It’s not me; it’s you.
Like all hot-and-heavy romances, ours was fated to burn brightly, if only briefly.
But now, I fear it is over.
When I first saw you, I was stunned by the sheer audacity of combining something I adore about sports—the head-to-head, single-elimination tournament—with discussion about books. It would not be too much to say I was simply awestruck and immediately knew we were a perfect match.
As one does in such situations, I dived in without reservation or consideration, wildly throwing 16 titles into my Seattle Public Library queue with bold disregard for whatever any information available about the books themselves, allowing infatuation to set-aside book-selection processes that had served me relatively well over the course of a reading lifetime. If you loved it, then I wanted to love it, too.
It’s easy to see now how this was bound to lead to this, but isn’t it always thus?
Then, you put “Lightning Rods” in my hands.
I admit, I wondered whether something wasn’t up right then and there. There was no waiting for the book from the library, which is never a good sign. Nor is it favorable when I’ve not somehow read about or heard of the book, considering how much book-centric media I absorb on a daily basis.
BUT! We only work if we trust each other, yeah?
So I read.
It were as if, on the first time you cooked dinner for me, I thought I saw you not wash your hands after handling raw poultry and, rather than thinking that maybe I need to slow it down for my own benefit, I tried to dismiss it as over-thinking the situation and happily eat.
We know now, of course, that I got really, really sick after that meal. Can I blame the hand-washing incident explicitly? Maybe not, but…here we are.
Don’t get me wrong; we had some great times. “The Sisters Brothers,” “The Art of Fielding,” ”The Tiger’s Wife,” and, of course, the lovely March romp of book-battle discussion.
We’ll always have March!
Eventually, I wrote-off the “Lightning Rods” incident and the slightly less-offensive failure of “Open City” to meet my tastes to the point where it all still seemed as fresh and exciting as day one by the time I was faced with a long stretch apart from my new crush.
This year, you came along a little earlier than last with even more titles than before. I didn’t ask myself “Why?” you felt the need to tart it up a bit. Rather, I was simply happy to see you here, and it was January 2012 all over again.
And, truly, it was the same thing all over again, except that, this time, maybe my eyes were open just a wee bit more.
Like “Lightning Rods” last year, I managed to get one of the entries this year almost immediately due to it being sold at a deep-discount as an ebook on the day I heard the titles announced. Again, I jumped to the “buy” button, not reading the description of “Song of Achilles,” nor any reviews or discussion around it.
This time, however, it felt like true deceit, even with all the disclaimers about how the final list of competitors are not ever meant to be definitive of the best 16 (this year, 18) books from the previous year. I wanted desperately to be wrong about the novel, but no matter how I looked at it, I felt I had been conned into reading a glorified romance novel, once you looked past the obvious appeal of a retelling some great Greek mythology with a contemporary prosaic style.
And the realization stung.
Stung enough that I went back to re-examine things more deeply.
Suddenly, the new play-in round in which three novels will compete for a place among the final 16 didn’t seem like such an innocent little quirk, when considering the unlikelihood of the three novels in question all being set around the same topic (war in the Middle East) having been the three novels between which a panel could not decide for the final seat at the table.
Then I take a quick count of author gender and see a nearly even split between women and men, and, rather than thinking it sheer happenstance, wonder whether the panel didn’t tinker to make sure the tournament didn’t find itself yet another target of those who’ve questioned loudly the last few years the dominance of male-written pieces in some forums.
And, if such politically correct tinkering is taking place, how on Earth did you end up with such a predominantly white collection of authors?!
Maybe it IS my fault for not looking beyond the surface before charging in, but I’m always going to resent feeling manipulated. While trying to remember only the good times, I probably don’t really want to know what you were doing, what your real motivations were.
But, it’s over. I have been shocked back into remembering who I am.
We can still be friends, though. Cool?
Bacon, smoked salmon, potatoes, cream, wine…there is pretty much no way this wouldn’t be good, right?
I’m sure had I followed the recipe from April Bloomfield’s “A Girl and Her Pig” more closely, it would have turned out even better, but I didn’t have smoked haddock; I had smoked salmon.
It might be a disservice to Chef Bloomfield to simply call my dish a Pacific-Northwesterner’s take on her “Smoked Haddock Chowder,” but I didn’t stray too far from what she wrote other than type of fish used and the obvious skill gap between her and I in all things culinary.
1.25 pounds potatoes (I was trying for 3/4 pound, but ended up having a rather heavy hand at the farmers market. Get a firm potato that won’t fall apart too easily when cooked.), peeled and diced
1 pint whole milk
1 pink heavy whipping cream
Put these three items in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil; cook until the potatoes are cooked through, but don’t fall apart too easily when you pinch them. Cooking time will depend on how large you dice the potatoes. Remove the pan from heat.
1/2 pound smoked salmon
Submerge the salmon in the milk mixture and let steep among the potatoes off the heat while you do the next few steps.
1/4 olive oil
1/4 pound bacon ends (again, purchased at farmers market and suggested by farmer as ideal for my purpose), diced smallish
2 carrots, cut into thick matchsticks
2 stalks celery, cut into thick matchsticks
1 yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup sauvignon blanc (Monkey Bay is what I used. Tasty!)
