Books, 2016

Last year, I recorded having read 74 books for a total of 25,500 pages. I fell a little behind this year, logging 67 books and 22,107 pages, which I suppose is still respectable enough. Last year I padded my book count some by reading the 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events series to my kids and participating as fully as I could in the Tournament of Books, which required a sort of mania to manage. Much of this year in reading to the kids was consumed by reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which contributed to the page count (these are 800+ pages apiece if I recall correctly) but added a paltry three books to the list. This year I read almost all things that were new to me (To Kill a Mockingbird was the exception, though I hadn’t read it in 25 years, so it was sort of new all over again), and I tried a different approach to picking what to read.

When writing last year’s summary of my reading, I noticed that I was reading mostly white American men. Since I am a white American man, I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense, but I figured it was time to broaden my horizons a bit, and the best way to do that is intentionally. So I made 2016 the year of reading people who weren’t white American/English/Canadian dudes. Brandon Sanderson and a late read of a Heinlin book (which gets logged on 2017 anyway) aside, I managed to avoid white guys. My failures were concessions to my family, who didn’t necessarily want to go along on my personal journey, though I dragged them along for some of it. The Sanderson at least featured a strong female protagonist; the Heinlein was a late break for my wife, who couldn’t bear another soporific read-aloud of Agatha Christie (who my children oddly really like).

So, how did I pick all these books by non-white men? Sometimes it was more or less at random. I actually browsed a little local bookstore a lot (enough that they got in the habit of thanking me not for my purchase but for my “contribution,” as if the sometimes not insignificant purchase was an act of charity) and read book covers to see what looked interesting. The store — Union Avenue Books —  has a small new paperback collection (I’m generally not charitable enough to buy in hardback) that rotates frequently enough that I could stop by and pick up a stack of six or eight books to last a month or two and find a fair few different books on my next stop. I basically profiled authors by looking for names that seemed unlikely to belong to white men, and when possible I would confirm by looking for an author photo or bio. It felt a little weird to physically profile people, and I consoled myself that it was ok since it was in the service of expanding my perspective to include the perspectives of people whose work I had not actively sought out before, but I’m still not sure it was actually ok. In any case, what’s done is done.

One thing I found was that when trying not to read white dudes, it’s very very easy to read white women. I read more white women than I really wanted to, to the extent that it felt a little cheaty, since though they do have a different experience of the world than white men, it seems very probable to me that overall, the experience these (I suspect largely entitled) women have of the world is probably very much more like the experience I have of the world than the experience of, say, a Nigerian Jesuit.

Now a word about my GoodReads rating system. First, I wish they allowed partial stars, as often I find five-star granularity to be insufficient for expressing how I feel about a book. Some books are better than three stars but not quite 4 stars, and it’s frustrating that I can’t express that in my quantifiable review. I tend to rate down, I guess because I’m a little snobbish and don’t want to elevate a book that didn’t really do it for me. So, a five-star book is basically transcendental for me; it changed my worldview or offered a perspective or a beauty of writing that made me really want to put it in a very small group of favorite books. A four-star book is very good and I liked it a lot (maybe even loved it a little) or found it exceedingly worthwhile even if not altogether enjoyable to get through. A three-star book I liked just fine. A two-star book I didn’t like much at all. A one-star book I pretty much hated. An abandoned book is very very rare for me, and I abandoned one this year (The Night Circus — irredeemable, and I wish I could bill the author for my time).

Of the books I read this year, I gave no books five stars but gave these 18 books four stars:

There were a few surprises here for me, notably the presence of some genre fiction in A Wizard of Earthsea (I wanted to continue the series but my daughter wasn’t digging it; I’ll likely revisit on my own later) and Epitaph, which is a loosely historical novel that isn’t at all the sort of thing I tend to pick up. Groff was a new find for me this year, and what a great find. The Vegetarian was more of a 3.5, but I rated it up rather than down because it was a bit of a puzzler for me, and I’m intrigued by puzzlers even if I don’t strictly like or enjoy them. I was glad to find Mason’s book so good, as I had read her Feather Crowns many years ago and found it merely ok. I would cheerfully recommend almost all of these books to just about anybody with the exception perhaps of The Vegetarian.

