Sunday, January 25, 2015

2014 in review: Books

If only one blog entry gets written by me every year, it'll be this list! Year nine. Here it is; the books I read in 2014:

1. Hyperbole and a Half - Allie Brosh
2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
3. Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage - Rob Delaney
4. Little Brother - Cory Doctorow
5. Unmasked & Anonymous: Shimon & Lindemann Consider Portraiture - John Shimon, Julie Lindemann, Lisa Hostetler
6. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
7.  Allegiant - Veronica Roth
8. Farmer Boy - Laura Ingalls Wilder
9. Independent Study - Joelle Charbonneau
10. Thank You For Your Service - David Finkel
11. Assassination Vacation - Sarah Vowell
12. The Disaster Artist - Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
13. Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
14. A House in the Sky - Amanda Lindhout & Sarah Corbett
15. Selected Poems - Frank O'Hara
16. The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd
17. Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn
18. Kindred - Octavia E. Butler
19. At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson
20. Dark Places - Gillian Flynn
21. The Winner's Curse - Marie Rutkowski
22. The Psychopath Test - Jon Ronson
23. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Marjane Satrapi
24. Dogtripping - David Rosenfelt
25. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return - Marjane Satrapi
26. Pale Horse, Pale Rider - Katherine Anne Porter
27. Panic - Lauren Oliver
28. Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers - Don George & Lonely Planet
29. After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story - Michael Hainey
30. Life, On the Line - Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas
31. The Art of Clean Up - Ursus Wehrli
32. The Emperor of All Maladies - Siddhatha Mukherjee
33. An Untamed State - Roxane Gay
34. The Taking - Kimberly Derting
35. Glitter and Glue - Kelly Corrigan
36. Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening - Carol Wall
37. Blood Will Out - Walter Kirn
38. The One - Kiera Cass
39. Me Before You - JoJo Moyes
40. Free to Fall - Lauren Miller
41. Written in My Own Heart's Blood - Diana Gabaldon
42. The Last Letter From Your Lover - JoJo Moyes
43. Pioneer Girl - Bich Minh Nguyen
44. People Who Eat Darkness - Richard Lloyd Parry
45. A Beautiful Blue Death - Charles Finch
46. The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith
47. Sinner - Maggie Stiefvater
48. Mr. Mercedes - Stephen King
49. One Plus One - JoJo Moyes
50. Wild - Cheryl Strayed
51. The Thousand Dollar Tan Line - Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham
52. Dear Luke, We Need To Talk, Darth - John Moe
53. Landline - Rainbow Rowell
54. A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki
55. The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell
56. The Magician's Land - Lev Grossman
57. Attachments - Rainbow Rowell
58. The Secret Place - Tana French
59. Rooms - Lauren Oliver
60. Ship of Brides - JoJo Moyes
61. Food: A Love Story - Jim Gaffigan
62. Blue Lily, Lily Blue - Maggie Stiefvater
63. Revival - Stephen King

Total books read: 63. Not as many as some previous years, but more than 2013's 44. I made more of a conscious effort to read real books last year, and I'm glad I did. In 2015 I'm going give the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge a try, because who doesn't like to cross items off lists? NOT THIS LADY. 

Previously read: 1 (2%) That's, uh, more than 2013's 0%, but not by much.

Marketed for children/teens: 12 (19%) That's fewer than 2013, as a percentage of the total. At the same time, the total seems slightly misleading. I like YA books because I can usually count on them for an enjoyable (enough) read with less mental taxation than I might expect from a non-YA book. However, you'll notice that the list above includes a decent number of books by Rainbow Rowell and JoJo Moyes. Nothing against these two authors, but, for me, their books fill the same role as many YA novels: mental popcorn, basically. Fun, uncomplicated, hard to stop once you've started, a slight lingering feeling of "blech" after you've binge-read the whole thing. The first book I read by JoJo Moyes, Me Before You, was actually a bit of an exception. I've haven't found the same emotional depth in her other books yet, but I'm happy to keep reading anyway. 

Fiction: 40 (63%)
Nonfiction: 23 (37%)
By percentages, more nonfiction than 2013. Lots of memoirs, but a pretty decent sprinkling of informational nonfiction as well. I tackled The Emperor of All Maladies while I was on sabbatical, and managed to finish in time to leave the book in our final Athens hotel. Emperor was a fascinating look at the history of what we know about cancer, and how we're treating it today. I already touched on my 2014 fiction-reading habits above. One category I might give more attention in the future is "authors previously read." Looking at my list, it seems I'm very much a loyalty-based reader of fiction. I need more recommendations for branching out.