2 cups fish stock (also made with an April Bloomfield recipe, also found in her new book)
Heat the olive oil in a stockpot to smoking over medium heat. Fry the bacon in the hot oil briefly, just until the fat begins to render, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the carrot, celery, and onion; keep cooking until the vegetables are tender, no more than 10 minutes more.
Deglaze with the wine. That is, pour the wine into the pot and scrape whatever you can from the bottom of the pot with a flat edged implement of some sort. I’ve some lovely bamboo spoons I got with some woks at one time that are perfectly suited for this move. Pour the fish stock into the pot; stir. Let the mixture simmer until the liquid reduces by about half.
Okay, NOW you can remove the salmon from the milk. Scoop about half the potatoes from the milk mixture and add to the stockpot. Puree the remaining half either in a blender or with an immersion blender (If you don’t have one, get one! They’re brilliant!). Add the pureed potatoes to the pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Break the salmon into chunks and add to the soup; stir. Cook until it’s all hot, about 5 minutes more. Garnish with some chopped fresh parsley.
See? Wasn’t that hard. Not too fussy for having originated from a pretty accomplished and talented chef.
No, not me…HER!
I know, because of my day job, the word “Popsicle®” is a registered trademark. Due to this, I do make an effort to use more generic term when referring to frozen treats on sticks.
“Paleta” made its way into my personal lexicon a few summers ago, upon attending the Pickathon music festival in Happy Valley, Oregon. Though we’d likely have tried them regardless of weather, the sun was particularly oppressive during the 2009 edition of the event, driving us to find any and all methods for keeping cool while enjoying our weekend.
Fortunately, the Pickathon folks commit to food and beverage offerings being local, affordable, and delicious. Drawing from the rich talent pool of the Portland area, you get a great variety of palate temptations. Among them during what would seem a fortuitously hot weekend were Sol Pops Paletas.
I won’t go into all the details of the difference between a “paleta” and what many of us in this country typically call a “popsicle.” Nor am I that interested in their assertion of “wellness” in regard to their particular product. When the numbers creep toward the triple digits, those are simply side-show attractions along the highway to refreshingly cold sweetness (on a stick!), and I drive really fast!
Note: I drive less fast these days than I did before I became “Daddy,” which allows me to reserve the “slow down, you lunatic!” reaction I instinctively have toward the teenagers always in a rush up and down the hill in our neighborhood.
They were carrying four or five varieties at the time. From their website, I see they’ve expanded their offerings by quite a bit. Because I have a weakness for the combination of sweet and spicy, I started with the “Cucumber Lime Jalapeno” paleta, before sampling my way through their entire menu throughout the weekend.
Not only did I come away with a new word for frozen treats on sticks that was NOT a trademark, I also was hit with the revelation that the making of such items is remarkably simple and not necessarily limited to the nasty, fake flavors offered commercially.
This really should not be a big discovery. Did I not try to freeze Kool-Aid(R) in ice cube trays with toothpicks suspended in them with the aid of a sheet of plastic wrap way back in the 1970′s? Yet, many years of living in the American consumer culture ultimately turned these into things you either bought at the store or didn’t eat, the magic of their creation best left to people with factories and machinery and distribution networks. I used to think the same of, say, salsa. Takes something to shake me from the disillusion of complexity, even now.
Although our second trip to Pickathon was accompanied by weather much more typical of a Pacific Northwest summer, our need for paletas was bolstered by the addition of a seven-month-old toothless wonder. As we often thought throughout his first year-and-change with no teeth, we thought Owen might be teething and would benefit from sharing
Though…he wasn’t really that interested in really sharing. Once he got a taste, it was all over. He ended up eating the better part of two cantaloupe-flavored paletas in short order, which also foreshadowed cantaloupe proving to be one of his favorite foods.
While shopping for dinner provisions on a particularly warm (for Seattle) spring evening, I recalled the episode. Without any idea of a recipe other than knowing we had sugar, vanilla extract, yogurt, and coconut milk at home, I bought some “Tovolo Groovy Ice Pop Molds” and a cantaloupe (yes…organic…so what?!) and planned to deliver a surprise to my toddler son I figured would be at least as delicious as what I could buy for him, but also contain only a few ingredients and no chemical preservatives, colorings, or flavorings.
Ideally, I’d have a recipe to share.
I do not.
I got as much flesh from the cantaloupe as I could and combined it with whatever amount of low-fat Greek-style yogurt we had left in the container, a bit of sugar, and a splash of vanilla extract. From there, it was immersion blender, funnel, and paleta molds. It’s not science; it’s art. If it tastes good when it’s blended, it will taste good frozen.
Sorry, son! Apparently I gave you the gift of something tasty enough for you to eat it as fast as you can, while maybe not having given you genetically the gift I enjoy for being able to absorb very cold things quickly without the dreaded “brain freeze.”
The rest of you, get to blending and freezing, but, enjoy at appropriate speeds.
And “NO” it’s not that on which the HBO series of the same name was based.
