Categories
Books Review

Favorite books of 2018

Goodreads tells me I read 72 books this year. Though I didn’t read as many as last year, with a baby on the way I’ve been trying to read abundantly while I can, for both quality and quantity. Here are the books published in 2018 that I enjoyed the most. (See previous best-of book lists.)

1. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson (review)

You might have heard good things about this book. I’m here to tell you all of them are true. The pleasure I felt from the first page on is a feeling I chase with all my reading. Your mileage may vary, of course, but this kaleidoscopic story of Oklahoma City is more than just a rote retelling of a city’s history. Anderson wraps the OKC Thunder, tornadoes, Timothy McVeigh, city planning, a truly insane founding process, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and much more into a cohesive, sure-handed, wry, and enlightening narrative.

Choice quote:

Radar data, like starlight, is information about the past: it tells you about the distant object it bounced off seconds or minutes before. This can tell you a lot—that conditions are perfect for a big storm, that something is in the air—but it can’t actually look at the storm for you. For that, you still need people. Storm chasers provided the stations with what they call “ground truth.”

2. Circe by Madeline Miller

My highest-ever ranking of a novel, and it damn near took the first spot. A retelling of the story of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, this isn’t something I’d normally read, but the rave reviews made me give it a try. Boy am I glad I didn’t let my woeful lack of knowledge on Greek mythology stop me. I found Miller’s prose to be so rich and empathetic, powerful yet tender. Read half of it on audiobook and friggin’ loved Perdita Weeks’ narration. I just started reading The Odyssey for the first time; I sense it will be that much richer having gone through this odyssey.

Choice quote:

Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.

3. Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs

Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, imagination—all come into play in this meaty and winding travelogue around North America to investigate notable Ice Age locations. Made me immensely grateful for our (not so) distant human ancestors.

Choice quote:

We have all but forgotten how to inhabit this kind of fear. We gave up spears and skins and the weather on us day and night for cup holders and cell phones and doors that close behind us. What, I wonder, was lost?

4.Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

Picked this up on a whim and luckily was in the right mood for its meditative style and mix of mind-expanding ruminations on astrophysics, God, philosophy, nature, and the meaning of life. Do not read if you don’t want your worldview—or really, galaxyview—bent like spacetime.

Choice quote:

[Earth is] a large family of noisy and feeling animals—the living, throbbing kingdom of life on our planet, of which we are a part. A kingdom that consecrates life and its possibilities even as each of its individuals passes away. A kingdom that dreams of unity and permanence even as the world fractures and fades. A kingdom redesigning itself, as we humans now do. All is in flux and has always been so. … Flux is beyond sadness and joy. Flux and impermanence and uncertainty seem to be simply what is.

5. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear

Learned about this when I stumbled upon the author’s Twitter, which proved to be quite the hotbed of interesting replies about people’s habits. The book does a great job laying out practical tools and ways of thinking about behavior, especially in how conceptions of identity and systems influence it far more than emotions and willpower.

Choice quote:

You get what you repeat.

6. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (review)

From the author of The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, comes this new revelatory exploration of practical and transformative uses of psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics, I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind like Pollan. He explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.

Choice quote:

Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.

7. The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together by Adam Nayman

A big and beautiful book of essays on the works of America’s most reliably excellent filmmakers. Nayman covers every Coen film from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar! and includes interviews with frequent collaborators. It made me appreciate the Coen Cinematic Universe much more.

8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Richly drawn characters in modern Atlanta dealing with a false imprisonment and how it upends life’s expected narratives. I think this is the second Oprah’s Book Club selection I’ve read while it was still reigning—the first being The Underground Railroad—so I’m 2 for 2 so far.

9. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Wouldn’t you know it, all I wanted to do after reading this was rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

10. Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew

Discovered Mari Andrew on Instagram. She packs so much insight, emotional intelligence, and artistry into deceptively simple illustrations, and has a great eye for the little things in life and how to turn them into art.