You should definitely read: Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Porter is a compelling character herself, though I knew nothing about her before reading the introduction to this book of three novellas. Each is interesting in its own way, but the title tale blew me away. It's the most amazing contemporary story about World War I I've read. Much like Hearts in Atlantis is a great book about the Vietnam War that was mostly written around it rather than about it, Pale Horse, Pale Rider made life during WWI real to me in a way I'd never experienced before.

Don't bother reading: The Winner's Curse by Maria Rutkowski. Set in one of those popular YA fantasy worlds, this book was pretty unmemorable for me. Reading back through a summary, it's only vaguely familiar. What I do remember is that I didn't like it. That's probably enough, right? Judging from most of the blog reviews I found online (which are probably written by many people much younger than I am), I'm in the minority here. I'm comfortable with that.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Greece is pretty amazing so far, what with the sun and the food and the sea and all. Today we made our way from Kalamata to Vounaria, which is a lovely little town on the Mediterranean. My great-grandfather came from here to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and as we discovered today thanks to some fantastic small-town hospitality, some relatives of some kind still live here. Which is how we wound up in their house during a name day celebration, being served homemade thiples.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ready for takeoff

Greetings to the handful of internet search robots that still visit this blog! Good news: there is a chance of more updates in the immediate future. Soon I depart for sabbatical number two, which won’t be quite as long as sabbatical number one, but still a sufficiently long trip abroad. In the past, I’ve enjoyed both writing accounts of my travels and having them to look back on later. So, in that tradition, I hope to get some thoughts and photos down on virtual paper about this trip. Call it Greece 2014. Game on!


Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 in review: Books

Year number eight! Here are the books I read in 2013:

1. Insurgent - Veronica Roth
2. Just One Day - Gayle Forman
3. Keeping Safe the Stars - Sheila O'Connor
4. The Wind Through the Keyhole - Stephen King
5. Down the Rabbit Hole - Susan Campbell Bartoletti
6. Because I Said So - Ken Jennings
7. Battleborn - Claire Vaye Watkins
8. Clockwork Princess - Cassandra Clare
9. Decorate - Holly Becker & Joanna Copestick
10. Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
11. Boundless - Cynthia Hand
12. Tenth of December - George Saunders
13. Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls - David Sedaris
14. Mom & Me & Mom - Maya Angelou
15. The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
16. The Busy, Busy World of Richard Scarry - Walter Retan & Ole Risom
17. Blasphemy - Sherman Alexie
18. The Repeat Year - Andrea Lochen
19. The Elite - Kiera Cass
20. Madison - Zane Williams
21. Joyland - Stephen King
22. The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes
23. The Testing - Joelle Charbonneau
24. Attempting Normal - Marc Maron
25. Dad is Fat - Jim Gaffigan
26. The Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout
27. Astray - Emma Donoghue
28. Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld
29. Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
30. Belle Epoque - Elizabeth Ross
31. Ready Player One - Ernest Cline
32. I Wear the Black Hat - Chuck Klosterman
33. I Can Barely Take Care of Myself - Jen Kirkman
34. The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith
35. The Magician King - Lev Grossman
36. Doctor Sleep - Stephen King
37. Just One Year - Gayle Forman
38. Levels of Life - Julian Barnes
39. The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt
40. The Circle - Dave Eggers
41. David and Goliath - Malcolm Gladwell
42. Hostage Three - Nick Lake
43. Paris, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down - Rosecrans Baldwin
44. One Summer: America, 1927 - Bill Bryson

Total books read: 44. That is ... less than half the number I read in 2012. Why the huge difference? I'm honestly not sure. I'd like to think that part of it, at least, was just less time spent sitting still and reading. But if I'm honest, I read a lot of magazines and such on the internet, too. I also saw a lot of movies in 2013.

Previously read: 0 (0%) Last year there was only one, and this year none of the books on my list was a repeat.

Marketed for children/teens: 10 (23%) Less than last year's 26%, but not by much. My reasoning from last year still stands: this has a lot to do with the nonexistent repeat read tally for the year. If I want read something and not think about it too hard, I'm going for something I've already read ... or a YA book. That being said, I'd recommend the two Gayle Forman books wholeheartedly, YA or not. I was so sad when I finished Just One Day and realized I had months and months to wait before Just One Year came out. On the face of it, the plots sound somewhat contrived (and somewhat reminiscent of the Before Sunrise films): girl and boy meet abroad, spend a day together, are separated, try to resume life but have a hard time letting go. But Forman makes it all seem plausible (at least while you're reading), perhaps because both Allyson and Willem are richly-drawn and complex characters.