Before you reach the table of contents, you do get a word from the author, saying:
“The large events and the settings of this novel–the fire that destroyed Deadwood, the assassinations of Bill Hickok and the China Doll, the weather, the life and travels of Charley Utter–are all real.
The Characters, with the exception of Malcolm Nash, are also real, and were in Deadwood at the time these events occurred.”
I know I read several times (granted, on the internets) before watching the first season of the television series or reading this book that Pete Dexter’s work was very much integral to the creation of the HBO series.
I’m not going to say I’ve done a whole lot of investigating since finishing the book this morning, but I wouldn’t even be all that surprised to know that nobody on the creative team had even opened the front cover of Dexter’s book, especially in light of the aforementioned quote. My sense is that both pieces of art were derived from researching real-life historic persons and events from that place in American history and invoking the creative spirit from there.
In other words, aside from some names, I don’t see much similar between the show and the book. Hence, they should be considered separately, other than that I would not likely have read the book had I not also recently enjoyed watching the beginning of the series (and then found a second-hand copy of the book during a timely visit to Pegasus Book Exchange).
My interest level in the old “wild west” was never that great, so my knowledge of people like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane was of such a level that I’d not necessarily have even though of them in the context of Deadwood, South Dakota any more than I would have, say, western Texas. Charley Utter, who is the central character throughout the novel, is someone whose name I believe I had never even heard, and, if I had, I’d completely forgotten the context.
Because of this and, again, because I’d just watched 12 hours or so of the HBO series, I entered the world of Deadwood as described by Pete Dexter with some very strong conceptions about characters the second they appeared in writing. Within the first few pages, you have met Charley, Wild Bill, and Al Swearingen. If you’ve seen the HBO show, you know how strongly drawn those characters are on the screen.
It’s of great credit to Mr. Dexter that, writing the book without the knowledge his words would one day be competing with HBO-strength characterizations of the same historical figures, it isn’t long before you’re (mostly) considering the characters anew. It’s not only that he clearly staked his claim to the fictionalization of the history of Deadwood in a completely different manner as did the people with the HBO production, but also that he writes his characters in a very lively fashion. Maybe that’s partly a benefit of working within a genre such as the western, but I doubt it’s that simple.
I also happen to be a bit of a sucker for strong character development, so there’s that.
The style can be a bit tricky in some spots. The word “peeder” appears repeatedly and failed not once to give me a stop. I also think the use of “could of/would of/should of” in place of the proper contractions probably was meant to do something other than remind me of the fact that 90% of the people on the internet actually type those for all to see publicly without intention, but that’s what I got, again making me pause each instance.
Small, niggling things, but they stand out in my head. Should be noted that’s a small price for what was otherwise a very enjoyable book.
The narrative is divided into five “parts,” the first four of which are named for a character around whom much of the action within revolves. The fifth is a rather short summary of Charley’s life after leaving Deadwood that, honestly, adds little (if anything) to the story beyond a bit of closure .
Malcolm Nash, the one completely fictional character in the novel, plays an interesting thread through the story, but his role is a bit thin in the middle bits, which makes one wonder at the reason for creating him at all. It’s not that he seems out of place, mind you. It’s more that I had a natural tendency to wonder a little more about the character seeing as it was mentioned right at the top that he was not in the historic records and was, hence, created out of whole ink. Perhaps it is a failure of the reader to have expected more from such an entry into the story, but I can’t see how anyone would look at it differently.
There’s also a very realistic chance I’ve just missed something important in my reading. Wouldn’t be the first time.
On the front cover of the paperback is a quote from Jonathan Franzen, saying “If you want to call Deadwood a Western, you might as well call The House of Mirth chick lit.”
Not even having read the latter, I can say I understand what Franzen was getting at with this, and think it’s a valid consideration. Calling a book a “Western,” much as “chick lit” or “science fiction” does have that effect of “ghettoization” of the work into its genre and is somehow looked at as something less. Or, that’s the talk these days, isn’t it?
What I’m meaning to clarify as being important here is that nobody who enjoys a good book should pass on this one with a “but I don’t really like “Westerns.” The work itself will survive such an err, but is a huge disservice to the “serious reader” Mr. Franzen likes to concern himself about. Pete Dexter has written a serious book for serious readers of all sorts.
Even those who have cemented in their brain the image of Wild Bill Hickok as the brother of the guy from ‘Kung Fu.’
We can overcome.
The internet, if not the larger world, is already pretty well overrun by stories of children’s precociousness.
Can’t see the harm in adding another to the canon.
My son turned two recently, which has no direct relevance on the story, but the event in question occurred first thing the morning after the birthday party we were throwing for him.
Owen always has a few commands/suggestions first thing in the morning. The list almost always begins with “no no change diaper” and “jammies on” (as opposed to putting on the sorts of clothing that might indicate a departure from the house and, hence, the loss of chance to see fulfilled other common items from the morning request repertoire, such as “watch ‘Dino Train,’” “play trains,” or even the occasional “eat, eat, eat…”
Maybe a bit more a creature of habit already like his father than Daddy would like to admit, Owen tends to not stray too far from those items or closely related variations on the topics.
This particular morning, however, it was “”poon? ‘poon?”