I gave three stars to these 37 books:

Lots of the family reads made this list. I hadn’t expected to like the Mistborn books as much as I did (and the third was kind of bad and thus got only two stars). Sri Lanka is well represented here in the books of Ondaatje and Cummings, thanks to recommendations from a colleague and friend. Africa makes a couple of appearances, largely because I so enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun (a rare five-star) last year and wanted to read a bit more from Africa (which, I know, is a very reductive thing to say). The Sellout was a big disappointment to me, enough so that I fear that the defect is in me as a reader and not in the book (it failed to connect for me in the way that a lot of Barth fails to connect; there’s something very smart about it but also something over-labored and thus tedious and annoying about it). Tartt delivers solid books consistently (two this year netted three stars for me and another four). I would recommend these books with less confidence. Some would surely land for some readers, but this cohort of books on the whole didn’t wow me.

I gave two stars to these eleven books:

The Erdrich was a real disappointment (I really liked The Round House), as was the Atwood, which I picked up randomly because it was on a table at a bookstore and I hadn’t read much Atwood and I was sort of feeling like maybe the U.S. was heading toward a Handmaid’s Tale-like future. My daughter liked Persepolis, and I was glad to learn more about Iran but didn’t really care for the book itself. The Stoddard and Wharton books were mostly just boring. Sanderson should have given up while he was ahead, and the Gratz was a real dud in my opinion after a more enjoyable first two books in that series.

I read but didn’t rate The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers because I’m very vaguely, tenuously acquainted with the author, and I feel weird about rating or commenting on books when I know the author (even though really I don’t — it’s a very very teensy, old connection, but enough of one that I feel weird about rating the book anyway).

Usually when I finish a book, I leave a very brief review on GoodReads, mostly just enough to tell a future forgetful me generally how I felt about a book or why I thought it was or wasn’t good. These micro-reviews aren’t really worth reading on the whole, but if you’re curious why a book landed in one pile or another and want to gamble on whether there’s useful context or not in my little review, click the link above and look for my review (easier to find if you friend me on GoodReads, I believe).

So, that’s 2016 in books for me. I’m glad I tried branching out. It was hard sometimes to avoid picking up a book by a white guy (there’s new Lethem, for example, and I got a book for my birthday that didn’t meet my criteria and has sat on my nightstand for 11 months), but I’m glad I mostly avoided it, and I’ll continue trying to keep an eye on how homogeneous my reading list is, and strive for heterogeneity. I think it’s probably more and more important to do so in a changing (or maybe merely acknowledged?) political climate in the U.S. that more than ever seems to favor the entitled and terrorize the rest.

Growler

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I got this growler a few months ago for “free” when signing up as a member of the Brewmaster’s club (basically I pay a monthly fee and then try to drink enough beer to get my money back) at my local Casual Pint. It’s billed as a $40 value, and it looks like a sort of scepter, so it certainly appears to be at least a $40 value. I feel a little silly and ostentatious carrying the thing around, but boy does it keep my beer fresh. I can pour a glass from it and clamp the lid down and leave it for a couple of days (though that’s a rare occurrence) and it just about bursts open with pressure when I unclamp it again. Every other growler I’ve had loses pressure after the first open and leaves me feeling like I’m racing against the clock to drink the beer before it loses its head. So, silly as it looks and as much room as it takes up in my fridge (the growler itself and not just its big fancy handle is a lot bigger than your typical growler), I’ve sure liked this one.

I got another for Christmas that’s much more streamlined, a vacuum thingy that purportedly keeps things at temperature for a day or so, and I’m looking forward to giving it a proper test drive too.

