Friday, December 31, 2010

Books Read in 2010 - Part 3

And so we reach the end of 2010’s books.

No wonder I’m always tired.


The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

In a North America long removed from today, The Capital rules the twelve districts with iron, cruelty and hunger. And every year, as a reminder of their subordination, each district must send two tributes – one boy, one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18 – to play in the Hunger Games. Only one tribute makes it out of the arena alive. When Katniss Everdeen impulsively substitutes for her sister and becomes a tribute, we follow her through the Games. This is another in what is apparently the golden age of Young Adult fiction that we live in – well written, occasionally moving, and utterly without any creature that sparkles.

Catching Fire (Suzane Collins)

Katniss Everdeen is back and just as much in the dark about events as ever in this middle volume of the Hunger Games trilogy. This book suffers from the main mechanical problem of most second volumes – how to pick up a story and then drop it off without either beginning or ending anything of real significance – as well as from a lot of writing directed specifically at its primary audience of teenaged girls, of which I am not one. It’s still an engaging story, as Katniss is pulled back into the Games and the political intrigue that surrounds them, but there are times when you just want to whack her with a dead fish and tell her to stop being so dense. Nevertheless, a good book and one that leaves you interested in where the story goes in the next volume.

Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)

The Hunger Games comes to a crashing end as the rebellion against the Capitol rises to its conclusion. And in the middle, caught by her successes as much as her failures, is Katniss Everdeen. Obtuse, emotional, and by her own definitions pretty much a failure, she still manages to do what she has to do, even if it may or may not square with what she intends or wants to do. Collins has the grace to end this stark series on a quiet, reflective and bittersweet note rather than the triumphalist blaze of glory she could so easily have employed, and the story is more powerful for it.

I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett)

Terry Pratchett has said that he does his best writing for a YA audience, and this book is proof of that, although it does not feel like a YA book. Tiffany Aching is a witch, and witches in Discworld are the people who do the things that need to be done that others don’t want to do. And for this they are often hated. When the Cunning Man, a manifestation of ancient hatreds, comes after Tiffany, things get ugly fast. Pratchett is unusual in the SF/F genre because his works come with such a clear moral framework – humane, humanist, warm, skeptical, and tolerant. “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things,” he says. This is the best Discworld book since Nightwatch.

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Charles Pierce)

This book follows much the same lines of argument as Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason (a book he often refers to), though with a sharper focus on modern American politics and a sharper wit in general. Where Jacoby was calmly analytical, Pierce is an angry and sarcastic man on a mission – to rescue the US from its self-imposed exile in Idiot America, where truth is measured by how many units a belief can sell, how many people subscribe to it, and how fervently they believe it, independent of whether this belief has any factual merit or not. With chapters on Intelligent Design (including the Creationism Museum and the Dover PA court decision), Terry Schaivo, the “War on Terror,” the torture porn of “24,” and global climate change, and references to James Madison, Masons, and the inimitable American crank Ignatius Donnelly, Pierce lambastes the current American preference for nonsense, “faith-based” realities and other hokum and laments the transformation of the honorable American crank into the mainstream of American politics. We have abandoned “our duty to treat the ridiculous with ridicule,” he writes, and we are poorer for it.

The Carpet People (Terry Pratchett)

This is Pratchett’s first book – one that was published when he was 17 – but one he reworked when he was in his 40s. Even with the rework it is a bit rough, but it shows all of the traits that would become Pratchett hallmarks – the clever humor, the humanistic moral framework, and so on. And it obviously leaves room for a sequel. Deep inside the Carpet there are tribes, villages and empires, and all is not well.

Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Christopher Moore)

One of Moore’s early books, but still full of his trademark screwball sense of humor, profaneness, and humanity. Tucker Case is a glamorous failure of a pilot who, with his navigator, finds himself on a remote island in the Pacific, surrounded by the Shark People (a cargo cult culture), two charlatans, a squad of Japanese guards, the ghost of a WWII bomber pilot, and a talking fruit bat named Roberto. And it just gets weirder from there.

Coyote Blue (Christopher Moore)

One of Moore’s weirder novels, which is saying something, especially since it seems on the surface to be such a straightforward story. Where Island of the Sequined Love Nun wears its weirdness proudly on its sleeve, Coyote Blue submerges it underneath the events. Sam Hunter, insurance salesman, started out life as Samson Hunts Alone before fleeing the Crow Reservation to start a new life. But a girl named Calliope, her baby boy Grubb, and the trickster god Coyote all conspire to bring him back in ways that even the god sometimes doesn’t understand. Quick, funny, and redemptive.

My Movie Business (John Irving)

A wry, generous, aphoristic and often funny look at the movie business from a writer trying to get a movie made using his own script based on his own book, intermingled with family history, thoughts on the craft of writing, and general observations on humanity, this is a book that manages to be densely packed and breezy at the same time. The Cider House Rules is one of Irving’s best novels, and a wonderful movie as well (though the book was written and published before the movie was released, giving it a certain surreal quality since we know how it turns out and he doesn’t), and Irving’s take on the differences between the book and the movie is worth the time. Anything by John Irving is worth the time.

It All Changed in an Instant: More Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. (Larry Smith, Rachel Fershleiser, eds.)

“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” So goes the most famous six-word memoir in literary history, written by Ernest Hemingway, supposedly in response to a bar bet that he couldn’t tell a complete story in six words. He did, and now it has become a minor cultural trend. This is the fourth book of such things that the authors have compiled. Most of the entries submitted through Smith Magazine strive to be amusing. Some are poignant. Others rise to the sublime. It’s a quick read – I zipped through this while sitting in the library waiting for my daughters to find books they wanted to check out – but an amusing one.

1945 (Robert Conroy)

A somewhat didactic novel that gets better as it goes along, in large part because the info-dumps get less common, this novel explores the question of what would have happened at the end of WWII had the atomic bombs been dropped and the Japanese still not surrendered. The coup that tried to derail the Emperor’s pronouncement to that effect was, after all, very nearly successful, and in this book it does succeed. Conroy has done some homework for this novel – he cites a number of nonfiction books I’ve read, for example – and his answer to his own question is that the US would have had to invade Kyushu. Ultimately, in fiction as in real life, the Japanese are doomed – but Conroy does manage to hang a decent story on this peg.

Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit (Matt McCarthy)

Matt McCarthy spent four years on the worst baseball team Yale University ever fielded, but still managed to get a contract with the Anaheim Angels to pitch for their single-A farm team in Provo, Utah. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this book – it is very much in the tradition of all oddball sports books, with memorable characters, strange goings-on, and the sense of inevitable doom that you get when you realize that as a baseball fan you’ve never heard of McCarthy so you know he doesn’t become a star. But it is well written, often funny, more often reflective, and a light but fascinating look at baseball as it is practiced away from the spotlight of the Major League.

The War After Armageddon (Ralph Peters)

Yet another of my post-apocalyptic novels, though this one is focused on the apocalyptic process itself. Set in the indeterminate near future, maybe 30 years from now, this book chronicles a war in a Middle East where Israel and Iran have been nuked off the map. There are Jihadis on one side of this war, and two very different groups of Americans on the other – the US Army and Marines, on the one hand, and the Military Order of the Brothers In Christ on the other. The basic question of the book is what happens when Christian jihadis take over America, and the answers are not comforting. The author is very good at action scenes (he is a former military intelligence officer), and he pulls few punches, either in specific battles or overall message.

Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future (Will Bunch)

This was another one of those books that was hard to read simply because it’s painful to watch the same mistakes being made over and over, and you just keep hoping people will wise up and not do that but of course it’s history and it’s already happened, so they don’t. Bunch’s main point is two-fold. First, that the actual Reagan was not nearly as right-wing as he is made out to be – that he did have significant achievements during his presidency, and that almost all of them were due to a pragmatic streak that allowed him to govern from a far more moderate position than his rhetoric implied. And second, that this first point has been deliberately and carefully obscured by those who would claim his mantle. The “conservative” movement of this past decade is led by ideologues with a deep disdain for reality if it contradicts their preconceived fantasies, and by separating Reagan’s rhetoric from his reality, they seek to use him to bludgeon the rest of us into falling in line with their failed ideas.

The Portable Door (Tom Holt)

Sad sack Paul somehow manages to get hired by the prestigious London firm of J.W. Wells & Co., despite not having any idea what it is they actually do there. The work is mystifying, tedious and repetitive, and the only thing keeping him coming back is his growing love for his bony, ill-tempered and equally socially inept fellow hire, Sophie. And then they find out what it is J.W. Wells & Co. does, and it gets even weirder. This was a funny book, in a very British way, but I found myself sympathizing with put-upon, manipulated Paul and Sophie to the point where at times it was hard to read and I had to take a break.

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth (John Garth)

When we think of the writers who came out of the First World War, we tend to think of people like Wilfred Owen or Erich Remarque, but JRR Tolkien also served in that war, saw combat on the Western Front, and – like them – was a poet indelibly marked by the experience. This book, however, is oddly structured and does not really do what it sets out to do – connect Tolkien’s WWI experiences with his literary creations – until the Epilogue and its following Post-Script. Prior to that it bounces back and forth between being a narrowly focused biography of Tolkien between his Oxford student days at the beginning of the 1910s and his discharge from the British military in 1919, and a literary examination of the poetry and stories that he wrote during this time. It would have been a better book if Garth hadn’t waited until the last two chapters to make the connections between these two things clear.

The First World War (John Keegan)

A very good, thorough, basic history of the first half of the Second Thirty Years’ War, one that sets out the events and their rationales with a grim relentlessness and leaves you staggered that human beings would ever do such things voluntarily. Too few maps, but well written. If you’re looking for a single-volume overview of WWI, this is a good one.

The Great War and Modern Memory (Paul Fussell)

This is a more literary view of the First World War, focusing on the way that the war was encoded in its poetry and prose, generally (though not always) by the soldiers who fought it. Fussell – who served in the Second World War as an infantryman and later became a professor of English literature – does a marvelous job recreating the mindset of the British side of the war. From Keegan, for example, we learn the strategy, tactics and outcomes of the Battle of the Somme. From Fussell we learn that the British troops referred to it as “The Great F***-Up.” As a historian I was more interested in how he described the events themselves rather than the literary images that derived from them, and it was also interesting to keep in mind the contrast between Fussell’s “Modern Memory” of 1975 and today.

Lower Merion and Narberth: Postcard History Series (Lower Merion Historical Society)

Arcadia Press has been running this operation for years now – they approach local historical societies like the one I used to run, societies that usually have large collections of Real-Photo Postcards from the early 20th century, and get them to select a few for a book of local history. There is a standard format to fit it all into, complete with layout, and you just plug and play. And you know what? It works. If you know the area or the history, they’re fun little books. This is a nice collection of images from where I grew up (although oddly there are none from my end of the township at all, which may have something to do with the fact that the Historical Society is located on the other end), and it was fascinating to see things I remembered in images even older than that. I even learned a few things.

How to Live Safely in a Science-Fiction Universe (Charles Yu)

Charles Yu – the character, not the author – is a time machine repairman who spends an entire book wrestling with the conundrums of time travel and the complexities this introduces into his relationship with his father, who may or may not have invented the process but who is now lost. Meditative, overly analytical and just a bit too clever by half, this is a book that likes to hear itself talk but manages to be entertaining in doing so.

A Moose and a Lobster Walk Into a Bar… (John McDonald)

John McDonald is apparently a columnist in Maine, one of those “local color” guys who ply their trade everywhere in America’s newspapers. This is a collection of his columns, lightly edited into book form and purporting to give you a slice of Maine’s character through its stories. Sometimes this does not work – the first chapter, for example, is a compendium of every old shaggy dog story ever told, all of which I had heard by the time I’d graduated college, some set to music – but when he stops trying to tell jokes and just tells stories, then the book actually does do a nice job of achieving its purpose.

Waiter Rant (Steve Dublanica)

I ran into The Waiter’s blog at some point in the last few years and enjoyed it thoroughly. Not only did he have fascinating stories to tell about life in the front of the house at a relatively upscale New York restaurant, but he was a great writer as well. And then it became a book, as so many blogs seem to do when they take off. And then The Waiter lost his anonymity and became Steve Dublanica. This is what Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential would be if it were written by a waiter instead of a chef – quick, cutting, funny, human, and oddly thoughtful, though with less profanity and more reflection.

Total books read: 75
Total pages read: 25,006
Average pages/day: 68.5

Happy reading!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Books Read in 2010 - Part 2

This is part two of 2010’s reading list.

Because there is always a part two.

Part three and last tomorrow.


Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Brooke Allen)

A short, pointed book that seeks to provide a necessary corrective to the theocratical nonsense that passes for right wing political propaganda today. The United States is not a “Christian nation.” It was not founded on Christian theology. Most of the Founding Fathers were not, by modern evangelical standards, even Christian at all. Allen does a nice job of using the words of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to demonstrate this fact, obvious to those of us who know the period but apparently quite a surprise to most modern Americans.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Daniel Walker Howe)

Part of the Oxford History of the United States, this covers the tumultuous period between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War as Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and a host of others transform the US from a world recognizable to its Founding Fathers into one more recognizable to us over these three and a half decades. Howe does a masterful job of synthesizing available research and making it readable and enjoyable. Every volume in this series is worth the time to read. The Oxford History of the United States is the best general overview of American history out there. If you want a thorough introduction to any period of US history you need look no further than the relevant volume.

The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

Escaping a murderer, a toddler is taken in by the spirits of a graveyard, a motley and often fractious collection of ghosts, witches, vampires (though never explicitly labeled as such) and others. Nobody Owens ("Bod" for short) learns about the world of the living and the dead, and ultimately must face the man who killed his family and threatens his only living friend. This is an unexpectedly sweet story of love, friendship and growing up, and it makes you wish for more.

Land of Lincoln (Andrew Ferguson)

One man's quest to find Abraham Lincoln in modern America. Ferguson travels around the country looking for Lincoln in all his modern manifestations and pondering what it all means. From an opening chapter on Lincoln haters in Richmond to a long discussion of the new Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ferguson discovers that Lincoln remains a fixture in American culture.

And Another Thing (Eoin Colfer)

The sixth in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, and the first written by someone other than Douglas Adams, who died a number of years back. Colfer has a decent sense of the feel of the series and is a good writer, so this was worth reading - there are some funny bits scattered here and there, as one would expect from the author of the Artemis Fowl series - but it does feel a bit odd anyway.

The Invention of Air: A Story of Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (Steven Johnson)

A lightweight intellectual history of Joseph Priestley, one of the most influential scientists of the eighteenth century and a figure who had profound influence on the more intellectual of the Founding Fathers (Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, especially). Johnson makes an interesting argument, slotting Priestly into not only his own time but ours and deep history's as well, and the book is well worth the time, but it is breezy and aimed at a popular rather than scholarly audience.