Not easy to decipher initially, I let him repeat it several times before I realized what he wanted was a spoon. Out of the context of sitting in front of some food, it seemed like a new word entirely. As most parents will recognize, once you land on what your child is saying, it seems like it should have been obvious. Plus, I think Owen picked up an early affinity for wooden spoons, first from watching me cooking (“Daddy making pood?”) a lot and later when he realized a spoon can be an excellent stand-in for a guitar.
Again, as many parents will recognize (I hope it’s not just me.), once such a simple item is discovered to have the power to deliver such joy, you make sure to buy a few to have around just for the baby.
That being said, it had been a while since Owen had really requested a spoon outside of the context of eating. Once I figured it, it was easy enough to hand him a large wooden spoon.
From there, Owen went in search of his red plastic fire chief helmet before asking me where he might find “the boy.”
“The boy” is a very simple plastic figure which came seated in the plastic construction vehicle Owen had received as a gift the day prior. Rather than pluck it out of the truck for him, which is precisely where he’d left it shortly before bed time only ten hours ago, I asked him where he thought the boy might be.
Turns out it was all a ruse, because he knew exactly where the boy was. Don’t be fooled; for all the cuteness and charm, the perceived innocence is a tool for their use to get you to do their bidding. Everyone tends to think their child is especially smart, but I think maybe they’re not as smart as you think in the way you’re thinking of “smart,” while being incredibly smart in ways you would prefer to disbelieve.
The boy was immediately plucked from the truck (steam shovel? I was never the kid who was interested in construction machines or police or firemen or cars or anything stereotypical of young boys’ interest and, hence, sometimes don’t really know the basics.) and plopped into the helmet. Owen then took a seat in the middle of the living room and started stirring with the big wooden spoon.
“What are you doing, Owen?”
“Making….making a man.”
This begins with a confession: I am a long-time sports fan and, hence, absorber of ESPN through multiple media.
In fact, the primary thing with which I’m going to take from having read this book will be just how much the growth and transformation of ESPN as a brand has influenced the sports-fan facet of my personality. The timing of it, as well as the way they targeted sports fans, was perfect.
BUT, does that mean you can publish 745 pages of “oral history” about the place without it becoming a bit of a slog?
Maybe you can, but that was not achieved here.
Only sheer determination to get to the juicy bits with Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Tony Kornheiser, Bill Simmons, etc. got me through the first few hundred pages (yes, the first few hundred pages), in which all these executive types (I tend to call them “rich white dudes”) do battle over who is taking too much credit for what, while also establishing just how large a role each of them had in many important developments early on in the lifespan of the network. Eventually, the scope widens to allow on-air talent to also take part in the credit-grabbing dialog.
Along the way, you get some pretty interesting looks at some of the interpersonal dynamics behind the scenes.
Well, it’s interesting to a degree and likely only if you’re interested in the people and topic. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who doesn’t know who Chris Berman or Stuart Scott is.
I had enjoyed “Live from New York” several years ago, which is an oral history of Saturday Night Live written by these same two authors: James A. Miller and Tom Shales. It was similarly long, but the nature of the cast and writers, in my opinion, made for a lot more-interesting reading. The ESPN book, in my opinion, could have been trimmed by about 300 pages and not lost much. Then again, I do know a lot more about ESPN’s history than I did.
“Did you know?” (to borrow an old Sportscenter segment title)
- Mike Tirico was pretty creepy in a sexual-harassment sense, acting somewhat like a stalker at times?
- Almost nobody likes Keith Olbermann, but everyone pretty much regards him as a ‘genius?’
- Multiple on-air personalities have been suspended for having used Adolf Hitler in comparative analysis of sports figures and events?
- The network sat on the Ben Roethlisberger rape allegations until it was so widely reported that they just appeared to be either slow or hoping it would blow over?
- Rush Limbaugh still believes anything and everything he said in regard to Donovan McNabb was fine and/or taken out-of-context and that everyone agrees with him but those conspiring against him and that he truly believes in a color-blind society? (As truly a “HOLY SHIT THIS GUY!” moment as I’ve ever had reading anything ever)
All of those and more are revealed within and, ultimately, made the tome worth lugging around for two weeks while I worked my way through it on bus and water taxi rides to work, as well as holding it above my head before bed time in a bit of derring-do as I would sometimes fall asleep (of being tired, not bored), putting myself in danger of breaking my nose when dropping it on my face.
Because, really, we all love to hate those end-of-year lists that are EVERYWHERE this time of year. I mean, that means we love them too, right?
In 2011, I finished 54 titles. I don’t know how that ranks with the reading rates of most readers, but it feels a bit on the slow side. I’m guessing people who are not habitual readers would find that to be a staggeringly impossible number. Having seen the pace at which my wife can put away a book (She read the entire “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga in less than a month this summer, and that is at her new slower post-baby clip), I figure a good number of folk simply scoff at such a weak number.
What I do know is that I didn’t read nearly enough of 2011′s newly published works to have it make any sense to attempt a “best of” sort of list with aspirations of comprehensiveness. Hence, I’ve broken the 54 books into a few different categories, which were then organized into some fashion to indicate overall value to me in some way or other.
