Books, 2016

Oops, I apparently never published this post at the end of 2016. I discovered it only after writing up a draft of my book list for 2017. So I’ll post this now and my 2017 list once the year wraps up. These are books from 2016. When I mention “this year,” I mean 2016; when I mention “last year,” I mean 2015.


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.

Christmases Past

Christmas was a big deal around my house when I was a kid. It was my mom’s favorite holiday by miles, and my parents always treated my sister and me to lots of gifts — usually a few big centerpiece things from Santa that we woke up to find (unwrapped) on Christmas morning and a pile of wrapped gifts from my parents. Decorating the tree was a big affair, with the old classic Christmas tunes (many of which I play for my kids now) going on the stereo, and I would “help” my dad string the lights on the tree. It was the one day (or few days) per year that we would spend in our more formal living room, which mostly went unused. Here are a few pictures from Christmases as I grew up.

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I still have a few of these ornaments today. I’m not sure where the tree topper got to. It was a crocheted angel that I believe my mother’s mother made.

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Nothing like a cowboy Hulk. This reportedly is from 1981.

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At six years old in 1983, I was really into He-Man, and I very well remember the punching bag in the background. The walkie-talkies were a big deal too. The black thing in the chair is a little magic trick cabinet. I forget exactly what all tricks it could do, but I believe it would do various vanishings and transformations. The yellow thing at bottom right is Funshine the Carebear. I remember being disappointed to get the little plastic one because I really wanted one of the big plush ones.

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Here I am in 1985, still into He-Man (the spider thing is a He-Man toy, and it would walk when you turned it on). The Construx kit was sort of like an all-plastic erector set, and I  used the heck out of it and have actually looked in more recent years to see if it was still available for my kids. The little stuffed animal was light sensitive and made weird noises when you shadowed or shone light on its facial sensors. I guess it was sort of a precursor to the Furbie.

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This bike was a big hit — my first with hand brakes. It had foot pegs too, and a rotor that would let the handle bars spin freely, and I did lots of dangerous things on this bike over the years. I believe that’s a Swiss army knife I’m holding, and with the sleeping bag and arrows, this must have been a very Boy Scouts-centric year for me.

Student Spaceflight Experiments Program

A few weeks ago, my son came home from school asking if he could work on an after school project that would potentially let him send a science experiment to space. He and a couple of other kids had been selected to participate in a program wherein students from fifth grade up through high school design experiments to be performed on the International Space Station. The finalists actually get to send their experiment up to the ISS to be performed. Of course we said yes!

I attended the first after-school meeting, and one of the kids already had a long list of ideas for what kinds of experiments they might perform. My son proposed something having to do with snake venom and blood coagulation in microgravity, but I think his interests lay more in the appeal of snake venom than in scientific inquiry. It was clear to me from that meeting that his teacher was going to guide but not take over the project. This would be a student project. My son’s experiment would not likely find its way to the ISS (and, lest this come off as a build up to some neat announcement, I’ll go ahead and say: his group didn’t win).

The experiment design is very constrained because it’s expensive to send stuff up into space. Winning projects get a special sort of tube subdivided into three compartments with little gates that can be opened to expose items in the different compartments to one another. So you could put snake venom in one end, blood in the other, and instruct the astronauts to open the gates to join the two, and then observe the impact of microgravity on coagulation compared to what happens in a control setup back home. So you have to design your experiment around these physical constraints and with the understanding that pretty much all the astronauts will do is follow simple instructions and set the tube aside. They won’t take measurements or do other formal observations, and your experiment design has to factor this in.

My son and his team met one or two other times after school and came together to work on the project over lunch a few times. They wound up settling on seeing if microgravity affects the behavior in fire ants that causes them to clump together when they find themselves in water. They tested the clumping behavior locally and devised a plan for testing it in space. They wrote and submitted their experiment design and made a tri-fold display for presentation at an event one night this week. It was charmingly clear from their display that the teacher had let the kids do most of the work. There was a classic elementary school bulletin board border (with the wavy edges) around the edges of the tri-fold display, and sheets of paper were glued to the board without utmost tidiness. Other groups had much fancier (or at least much tidier) displays. It was clear that some of the other elementary school teacher sponsors had had a much bigger hand in the development of the experiments.