The Age of Misrule: World’s End (Mark Chadbourn)

The gods of Celtic mythology – all of them, the good and the bad – are returning to earth. Technology is failing, the Age of Reason is over, and magic stalks Britain once more. Five people – and a sixth, who is both more and less than he seems – are set the task of keeping the dark gods from triumphing. They face two problems. First, “dysfunctional” doesn’t even begin to describe their relationships with each other. And second, when it comes to gods, “good” and “evil” are not really relevant concepts. Dark, full of action and suspense, and engaging, though occasionally grating.

The Age of Misrule: Darkest Hour (Mark Chadbourn)

Volume two of our story finds our heroes in ever-more-dangerous situations, as victories against gods so alien as to defy human comprehension turn to ashes. The group finds deep companionship but remains as dysfunctional as ever. The writing occasionally drifts into long infodumps, but the story remains compelling.

I’ll Mature When I’m Dead (Dave Barry)

A new collection of Dave Barry’s typically funny pieces, covering most of the familiar ground. If you’ve ever read any Dave Barry collections, you know pretty much what to expect here – quick, funny, and light. A nice break from the Age of Misrule, really.

American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot (Craig Ferguson)

Craig Ferguson is a very funny man with a deep self-destructive streak, both qualities being on display in this memoir. He grows up outside of Glasgow and becomes an entertainer and an alcoholic, and from there he continues until he’s the best host on late-night television and an American citizen. Bluntly honest and wryly funny, it makes me want to watch his show more often.

The Age of Misrule: Always Forever (Mark Chadbourn)

The third and concluding volume of this series, wherein Chadbourn continues to put his characters through much grief and spends a great deal of time telling instead of showing. But the story remains interesting, as the Dysfunctional Five navigate the treacherous paths of alliances with gods and confront the source of their problems in the final battle. Chadbourn's message is not subtle (technology, reason, modernity = bad; nature, emotion, tradition = good; all is possible by wishing), but he hangs an entertaining series on it and leaves obvious room for the next series.

Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Naomi Cahn and June Carbone)

An intriguing argument trying to connect family norms, political stances and economic trends, this book starts with the position that there is a “blue family” norm (older parents, fewer and later kids, high stress on education, based on equality and commitment – two virtues that can be embodied by a variety of types of individuals to form a wide variety of families) that tends to be found in “blue” areas of the political map (the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, the West Coast, urban areas and college towns), and that this can be contrasted with a “red family” norm (younger parents, more kids earlier, less educated, based on the conflation of marriage, sex and procreation and therefore limited to traditional heterosexual monogamous unions) found in “red” political areas (the South and Southwest, the Plains, and rural areas). Viewed through this lens, the authors then stake out interesting positions on contraception, abortion, divorce, and other areas of family law. The writing is typical dry academian, but the ideas are interesting, particularly their connections to the economic shifts that have occurred between 1960 and 2010. Blue families tend to be the winners in the new information economy; red families tend to be the losers. The Culture Wars follow from there.

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America (Robert Charles Wilson)

In the years following the Efflorescence of Oil, the slowly reviving United States controls most of the Americas and is embroiled in a drawn-out war with “Dutch” (or “Mitteleuropan”) forces for control of the Northwest Passage despite reverting mostly to a 19th-century level of technology. The President in New York City has to work with an aristocratic Senate, two nearly independent Armies, and a religious establishment (the Dominion) that largely controls the country from its base in Colorado Springs. Into this steps Julian Comstock – skeptic, aesthete, history buff, born soldier and commander of men, and nephew of the President who murdered his father – and his sidekick Adam Hazzard, a sturdy if naive peasant who becomes his friend, companion, and, in this book, biographer. Engaging, action-packed, often dryly humorous, elegiac and tragic, this is a surprisingly quiet book that I was sorry to see end.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)

A gentle, sad, and ultimately redemptive story where the main character appears only in the recollections of others. Told in epistolary style, the narrative centers on a British author in 1946 who finds herself drawn into the history of the Society of the title, a group formed on the Isle of Guernsey during the German occupation in WWII. It is a tale of humanity at its best and worst, of what it means to love and what it means to lose and yet win. It never hurries, it never beats you over the head with plot twists or drama, and yet this story will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

The Age of American Unreason (Susan Jacoby)

A cultural history of the decline of the ability of Americans to deal with the world in a rational manner, this book covers topics ranging from the history and impact of fundamentalist and New Age religions to the decline of scientific literacy and the rise of the politics of the sound bite. Jacoby is on firm footing in the earlier chapters when she focuses on those large trends, but toward the end when she goes on a tear about the effects of technology she runs perilously close to “get off my lawn you kids” territory (the fact that one cannot quote Aeschylus from memory is not indicative of an inability to think, for example, nor is the opposite true). Overall, however, a penetrating, well-written, and deeply disturbing book about the depths most Americans have become happy to sink to and demand others sink to as well.

The God Engines (John Scalzi)

Something of a departure from Scalzi’s usual military SF with a humanist bent and from his other SF works as well, this novella is a dark meditation on faith and how this differs from truth. In a society ruled by the representatives of The Lord, where defeated gods are enslaved and literally turned into the engines that run space ships, one ship’s captain is about to find out that everything he took for granted about his world and his God is not what he believed.

Perry et al v. Schwartzenegger et al (US District Court, Northern California, Judge Vaughn Walker).

I hesitated to put this on as a book, but since it’s actually longer than the novella The God Engines, I figured why not. And it’s my list, so there. This was the decision that overturned California’s Prop 8, which had banned gay marriages. Walker, a Reagan/Bush appointee and a conservative, based his decision squarely on the 14th Amendment, the single most important amendment to the entire Constitution. It is thorough, meticulous, and a marvelous example of the ongoing attempt to bring American practice into line with American ideals. Naturally it is vociferously opposed by the radical right of this country, which seems to think the USA is part theocracy, part authoritarian dictatorship, and all theirs. It has already been appealed and I am not optimistic of its chances of survival in the current configuration of the US Supreme Court, but one can hope.

Last Night in Twisted River (John Irving)

John Irving is one of the handful of writers whose work I will buy sight unseen, simply because they wrote it, and this is one of his best. A slow, bittersweet tale of violence, history and family, it follows the lives of Dominic and Daniel Baciagalupo from the logging camp of the title in the early 1950s (with digressions even earlier) though the early 20th century. The characters are strong, the writing is luminous and often elegiac, even in the present tense, and the book compares favorably to A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules. Plus there is an afterward by Irving defending the use of plot against post-modern denigration, and for that alone Irving should be knighted.

Monster (A. Lee Martinez)

Monster Dionysus is an Animal Control Warden, even if the animals he controls tend to be the stuff of magic and legend. They’re still pests, and they still need to be controlled by Monster and his folding paper gnome, Chester. When he runs into Judy – a grocery store clerk whose workplace was recently visited by a yeti – his life takes a more serious turn as the forces of the Universe (which seem to run to cats and old women, oddly enough) pivot on their actions. A bit thin, but full of humor and action.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: What the Famous Did That Wasn’t (Jack Lynch)

An enjoyable collection of fifty short essays on the careers that famous people have had – not just the jobs they held while working their way up, but actual careers that they often held throughout their period of fame. Some of them are surprising (Philip Glass was a plumber and a taxi driver, for example), and some of them are not (of course Franz Kafka was a lawyer for an insurance company – what else could he have possibly been?). Engagingly written and as addictive as potato chips, these essays flew by.