(Relatively) Recent Fiction
Turns out that 20 of the books I read were fictional novels published in either 2010 or 2011. I liked the roundness of 20, so I did a simple order of preference for those. I’m sure the Franzen and Eugenides books would/should be in there, if only I had read them…
- Embassytown by China Mieville
- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
- The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
- Zone One by Colson Whitehead
- The Silent Land by Graham Joyce
- Low Town by Daniel Polansky
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
- Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
- The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
- Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
- The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
- The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
- Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
- How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
- Doc by Mary Doria Russell
- Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
- The Tower, The Zoo and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart
- Red on Red by Edward Conlon
- Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
I’ve no desire to defend my decisions to anyone, really. It’s just about personal preference. Besides, I have to admit, when I was asked earlier what my favorite novel of the year was, I replied with “The Art of Fielding” having forgotten entirely about “Embassytown.” But, really, I’m all about the Mieville. It’s AMAZING!
Yes, I had to ‘shout’ that bit.
And, then in what must seem like a preemptive bout of defensiveness, I should at least point out I do tend to prefer my fiction with fantastical and/or science-fiction elements. Despite knowing that about myself, I was a little surprised to see the Graham Joyce and Daniel Polansky books as high on that list as they are, but then remembered what a blast I had reading them; the same can simply not be said for the last five books on the list, each of which was a challenge to finish for me.
But, I DID finish them, unlike…
Simply could NOT do it!
- What We Do is Secret by Thorn Kief Hillsbury
- Last Man Through the Gate by Tim C. Taylor
- Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
One might argue that three books I did not finish shouldn’t be listed among “books I finished.” My counter-point would be that I am finished with them, whether I read them to completion or no.
I do feel a little dirty about having gotten only to the seventh page of the Hillsbury book and counting it, but I knew by then I was going to maybe set either it or myself on fire before I could ever get through it. It had a weird spoken-word vibe to it that simply doesn’t work for me. “Last Man Through the Gate” was a freebie e-book; anyone who has read many of those knows how entirely hit-or-(most likely) miss those can be.
The Kim Stanley Robinson book was a disappointment for me. The premise, wherein the same group of characters are reincarnated throughout an alternate history of world civilization, was a complete hit for me. Unfortunately, I just ran out of steam with it. It’s a long book and, without a strong central narrative, just lost me.
- Locke & Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraftby Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
- Locke & Key, Volume 2: Head Games by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
- Locke & Key, Volume 3: Crown of Shadows by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
- The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone By by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
- Priest: Genesis, Volumes 1-3 by Min-Woo Hyung
I generally don’t read graphic novels because, truly, the artwork is completely lost on me. I find myself rushing through them to get the story, but I know that, in order to really appreciate them, I should slow it down a bit and observe the work of the illustrator.
But I don’t and won’t.
Despite that, I was completely sucked in by the Locke & Key series and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a good haunted house tale.
The other two I could have done without reading.
- Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
- Granta 117: Horror by John Freman (editor)
- Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason by Mike Sacks
Simply put, Knockemstiff was one of the most-compelling things I’ve ever read. It probably could have been listed among the fiction novels, but it really is a collection of related short stories. Though, now that I think on it, it’s probably less disjointed than Egan’s “Goon Squad,” the format of which leaves me baffled as to how it garnered the crazy amounts of regard it did.
And, it’s definitely more cohesive than King’s “Full Dark, No Stars” which is a collection of novellas.
Oh well. What’s done is done. Pollock is so good, he deserves his own category anyhow.
The Sacks is meant to be funny. I didn’t think it was funny. Is there anything more subjective than comedy? Not sure there is.
- WAR by Sebastian Junger
- Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine by George Dohrmann
- Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan
- I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 2o Years Away by Bill Bryson
- The Egg & I by Betty MacDonald
- Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
- Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O’Conner
- No Touch Monkey: and Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late by Ayun Halliday
- The Game From Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View by Doug Glanville
Only now that I’ve typed this list am I aware of the consistent practice of spiking the title of non-fiction books with a colon and a clarification of the book’s subject matter, which I do find slightly odd.
At any rate, I’m fairly fond of saying that I don’t read much non-fiction, so I’m a little baffled when I realize non-fiction made up of nearly 17% of my total haul for the year. That percentage is actually higher if I were to flesh it out to account for magazine articles and news and what not, but I’d never have guessed it were even this high for just the books.
And it shouldn’t be, because this list is dominated by books I found sincerely lacking. Really, only the first two would I say were truly compelling. The Pollan book is great, but isn’t really much of a book, as it’s a bunch of short items on (re)defining food in an era where food products has become the norm of the American diet. I love it, but it is what it is.
The other six books I either just didn’t enjoy or actively hated. The Hamilton memoir was really a let-down as it was highly praised, but, to me, it quickly turned into a long lament/complaint piece. If a friend gets a little whiny on Facebook, I’ll hide them from my feed, but this? I got tricked into a few hundred pages of “Oh, it’s all so sad, really.” I actively hated it by the end, which should tell you something about the books I rate below it.