A fifth grade team won, beating out a high school team composed partially of some of my wife’s past brilliant students who were basically testing out like a cure for cancer. I don’t remember what the winning experiment was, but even its title sounded advanced far beyond what one tends to cover in pre-college science. Part of me was inclined to sneer about the teacher basically doing all the work for them, which was unfair to e.g. the high school teams who submitted work with a lot less teacher involvement. I imagine the winning students still learned a lot, though, and that, in the end, is what’s important about this kind of activity. It was tempting to wish that my son had had a better opportunity here with a teacher who’d set them up better for success, but I actually wound up feeling really glad that she let them do their own thing. There’s value in learning really sophisticated stuff with heavier involvement from an instructor, but I think there’s also a lot of value in being given some loose constraints and freedom to succeed or fail on your own, and where I’ve landed is that I’d rather my son have the sort of experience he had, with more ownership of the project, than that he win with the project more firmly directed by the teacher.

My son was really excited at the prospect of winning and getting to send an experiment up into space, but he also took the loss in stride (I was worried his hopes were too high), and I was proud of him.

Mold

I was clearing out some room in the fridge the other day to make room for a bunch of chili we had cooked and found this bowl of… something hiding behind some other things. I have no idea what lies beneath the mold, but I found the mold actually kind of lovely. And also revolting.

Bullet Journaling

I’ve tried many task management systems over the years, both online and offline, but no matter what the virtues of any given electronic solution, I’ve always found myself going back to pen and paper for the day-to-day tasks. The sheet of chicken scratch on the desk next to me just sings out to have its items checked off, and it’s harder to ignore than even an online system that nags me with alerts.

I also take notes by hand sometimes, or work out ideas in rough outline form by hand. Sometimes I just need to write things down to figure them out. Something about getting back in an analog state of mind changes the way I think about things and helps me amble through a problem in a way that doing the same task in a digital text editor doesn’t manage.

So over the years, I’ve wound up with todo lists and notes and scribbles all mixed in together on a single page of a legal pad. It looks something like this (a fake one I worked up to illustrate the situation, but very very close to reality):

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See a todo list at the top, and then the uncompleted items shifted to another list below, all mixed in with random other notes. Using this method, when I wish to take more notes and need a new sheet, I lose my todo list. And when I’m really busy and having trouble making progress on my tasks, I copy and recopy from sloppy page to sloppy page with no sense of how my tasks are moving forward (or not) through my week.

Earlier this year, my task lists started getting really long (really annoying to copy and recopy as I punted items forward day to day), and I decided I needed a better solution. Enter the bullet journal, a sort of cultish analog thing-management system that uses simple notations and a dedicated task book for managing just this sort of information.

I almost didn’t look into the system because the name turned me off. It made me think of writing crummy 8th-grade prose for a participation grade about whatever my language arts teacher was forcing me to read. Or it sounded like some kind of therapeutic thing that just isn’t my style. Or it sounded like some kind of bullshitty capital-S System, which also didn’t seem like it’d be likely to be my style.

Only it is. Or, a modified version of it is. If you search the web for bullet journals, you will find a lot of really frankly impressive stuff. People devote hours and hours of their weeks to making their bullet journals lovely, and I’ll confess that I spent non-trivial amounts of time looking at examples of bullet journals and wishing I were more artistic. I bought a few different sorts of books to try bullet journaling in, and I also bought a little ruler for drawing a simple straight line at the top of each of my pages. I bought a set of colored pens (thinking to signify task types with color, which has tended to be a good signifier for me for this sort of thing) and a set of highlighters. The pens didn’t work so well, but I use the highlighters a little to help me understand task type (meetings are highlighted in blue, super high priority things in red, and that’s mostly it). I prefer checkboxes to the little dots that bullet journaling suggests, and initially I didn’t use any other of the fancy notations, though now, when I carry a task forward to another day, I do use the right-arrow to mark the task as processed (if not done). Sometimes when I’ve got a long list, I circle things that haven’t been marked as processed, to help them stand out. A sample spread for me looks something like this (also fake, but representative):

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Nothing too fancy. In fact, it’s pretty sloppy. I don’t deserve to count myself among the ranks of true bullet journalers. But it works really well for me. I’ve been using the system for two or three months now, and I love it. No longer are my tasks mixed in with random notes. No more do I flip back and forth between notes and tasks I failed to complete yesterday. Tasks are in my task book; notes remain in my trusty legal pad.