Honorable mentions: Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Word of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Favorite non-2018 books I read this year

  • On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
  • A Life In Parts by Bryan Cranston
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Truman by David McCullough
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (review)
Categories
Etc. Life

2018 in Review

See other year in review posts.

What am I doing New Year’s Eve? Looking back at my 2018 calendar and logbook to remember the notable happenings that made up my year. In roughly chronological order:

  • Started a paper logbook (a la Austin Kleon) in a Moleskine notebook I got for Christmas. Have actually kept it going regularly, and enjoy it much more than my previous journals in composition notebooks, probably because it’s not lined. This encourages me to do things like magazine mashups and tape other life ephemera and keepsakes inside. It’s a much richer diary because of that.
  • 2/24/18 log: “Today at work an older guy was looking for White Heat, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I found them on the DVD shelves and he said, ‘You’re the nicest guy on this side of the tracks.’ Thank you?”
  • Started going to a local independent barber shop and love it
  • Wrote or quoted some opinions about Donald Trump and have yet to be proven wrong
  • Got a real, professional massage and why don’t I do that more often?
  • Saw I’m With Her in concert at Thalia Hall
  • Wrote several Refer Madness columns for Booklist
  • Bought a Royal Arrow typewriter and then sold my rickety Royal Quiet De Luxe
  • Saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Music Box in Chicago
  • Saw The Okee Dokee Brothers at Lincoln Hall
  • Went to a college friend’s wedding at my alma mater
  • Switched to Firefox, fixed Twitter, and made other tech improvements
  • Hosted a type-in at an Evanston bookstore
  • Went on a pontoon boat with family in Madison
  • Had octopus and a sake bomb for the first time in Wicker Park with college friends
  • Went to Midsommarfest in Andersonville, where I bought my first pair of real Birkenstocks and got roped into a Swedish dance circle
  • Learned my wife was pregnant with our first child, visited Starved Rock, then saw Hamilton on stage, all within 24 hours
  • Walked the Custer Street Fair with friends, got dinner and dessert and talked tech ethics
  • Acquired, cleaned, and quickly sold a gorgeous Royal Empress
  • Went to wife’s cousin’s wedding at Illinois Beach State Park
  • Visited Colorado for my friend Tim’s wedding in Denver: stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb in Maintou Springs, hiked in the Rocky Mountain National Park, rode a vintage Otis elevator at the Hotel Boulderado, ogled the stunning Boulder Public Library, toured the Celestial Seasonings headquarters, wended through the hoodoos of the Painted Mines Interpretive Park, shot billiards until 1 AM, cried and danced and gave a speech at Tim’s wedding
  • Won my case on Judge John Hodgman
  • Celebrated 10 years of filmlogging
  • Spent a few days fishing and lounging in the restorative Northwoods of Wisconsin
  • Saw Rayland Baxter at Lincoln Hall
  • Went to a Cubs game on a super hot day
  • Gave my Royal Futura 800 to a neighbor who needed it
  • Went to another Cubs game on a super beautiful day
  • Got a Fisher space pen for my birthday and it’s fun to use
  • Visited Colorado again for my friend Taylor’s wedding: whacked balls at Top Golf, beheld the Crush Walls, sang the processional along with the wedding party, cried and danced hard
  • Tried to make a typewriter emoticon happen ‘(:::)
  • Canned homemade applesauce with the family
  • Dressed as Fred Rogers for Halloween
  • Went to Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for the first time and sat in the Al Capone booth
  • Saw sound designer Gary Rydstrom speak at Northwestern
  • Acquired a new Olympia SM7 with an interesting story
  • Had fun putting together a LEGO Delorean
  • Released a full-length album of old demos called The Wonder Of It All
  • All things Baby C: baby showers, appointments, clothes, toys, books, classes, and so much more
  • Got a portable washing machine
  • Wrote some good blog posts, like:
  • Watched 70 movies (old and new) and read 72 books, according to my logbook
  • Read 2 presidential biographies: John Tyler and Harry Truman
  • Watched several good TV shows: The Crown season 1 and 2, Big Mouth season 2, Queer Eye seasons 1 and 2, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, and Big Little Lies
Categories
Film

Revisiting my top films of 2008

Ten years ago I ranked my top 10 films of 2008. (I also started filmlogging.) Since last year’s revisit of my top films of 2007 was so fun, I thought I’d make this an annual tradition.

Here’s my original 2008 list:

  1. WALL-E
  2. Happy-Go-Lucky
  3. Man on Wire
  4. In Bruges
  5. Rachel Getting Married
  6. Shotgun Stories
  7. The Dark Knight ­­
  8. Tell No One
  9. Encounters at the End of the World
  10. Milk

Lots of interesting choices here. Kinda shocked Happy-Go-Lucky was so high and that Milk made the list. Also surprised I was so into Man on Wire and Rachel Getting Married. That year in general was a time with an odd mix of hope (Obama elected) and darkness (the world economy). The tenor of these picks falls all along that spectrum, as I suppose any year with a properly diverse array of films should.

Ten years out, that hope-despair spectrum remains but my taste has changed, if only slightly. As always, without rewatching all the candidates it’s hard to make a totally fair and accurate list, but here’s where my gut goes:

  1. Summer Hours
  2. WALL-E
  3. Goodbye Solo
  4. In Bruges
  5. Shotgun Stories
  6. Tell No One
  7. Man on Wire
  8. The Dark Knight
  9. Rachel Getting Married
  10. Encounters at the End of the World

With honorable mention to Rachel Getting Married, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Iron Man, Burn After Reading, The Wrestler, W., Happy-Go-Lucky, and Milk.

The precipitous drop of Happy-Go-Lucky, which went from #2 to honorable mention, was surprising. Perhaps a rewatch would put it back on the list. But I had to crown a new champion in Summer Hours, the Olivier Assayas family drama, and bump Milk for Goodbye Solo.

I fondly recall watching all of these during college, when I was also discovering so many old and new films in the cinephile canon. My college library and the public library were go-to sources. Some things never change.

Categories
Technology

Code of Ethics for engineers (and everyone)

Not sure where I found this on the interwebs, but I immediately fell in love with it—not for the engineering and robotics aspect, but for how it can be used for any creative work:

Let’s call these the 10 Commandments of Creative Work. Just replace “robot” with your art of choice:

1. Be industrious. Build, test, repeat.

2. Follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

3. Ask questions. Always.

4. Try things you’ve never tried before. There are many solutions to one problem.

5. Don’t fall apart if your robot does. It’s a chance to begin again.

6. Keep tinkering even if you’ve run out of ideas. Building will bring you more ideas.

7. Save your best ideas in secret notebooks.

8. Read lots of books about other things. Things that are not robots.

9. Pay attention to dreams.

10. Remember: the best robots are the ones you haven’t thought of yet.

Categories
Music

Music of the moment, ctd

An ongoing series on music I’ve encountered recently.

“Strange American Dream” by Rayland Baxter, Wide Awake
Recently I decided I wanted to find a way to regularly hear new music. If only there were a podcast, I thought, from a renowned media company that featured new music every week. Then I realized that was NPR’s All Songs Considered, a podcast I’ve known about for years but never listened to. The first episode I heard featured this song. I was hooked right away, dove into his back catalog, and then found out he was playing in Chicago exactly when I could make it. It was a great show: he’s like the lovechild of Tom Petty and Steve Miller Band, with a dash of U2.

“Waiting on a Song” by Dan Auerbach, Waiting on a Song
I was on a Black Keys-adjacent kick and realized I hadn’t listened to Auerbach’s solo stuff. I didn’t care for Keep It Hid, but Waiting on a Song is a sparkling mix of pop, rock, and soul.

“To the Great Unknown” by Cloud Cult, The Seeker
A buddy of mine told me about Cloud Cult in the midst of a deep conversation about the mysteries of the universe. Turns out Cloud Cult is a great guide in that journey. I can’t decide if I actually like Minowa’s voice or not, but the combination of stargazing lyrics and indie rock just does something for me.

“The Last Goodbye” by Uncle Earl, Waterloo, Tennessee
Pretty sure I have Abigail Washburn’s Wikipedia page to thank for stumbling upon this band she was in before her solo work. Combining her voice and banjo-fueled folk music can never go wrong.

“Steamboat Whistle Blues” by John Hartford, Aereo-Plain
Without realizing it, the first Hartford song I heard was Sara Watkins’ cover of “Long Hot Summer Days” almost a decade ago. It took until recently to look into his stuff, and the banjo-heavy “newgrass” of Aereo-Plain emerged as the favorite. It has several straight-up weird songs, but this one ain’t one of them:

Categories
Life

‘Remember what’s important’ and other principles of the modern hunter-gatherer

Humans are not hunter-gatherers anymore, but we were for a long time. Nicholas Bate has a list of 50 skills we collectively gained from that era can go to waste in our modern existence, unless we realize how useful they still are. I like the list because it combines small practicalities with big-picture stuff. For example:

Tell stories that fire the imagination.

Use eyes for distances beyond the screen: look long, look up.

Remember what’s important.

Stare at night skies unpolluted by light.

Establish rituals: writing, building & crafting, reflecting

No elevators. No escalators. No PPT. No Facebook after the sun sets.

Be self-reliant: learn how it works, from pensions to mowers.

Believe in magic.

Scan the horizon.

Evolve, change and learn from the masters.

Never let the fire go out.

Categories
Etc. Life

How to have better conversations

Via Kottke, here are radio interviewer Celeste Headlee’s 10 tips for better conversations:

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

I’m better at some of these than others. I think about #6 a lot because it’s so easy to do, and I think about #5 a lot because, for me at least, it’s so hard to do.

Additionally, WSJ’s “Save Yourself From Tedious Small Talk” offers some conversation-openers that spark pleasure and deeper thinking beyond today’s weather and the traffic you hit on your way here:

  • Have you been working on anything exciting recently?
  • What was the highlight of your day?
  • Any exciting plans this summer?
  • What do you do to relax?
  • What’s keeping you awake at night?
Categories
Books

Favorite Books of 2017

Goodreads tells me I read one less book this year than last. Though always tempted to read ever more and more, I’ve become less concerned about hitting arbitrary reading quotas, so I’m able to better enjoy the books I do read. Here are the 2017 books I enjoyed the most, with links to reviews I wrote when I read them:

  1. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (review)

  2. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler (review)

  3. High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel

  4. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

  5. The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World by Damon Krukowski (review)

  6. Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks (review)

  7. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs (review)

  8. Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings by Josh Larsen (review)

  9. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (review)

  10. The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse (review)


Honorable mentions:

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries by Anders Rydell (review)

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier by Theodore Catton

Categories
Etc. Life

2017 in review

NYE2017-windows

See other year in review posts.

This is the view from my New Year’s Eve. Since I can count the number of degrees it is outside on one hand, I decided to stay in this morning to look back at my 2017 calendar and remember the notable events, trips, and people that made up my year. In chronological order:

  • The Packers beating the Giants and the Cowboys in the playoffs.
  • Going down to Florida for my cousin’s funeral was the definition of bittersweet: horrible reason for being there, but good opportunity to see family we don’t see very often.
  • Sold two typewriters for more than I bought them for. It’s a seller’s market out there.
  • Went to Ann Arbor, MI, for the first time for a baby shower and hung out with far flung friends.
  • Starting a two-person book club with my friend Josh, where we get together to eat and discuss the book, along with politics, religion, and everything under the sun. I call them our “save the world” sessions because we sort through the miasma of current events and decide on the proper way to fix them. If only D.C. would listen in!
  • Bar trivia with Jenny and her cousins. Weren’t close to winning, but reminded me I should do bar trivia more.
  • Had neighbors over for dinner, which reminded me we should have neighbors over for dinner more.
  • Saw my grandma the day before she died. Though by that time she was unresponsive, the timing was fortuitous.
  • Long weekend trip to the Twin Cities to visit friends. Hung out with their awesome kids and gallivanted around town.
  • Hosted a marriage proposal in our apartment by people who used to live in it.
  • Saw Sandra McCracken at The Union with Jenny, three of my favorite things.
  • Got quoted in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, then hosted a discussion about the book at a local potluck.
  • Went to Durham, NC, for a wedding and loved it.
  • Continued playing ultimate frisbee Sunday afternoons when I was able, and loving the feeling of a perfectly thrown touchdown.
  • Got to facilitate two dozen very cute interviews between 3rd graders for a local history project at my library.
  • Saw the Cubs lose to the Brewers at Wrigley Field on a cold and rainy day. Highlights within that include seeing two of Jenny’s cousins there, and Nick Offerman walking directly past us after singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.
  • Went to my first local ward meeting, in a post-election effort to become more civically engaged.
  • Had a quick and haphazard solo recording session of some of my songs. Won’t be able to use most of it, but it reminded me of the agony and ecstasy of recording.
  • Took several quick trips to Jenny’s family cottage in Michigan, including over Independence Day weekend.
  • Celebrated two years of marriage to my bride, who supports my weird hobbies and makes me want to be a better person.
  • Went to ALA 2017 in Chicago. Seeing the Librarian of Congress was a highlight.
  • Called or hung out with several friends, new and old, to catch up and get to know each other, all of which I appreciate.
  • Drove to Toronto for a family wedding. The 8-hour drive wasn’t so great, but being there for the first time was.
  • Convened with family in Cape May, NJ, for a reunion of sorts, then caravanned to Elkins, WV, for grandma’s memorial service. Saw lots of extended family for the first time and got to hang with my cousins’ kids, who grow too fast.
  • Played golf for the first time in at least 15 years in Elkins the morning of the memorial. Grateful for my cousin’s husband’s caddying and encouragement the whole rushed 9. Sank one sweet putt and had one great approach shot, otherwise: A for effort.
  • My sister visited to see Billy Joel at Wrigley Field. We were planning to just listen from outside the ballpark as I did years ago with a friend for Paul McCartney, but on a whim we checked the box office for tickets and decided to jump on them as an early birthday present to me. Awesome show.
  • Saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, California Typewriter, and Columbus at the Music Box Theater.
  • Hosted several friends and family overnight on our pullout couch-bed, having each of them leave a note in our guest book.
  • Went to college homecoming for the first time since graduating, and got an alumni discount on a t-shirt as a reward.
  • Got an advance copy of Tom Hanks’ typewriter book, which I reviewed, then photographed with one of my typers, which got on the news. Then got a letter from the man himself.
  • Met up with friends in Asheville, NC, which was gorgeous and fun.
  • Wrote a post a day for #Novemblog2017 instead of trying and failing to write a novel I wouldn’t enjoy doing anyway. Some favorites: This is my alarm clockWant to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader, Google Past, and In praise of wedding reception air drumming.
  • Got invited to a Friendsgiving and tried to build a gingerbread house with a kid who was super stoked about it.
  • Welcomed long-awaited nephew Olin Charles into the world, and began taking pictures of him immediately.
  • Got some books, a Merriam-Webster t-shirt, a banjo capo, and other fun little things for Christmas.
  • Encountered lots of great books, movies, and music, and wrote more entries in Cool Civil War Names and Refer Madness.

2017: Not Bad!

Categories
Music

Highlights from #XmasMusicBinge2017

As I near the end of my annual Christmas music binge, a few songs have stuck out. