Books, 2018

Last year I read 89 books, and this year, based in part on having gotten so close last year and in part on a comment by a colleague about how neat it’d be to set a goal to read 100 books in a year, I made that my goal for 2018. It turned out to be a stupid goal, and I’ll never do it again. I found myself skimming more than I like and sweating the goal a fair amount, even though I was way ahead of pace for most of the year. At any rate, I finished my 100th book of 2018 with a week to spare on Christmas Eve and am glad to be done with that goal.

I’ve had a reading focus for each of the last few years, and this year my intended focus was to spend a fair bit of time with detective or mystery fiction. I got tired of this pretty quickly, though I did wind up reading a fair few such books.

I really didn’t buy many books this year other than books for work. I used to have an ambition to have a big library, but I’ve pared down a lot over the years and in general don’t want to own a lot of books anymore, so I read mostly from the library this year. Because our outlying branch libraries are small, this meant that often enough I read things I hadn’t really wanted to initially because the branch had one or two books by an author I was interested in, but not the book I actually wanted. I generally took this in stride and just read the books that were available.

As I look back over my list now, the ones that really stand out to me are Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s When They Call  You a Terrorist, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag and her LaRose, and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. Jeanette Winterson and Samantha Hunt stood out as notable authors I’m really glad I encountered this year, and Lauren Groff and Louise Erdrich continued to dazzle me.

I had a lot of four-star books this year and no five stars (these are rare). I read a handful of books for work and reread a few books. I tried to read a fair bit of fiction that’d show me slices of life pretty distant from my own experience (e.g. books set in Asia). I read my daughter’s summer reading fairly closely, and I reread Cloud Atlas to then go and discuss with some students in a high school English class my wife teaches (this was fun).

I list my 2018 books below, by star rating and then broken into a few other categories (all books are listed by rating, and others are re-grouped only where called for in the later listings).

Four Star Books

I give five-star ratings very begrudgingly — the book basically has to have changed my life or worldview in some way — so a four-star book is a pretty resounding thumbs-up from me. By my count, 38 of the 100 books I logged this year were four-star books, which seems pretty high.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  • A Book of Common Prayer, by Joan Didion
  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  • Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
  • Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
  • In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje
  • Behold the Dreamers, by Imbue Mbolo
  • Huck Out West, by Robert Coover
  • Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
  • Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
  • Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
  • Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan
  • The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
  • The Seas, by Samantha Hunt
  • Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
  • My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Suhota
  • March: Book One, by John Robert Lewis
  • The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Letters of William Gaddis, by William Gaddis
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
  • The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time #5), by Robert Jordan
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
  • Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich
  • LaRose, by Louise Erdrich
  • Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Blindfold, by Siri Hustvedt
  • The Sundial, by Shirley Jackson
  • A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam

Three Star Books

A three-star book is one somewhere on the continuum between “I liked it well enough but didn’t love it” and “I don’t regret reading it.” If a book was fine but brief, it might find its way on this list, and if a book was long and not gripping but pretty decent on the whole (e.g. the Wolitzer books), it might make this list. I count 37 books on this list, which added to 38 four-star books means that three fourths of the books I read this year felt like at least reasonable uses of my reading time; given that I very rarely abandon books, that seems a pretty good success rate.

  • The Story of Your Life and Other Stories, by Ted Chiang
  • Warcross #1, by Marie Lu
  • The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde
  • The Ten-Year Nap, by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer
  • Coraline, by Craig P. Russell
  • The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance #1), N.K. Jemisin
  • The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance #2), by N.K. Jemisin
  • Celine, by Peter Heller
  • The Antelope Wife, by Louise Erdrich
  • The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich
  • The Keep, by Jennifer Egan
  • Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
  • An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
  • Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Furyborn, by Claire Legrande
  • The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  • Some Buried Cesar (Nero Wolfe #6), by Rex Stout
  • The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4), by Rex Stout
  • The Golden Spiders (Nero Wolfe #22), by Rex Stout
  • Champagne for One (Nero Wolfe #31), by Rex Stout
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • The Miniaturist, by Jesse Burton
  • Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
  • A is for Alibi (Kinsey Millhone #1), by Sue Grafton
  • B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone #2), by Sue Grafton
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  • Hum if You Don’t Know the Words, by Bianca Marais
  • The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Two Star Books

I didn’t enjoy these much but didn’t dislike them enough to rate them down to one-star books. These tend to be tedious or poorly written or simply not to live up to my expectations for them. For example, The Golden Notebook is a pillar of feminist literature, but I found it both tedious and overlong and just not worth the big investment, though I know it is considered an important book, and in a case like this, I figure the fault is in me and not in the book. I would have difficulty recommending any of these books to anybody based on my personal feeling after reading the book.