Paper or Plastic

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I’ve had a couple of Kindles over the years, but I always find myself going back to paper books. More and more, I’ve been trying not to accumulate books, though. I mean, I love them as artifacts and as decor, even, but I’ve recently begun getting rid of books I didn’t love or that I figure I’ll never read again, keeping only the really good ones.

Since I’ve tried to stop keeping as many books as tangible items in my home, I’ve thought about trying to read more electronically. Reading on a tablet or Kindle is pretty convenient when running on an exercise machine, for example. You just situate it on the control panel in front of you and flap a hand up to tap the screen when it’s time to turn the page. Compare to the dismal experience of trying to wrangle a big thick floppy paper book with sweaty hands while running. It’s an infomercial in the making.

This week, I finished the last in my current queue of paper books and debated trying again to make the switch to electronic books. Because I’m a miser, I thought pretty quickly about the cost difference. I can pay $10 – $12 for an electronic book and sort of maybe have it forever, whether I liked it or not. I can pay $8 – $16 or so for most of the paper books I’d want, and then I can sell them to a used book store at a significant markdown for store credit to get more books. If I don’t like the book that much (which has been the case for a lot of what I’ve picked lately), I can sell it to a used book store for (based on a recent experience) about 17% of the purchase price. That’s a pretty stiff markdown, but it still seems like a better choice for me given that I go through a lot of books and am fairly adventurous (I try things I don’t know for sure that I’ll like). The alternative is to have a bunch of electronic books I don’t like and for which I paid nearly as much as and sometimes more than I would have paid for the paper copy. If electronic books were significantly cheaper (say they cost $5), I’d buy a lot more of them. At the current price of electronic books, the trade value and the risk mitigation of buying paper books that I can at least get some money back for makes electronic books a bad choice for me.

I also still just generally prefer the tactile experience of reading a paper book. Call me a Luddite. The financial angle and the personal pleasure angle combine to keep me still firmly in the paper books camp.

Stranger Things

This week, I binge watched the Netflix series Stranger Things. It’s not something I would necessarily have gone for had I not seen it billed as pretty great by a few friends and colleagues. Here are some random thoughts on the series, in more or less chronological order from the time I started the series until now, starting maybe halfway through.

  • Steve is an asshole. He’s like Brendan Frasier meets maybe Johnny (sweep the leg!) from Karate Kid and every other entitled shithead kid from every 80s movie ever.
  • Is Nancy a riff on the female lead from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?
  • The kid missing his front teeth is great, sort of a highlight of the show for me, basically Gertie from E.T. meets Chunk from The Goonies meets, I dunno, kid Jeff Goldblum?
  • The title graphic is so perfectly Stephen King/all-horror-authors-from-the-80s that I can hardly bear its perfection.
  • Little twinges of Twin Peaks in the title music.
  • Look, these walkie talkies aren’t actually the ones we all had as kids (you know, the gray ones with the black and orange buttons). Get it right or go home. Also, they said at one point to tune to channel 6, but later we see that they’re three-channel walkie talkies. Are they counting by twos or is this a mistake?
  • Oh god, please don’t kill the black kid when he’s up in the tree watching the evil people at the nefarious science/whatever facility. We see enough murder of black kids by authorities in real, daily America.
  • Look, is this show for real or are you, with your super duper promiment 80s kitsch “background” details, just trying to appeal to my nostalgia for my childhood?
  • Who the heck are the Duffer Brothers?
  • The El actor is kind of horrible, but she’s also a kid and this is probably pretty hard to pull off.
  • Steve’s sidekick is the most freckled brown-headed kid I’ve ever seen. (It’s ok, I can say it, since I’m a freckled person.)
  • Ah, the good old 80s, when a 17-year-old and his nemesis’s girlfriend can buy a bear trap, some gasoline, and a bunch of ammo and nobody bats an eye. ‘Murica, Fuck Yeah!
  • The (uh, maybe spoiler?) isolation tank bits seem kind of right on.
  • Look, Winona puts on all the makeup except eyeliner when she’s suddenly not feeling like an isolated raving lunatic and is tramping about in an (uh, spoiler) alternate universe looking for her kid.
  • I swear the Matthew Modine character (the evil white-haired scientist guy) reminds me of some other guy who starred in a like WB show a decade or so ago about a widowed dad and his kid (One Tree Hill? — checked, and nope), but the only name that comes to mind is “Chut,” which isn’t a real name.
  • Awww, Steve’s an ok guy after all. Pretty bad (ironic? I think maybe not) taste in sweaters, though.
  • Please please end this and move on. Like, let there be closure and let us understand that, sure, there may be a second season, but it’ll be a whole different problem set with maybe whole different people. Please for the love of all things pleasant in the world don’t do some stupid bullshit thing where you give us a hint of some vague continuation of the next season, which’ll just be a like pandery pale shade of the current reasonably tight 8-episode season just because. Please don’t have one of the main characters under sort of mysterious, shady circumstances find some mystery box in the woods in which to place some food for the maybe disintegrated sort of beatified terribly acting numerically named character who all along I’ve thought of as sort of a surrogate for his tragically dead daughter and who happens to horde Eggos oh fuck my life, you’re putting Eggos in the box aren’t you Elliot Hirsch neé David Harbour?

On the whole, I liked it. I’m glad it was short, and if there’s another season, I hope it’s not a continuation of this season, though it seems like it will be. Everything doesn’t have to have a sequel.

Oregon

From July 8 – 15, the family went out to Oregon to see some lovely things and to visit with my sister-in-law, Ashley. We landed in Portland on the afternoon of Friday, July 8, and wasted little time in going out into the drizzle of rain to visit a toy store called Fegan’s and of course Powell’s Books, which was magnificent. We pushed our son’s culinary boundaries a bit by going to a Persian place for dinner (his verdict re the beef kabob he ordered was an unexpected “amazing”). Ashley had taken the bus over from her city a couple of hours away by the morning, and we went to the Waffle Window for breakfast (another “amazing” from our son, who had the lovely fruit-laden waffle pictured below).

From there we went to the Chinese garden in Portland, which was nice. We were most taken with the mosaics covering the floor of the place.

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Mosaics covered the ground at the Chinese garden.

We took our leave of Portland for the time being and headed west to the beach at Newport, stopping at the Otis Cafe on the way. It was a cute little (semi-famous?) place with magnificent cheesy hash browns and tasty breakfast and sandwich fare.

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We had a great lunch at the Otis Cafe on the way from Portland to Newport.

I didn’t get many pictures at the shore of Newport beach, but I can report that on Saturday evening, it was chilly and rainy. We dipped our feet into the Pacific ocean (a first for three in our party), and the kids waded a bit more before we called it quits. We swam a bit in the hot tub and heated pool as the rain ebbed, and then we retired for the evening to play games and have a healthy dinner of popcorn and marion berry pie from the Otis Cafe.

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A pretty dreary day at the Newport coast. We had to take 112 steps down a wooden stairway to get from our condo to the sand.

In the morning, we tried the shore again. The water remained frigid, but it was a little sunnier, and we waded and splashed a little before packing up and heading to the Yaquina Head Lighthouse and the nearby tide pools. I grew up going to beaches in North Carolina. A tide pool in my experience had been basically a little pool on the sea shore where you might find a few stranded creatures. At Dog Island off the coast of Florida a few years ago, the kids saw such a tide pool. My expectations of encountering a similar pool on this visit were way off. Here we found stones leading to rocky land in which pools formed offering us views of sea anemone, sea urchins, various mussels, hermit crabs, and a few star fish. It was really unexpected an lovely, far beyond what I had hoped to encounter and a real treat.