The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe 1648-1815 (Tim Blanning)

A marvelously-written social and political history of Europe, one that manages to be both interesting and enlightening. Blanning’s opening thirty pages on the state of roads in early-modern Europe and what that meant in the larger scheme of things is worth the price of the book alone, but he continues with sections on economics, the meaning and nature of aristocracy, warfare, and on and on. A masterful book, although there is nothing there that justifies either the title or subtitle – Blanning advances no argument, but simply provides engrossing narrative and that is enough.

Blonde Bombshell (Tom Holt)

Tom Holt is one of those British comedy writers who should be better known in the US but probably won’t be because he most unequivocally writes in the Queen’s English rather than the American version. But he writes it very well and he has a knack for humor and oddball situations. This is the story of the inhabitants of the planet Ostar – a canine race that keeps humans as pets – who decide to destroy the Earth (or “Dirt” as they insist on translating it). The story is told largely from the point of view of the bomb, an artificial intelligence originally called the Mark Two but who takes the name “Mark Twain” because he thinks it will be inconspicuous as he tries to get to know the humans before he destroys them. Comedy, as they say, ensues.

Hell to Pay: Operation DOWNFALL and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 (D.M. Giangreco)

Despite the garish title, this is a sober and sobering look at the actual planning and implications of what an invasion of Japan would have looked like. Giangreco has examined the US military’s plans and the Japanese military’s plans, compared the two, and concluded that any such invasion would have been far bloodier than most historians (and the US military) maintained. He is especially good at the logistical side of this, with chapters covering fuel, blood supplies and shipping, as well as showing how the Japanese knew precisely where and when the invasions would take place and how they prepared for it. The book is not well written and sentences, quotes, paragraphs, and even entire anecdotes are often repeated several times (ironically enough, a failing Giangreco shares with Gar Alperovitz, the historian he is most trying to rebut), but even so, if the atomic bomb and the war in the Pacific is an interest, this is a book that must be considered.

Monster, 1959 (David Maine)

The story of every 1950s B-movie horror film starring the Radioactive Monster, but without the horror and with a certain amount of sympathy for the wordless, mutated creature, this is a meditation on what is Other and what is Story, and at times a funny one.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Books Read in 2010 - Part 1

I read. It’s what I do.

And since I started this blog, I’ve been trying to keep track of the books I’ve read – mostly, it must be said, for my own enjoyment, as I’m not entirely sure who else will get anything out of these lists. Some blog posts are for the benefit of specific others, some are for general consumption, and some are just because it’s my blog and I can write what I want.

Although someone must be getting something out of this sort of thing, since the 2009 post is consistently among the most viewed of any I’ve done.

I find it odd to see what I’ve read, really. I am at a point in my life where I no longer have to read anything as assigned work, and it’s fun just to look back and see where my interests have taken me.

They take me to some weird places, when you get right down to it.

Last year I organized things into one long post, but this year that won’t work. So I’m breaking it up into manageable chunks, though your definition of manageable may differ from mine. I haven’t counted magazines, internet articles or newspapers – just books. Books are good.

So here is part one of 2010’s reading list, in order, because that’s just the kind of guy I am.


Look at the Birdie (Kurt Vonnegut)

A collection of previously unpublished Vonnegut stories, most of them fairly short and uncharacteristically upbeat until you get to the later few, where his trademark pessimism begins to emerge. Some good ones, but mostly for enthusiasts.

Shades of Grey (Jasper Fforde)

What if your place in the world was determined by how much color you could see? If you could only see one or two colors? If society itself was arranged according to a Colortocracy? Fforde's newest book is a departure from his Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series, but one full of imagination, humor and heartbreak. Edward Russett, son of a swatchman (the closest this society has to a doctor) is sent to the hinterlands to learn some humility. Thanks to Jane, a resourceful and angry Grey, he learns a lot of things, including some that the higher-ups don't want him to learn, although humility really isn't one of them. First of a trilogy.

The Gone-Away World (Nick Harkaway)

I liked this one so much I read it again. After a catastrophic war in which much of reality Goes Away, a team of adventurers is sent off on one last mission, one that goes both wrong and right. Much of the book is the story of how we get to the first chapter - a tale of school days, ninjas, revolution, sex and soldiering told in some of the most hilariously hallucinatory language ever put down on paper. One of my favorite books.

Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel (Ruth McNally Barshaw)

This is a YA book that Tabitha liked and said I should read, so I did. It's a combination of text and cartoonish drawings that together tell a lively little story about an 11-year-old girl sentenced to go camping with her cousins for a week. Nothing deep or life-altering, but well-suited for its intended audience and a pleasant book to read. Yes, there's a sequel. No, I haven’t read it.

The Company (K.J. Parker)

KJ Parker is an astonishingly good writer with an equally astonishingly bleak view of human nature. She (the name is a pseudonym, but somewhere I caught a pronoun that makes me think it's a she) writes intricately plotted and often fairly technical novels - she delves deeply into such things as social structure, military tactics and the details of making armor, swords or bows - that pull you in and keep you there. This is her tenth published book and the first that isn't part of a trilogy. A-Company, legendary figures in the late war but long since retired to disappointing lives, gathers together on an island to start new lives. Hilarity does not ensue. Well written and stark.

The American Book of the Dead (Stephen Billias)

One of the stranger "after the bomb" books out there, in that the actual nuclear war is only minimally described and mostly from the perspective of one of the missiles, this is a book that feels like it started out longer but was edited by someone with a deep sense of the absurd. Bertie Rupp suffers from a severe fear of nuclear annihilation, and the book follows his quest for a copy of The American Book of the Dead - a half-Tibetan, half-Madison Avenue compendium of slogans - while the world goes insane around him.

Looking for Jake (China Mieville)

China Mieville is one seriously twisted but eminently entertaining writer - a sort of Poe/Lovecraft/Orwell hybrid whose gritty, oddly realistic stories are set in worlds so unreal that aspects of them almost literally defy comprehension. This is a collection of short stories, most of them on the eerie to bizarre side and few with any real closure. One is set in the world of Perdido Street Station, but the rest stand alone, and all are unsettling, vivid, and thought-provoking.

The Death of Conservatism (Sam Tanenhaus)

This book is part of my ongoing project to understand the roots and trajectory of the American conservative movement as it is expressed today - to figure out where those cockroaches come from and what they are likely to do to me and mine, in other words. Tanenhaus does a very good job of showing how American conservatism is split between revanchists - "movement conservatives" focused on ideological purity, authoritarianism and oppositional spirit - and realists in the mold of Burke or Disraeli who seek to preserve social institutions while recognizing the need to make compromises and actually govern responsibly, and has been so split since the New Deal. In the years since 1968 the revanchists have won - they reached their peak with George W. Bush in 2001-2008 - and Tanenhaus argues this victory marks the death of American conservatism as a meaningful (as opposed to powerful) political entity. A sobering and infuriating look at the people who have screwed up this country so badly over the last half century and who continue to insist that their errors are your fault.

Odd and the Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman)

A charming and whimsical tale of a boy who is called upon by the Norse gods to defeat the Frost Giants and reclaim Asgard. There isn't a whole lot of suspense to it, except possibly for the how of it, but it is well told and offers a different take on the mythology.

Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party (Max Blumenthal)

An infuriatingly specific account of the venal, corrupt, theocratic, savage and autocratic leaders of the modern conservative movement in America, and one that details just how unAmerican these people are. They have no respect for the Constitution, no respect for American history and no respect for anyone or anything that doesn't conform to their narrow, bastardized version of Christianity - a version that they seek to inflict on the rest of us with all possible speed. Blumenthal has spoken with these people, attended their events, and read their writings, and he lets them horrify you in their own words. Blumenthal frames much of this with the theories of Erich Fromm, so you can take that for what it's worth. This was a book I could only read in 30pp-increments before having to take a break, otherwise I'd just end up yelling.