  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
  • E is for Evidence (Kinsey Millhone #5), by Sue Grafton
  • The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson
  • No One is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts
  • The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing
  • Candide, by Voltaire
  • Go Tell it On the Mountain, by James Baldwin
  • Too Many Cooks (Nero Wolfe #5), by Rex Stout
  • The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
  • The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance #3), by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Ballad of Tom Dooley (Ballad #9), by Sharyn McCrumb
  • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time #6), by Robert Jordan
  • Half a Life, by V.S. Naipaul
  • If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Ballad #1), by Sharyn McCrumb
  • The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn
  • A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
  • The Invisible Circus, by Jennifer Egan
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  • The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson
  • Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman

Other Ratings

I read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz and thought it was awful and gave it one star. I wrote a brief review here.

I also read Appointed Rounds: Essays by Michael McFee and enjoyed it a whole lot. He was an instructor and mentor of mine when I was in college half my lifetime ago, and this book brought back so many fond memories and was also just full of pleasant meditations on writing and writing-adjacent things. I don’t give stars to books by people I have some connection with, so this one’s unrated on Goodreads, though in my heart it’s a solid 4-star book.

Books by White Men

I hadn’t felt like I had read a bunch of books by white men this year (I’ve tried to avoid doing that as a default over the last few years), but about a third of the books I read were by white men, which disappoints and surprises me, though it’s an improvement over last year when about two thirds of what I read was by white men. I’ve got nothing against white men! I’m just trying to be more conscientious about reading things from perspectives other than my own. I did do a fair bit of that this year, picking up books set in or about people from (at least) India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Cameroon, and Nigeria and reading a few books about the African American experience, but this is still a pretty big list of white guys.

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  • Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
  • Huck Out West, by Robert Coover
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • The Letters of William Gaddis, by William Gaddis
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
  • Coraline, by Craig P. Russell
  • The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • Celine, by Peter Heller
  • Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
  • An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Some Buried Cesar (Nero Wolfe #6), by Rex Stout
  • The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4), by Rex Stout
  • The Golden Spiders (Nero Wolfe #22), by Rex Stout
  • Champagne for One (Nero Wolfe #31), by Rex Stout
  • Too Many Cooks (Nero Wolfe #5), by Rex Stout
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
  • Candide, by Voltaire
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time #6), by Robert Jordan
  • A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  • Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
  • Appointed Rounds: Essays by Michael McFee

Mystery and Detective Books

Fifteen of my books this year fell unambiguously into this category. I enjoyed revisiting the Nero Wolfe stories (I had read a few of these when I was a kid) and enjoyed the Kinsey Millhone ones (I also followed these as a kid) a lot less. The older noir-type stories felt pretty one-note. I had intended to read something like some Kellerman but never got around to it because the guy is so prolific that it’s hard to know where to start, and my library never had the ones I thought I might start with when I happened to be looking.

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  • The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem
  • Celine, by Peter Heller
  • Some Buried Cesar (Nero Wolfe #6), by Rex Stout
  • The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4), by Rex Stout
  • The Golden Spiders (Nero Wolfe #22), by Rex Stout
  • Champagne for One (Nero Wolfe #31), by Rex Stout
  • Too Many Cooks (Nero Wolfe #5), by Rex Stout
  • A is for Alibi (Kinsey Millhone #1), by Sue Grafton
  • B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone #2), by Sue Grafton
  • E is for Evidence (Kinsey Millhone #5), by Sue Grafton
  • The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Ballad of Tom Dooley (Ballad #9), by Sharyn McCrumb
  • If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Ballad #1), by Sharyn McCrumb

Fantasy

Most of these were family read-aloud books. I had high hopes for the Jemisin books but felt so-so about them on the whole (I’d like to read her other series, which I think is the one she’s won awards for; again I was at the mercy of what was available from my branch libraries here)

  • The Fires of Heaven (Wheel of Time #5), by Robert Jordan
  • Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time #6), by Robert Jordan
  • Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance #1), N.K. Jemisin
  • The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance #2), by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance #3), by N.K. Jemisin
  • Furyborn, by Claire Legrande
  • The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Nonfiction

I always wrinkle my nose when I talk about reading nonfiction, but I read a surprising amount this year, a little less than half of it for work. I really enjoyed Gaddis’s letters (they were a highlight of my year in reading, which I guess makes me a pretty big nerd).