Besides this separation of concerns, main features that are working well for me include load balancing my week and having a handy record of my work. When I review my prior week on Mondays to account for what I’ve been up to, I just flip back through five or six pages, and the highlights are all there. Sure, small tasks or conversations pop up throughout the day that don’t get recorded, but all the big stuff is there. Further, I have a sort of history of what I got stuck on. If I pushed the same task forward for several days, I can draw conclusions about the difficulty or importance of that task. Or, if I find myself pushing the same task forward several days, I may finally decide to highlight it in red to get the sucker off my list at last. Some people plan their weeks (or months, or even quarters or years) more carefully in advance, but I usually just try to end each day figuring out what I need to do the next day or carry forward.

This brings me to the other killer feature — load balancing. What frequently happens for me is that lots of unexpected things pop up over the course of a day or week. I’m asked to read (or write) a draft of something, or some unplanned meeting lands on my schedule, for example. Different things contend for my attention with different levels of urgency, and I push a lot of things forward. A Monday will often fill up pretty quickly, and what this system lets me do is see when I should try to get things done. If Tuesday is already getting pretty cluttered and Wednesday has one or two items but Thursday doesn’t even have a page header prepared yet, I might move a couple of lower priority Monday tasks forward to Thursday. This lets me reduce mental clutter for Monday (I mark them as processed with the handy > character) and keep working on the things that need to get done sooner without feeling overwhelmed by a long (and growing) task list.

Lots of people use bullet journaling for both work and home, for goal setting, list-keeping, event planning, etc. My home life consists mostly of hanging out with my family and reading books, so this isn’t something that has bled into my home life, but it’s been a really positive task management system for my work life.

Maisy

I haven’t posted about our mangy cur in a while, so here goes. When we last had her weighed, Maisy was around 70 pounds, and I’d guess she’s a bit more now. She curls up into deceptively small spaces on the couch, especially if she can find a pillow to cuddle with. If she gets a whiff of a shot at getting her belly rubbed, she’ll roll over for it, and she’s got a smile (if you’ll forgive the anthropomorphism) both winning and goofy. She’s about 2.5 years old, has been with us for a little short of two years, and has turned into a pretty good dog (though she still doesn’t reliably know her name or do much of anything we tell her to other than sitting, which to be fair is our fault more than hers).

She threw up her hands

For the last 11 or 12 years, I’ve read aloud to some portion of my family pretty nearly every day, except when things like travel or houseguests or illness have gotten in the way. It sounds silly, but this is one of the things I’m proudest of as a parent (my kids are big readers, which I feel great about). We’re in book three of the Wheel of Time series now (an old favorite of my wife’s that I had never read and that both the kids are old enough now to follow along with), and I’ve noted that people throw up their hands a lot in these books.

I’m an inveterate punster, and I notice and relish things like potential Spoonerisms, weird usage, unintentionally funny phrases, and of course opportunities to crack Dad jokes. These books have instilled in me a new habit of stopping to say “well if she hadn’t eaten her hands in the first place, resorting to auto-cannibalism wouldn’t have made her sick and she wouldn’t have had to throw them up” and similar (usually simplified) variants. For a while, these pauses got eye-rolls and groans out of my family, but then they stopped responding at all to my interjections, which of course makes me want to escalate (because I am a troll).

Oddly, the escalation in this case turned into almost more of a de-escalation, since instead of shouting or being more dramatic and doing the verbal equivalent of an elaborate elbow-nudge or pratfall, I started just folding the observation into the prose itself as a subordinate clause (e.g. “she threw up her hands, which she shouldn’t have eaten in the first place, but Bocephus continued to smirk”) without so much as a raised eyebrow. Thankfully, the family noticed and fed me with eye-rolls and groans and commentary about how fiendish it was to adapt in this manner, which was gratifying.