Scar Night (Alan Campbell)

In a city suspended by chains over an abyss, where pilgrims come to die and angels go insane, the official poisoner of the church seeks vengeance and the last of the temple angels, protected by an assassin, stands in his way. A dark, complex story where the villains and heroes are not as clear cut as they may appear. It may be significant that I started this book as a sanity break from the previous one.

Iron Angel (Alan Campbell)

The followup to Scar Night and the second volume of the Deepgate Codex, this story expands on the world described in the first book, and we discover that the struggles of Scar Night were mere opening skirmishes in a much larger, much older war between gods, angels and demons. Campbell delights in metaphysics, and his conception of Hell as a place where souls are mere raw materials, his willingness to do unspeakable things to major characters, and his vivid writing make for a dark and compelling story.

King Lear (William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare is a monument to the fact that the English language has changed dramatically in the last four hundred years, and trying to make sense of this by reading it is probably more of a task than I should have undertaken in a week when I was sick and not thinking clearly. But I wanted to read Fool (see below) and I figured I should read the original first - and despite being somewhat overeducated, even to the point of taking an entire semester of Shakespeare in high school, this was one play I'd never read. It's Lear. What else can I say?

Fool (Christopher Moore)

A typical Christopher Moore novel - perhaps more vulgar than his usual fare, but not inappropriately so. This is Moore's take on Lear, and it is laugh-out-loud funny. Told from the perspective of the Fool, naturally enough, it has Moore's trademark snappy dialogue and absurdist humor, and it follows the play from a safe distance - not quite an exact march through Shakespeare, but close enough to keep within hailing distance.

God of Clocks (Alan Campbell)

The third and concluding volume of the Deepgate Codex, and very much of a piece with the other two. A few loose ends left hanging and an ending that ties things together rather abruptly, but it carries you along for a dark and enjoyable ride through some mind-bending stuff. Well worth the time.

The Folding Knife (KJ Parker)

A typical novel from Parker in many ways – very well written, intricately plotted, bleakly realistic despite the fantastic setting, with carefully drawn characters headed inevitably for disaster. The suspense isn’t whether the characters will find a bad end in Parker’s books, but how. Basso, First Citizen of the Vesani Republic, is a man whose efforts to enrich himself almost invariably lead to the betterment of the Republic and its citizens as well. But family vengeance dogs him, and step by step it all falls apart. Parker’s novels are well worth the time, but not light reading.

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (J. G. Ballard)

Ballard was one of the leading SF writers of the mid-late 20th century, even if some of his fans find that description irritating for some reason. He branched out from that genre - certainly there are stories in this collection that don't fit - but the overall impression these stories give is definitely one of science fiction. And of the mid-20th-century middle class, with all of their concerns and worries. Ballard's stories are dystopian and generally quiet, set-piece psychological studies of humans in extenuating circumstances. They're good, but they're not 1200 pages good, and this collection perhaps would have been better sampled over time instead of read straight through.

Armageddon in Retrospect (Kurt Vonnegut)

A collection of previously unpublished short works by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the greatest American writers of all time. These are typical of his style - spare, pessimistic, and well done. Even a slight Vonnegut collection is better than most other people's best works.

The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan)

Volume One of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, this one Tabitha was eager for me to read. And you know, it's really good. Riordan has a great deal of fun playing with the mythological archetypes of ancient Greece and he's got a good sense of humor about it as well - the chapter headings alone are worth the price of admission ("Chapter 2: Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death"). The movie took a great many liberties with the book, so even if you've seen it, the book is still worth reading.

The Sea of Monsters (Rick Riordan)

Volume Two of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, this time with the demigods Percy and Annabeth and the satyr Grover joined in their quest by Tyson, an orphan cyclops, and Clarisse, another demigod ("half-blood") who generally hates them. Fast moving, nicely plotted, and full of the same deadpan humor as the first book (and similar chapter headings - "Chapter 3: We Hail the Taxi of Eternal Torment"), it moves you nicely along toward the next volume.

The Titan's Curse (Rick Riordan)

Volume Three of Percy Jackson finds our hero racing across the country to save his friend Annabeth and the goddess Artemis, even as he struggles to keep the people with him alive. Best chapter title of this volume: "Chapter 7: Everybody Hates Me But The Horse."

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Rick Riordan)

Volume Four of Percy Jackson is a bit more thoughtful than the previous ones, with the main characters dealing with jealousy, anger and the consequences of death in ways that they hadn't before. But the series retains its playful deadpan romp through both ancient Greek mythology and modern American culture despite that, and the chapter headings remain fun ("Chapter 5: Nico Buys Happy Meals For The Dead").

The Last Olympian (Rick Riordan)

The Percy Jackson series ends with a bang as Percy and the other demigods fight to save Olympus from destruction. Riordan continues to make the series deeper, darker and more thoughtful even as his humor remains playful ("Chapter 5: I Drive My Dog Into A Tree"). Love, loyalty, death, honor, vengeance and forgiveness all converge in a last epic battle - one that takes up most of the book and stays surprisingly fresh throughout. The minor characters sparkle.

Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain)

My second time through this book, and it was worth it. Bourdain’s gritty, profane, hilariously funny tour through the world of the professional chef is a masterpiece of the memoirist’s art. I can see why they gave him his own TV show after this – he has a distinctive voice. It’s a voice soaked in alcohol, f-bombs, drugs and vitriolic cynicism, but one that somehow manages to hold your attention and earn your respect anyway.

Purple and Black (KJ Parker)

An epistolary novella about friendship, betrayal and politics by one of the masters of all three. A new emperor, thrust unwillingly onto the throne by a disastrous civil war, sends his best friend to govern a far-flung province in rebellion, and as with all of Parker’s works, things are not simple nor do they end well - you know that going in, and the treat of Parker's writing is to see the precise ways in which things don't end well and the crisply written descriptions of how they go wrong.

Mercury Falls (Robert Kroese)

The Apocalypse is upon us, and it is a bureaucratic mess, full of infighting between Heaven, Hell, and an assortment of renegade factions that would make Italian politics look straightforward. Christine, a reporter for a Christian newsmagazine, Mercury, an AWOL angel, and Karl, a pathetic loser recently nominated as the Antichrist in a contest, have to make sense of it all before things fall apart forever. If you liked Good Omens (Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman), you'll like this one, and largely for the same reasons - quick wit, ridiculous situations, and a fresh take on an old theme, this was a fun book.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Demigod Files (Rick Riordan)

A collection of short stories and miscellanea connected to the Percy Jackson series. The three short stories are entertaining and do fill in a gap or two in the larger books. There are also a couple of "interviews" with the characters, some color plates of what Riordan felt the characters ought to look like (not very close to the movie versions), and assorted other things. Slight, but still fun.

The Nasty Bits (Anthony Bourdain)

A collection of articles and short pieces written for magazines and assorted other outlets, this is a fun if not particularly deep read. There's even a bit of fiction at the end. Bourdain is his usual self - curmudgeonly, obsessed with food, and at pains to present himself as edgy before puncturing his own self-created myth. A nice follow-up to Kitchen Confidential.