  • When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • March: Book One, by John Robert Lewis
  • The Letters of William Gaddis, by William Gaddis
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
  • Appointed Rounds: Essays by Michael McFee

For Work

I don’t generally enjoy this sort of reading, but a few of these were pretty decent for what they are. I’ve written more about most of these over here.

  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
  • The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, The Arbinger Institute
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Young Adult or Kid Literature

I read about half of these aloud to the family and read the others out of my own interest.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  • Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
  • Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
  • March: Book One, by John Robert Lewis
  • Warcross #1, by Marie Lu
  • Coraline, by Craig P. Russell
  • An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
  • Maus 1: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman
  • Furyborn, by Claire Legrande
  • The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

Birthday Troll

Some of our close friends have a son who turned 18 this year and whom we’ve known since he was about 2 years old. As he’s gotten older and has begun to value money more than toys and such as gifts, we’ve rolled with his preferences, but not without making it a little (good-naturedly) tough on him. For example, one year, we gave him a box full of something like $47 worth of unrolled pennies. This year, we were especially late in getting a gift to him (we see our friends just a few times a year), and I felt like we needed to make the gift opening experience especially memorable to make up for our tardiness. I had been doing some wood working (if you can call my rustic efforts wood working) and decided to make him a box, pictured below.

Although I am no expert carpenter, the workmanship on this box is especially rough by design. There was a very real risk of getting a splinter or possibly even tetanus if he didn’t handle the box pretty carefully. I used some nails and some heavy-duty cabinetry screws (which I had on hand from a recent replacement of our kitchen cabinets). Inside the box I put several checks for random odd amounts and with silly memo lines like “For your 7th birthday” and “For singing lessons” (my wife’s inspiration, so that should we hear him singing badly in the future, we can ask him what he did what that money we gave him for singing lessons). I also threw some random coins into the box so that it would rattle, and this necessitated that I goop over some of the cracks left by my crude joinery with wood filler. I suppose this rigamarole seems a little mean, but that’s the relationship we have with this kid, and he loved it.

He spent something like thirty minutes trying to get into the box and finally triumphed by drilling a bunch of holes into it.

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Dice Tower

I’ve written about Dungeons and Dragons related things a couple of times now. What was a hobby I had undertaken semi-begrudgingly for my son’s benefit has become something I’ve begun to spend time on for my own interest. I watch Critical Role with interest now (not every episode and not always full episodes, but I’m sort of hooked). I spent many hours over the last couple of weeks preparing for session three of the Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign that my neighbor and I are running (alternating turns as DM and players) for our kids, and our third session yesterday ran to nearly six hours. I’ve looked at lots of game play accessories (dice, DM screens, dice vaults, dice towers, miniatures, and so on) online, and as a result, I’m now seeing ads for a lot of these things in Facebook, and I click them with interest.

Initially, I had sort of sneered at the idea of having a DM screen and certainly at the idea of having a dice tower. Who needs a special box to roll dice when it’s dead simple to just roll your dice by hand? But after I made my DM screen, I began to hanker for a dice tower after all, so I picked up some more wood and made one. What is a dice tower, you ask? It’s an apparatus you can use to increase the odds of a fair roll rather than relying on what might be a bad toss from the hand. The tower is essentially a box with some little ramps inside that a die will carom off of as it descends through the tower and rolls out onto the table (or, if you’re really fancy, into a dice tray).

I didn’t take step by step photos as I did when making the DM screen. Construction of the tower was, in theory, pretty simple. But I twice glued the thing together incorrectly and had to dismantle parts of it, sand, and reglue each time. Finally I got it put together correctly and then sanded a little and applied another coat of stain and another of finish. It’s not the best made or most beautiful thing in the world, but it roughly matches my screen and is surprisingly satisfying to chuck dice into. The dice make a nice fast rattling sound as they tumble through the tower.