Fiction: 29.5 (67%)
Nonfiction: 14.5 (33%)
A little more fiction-y than last year's 64%-36%. Why the half? Levels of Life, as the New York Times put it, "is part history, part meditative essay and part fictionalized biography." One of my favorite serendipitous moments this year was wandering into an exhibit of early European photography at the Detroit Institute of Arts and seeing one of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon's photos on display. I'd learned about him just weeks before in Barnes's book.
You should definitely read: Tenth of December by George Saunders. I enjoy short fiction collections, but it seems like the goal of many short story authors is to see who can depress me the most upon my finishing their books. (Jhumpa Lahiri and Claire Vaye Watkins, I'm looking at you.) I wouldn't call the stories in Tenth of December upbeat, by any means, but they actually contain some humor. They aren't relentlessly bleak! I suppose that in itself isn't a ringing endorsement, but George Saunders has written an imaginative collection of stories, eliciting a wealth of emotions that belie the stories' underlying darkness.

Don't bother reading: Billy Moon: A Transcendent Novel Reimagining the Life of Christopher Robin Milne by Douglas Lain. You may notice that this book doesn't show up on my list above. That's because I didn't finish it. I have to applaud the author for a cracker of an original idea here - kind of magic-realism-meets-historical-fiction - and I really tried to get into it. I wanted to love it. I can absolutely imagine some people really getting it, and most professional reviews are very positive. But somewhere around the middle of the book, my efforts to figure out what was real and what wasn't broke down when I realized I didn't actually care.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


No, this isn't a Sarah McLachlan album. This is me, cautiously peeking over the top of the fence, checking to see how many weeds have grown around here since the last time I checked in. I'm actually shocked that I updated as recently as March!

Whenever so much time goes by between posts (so, basically, any time I post nowadays), I'm never sure if I ought to be writing about something, or catching up on all the somethings that have happened since the last update. I suppose I should know by now that the answer is: yes. In other words ... just write.

My niece graduated high school, and leaves for college in a couple of weeks. This seems crazy to me, but it's true. I hope everything goes well for her. My college experience was great, and I met some of my closest friends during those years. Sometimes, though, I look back at all the growing up I've done since I graduated - how much less stress I feel over certain things, how much more independent I've become - and wish I could somehow transfer a bit of this life experience to the 18-year-old me leaving home for longer than a week for the first time.  I think my niece is already more independent than I was at her age, so she's in good shape.

I'm into vegetables lately. I have a half share in a CSA, which means that every other Wednesday I receive a box of fresh produce from a local farm, and then race against the clock for the next five or six days to use it all before it goes bad. I enjoy the challenge, and it's led to some pleasing recipe discoveries. You can use grated turnips and radishes to make delicious hash browns! Cabbage, onions and turnips sauteed with a little bit of sugar make a wonderful side dish with some crumbled bacon. (I've had a lot of turnips.) The past few weeks have been the best, yielding many veggies that don't really need recipes - just some steaming, boiling, or baking (or simply peeling), and a little seasoning, to be perfect. Eggplant, green beans, cucumbers, broccoli shoots, carrots, and sweet corn, not to mention strawberries and melons. I'm also a devoted patron of the Dane County Farmer's Market. I've been known to brave a Saturday morning rainstorm to score fresh heirloom tomatoes (and maybe the occasional spicy cheese empanada).

My concert and travel schedule so far hasn't matched the intensity of past years, but I've done my share. Freshman roomie Jenny and I saw Mason Jennings back in April. Solid Sound Fest in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in June. Bob Dylan, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Richard Thompson in Chicago in July. The National in Milwaukee just this past Monday. And more to come! I also formally applied for my sabbatical next spring, so, if and when that application is approved, I can start planning in earnest. It's been too long since my last trip abroad. I suppose there's nothing stopping me from going somewhere sooner, albeit not for 2+ weeks. I'm holding onto a vague hope that I'll have cause to use some vacation days on a trip to California in December, but if not, I'm sure I could put those days to good use elsewhere.

Spring 'n' Summer grab bag:

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Write all the things!

Whew, it's been awhile. There are actually things I could have written about months ago, and I just didn't! But, hey, there's no statute of limitations on these things, right? RIGHT. Accordingly, here's a post about the Second City That Never Sleeps event in Chicago back in mid-December ... plus a couple of other things.

The Second City That Never Sleeps. Letters to Santa. The 24-hour improv marathon for charity has been held for ten years now. I've attended eight of those ten. In 2004 I didn't quite make it for the entire 24 hours ... but even if you take that plus meal and bathroom breaks into account, by my calculations, I've spent upwards of 180 hours inside the Second City Etc. theater. That's over a week!