The Glanville book is remarkably boring when you consider the guy played major-league baseball for several years and that I really like baseball. I didn’t hate it, but can’t remember one thing I read in it that I could say was worth the effort. Tremendously boring, which is quite an accomplishment when writing about a subject I quite enjoy.
In some ways, I do wish I were the sort to find a more-unique way to define an interval appropriate for reflection than the calendar year. Yet, when I think on it, not only does it seem needlessly complicated, but reminds me of people who will organize their various media collections in ways other than boring, old alphabetical order.
Ultimately, when I want to hear Radiohead, I know I can go to the “R’s” and find them. I don’t want to try to remember what year “The Bends” was released or what color the spine may have been. I’ll leave that for the more-creative folk with much more ability in the memory department.
The trade off, of course, is that I’ll be just another voice muttering an opinion into a larger conversation featuring a great many voices all talking about the same thing, essentially.
At least it’ll be interesting to me?
2011 was a bit of a boon for me in the reading category thanks to three items: a change of work venue, requiring a commute via public transport; a Christmas gift of a shiny new e-reader; and a rapidly snowballing need to consume all sorts of book-related media.
Ride the Bus; Read a Book
When I first started working for my current employer, they were located in a semi-dodgy part of town. Sure, you had to frequently dodge morning drunks, giant rain-filled potholes, and a considerable number of tractor-trailer trucks between car and desk, but the freedom granted when you have your car a block away, for me, greatly out-weighed such inconveniences. Granted, my low supply of patience does not make me an ideal candidate for driving in Seattle traffic, but I liked being able to drive to work.
Moving downtown did nothing for me as much as taking away my ability to drive to work. Many coworkers relish the opportunity to sneak out of the office for a mid-day shopping trip to Nordstrom, as well as a huge expansion on nearby food options, but, for me, those trade-offs weren’t really getting it done for me.
Sitting on the bus for an hour-plus most days did pay off, though. I am not the sort who can just sit and stare-off into space in such scenarios, passing the time with my own thoughts.
Maybe I don’t find myself that interesting, after all.
I did notice that a good number of my fellow Seattle-ites have chosen to utilize that bus-riding time to do numerous things on their smart phones, which did make it clear to me I wanted to be doing something other than that. Add in the fact that the gorgeous central branch of the Seattle Public Library was a nice little walk from the office, and I was ready to re-embrace a reading habit that had long lain dormant (too many years working the insane hours of restaurant manager).
My Nook…How do I love thee?
The Missus noted my renewed lust for book consumption and, at some point, realized an e-reader was going to be an ideal Christmas gift.
She was right.
Trying to ignore that some number of printed-on-paper-book fetishists will fail to miss the opportunity to assert their superiority for steadfastly refusing to ever consider such a device, I declare my conditional love for my little tech toy. I love that I can borrow books from the library without taking the short walk that was otherwise very good for me; I love that I can buy new releases from the convenience of my desk, when I can be coerced to going above my set ceiling of $9.99; I love that I can read in bed without holding hundreds of pages above my face and that, when I start to fall asleep and drop it, it doesn’t hurt as much and I don’t lose my spot.
Despite all of which, I still spent more time and money at bookstores, particularly re-sellers, than I have in many a year. I mix it up. I’m prejudiced against neither format. Whichever is more convenient to my budget and the whims of my selections of “NEXT!” wins the day.
And, I do honestly think I am able to read faster on the Nook than what I do with a printed book. I’ve no scientific data to back the assertion, nor could I explain why that might be, but I do feel I read faster on that little screen; this is not unappealing to me.
Goodreads, Twitter, Blogs, Book Reviews, et cetera
Now, like any decent obsession, I’ve taken it from its simplest form into some sincerely nerdy directions.
Like many, I’ve become a devotee to the Goodreads site. I have not necessarily dived into it as deep as I could or even may yet do, but I regularly update my reading progress in whatever I’m reading and, since I like to challenge myself, am continually spurred to push that number higher until I’m able to click the magical “I’m finished” text, whereupon I realize I’m not really ready to write a proper review and will half-ass some opinions on it. Okay, that’s not ideal, but I did also join the “Reading Challenge” and set a goal of reading 50 books in 2011. I hit 54 and won’t manage the double-nickel unless I find a really short book I just HAVE to finish in the next 31 hours. Unlikely.
Additionally, my “to read” pile/list, has done the opposite of Jonah Hill: it used to be a lot thinner and, probably healthier, but now has grown into a more humorously girth-y entity. Between having a nice, central place to track such aspirations (again, thanks to Goodreads) and the influx of great suggestions from various social media channels, I simply cannot keep up, so it grows at an unhealthy rate. There are worse problems, but if anyone reads this an knows someone who’s looking to pay someone to sit around the house and read books all day, please forward them to me; we might be able to work together to find a mutually beneficial solution.
What does the next year hold? How large can one’s “to read” list get?
Looks like I’ve already decided I’m going to write about my reading, which won’t give me more time to work on my 2012 goal of 55 books. Maybe I turn off the Twitter a while? Maybe I stop accepting the free copies of The New York Times Book Review, which ends up taking up substantial reading time AND adds to the pile. I’ve already dropped a few magazine subscriptions, though I’ve added a few literary quarterlies.