Here’s the tower as seen from the front (the players’ view, if I’m using the tower myself as DM):

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Now here’s the view from the back, with the opening that the dice come tumbling out of:

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Looking down into the top, you can see one of the little ramps (mine has three, with the bottom one angled so that it sends dice shooting out of the opening):

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Since I didn’t join the two hinged panels of my DM screen together, I can place the tower between the two panels, which gives me a little extra width on the screen and lets me easily pop dice into the top of the tower when I need to make a roll:

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The tower’s height doesn’t match the height of the screen, so I suppose it looks a little weird. I enjoyed having it, at any rate. Wonder what random thing I’ll add to my growing D&D collection next?

DM Screen

I worked for years as a computer programmer, and one thing programmers often do (in fact, this is what gets a lot of people into programming in the first place) is to turn a minor annoyance into an excuse to spend a lot more time building a solution to the annoyance than the annoyance itself costs. I don’t write much code these days, but I apparently still have that programmer mindset.

I wrote a couple of months ago about how I had been trying to help my son realize his desire to play Dungeons & Dragons. We finished the campaign I wrote about in that post, and I began preparing to be the Dungeon Master (DM) for the D&D starter set, which includes an adventure titled The Lost Mines of Phandelver. For somebody new to the game, it takes a lot of prep to feel ready to DM a game. I read the campaign a few times, took some notes, made note cards for the various monsters we would encounter, made some notes for myself about things like how to run combat, and made index cards with key information about each of the players who would be in the game. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we had some neighbor friends over and started playing.

It was fairly fun, and I didn’t do terribly, I don’t think. For example, I drew a map of one of the dungeons on a big whiteboard, covered it up with paper, and ripped apart bits of paper to expose parts of the map our campaigners had “seen” as they forged ahead. We used lego mini-figs and a few other little figures from the toy box to represent our characters and to help us visualize combat. It’s perhaps not the best DM prep in the world, but it didn’t seem too bad for my first time out. Here’s a photo of the adventure in progress:

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As the game progressed and we met more monsters, I found myself juggling index cards with monster and character info, the book containing the adventure info, a couple of cheat sheets I had made, a little book I was keeping notes in, and so on. I also had some monster figures hidden away in a box on the floor, so that I didn’t telegraph prematurely what monsters we’d be facing (though in one case, I had to use a lamb figure as a wolf, so I don’t suppose I was telegraphing much beyond whether the creature was a biped or a quadruped). It was a lot to juggle, and it was frustrating to rifle through papers while trying to keep the game moving.

DMs have been using things called DM screens for ages. Think back to when you were presenting a science project at a science fair in school — DM screens are foldy things that stand up and provide both a way to organize information in front of you and a way to hide things you’d like to hide, such as DM die rolls, info that might spoil what’s coming up next, and figures to use in upcoming combat. I had looked at DM screens online but didn’t really want to pay for a cardboard screen that contained different info than what I really wanted in front of me. They tend to have loads of info by default, and while I need a lot of it, it can be pretty overwhelming. If I was to use something, I wanted something that could be a little more customized.

In my browsing the web for DM screens, I saw some neat, expensive ones and some fancy homemade ones. I’m not handy at all, but my programmer mentality kicked in and I decided to spend a lot of time trying to engineer a screen that would meet my needs (that is, help me avoid shuffling papers and cards around) and that wouldn’t look terrible. I found this explanation of how one person made a simple, functional screen and picked up the necessary materials. I carefully measured and sanded and drilled and stained and had all the components of a lightweight, wooden screen ready to go, but when I tried to attach the hinges, the very thin wood splintered, and I could tell that it wasn’t going to work. It was a little frustrating, but I wasn’t ready to quit. I would refactor instead!

I had some roughly 1-inch plywood left over from some house project a while back. I hadn’t used this initially because it seemed pretty bulky and heavy, and I had hoped to have something a little smaller. But, as clumsy a carpenter as I am, I figured my odds of not messing up were probably greater with less fragile materials. So I cut two of the boards (which were conveniently already each about 2 feet wide) in half.

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Next, I and placed my hinges so that I could draw hinge placement guides and drill some pilot holes, and I sanded. You can see here that I really am a bad carpenter, as that middle hinge is way off center in spite of some attempt to space them evenly.