Of those eight years, I think 2012 was the best yet. For $20 at the door, we got an astounding 24 hours of entertainment. Look at this lineup, you guys. LOOK AT IT:

6:00PM guest improvisers OLIVIA WILDE & AIDY BRYANT
6:30PM Skyping from Dublin GLEN HANSARD
11:00PM guest improviser FRED SCHNEIDER
12:00AM Cecily Strong joins the cast until 3:00AM
1:30AM guest comedian FRED ARMISEN


More of the public seems to be catching on to the amazingness of this event, because for the first time in my memory, there was a line of people waiting to get into the theater until the wee hours of the morning. Thanks to attrition, around 2:00 a.m., everyone was finally able to get inside.

Favorite parts:
  • Glen Hansard singalong to "The Auld Triangle," via Skype from backstage in Dublin
  • Fred Armisen performing "Fist Fight" with J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound, recreating a sketch from SNL
  • Fred Schneider of the B-52s doing Fred Schneider improv exercises
  • Winning one of the four (!!) Jeff Tweedy living room shows
  • Kim Deal playing "Cannonball"
  • 2:00 a.m. flash mob led by Dina Facklis and Olivia Wilde; the whole audience went outside and performed a "choreographed" dance in the middle of the street to "Party Rock Anthem" by LMFAO 
  • Steve Albini interviewing Nate Silver; Nate Silver weighing in on the best burrito in Chicago
  • Robbie Fulks's "Rap of the Dead" 2012
The night after Letters to Santa (ended), I saw Andrew Bird play a Gezelligheid show at the Fifth Presbyterian Church. I'm glad the timing worked out so well. It was a lovely show in a lovely setting. I could watch songs from the "Hands of Glory" EP performed around the old-timey single microphone all day long.

I also saw the Avett Brothers last month in Madison! And Jeff Tweedy's Youth Scholarship benefit shows at the Vic in Chicago last week! The Avetts played the Orpheum, and I was once again grateful for the refurbished lower stage. At one point Seth and Scott took to one of the opera boxes to play a few songs, an Orpheum first for me. The Vic scholarship shows are all-request evenings, and it was great to see Jeff perform my picks of "Nothing Up My Sleeve" and "Radio Cure" acoustic. Plus all the other songs, of course.

 Olivia Wilde's photo of our flash mob dance practice in the Piper's Alley lobby. I love this picture because it is - just guessing here - probably the only time Paul and I will ever be in a photo taken by Olivia Wilde, along with Jason Sudeikis and TJ Jagodowski. (We're a few rows back, on the right.)

Andrew Bird's stage for the Gezelligheid show

The Avett Brothers at the Orpheum

Saturday, January 5, 2013

2012 in review: Books

For the seventh year, here are the books I read between last January and December. Number crunching to follow:

1. Blow Fly - Patricia Cornwell
2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell
3. Austenland - Shannon Hale
4. Haunted Kenosha - Candice Shatkins
5. House of Prayer No. 2 - Mark Richard
6. Blood, Bones & Butter - Gabrielle Hamilton
7. The Tiger's Wife - Téa Obreht
8. The Nerdist Way - Chris Hardwick
9. The Leftovers - Tom Perrotta
10. Life Itself - Roger Ebert
11. In Zanesville - Jo Ann Beard
12. Contents May Have Shifted - Pam Houston
13. Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses - Claire Dederer
14. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Mindy Kaling
15. Midnight in Austenland - Shannon Hale
16. The Actor and the Housewife - Shannon Hale
17. Stories I Only Tell My Friends - Rob Lowe
18. The Mermaid Chair - Sue Monk Kidd
19. Best American Science Writing 2011 - Rebecca Skloot & Floyd Skloot, Eds.
20. The Stand - Stephen King
21. Carry the One - Carol Anshaw
22. SEAL Team Six - Howard E. Wasdin & Stephen Templin
23. The Westing Game - Ellen Raskin
24. Happy Accidents - Jane Lynch
25. Cool, Calm, & Contentious - Merrill Markoe
26. Maphead - Ken Jennings
27. Looking for Alaska - John Green
28. The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
29. On Celestial Music - Rick Moody
30. Drowning Instinct - Ilsa J. Bick
31. 1Q84 - Haruki Murakami
32. Inside Scientology - Janet Reitman
33. Defending Jacob - William Landay
34. Inventory - The Writers of the A.V. Club
35. Paper Towns - John Green
36. This Is How - Augusten Burroughs
37. An Abundance of Katherines - John Green
38. Menu Design in America - Steven Heller, Jim Heimann (ed.), John Mariani
39. Travels in Siberia - Ian Frazier
40. Graceling - Kristin Cashore
41. Nerd Do Well - Simon Pegg
42. Will Grayson, Will Grayson - John Green, David Levithan
43. Fire - Kristin Cashore
44. Looking for Calvin and Hobbes - Nevin Martell
45. The Road - Cormac McCarthy
46. The War for Late Night - Bill Carter
47. The Machine Gunners - Robert Westall
48. The Lightning Thief - Rick Riordan
49. The Curfew - Jesse Ball
50. The Sea of Monsters - Rick Riordan
51. The Age of Miracles - Karen Thompson Walker
52. The Magicians - Lev Grossman
53. Pulphead - John Jeremiah Sullivan
54. This is Not a Test - Courtney Summers
55. A Hologram for the King - Dave Eggers
56. The Red House - Mark Haddon
57. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
58. River Town - Peter Hessler
59. The Likeness - Tana French
60. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Saenz
61. The Garden Intrigue - Lauren Willig
62. Faithful Place - Tana French
63. Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri
64. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick
65. Bitterblue - Kristin Cashore
66. A Complicated Kindness - Miriam Toews
67. Trip of the Tongue - Elizabeth Little
68. My Life Next Door - Huntley Fitzpatrick
69. Betsy-Tacy - Maud Hart Lovelace
70. Betsy-Tacy and Tib - Maud Hart Lovelace
71. Broken Harbor - Tana French
72. The Dog Stars - Peter Heller
73. Penelope - Rebecca Harrington
74. Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep - David K. Randall
75. The Lost Prince - Selden Edwards
76. State of Wonder - Ann Patchett
77. Bel Canto - Ann Patchett
78. Betsy-Tacy Companion: A Biography of Maud Hart Lovelace - Sharla Whalen
79. Out of My Mind - Sharon M. Draper
80. Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple
81. If I Stay - Gayle Forman
82. The Guardian of All Things - Michael S. Malone
83. Visiting Tom - Michael Perry
84. Before I Fall - Lauren Oliver
85. The First 20 Minutes - Gretchen Reynolds
86. In the Woods - Tana French
87. The Mansion of Happiness - Jill Lepore
88. Rebuilt - Michael Chorost
89. No Easy Day - Mark Owen
90. A Season for Tending - Cindy Woodsmall
91. The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach
92. Shadows - Ilsa J. Bick
93. Sweet Tooth - Ian McEwan
94. The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater
95. Flight Behavior - Barbara Kingsolver
96. Elsewhere - Richard Russo
97. Curse of the Thirteenth Fey - Jane Yolen
98. The Scorpio Races - Maggie Stiefvater

Total books read: 98. 14 more more than I read in 2011, and tantalizingly close to triple digits.

Previously read: 1 (1%) Much less than last year's 18%.

Marketed for children/teens: 26 (26%) More than last year's 17%, and I think this is directly related to the "previously read" statistic above. When I read books I've read before, my goal is usually easy entertainment. If I know a book already, I don't need to think about it too hard to enjoy it. In 2012, I realized that books written for juvenile readers can offer the same benefits even if I have not read them before. Which isn't to say they're all mindless fluff - some of those books were really awesome.

Fiction: 63 (64%)
Nonfiction: 35 (36%)
Lighter on fiction than last year's 71% - 29% split.

You should definitely read: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, and The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore. Nothing to Envy tells the stories of a handful of North Korean citizens over the past fifteen years; their lives in North Korea and their lives today. The Mansion of Happiness is a collection of pieces that originally appeared in the New Yorker, all touching on some aspect of how Americans have historically viewed life and death. Both of these books taught me a startling number of things I didn't know before (a hallmark of excellent nonfiction), while still being so engaging that I had trouble putting them down (for me, much more common to fiction). And the things I learned from each book weren't just filed away for future reference. They inspired multiple animated conversations with friends, because I simply had to discuss them with people. ("Oh my god, did you know abortion wasn't even a partisan issue until 1971, when the Republican Party decided to make it one in hopes of dividing the Democratic Party!?")

Don't bother reading: The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. Okay, I know, you're probably thinking, "Well, it is called 'The Actor and the Housewife.' And you still read it." This is true. But I am a non-snobby reader; an unashamed consumer of a good, fluffy novel. That's not what I got with this book. It seemed promising for awhile, but fell completely flat in the end. The events in the story require a truckload of disbelief suspension, which isn't a deal breaker by itself. But when the characters' actions don't even make consistent sense from one chapter to the next, there's nothing to fall back on.