I guess it’ll have to suffice that I shan’t suffer these burdens alone. I’ll continue to publish these missives into the ether and feel like something is being achieved.
Just, do me a favor. Don’t recommend me any books for a while, eh?
I love, love, love used book stores. I mean, they’re wall-to-wall books, generally. Of course I love them.
Also, it seems to me that the people who run them are generally nice. I mean, they probably are pretty into books.
Ultimately, though, it’s the whole lottery factor of shopping at a book re-seller. You walk in, think of a title, and go on a hunt. You may find it; you may not. Sure, you go to the Border of Barnes & Welshans, and you’re going to find things pretty consistently. There’s certainly something to that when you simply want one thing in particular. When you’ve got a wandering curiosity about dozens of titles at any given time, many of which would not be recent publications or even necessarily prominent enough to be guaranteed to be stocked in many bookstores, it’s the used shop that feeds the beast.
The used book shop (well, the one I most-frequently visit, anyhow) in my neighborhood is Pegasus Book Exchange and, if I ever happen to be on foot in the area and they’re open, it’s pretty much a shoe-in that I’ll go in. The problem then is that it’s also pretty much a shoe-in that I’ll buy some books.
This would be less of a problem if I didn’t already have too many books in my ‘to-read’ pile, but I do. And now I’ve even more.
Because, like I said, if I go in, I’m going to buy a book.
“The Short History of a Prince” by Jane Hamilton
The Missus and I, when we arrived at the Pegasus storefront, took a few minutes to look at the bargain table out front. You can always find something on it worth the $3 they’ll ask for it.
That being said, I know not the first thing about this book. My wife selected it and I bought it for her. She said she likes the author and hadn’t read it. Good enough for me! She also was admiring Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Wise Man’s Fear,” which was on display in the window front, but also happened to have the yellow bookmark in it that said “NEW.” Not opposed to buying new, mind you, but it’s not what we were up to at the time!
It could turn up under the Christmas tree, though. One never knows…
Being what it is, there isn’t really a lot of room in Pegasus for a stroller, even if it were otherwise unoccupied. As it was teeming with shoppers, wife and son went on to the next store on our list of errands, while I went in to get my fill.
I did the requisite poking around in the general fiction shelves, hoping with little hope of scoring a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” which holds the title of book I’m most obsessively coveting. Since the publisher is keeping the e-book price at $14, however, I was only ever going to buy a used copy or wait for my turn at Seattle Public Library.
Sidebar: I got an email later in the day that told me my day had arrived for my turn with one of the SPL’s electronic copies of the 2011 National Book Award winner.
And, yeah, I’m that guy who had never heard of the book but, as soon as the award was announced, decided it had to be read ASAP.
“Fargo Rock City” by Chuck Klosterman
I am not sure why, but my sister bought me his “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” for Christmas one year. I didn’t know anything about it, but she was certain I’d like it.
Turns out she was right.
In fact, I’d like to say that Klosterman ranks among my favorite writers today. I mean, I’d like to say that, but can I do so while admitting that I’ve not read any of his other books? I follow him on Twitter, but he doesn’t really light it up on there. He occasionally writes for Grantland, which does keep me in touch with that part of what he does, but if he’s a favorite, I should probably catch up on some of his books, right?
So, along those lines, I spied this on the big table when you first walk into the store. I don’t usually look at the books there and, now that I think about it, don’t even know the significance of the books there. It’s usually a morass of mass-market paperbacks, or so I seem to think. Even if I weren’t already familiar with the book from before, it is certainly the sort of cover that would draw my eye.
Now I have it. When am I going to read it though? It’s on the pile. Along with the Ward book, however, I’ve also been given the nod for “The History of History” by Ida Hattemer-Higgins and the ESPN book by Tom Shales called “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” so between those and my current work on Maria Doria Russell’s “Doc,” which is being greatly slowed by holiday shopping and the like, I’d say I’m a bit booked through at least early January.
See? I really have no business hitting the book store.
“The Story of Sushi” by Trevor Corson
I don’t think I had actually heard of this book prior to purchasing it, but it looked like an interesting item. I do not really invest a lot of time or effort into non-fiction, but the world of food is a soft spot for me, having worked in the restaurant biz for FAR too long, I’ve developed a strong interest in the world of the business of food. It was on the table near the Klosterman book and, while not as fun as the cow with the Gene Simmons eye, it is again a cover that would hook me.
Get it? Hook?
“Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay
There is no way I’ll remember what spurred the conversation, but I do recall that among the fallout of it, was that my wife was a fan of this particular book, which she no longer had in her possession, but would like to again own and read.
Saw this on the shelf, called the Missus’ mobile, and confirmed I was remembering at least that much correctly. She assured me I was. I bought her yet another book!
Am I a great husband or what?!
One of two men working at Pegasus (whose names I should probably go about learning and remembering…and now I seem to recall that the older gentleman is Fred…yeah) said, “that didn’t last long,” which launched into a brief discussion about how it was rare to even see that title come through the store, which is why it doesn’t sit on the shelf for long. Seems like maybe take a look at it when the Missus is done, and I’ve read my lot of library books…assuming the “Tournament of Books” hasn’t put a whole lot of stuff in my “urgent” basket.
“Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress
This was a pure acceptance of a random suggestion by our local librarian celebrity Nancy Pearl. She tweeted about reading and loving it, which drove me to look it up, where I learned it won Hugo and Nebula awards. Good enough for me. Since it was recent enough and event for me to remember it, I sought, found, and added it to the pile.
Luckily, my sense that it was time to catch up with my family was strong enough to say that five books was plenty for today, so I paid and made my way down the street. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find out just what that Dr. Holliday is up to, now that Wyatt Earp has taken over policing Dodge City.
Ultimately, none of these sources of inspiration are what the greenies would call “sustainable,” but they’re certainly a lot more fun and interesting than “I read about it in the Times.” Of course, the beauty of these inspirations is the spontaneous or temporary nature of their reign. It’s a beautiful thing…until you realize you’re a few hundred pages into a book you really don’t like, making you second-guess the bliss of such spontaneous selections.
Banning Books Sometimes Makes Me WANT to Read Them
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I could cite a number of reasons I’d have gotten around to this book (maybe…eventually), but the process got microwaved when I read a news story about a school district in Richland, Washington reversing a ban on the book after actually reading it!
I probably shouldn’t be surprised that books in this day and age continue to be banned in response to bored busybodies who think they’re doing everyone a favor, but I am.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised that administrators who make these decisions sometimes (ofttimes?) make them while being wildly under/mis-informed on the matter, but I am.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised that some people in these positions might actually take time to educate themselves and then reverse course, even though doing so might put their prior work in a bit of a bad light, but I am.
So, while it could have been that the book itself won the National Book Award, or that Alexie can be very entertaining on his Twitter feed, or that I like that he’s a bit of a hoops head (even though the Sonics have left town, or that he and I reside in the same city, or even simply that I’ve liked what I’ve read of his in the past, it was a spectacular series of events in a town only a few hours by car from his birthplace that brought the book back into my field of view.
Ever See a Road with a Weird Name While on Vacation, Only to Later See a Book with the Same Name?
- The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
Happened to me!
The Missus and I were driving to Port Townsend on a Sunday evening for a little get-away when we saw a road sign for “The Egg and I Road.”
I’m not going to tell you we spent the rest of the journey trying to figure out why they’d given such an odd name to the road, but we also didn’t just dismiss it with a shrug and a “Weird…”
I don’t tend to miss an opportunity to browse a bookstore when on vacation. Port Townsend has a very enjoyable bookstore for such leisurely, vacation-paced perusing.
Eventually, I stumbled onto the local interest area where the title caught my eye, of course. Couldn’t wait to tell The Missus. Then I read that it was meant to be a humorous look at life on a chicken farm in the area.
Ah…now I get it.
- The Magician King by Lev Grossman
Despite my affinity for science-fiction and fantasy as genres, I somehow generally have escaped being a reader of series. I did read David Eddings’ Belgariad books all the way through, as well as some of Fred Saberhagen’s Swords series, but that’s about it, unless you count Douglas Adams’ increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker trilogy, which I do not.
Combine that with the fact that I wasn’t nearly as impressed with The Magicians as I had wanted to be, and I can’t really believe I read this.
Rest assured (and I know it was going to bother you), I shan’t be continuing if/when there is another to come.
Cool Title/Cover Art
- No Touch Monkey: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late by Ayun Halliday
- The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
- The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch
Considering I make fun of The Missus when she buys bottles of wine based on the label, I really shouldn’t be admitting that I do this, but…
Come on! If you’d not heard of The Reapers are the Angels prior to now, are you going to tell me that name doesn’t just kinda grab ya?!
Of course, if you get a mediocre bottle of wine out the deal, you still drank half a bottle of wine, depending on how much faster than your spouse you imbibe. If you get a mediocre travel memoir, you might spend a week slogging through it, while just begging for it to be over, which is considerably less enjoyable than the grape juice that came in a bottle with a female pirate under a shiny, purple moon while stroking a vampiric cat.
I think that covers the things I see on a bottle of wine and then try to hide all the bottles in the store, knowing that if/when The Missus sees them, we’ll be buying one.
And, please, vinters of the world, stop it!
Anthony Bourdain Wouldn’t Completely Hose Me By Blurbing a Crap Book, Would He?
- Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
Aw, damnit! Yes, he would! You’re damned right he would! Didn’t you read Medium Raw and note that he’d clearly softened up quite a bit since Kitchen Confidential? DIDN’T YOU?!
Okay, I’m sure there’s a better explanation for Bourdain pimping the book than “he’s soft.” In fact, I seem to remember it getting good notices from both NPR and the New York Times Book Review, so maybe the problem is mine.
And that problem seems to stem from not really wanting to read someone’s whining about their life. I mean, someone dumps a four sentence paragraph on Facebook agonizing over something or other and I want to scream. Why would I want a few hundred pages of that from a complete stranger? Because they run a successful restaurant?
And, yes, I realize I’d put this book already in another category, as I did originally hear about it via NPR, but I am a big Bourdain fan; him giving his blessing was a clincher.