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I had gotten some rare-earth magnets to embed in the panels so that I could affix things to the front. In my first failed attempt to make a screen, the panels were thin enough that the magnets would just barely fit, and they even stuck out a little from the surface. My intent originally was to glue them into their holes but have them exposed. With the new, thicker panels, I had enough depth to be able to drill deeper to embed the magnets fully in the panels and add some wood filler to cover the holes.

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Some of my magnets were a little bigger than others, so I had to break out a bigger bit and cross my fingers that I wouldn’t damage the wood as I drilled.

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I figured out hole placement using index cards. I can fit as many as nine cards per panel (though I doubt I will), or of course I can stick plain pieces of paper or paper of other sizes on as well. The player (vs. DM)-facing side of each panel also has a magnet at top center, in case I decide it’d be useful to hang something on the front of the screen for their view. Next, I sanded the wood filler patches down.

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Now it was time to stain each of the boards. I put three coats of dark walnut stain and three coats of oil-based spray-on finish on all of the surfaces. The picture below shows all coats of stain and, on the left panel, a first coat of finish. One thing I’m not really happy about is how much the wood-filled magnet holes show through the stain. I had hoped they would blend pretty well, and a couple of them do just look like little knots, but they stand out more than I had hoped they would (they’re more visible in person than in the pictures).

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Once the panels had dried, it was time to hold my breath and attach the hinges (the part of the project at which things went sideways in my first try).

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These are simple brass-looking hinges, and I didn’t do anything fancy to try to recess them in the wood or anything. I’m sure they’re not all perfectly aligned, but they’re good enough that the panels swing smoothly. Each set of panels stands alone pretty sturdily. Initially, I had planned to hinge the two sets of panels together as well so that they would accordion fold, but for now, I’ve decided not to. For example, I could imagine adding a dice tower between them one day, or just liking having fewer moving parts to worry about. They stack up fairly well when not opened, and though they’re not super precision panels of fine carpentry and are a little heavier and bulky than I had hoped for originally, they look decent.

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I just finished them today and so haven’t played with them yet, but I wanted to see how they’d look and how functional they’d feel with some of the real papers I’ve used in the past affixed to them, and they seem potentially pretty useful.

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I can imagine it’ll be a heck of a lot better than having all those index cards in a stack to shuffle through while also jotting notes, reading from the story itself, wrangling dice, etc. If you find the really nice DM screens out on the web, you’ll see fancy things carved or burned into the player-facing surfaces. I’m less of an artist than I am a carpenter, so I’m leaving mine plain (at least for now! — a month ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that I would use a screen, much less sink a few hours into making one, so who knows what I’ll do in the future).

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My son and the neighbors we started a campaign with a couple of weeks ago are planning to play again this weekend. The other dad and I are going to switch of DM duty, so I’m on the fence about whether to let him break this in if he’s inclined or whether to hold it back for myself

 

Kitchen Remodel

Our house is 15 or 16 years old, and we’ve never loved the kitchen. It was a little dated by now, and though I had always thought it looked like there were plenty of cabinets, we constantly had trouble fitting everything in. We have 9-foot ceilings downstairs, which makes room for taller upper cabinets, which seems great — except that we are short people, and the upper shelves aren’t all that useful. This year we decided to do an update, which follows on two floor replacements (one planned several years ago and another more recently that we hadn’t planned but had to do thanks to a leak that ruined our subflooring) and a revamped pantry a few years ago.

Our initial plan was to paint the cabinets (figuring that without major construction on the home, we couldn’t really do much to improve the cabinet space itself) and get a new counter-top, but when we went to price the countertop, the cabinets didn’t seem as outlandishly expensive as I had imagined. I mean, it’s still godawful expensive, but not as expensive as I had figured it would be.

Here’s a picture of our old cabinets, early on in the demolition process:

There’s a base cabinet and an upper cabinet missing where the trash can is, and then off to the right of the frame is a four-foot section of cabinets plus a fridge with the little useless, unreachable upper cabinets over top of it. I’ve torn all of those out by the time I’ve taken this shot. I’ve also ripped up the bar that expanded out from the half wall behind the sink there. We decided to shorten that wall and extend the main countertop out beyond it to give us a shorter bar area, or an extended counter-top, depending on how you want to use it at any given time.

