014

Best of the Year: Fiction

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, 2008 - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2009

When this won the Pulitzer Prize, it had its moment on my social media feed.  I remember people being excited about the book, and I remember not being able to get a copy at the library.  I just parked it on my list of books to read and waited until the furor died down.  It died down enough that I could not only get it out of the library but also renew it enough times to finish it while reading other books.  I seem to have left my book monogamy ways behind me, at least for now. 

But to the book itself, this is a loose collection of short stories with the Olive Kitteridge character as a throughline connector.   I"ve become jaded to the short story form in general (too many seem to rely on the supernatural to advance plot).  Also, as the satirical Lit-Crit Hulk Twitter feed (possibly defunct) said "HULK SMASH TREND OF HIP NOVELISTS WRITE 'LINKED' SHORT STORIES AND CALL IT NOVEL. YOU WANT WRITE SHORT STORIES, FINE. IT NOT A FUCKING NOVEL."  Refreshingly, Strout does not rely on the supernatural to move her stories forward.  Also, she strikes a nice balance between introducing new characters and vignettes while keeping enough of the core team together that the reader cares all the way through.  I'm a sucker for big arc of life literature, and Olive Kitteridge fits that mold, although we only really get to know Olive as she gets older.  Strout's writing is not only perceptive, descriptive and humane.  It also feels important. 

Worth the hype, amazingly. 

Honorable Mention: Fiction
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng, 2014

Happy reading!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Books of '15: Anti-Recommendations

Having never come up with a good antonym to "recommendations," I persist in calling these warnings "anti-recommendations."  Perhaps I should adopt the betting lingo of "stay-aways."  Bettors call a game that makes dumb people wager on it but offers little chance of winning a "stay-away."  How about this: I recommend that you stay away from these books that I read in the past year.  Life's too short.

As usual, most all of the 22 books I read this year, I hear about on Fresh Air.  Via the podcast, I listen to every minute episode except the repeats and the segments about jazz.

Worst of the Year: Non-fiction

The Skeleton Crew; How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases, Deborah Halber, 2014

Deborah Halber's interview on Fresh Air was fascinating.  Deborah Halber's material - volunteer investigators tracking down leads in cold cases through the use of online databases of them - really drew me to want to learn more after her interview.  Deborah Halber's book does not deliver on these promises.  Rather than focus on the really fascinating part - the cases - she focuses on the slightly unhinged people who give up their free time and marriages and career progress to try to solve them.  She focuses on the pissing wars these people get into over status in online forums and other barely-meaningful properties.  Halber hits her stride a little bit in the fourth fifth of the book, but then she disappoints with a "who cares?" ending.  There's maybe enough for an in-depth magazine article here, but apparently not enough for a book.  It's Halber's first book, so it may be her inexperience.  On the other hand, it may be that the promise of this cluster of stories didn't get delivered when she dove in.  She had to write what was left in her notebook, which was not as interesting as an episode of Forensic Files

Worst of the Year: Fiction

The Giver, Lois Lowry, 1993

Sometimes, a worst of the year book disappoints by failing to fulfill expectations.  Other times, a book flat out makes me angry.  Take this steaming pile of misanthropy, for example.

Lois Lowry must hate children, or possibly all people.  Now, that's harsh language for the author of the impeccable A Summer to Die, but to be fair, in that book, there's a dying childThe Giver's dystopian hell made me angry and confused all at once.  We read this for family bedtime reading, and I soldiered through it because the whole family was reading it.  I also, though, dearly hoped (and expected) that Lowry would eventually explain why the neutered, colorless, feelingless society would have been created in the first place.  Alas, (spoiler alert spoiling an absence of something), it never comes.  Things just happen in the unnamed community, or rather, they happened a long time ago, and the characters we meet inhabit this totally messed up world.  No doubt, The Giver is a comment on something, but God knows what.  Maybe air conditioning.