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

I first heard Sarah Vowell on the NPR show This American Life, and her gently mordant sense of humor just struck a chord with me, as did her obvious (and obviously slightly embarrassing to her) love of American history. I’ve since read most of her books, and this is the latest. It’s her take on the Puritans, whom she finds both endearing and exasperating, often for the same reasons. She gets the history right, but that’s not the main point – this is about Sarah Vowell and what she takes from that history, and if that isn’t what we academic historians are trained to write about, it is certainly something worth reading anyway.

She'll Be Coming Down the Mountain When She Comes

We went back to Mel Allen Hill yesterday.

For those of you new to this space, Mel Allen was the announcer for This Week In Baseball back in the 70s, and when running through all the highlights of players smashing into walls or “getting the wind knocked out of them” by short-hopping grounders he would always pause and then breathlessly say, “Oooh! That’s gotta hurt!”

You think about that line a lot as a parent.

One of the fun things about living in Wisconsin is that there is usually enough snow on the ground in winter that you can go sledding whenever you want to. This was not always the case when I was a kid in Philadelphia, though I note that winters there have gotten far snowier of late as well. But here in Baja Canada there is always snow and there are a few good hills around even in the flatlands and all you need is time and something upon which to slide down the hill.

This is more complex than it might seem, however.

One of our old inflatable sleds finally stopped staying inflated, so yesterday the girls and I went over to the local Mega-Store to pick up a couple of new ones. They inflated nicely, so the girls called some friends and told them to meet us at the hill – a towering feature of the landscape with a bowl at the top for you to rest in, a sheer icy drop to slide down, and a nice flat space at the bottom to coast to a stop before running into the road.

There are a few trees as well, so you have to aim for the middle. And if you take one of the side hills there is a small ravine at the bottom where a creek might run in warmer weather. But all in all a fine hill.

It was a fairly warm day, by winter standards – somewhere in the 20s – and the girls spent the better part of two hours sliding down the hill and climbing back up, a trickier process than might appear at first because of the ice.

The new sleds did not survive the afternoon, losing air almost immediately. I will take that issue up with the Mega-Store tomorrow, I suppose. But as I am full of all sorts of hot air I kept the sleds going with periodic top-offs while we were there.

At one point Lauren went down one of the side hills, where some enterprising sledders had previously set up a ramp. She hit that ramp square on, flew through the air a good fifteen feet, landed flat on the sled and continued through to the little ravine, where she sailed across all four feet of it, hit the opposing shore, bounced straight up in the air, did a barrel roll and landed back on top of her sled.

Somewhere Mel Allen was laughing.

But she was fine – invigorated, no less – and the girls spent another happy half hour exploring that side hill as well, fortunately with far less drama.

And then there was cocoa.

Mmmmmmm. Cocoa.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Question of Starches

There are rice people and there are potato people.

Every holiday we go through this. We sit down to figure out what to have for the main course. Ham? Turkey? Something else? it is rarely something else, though. Ham and turkey are just so easy to scale up to whatever group is coming that it just doesn’t pay to go too far outside of that zone. Unless it’s ravioli, but good ravioli are hard to come by out here in this Italian-deprived area. So ham or turkey it is, most of the time.

And then – side dishes.

There is always Aunt Linda’s Baked Pineapple Dish, which is both tasty and easy and we’re all about the easy around here. Plus it is sweet and tart and goes well with both ham and turkey (though not so much ravioli), which means it’s pretty universal. I don’t remember the last holiday meal without this on the table.

There are veggies, of course. The girls are big on peas, so we tend to do that most of the time, though sometimes we leap into the great unknown with some blend or other that we pick up along the way – usually something named after a foreign city for some reason. Or corn. We love corn. But that’s only a vegetable by marriage – really it’s a grain – so we’re never sure whether that counts or not. So foreign cities it is. We travel on our stomachs.

And then it is time for starch.

It’s never a bad time for starch. But which one?

My side of the family are rice people. I grew up with tables full of white rice, which is just heaven with butter and a sprinkling of black pepper, and on holidays we’d live it up with Uncle Ben’s Wild Rice – the true elixir of starchy goodness, plus all the salt you could ever want. No holiday meal is complete without that rice.

Kim’s side, on the other hand, are potato people. They reach for mashed potatoes with butter, freshly made (no box mixes for them, no sir), or perhaps sweet potatoes. Rice is just what you have when you can’t have potatoes.

My side likes our potatoes baked and sitting alongside steaks, or sliced and fried. But for holiday meals? Rice.

But in a marriage one must compromise and work out these details or else one party is aggrieved and eventually there will be therapy and bills. It’s cheaper just to figure this stuff out ahead of time.

So this year when we had Christmas dinner at our house?


We are rice people and potato people.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Happy VCR Day!

It’s VCR Day around here.

Nobody uses VCRs anymore. You can’t buy tapes or rent movies in that format, not even from the library. But once upon a time that was cutting edge technology, and it figured prominently into our post-Christmas traditions.

Gather ‘round, children – Grampa gonna tell you a story. Now fetch Grampa some whiskey, little one, and sit back.

Christmas is always a hectic season, no matter what claims people make regarding “taking it easy this year” or “not giving in to the pressure.” There’s food to prepare, guests to take in, places to go, people to see, and it’s all great stuff really and lucky to have such high-grade problems, but it does wear a body out nonetheless.

When I was in junior high and high school, my family decided that the day after Christmas was just going to be a time out. We weren’t going to go anywhere. We weren’t going to do anything of any productive value. We might not even get out of our jammies, depending on how ambitious we as individuals felt. We’d eat leftovers and take-out pizza. We’d lock the doors and take the phone off the hook (yes, one phone line, and it did have phones on hooks). It was just a catch your breath kind of day.

This was back around 1980 or so, when VCRs were still fairly new technology and very expensive – far more than we were willing to spend, anyway.

But you could rent them.

Yes! Children, imagine that – people would actually rent VCRs! Temporarily! Yes, I know you can stream movies directly onto your retinas these days, but remember that this is ancient history, almost as old as that whiskey I just finished (hint, hint, little one…).

So my dad would head over to the local minimart – which was, come to think of it, a rather new idea as well, at the time. A gas station that sold groceries? No, gas stations sold petroleum products and things that got covered in such – they did not sell sodas or candy bars back then.

No, I have not had too much whiskey! This is how it was back then! Times were hard!

Where was I?

My dad would go over to the minimart and rent a VCR for the holiday, and a pile of movies on tape. We’d spend much of the morning after Christmas hooking the thing up (yes, with wires – everything had wires back then – now let me drink talk). Eventually that would get solved, and there would be movies.

All. Day. Long.

These were not edifying movies, either. They were funny. They were loud. They were completely without redeeming social qualities and generally not the sort of things you’d remember after the credits finished rolling, but that was precisely the point.

We don’t necessarily watch movies on the day after Christmas anymore, but I still like to keep this day clear of any real responsibility. You need a day to relax, a day not to be sociable or neat, a day to do nothing of any productive value.

Happy VCR Day to all of you out there.

Now where’s that next whiskey?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas At Our House

It snowed on Christmas Eve here.

It should always do that, to remind us how beautiful the world could be if we would let it.

We spent the day finishing up all of the things that we probably should have finished weeks ago if we were the sort of people who planned ahead for that sort of thing, which clearly we are not. This is why, for example, I found myself at the post office at 11am mailing off our Christmas cards. Not that this is the latest we’ve ever done that, mind you – one year we sent them out for St. Patrick’s Day, for example. It’s just how we roll.

I also spent a fair amount of the day at the grocery store, picking up one last minute item after another. It was cheery, in an odd sort of way.