We ordered some KraftMaid cabinets from Home Depot. They took about four weeks to arrive, and a couple of days before their arrival, I started pulling all the cabinets down. I was nervous about this, but it was surprisingly easy. My brother-in-law stopped by one evening to help me finish pulling out some of the heavier cabinets pictured here.

I paid a plumber an arm and a leg to disconnect the plumbing and properly disconnect the gas range, and once I did this (a couple of days before the install, so that I’d have time to pull out the cabinets containing the plumbing), we were pretty limited in how we could use the kitchen. We could basically use it as a hallway that happened to contain a fridge.

Here’s a look at the kitchen with everything torn out:

That cabinet to the left there is an upper cabinet that I’ve turned around to shield some pipes and messy wiring from the pets, who I feared would chew on them and break things or hurt themselves. You can see here that some tile we had put in a couple of years ago was tiled up to but not underneath the existing counters. My cabinet installer built these sections up to the tile level so that the cabinets would all be at the same height.

Rather than chipping the backsplash away, my contractor just ripped out the drywall it was attached to. Here you can see that, as well as the initial work to cut down that half wall:

Home builders apparently think of the unfinished home as sort of a big garbage can and throw their trash into areas they know won’t be exposed. It’s oddly unsettling to discover this sort of thing:

The contractor had to do a lot of prep work to replace the drywall, install plywood to raise the un-tiled portion of the floor, finish up the half wall so that it would be flush with the tops of the cabinets, and probably a few other things. Actually installing the cabinets went surprisingly quickly. Here’s a shot of that work nearly completed:

We got a new microwave because plastic pieces (including the handle) of our old one had started breaking off over the last few months, and we’re leaning toward stainless steel appliances anyway. Here we see that installation, plus drawer pulls and molding. The fridge is back in place, and so is the stove.

Now I could get our gas to the stove turned back on. We had been cooking on the grill, so in theory, having a stove again opened up our options a lot, but we still had no water or dishwasher, and we were doing any dishes in a small pedestal sink in the half bath that buts up to the kitchen (right behind the wall the stove backs up to). Washing big pans or really messy things in that sink was a no-go. I was excited enough to have the stove available again that I texted my wife this photo right after it was reconnected, though in practice, it wasn’t that much of a step forward:

The cabinet install took a little under a week. Next up would be counter-tops, which would take yet more time to arrive. You can’t get measured for counters until the cabinets are done, and we lost nearly a week waiting for the counter-top vendor to fit us into their measurement schedule, but they got us in and then we had another 2 – 3 weeks to wait for the quartz tops to be ready.

Meanwhile, although my contractor had quickly eyeballed my sink and said it’d be a fine fit for the cabinet, I decided to double check and freaked out a little when I discovered that it did not in fact fit:

Of course, I didn’t think to try this until the counter-tops had been measured for, and I panicked, fearful that I would wind up buying tops that had a hole in them for a sink I could not in fact use. I sent a couple of frantic emails and my contractor called me back and talked me down. It was going to be fine. It’s standard practice to cut out those little side pieces that were preventing the sink from fitting into the cabinet. He came out a few days later and took care of it for me.

Finally, our tops came in, and they were installed yesterday. You have to wait a day or so before putting plumbing back in, so that the caulk or adhesive or whatever for the tops can cure. This morning, I had the plumber come out again to re-connect the dishwasher and disposal and to install the faucet, and now I have a fully functional kitchen again:

The counters look great, and the cabinets are pretty nice ones. The doors are impossible to slam, and they self-close once you push them far enough toward the closed position. There’s a little toe-kick bit under the fridge-adjacent cabinet that we can store things like cookie sheets in. There’s more sideways storage in that same cabinet, and the big drawers on that cabinet have a neat set of pegs you can move around to subdivide the drawers to map to what things you want to put in them (the kids and I have tended toward more of a “let’s make a cairn of the dishes and slam the door shut before they can fall down” approach, which is (understandably) frustrating to my wife). The silverware drawer actually has two half-height drawers inside of it to add more storage space. Rather than a little dummy piece right in front of the sink, we have a little tilt-out drawer for sponges and such.

There’s still the backsplash to install (that has to wait until tops are done), and we need to paint, but the hardest part of this is done. We usually order pizza on Friday nights, but tonight we’re going to finally cook a real meal in a proper kitchen again.