When I was younger Christmas Eve was always the big holiday – Christmas Day was sort of an afterthought, a big dinner with family and friends – and it had clear demarcations. At some point in the afternoon we’d pack everything up into the car and head over to my grandparents’ house, all of five miles away, and then the holiday was officially underway. But since we stay home for that these days, it sort of slides from prep to celebration unnoticed, which I find somewhat odd.

But we had a good time anyway.

Dinner was the traditional “odd number of kinds of fish” that one ought to have as an Italian-descended household. My grandmother always made seven kinds, which is a tradition that those of us in later generations have found somewhat excessive and have scaled back. “You know,” says my dad, “one is also an odd number.” But we have settled on three, since it provides some variety and seems festive in a way that one would not. We have linguini with clam sauce, popcorn shrimp and crabcakes, because they work for us and that’s what holidays are about.

We also drag out the wedding china, even just the four of us. We don’t get to use it much, really, and sometimes you just have to throw it on the table and make it work. It is a poverty to be fortunate enough have nice things and then never use them.

The same rationale applied to the Snoopy glasses that we used as well. Might as well make the whole table cheery. And yes, they go with the china just fine.

After dinner we raced over to the church for Christmas Eve service, which was a nice time. They’re always so surprised to see us there that it makes me feel special.

And then it was home for present opening by Skype with my side of the family in Philadelphia. Skype is just the most wonderful invention ever. We live in the future, yes we do.

Santa arrived right on schedule the next morning.

This was a Wisconsin year for the holidays, and for any number of complex reasons we ended up hosting Christmas Day at our house for the first time. Our guest list kept getting shorter by the hour until finally there were only nine of us around the table, but we had a grand time.

Holidays are for family and friends, and we are lucky that those groups overlap.

Kim’s parents came over, along with her brother Randall and our nephew Brody and niece Marin. The little ones motored around the way small kids do, while the adults talked the way they do and our girls alternated between them the way bigger kids do. It was that sort of day, and a wonderful sort of day it was.

Oh, and we may never eat again. Just saying.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Skating Along

One of the benefits to living in Wisconsin is that we have real winters.

It snows here, for one thing. And we know how to deal with it. I saw on the news this week that Heathrow International Airport – Britain’s biggest and one of the busiest in all of Europe – was shut down for nearly a week because they got 14 centimeters of snow. It took me a little bit to work that out, but here in the colonies we call that “five inches,” more or less, and not even the Girl Scouts cancel their meetings for that.

It also gets cold. Really cold. Like wake up in the morning and the thermometer has no numbers, just pictures of sad brass monkeys cold. It was ten below zero (Fahrenheit, for those of you reading this in the waiting areas of Heathrow, not Celsius) one morning last week here in what was, technically, still autumn.

You people in Canada can stop composing your responses now – I fully understand that you consider that to be picnic weather and laugh at Wisconsin for being a land of tropical wimps. That is why you have not been invaded since the War of 1812 – nobody wants to get into a fight with people who think that way.

Either way, the great thing about cold is that there is ice. And where there is ice, there can be ice-skating.

Here in Our Little Town they actually have an outdoor skating rink down by the river – who knew?

And better? There is a little warming house there that not only has ice skates that you can use for free, but also will sell you hot cocoa for 50 cents a cup.

How did I not know this before?

So this afternoon, as the first day of Christmas vacation (I can call it that – I’m not on the school district’s payroll and thus cannot get sued) ground on interminably, I ended taking the girls and their friend Grace over for some outdoor skating while Kim continued the Christmas preparations.

It was made of pure awesome, with little bits of crunchy awesome bits poured over the top.

And we had cocoa too. Of course we did.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

One More Set of Feet

Somehow we have managed to acquire a new rodent.

At least this one is only temporary.

A friend of ours is going out of town for a while over semester break, so we agreed that we would watch her guinea pig, a black and white thing named Barney. Lauren insists on calling it Mr. Barns. I have a tendency to call it Barnaby. I don’t know what Tabitha calls it, but I’m fairly sure the cats call it Dinner. Or at least they would like to.

We collected Barney last night and brought him home with us, secure in a cage roughly the size of Rhode Island. I’m not really sure what we’re going to do with this cage on Saturday, when there will be fifteen people here for Christmas, but “One Crisis At A Time,” that’s one of my many mottoes. We stuck it in front of the television for now.

The girls have been thoroughly excited about this whole thing despite the fact that Barnaby doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with them or us or really anything other than his safe little enclosed area at one end of his cage. So far he’s taking it slow.

And I can understand that. If I were the equivalent of a mobile pot roast in a house full of cats, I’d take it slow too.

The cats have not made it easy for poor old Mr. Barns. They have, in fact, set up shop just outside of his cage. Watching, watching, always watching, waiting for that one mistake and then – WHAM! – they crash beak-first into the wire separating the inside of the cage from the outside, look at us pathetically and complain loudly about our interference with the laws of nature, as if these cats would know anything about the laws of nature.

Meanwhile Barnaby is going bald.

With any luck the blanket that we have been covering his cage with at night will help.  The last thing we need is to give the poor thing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I don't know how that disease would present in a rodent, but my guess is that it would involve gnawing and I'd prefer to keep that to a minimum.

He goes back home sometime around the 30th, after which we anticipate a slow returning of feline and juvenile heartrates back down to something approaching normal.

The hamsters, it must be said, are jealous.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hippo Bird Day Two Ewe

I am now officially old. Lauren tells me so.

Of course, Lauren has been telling me that since she learned how to speak, so this should come as no great surprise to me. And, by her reckoning, I am old – older than the winds, older than the seas, older than the ground she walks on. A veritable catalog of ancientness come to life – or somehow miraculously preserved in some quasi-scientific state of limbo – solely to remind her to clear the table after breakfast.

We all serve our functions in the universe.

I don’t feel any different, really, but I have discovered a few things about my world as I turn 45.

1. More and more parties involve less and less motion. When I was younger, this motion was provided by me and my friends. Recently, most of that motion has been provided by small children. But kids grow up and we grow sedate and that’s not a bad thing in my view.

2. The concept of a 401k no longer confuses me as much as it did, though it does invoke a deep and abiding sense of impending doom, much as one gets in the passenger seat of a car sliding on an icy highway. Hit something soft, that’s the goal.

3. I am now officially too old to worry about what other people think of me. I was never very good at this, even when I was younger, but I no longer feel any need to defend or explain it.

4. Similarly, my need to put up with people seems to be deteriorating. Oh, there is rarely call to be uncivil, though I can do that too when required. Mostly it’s just the realization that I have no particular need or obligation to have people in my life who don’t serve any positive purpose by being there. This has been a liberating discovery.

5. On the other hand, those people who do serve a positive purpose I value more and more. There are not as many people in the world like that as I once thought there were.

6. Cookies for breakfast? Sure. Once in a while.

7. I am now at a point where the age gap between myself and the Hot Young Thing on television will never be anything less than creepy, no matter how much older she gets. This goes double given the amount of Disney Channel that my daughters watch. Fortunately, this is even more hypothetical now than it was when I was single.

8. My ability to absorb technology – never great to begin with – seems to have come to its natural limit. This may not be a function of age so much as personality. But I am happy to blame age anyway.

9. “Because it will make me happy and cause no harm” is all I need to justify doing something. Grand causes I leave to others.

10. I have reached the point where if I want something I’ll probably just go out and get it, which means that people really don’t need to buy me presents anymore. Don’t get me wrong – I’m always happy to get presents, whenever they should appear. But they’re happy extras now, and unexpected.

You’re never too old to make discoveries.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Rare and Pleasant Victory

At long last, I find that I have won a round against my technology.

We finally settled on a new provider for our cell phone service, after all that rigamarole a couple of months ago about finding a new one. Kim went first, as befit her status as the person who actually understood what was going on. She bought one of their phones, paid up for a plan, and spent a month comparing how the new phone did against her old one. When the difference proved in service proved to be minimal, she switched over her old number to the new phone.

I made the jump a month later, with considerable tutelage and a fair amount of Drambuie.

The new system seems to be working fine. I can make calls in most of the places I used to be able to make calls in and a few of the ones I couldn’t before – it pretty much balances out. And instead of paying a monthly fee for the privilege of rolling over about 600 minutes every month, I pay one fee for a year’s worth of minutes, most of which I will only have to roll over at the end of twelve months. Or maybe they expire. I don’t know.

I do know that my old company sent me a final bill for 21 cents. I called them up about that and the service tech and I had a good laugh about it.

I checked tonight, by the way, and after two months of service and at a rate of 20 cents/minute for calls, my account has declined by almost $13. I think I’m good.

The one problem that I couldn’t solve when I made this switch was text messaging.

I do not text. I do not read texts. I do not wish to be texted, learn how to text, or be part of a society in which texting is considered a normal way to contact people. I think people should stop texting and learn how to write. And yet trying to get a plan that does not include this service is harder than planning a North Korean vacation.

I particularly resent the fact that I have to pay for other people’s texts to me.

Until today.

For you see, I discovered tonight that our new provider allows you to disable incoming text messages. One little toggle in my settings, and – other than the ones that the provider itself sends, which are apparently inescapable – nobody can send me any more text messages! And, knowing that, I no longer even have to bother with the ones I do receive, since I know who is sending them and do not wish to hear from them in this fashion anyway.

I like this.

Dave 1, Technology 0.

Now if I can just figure out dying piece of electronica is plaintively beeping at me every two minutes as I type this, perhaps I’ll score another victory tonight. And then won’t I be insufferable.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Higher Math

I started out as a math major.

People who know me as a historian – someone who tells stories and hasn’t even attempted to balance his checkbook since before the millennium – often find this difficult to believe. I don’t really fit the standard model for a mathematician, which of course I am not, at least not these days.

But there was a time when I thought I might be one.

I blame this on my calculus teacher my senior year of high school, Mr. Stauffer. I was a student at one level or another for nearly thirty years of my life, and Mr. Stauffer was far and away the best teacher I ever had. A thin man, probably not much older then than I am now, with a bushy mustache and a sad sort of smile, he was the only person I ever met who could describe an equation as beautiful and get you to believe it.

When I stand in front of a classroom, it is Mr. Stauffer that I am trying to be.

He had a genuine passion for his subject, one that had apparently come to him later in life than his academic degree – he was a physicist by training, as I recall – and one that was obvious to us. He titled his lectures. He would pursue an idea through most of a class before stopping, declaring that it was utterly wrong, showing us why, and moving us back toward the right answer. He once spent half an hour defending the music of Rachmaninoff – which most of us were not familiar with and therefore did not realize needed defending – not because it was germane but simply because he felt it needed to be said. And he was utterly unable to scale his graphs properly, which more than once – as class was drawing to a close and he realized he would not have the time to redraw the thing – led him to climb up onto his desk chair and continue the graph right up the wall, all the while reassuring us that he would write us notes for our next class if we would only stay and listen.

We were all in the same class after his - all he had to do was call ahead. And really – when your teacher is standing on a chair drawing on the wall, are you going to leave? We were transfixed.

There’s a picture of him doing that in my junior year yearbook. I tried to tell this story to my daughters the other day, and they didn’t believe me until I showed them the picture.

He had a fairly mischievous sense of humor, too. One day in the middle of a lecture he noticed that some students in his previous class had surreptitiously written two equations for the next day’s exam in tiny writing on the side blackboard. Rather than erase them, he simply walked over and altered them. “If they don’t catch on,” he said, “that’s their fault.”

Really, the best way to sum up the response he got from us is to note the fact that he refused to sign our yearbooks until the day of our final exam. There were 15 students in that Calc BC class, no four of whom liked each other, and on the day of our final exam there were 15 yearbooks stacked up on his desk, waiting for him to sign.

What else could I do but follow that example?

It turned out that my following would come as a teacher, not as a mathematician.

I got to college and signed up for second-year calculus, since I – as almost everyone in Mr. Stauffer’s class – had tested out of freshman calculus. It was a giant lecture class, taught by a genial sort of fellow who got us through the year intact but not really inspired.

Well, I thought, perhaps it’s just the straightforward unimaginativeness of the course that is weighing me down. Perhaps I need something more challenging.

And thus it was that on my first day of class, sophomore year, I found myself in a class called “Abstract Linear Algebra,” which was the more theoretical version of the class that most people who survived second-year calculus took. This was the “math major” class, as opposed to the “engineer” class, and thus I figured it was the one for me.

This turned out not to be true.

I walked into class on that first day to find myself in the company of seven hyper-geeks. I was – by far – the hippest, coolest dude in that classroom, and if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you nothing will. It certainly gave me a rather sinking feeling about the whole enterprise. I have never had any illusions about being any of those things, not even when I was young and cared, and to find myself as the resident expert on them was distinctly uncomfortable.

So there we sat, radiating nerdhood at each other. Waiting.

About five minutes after the class was supposed to have started, the professor bustled in, found his way to the lectern in the front of the room, and began to lecture.

He never gave us a syllabus.

He never assigned us a textbook.

He never even told us his name. I made it through a month in that class and didn’t find out the man’s name until I saw his picture on the bulletin board in the Math Department office the day I went to drop the class. For this reason, I suspect, when I can no longer recall the names of most of my undergraduate professors, his name I still know.

Eventually several things occurred to me.

First, that not only did I have no idea what was going on in that classroom, but also I didn’t care. At some point in higher math they drop the numbers and all you get are letters, most of them Greek, arranged in long thin strings bisected by equal signs or short fat grids with brackets around them, and this just struck me as a thoroughly abusive way to spend time.

Second, that most of the other students in that classroom could not be so described. In fact, they seemed to be very excited about it all, jumping in with alternative solutions to homework that I had come to regard as Escher-esque in its distortions of reality.

And third, that I didn’t have to do this if I didn’t want to.

So I stopped.

I eventually found my way to history and I stayed with it when I discovered that I enjoyed reading history even when I was not being tested on the material – that it was something I had a passion for, just for its own sake.

And that, really, was Mr. Stauffer’s lesson.

The reason he was such a great teacher was not because of the subject he was in, but because of what he brought to that subject. He loved what he was doing, and he could get us to see that and share in that.

For that, I almost became a mathematician.

For that, I did become a historian.

For that, I am a teacher.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Faces of Lauren

We spent a while looking through this year’s collection of photographs, trying to find a good one for our Christmas card. It took a while but eventually one recommended itself, and now we have a pile of them sitting on my desk waiting to get mailed out.

Don’t hold your breath.

One of the things that made the selection process so difficult is the fact that Lauren spends so much time making the kinds of faces at the camera that you get kind of annoyed with at the time but then secretly go back and look at and laugh until your sides hurt.

We think she’s got a career in vaudeville.

So here is a retrospective of some of the choicer moments from this year. Some of them have been here on this blog before, but the cumulative weight of the photos makes the repetition worth it.

Word of advice – put that beverage down now unless you want to spend the next few days cleaning off your keyboard. You’ve been warned.


Go get 'em, kid.