Dungeons & Dragons

I was never into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I grew up in a hick town that I later thought kind of just never got the memo about D&D. We were more of a chewing tobacco and cow-tipping people. In recent years, I have run back across childhood friends who, it turned out, at some point or another, did get exposed to D&D. Whether that happened in our podunk town or later I’m not sure. After my sophomore year of high school, I attended Governor’s School, and I recall that there was a D&D contingent there, but I managed not to get folded into that group. I was more sporty than nerdy at the time, I think. When I was a kid, there was a D&D cartoon that I liked a lot, and in fact I did a pretty spot-on impression of this little unicorn companion in the show, and for a while I had a recurring dream in which a one-off character in one of the episodes and I became friends. Anyhoo. I think probably that when I was a kid, my mom would’ve discouraged me from playing had the opportunity presented itself, on the basis that it was probably just veiled devil worship. A couple of years ago at a company gathering, there was an opportunity to play D&D, and I thought about trying it out, but I chickened out because I figured I’d be too self-conscious to do the role-playing bits. That’s pretty much the sum total of my exposure to D&D until recently.

Fast forward a whole lot of years to my now-11-year-old son’s exposure to Ready Player One (first in book form, as is our way) and to Stranger Things, in both of which D&D makes appearances.

For his birthday this year, my son asked for the D&D starter kit, and I blindly bought it for him, not really having thought about the fact that it would require that he have people to play it with him, and furthermore that it’s a complex game with lots to learn. In other words, it was likely to require a bit of an investment on my part. His birthday was in March, and he’s been patiently waiting ever since for some way to play this game. I found the whole thing daunting. Would it require that I go into public and do role-playing things with people I didn’t know? Perhaps worse, would it require that I do with people I do know? Was the horror of extra-familial human contact a sacrifice I’d be willing to make so that my son could play this game he was desperate to play?

I’ve spent a few weeks ramping up. First I read a bunch of the rules. Then I found a local Facebook group about D&D, where I learned that I could indeed sign up to meet strangers in public to play, a prospect I really did not relish. Then I found some campaigns to watch on YouTube. Then I read the rules some more. Then I bought a campaign that I had read could be played with just a DM and a single other player, so that my son and I could ease in. And we started playing it. And my son is wild over it, and I don’t hate it either.

I mean, yes, it is kind of weird. It’s a mix of sort of fun collaborative story-building and annoying arithmetic and game mechanics whose vagaries I have a lot of trouble navigating confidently (“which die do I roll for this? do I need to do a saving throw? does Thrognar have a bonus action? is a gray ooze fire resistant?”). But it’s also sort of fun. I’m a terrible dungeon master when it comes to the game mechanics, and I think probably I’m too dependent upon the specific narrative the campaign lays out (mostly out of a fear that if I mess up one encounter, it’ll cascade to later encounters that then won’t make sense), but I think I may have enough of a flair for bits of the story-telling that I’m at least able to keep my son engaged for a few hours at a time with it. We played a couple of sessions over the weekend and logged nearly three hours last night that went by in a blink.

Once we get through this campaign, we’ll see about finding a couple of his buddies who are interested in playing, and I’ll try my hand at DMing for them, and we’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’ve by now watched hours of videos about how to DM by Matt Colville (these are really great, and he has cool stuff to say about gaming and fun and social interaction and even bits here and there about like ethics and philosophy) and have started watching Critical Role to see a really magnificent DM in action. I watched the end of their first session last night and was cackling one moment and riveted the next, and I mean this is just a bunch of people sitting at a table talking to one another (I’ve watched campaigns by other groups that are real snoozes). I think that once I get some of the basic mechanics a bit more by rote and have a few more best practices for DMing down (I’m playing right now with Trello for managing the game), this could be fairly fun and I could be not horrible at it, at least as far as the standards of 11-year-olds go.

I’ve got more dice on the way, and I’m trying to decide whether to keep this Tiefling Rogue character I started with or whether to go with something less flashy, and the next time you see me, I don’t know, maybe I’ll have grown my beard long and braided it and be in full dwarf regalia and speaking in the Scottish accent we tend to assign to dwarves and suggesting that you roll for Charisma if you’d like to chat with me.

Bookshelves #15

Here we end the penultimate row in my bookshelves series. Along the top there you see various and sundry notebooks I’ve picked up over the last few years for long-hand writing and a spiral sketch-pad I bought when briefly (and it turns out optimistically) thinking “I’d like to learn how to draw.” I don’t know why these’ve landed in this cubby, but they have.

The Burned Children of America is a short story anthology I got because it had a David Foster Wallace story in it. It also has several other good stories by well-known authors of Wallace’s generation like Saunders, Eugenides, Bender, Moody, Lethem, Lipsyte, and Foer, and it’s got one by Julia Slavin that really knocked my socks off.

I first tried reading Ulysses probably 20 years ago, and probably three or four times after that failed attempt, I started it and didn’t get very far at all past stately, plump Buck Mulligan. Finally, back in 2010, I led an online group read of the book and did make it through. I surely didn’t love every minute of the book, but I was glad to get through it at last, and though at the time, I said I didn’t know if I’d ever read it again, I suspect I probably will (and indeed have been feeling the itch a bit lately). This one I’ll hang onto if only to avoid sending my silly margin notes out into the world for others to read.

I don’t love this Moby-Dick children’s book, but I keep Moby-Dick books. I did read this one to my kids a lot when they were little.

I apparently misread Americanah. It read as a fundamentally sad book to me, but Adichie apparently laughed all the way through writing it. I think my misreading stems from my discomfort taking as comical the struggles of characters whose experience (and whose sense of humor about it) is so very far removed from my own privileged experience. Anyway, misread or not, I didn’t love it, but I do think Adichie is a fantastic novelist (her Half of a Yellow Sun garnered a rare 5-star Goodreads review from me and is one of my favorite reads of the last few years), and I’ll likely reassess this one at some point.

I remember nothing about Your Fathers…, but Goodreads suggests that I liked it quite a lot. I suppose I’ll look at it again some day.

When I was in college many years ago, regional author Alan Gurganus gave a reading that I believe was from Plays Well With Others, though I don’t recall whether the book had yet been published. I don’t remember loving the reading, but I did go out and read his well-known Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which I forget how I felt about. And at some point, I picked up this book, which I vaguely recall as being biting and sort of angry and sometimes probably a little boring and sometimes very funny. I’ve read a little bit more by Gurganus since and not loved it, but I would like to try this one again in the future, as I was still a pretty young reader when I last went through it.

I had never read Watership Down until we picked it up as a family read a few years ago. I had always assumed it was some sort of naval adventure based on the name (though that actually doesn’t make sense either). I loved it. It’s so well imagined and just awfully well put together. I recently suggested a reread to my family.

Tristram Shandy was a real labor. I read it as part of reading a series of sort of foundational frame tales a few years ago. Yes, parts of it are hilarious, but it’s also just so very tedious and annoying that it was a real labor for me to get through. I tend to retry the hard ones, though, so I imagine I’ll go back to it again some day.

I have a probably irrational antipathy for Jonathan Franzen. I thought The Corrections was reasonably well written, and I really hated Freedom, which just felt ham-handed and improbable (though in the realist tradition) and dumb. I didn’t read Purity because by the time it came out, I had read enough of Franzen’s other work and read enough things about him that I just didn’t really want to be connected to more of his work. I think that if his books really did the trick for me, I could put the antipathy aside, but I really just don’t think the work is all that good either. I’ve never read this earlier book of his, but I hang onto it just in case I brush this chip off my shoulder one day and decide to give him another chance, as I’ve heard this is a good one (but I mean you hear that about all his books).

Tom McCarthy generally writes things that tickle some fancy of other of mine. It’s been a bit since I read C, but I vaguely recall it as sort of Pynchon-lite in its treatment of war, technology, and spiritualism. I’ll generally try anything this guy writes and think of him as somebody to maybe revisit overall one day.

Ah, Mencken, what a troll. I first encountered him in a Southern literature class in college, and I bought this anthology of his work a few years later to get a broader sampling. I’ve never read it cover-to-cover, but it seems like the kind of thing I might dip back into from time to time for topical readings.

Next time, I’ll do a carriage return to the next shelf of cubbies, which features some good books but also a bunch of cookbooks that I won’t likely go into detail about and a mysterious background layer of books that hides some of my deepest shames.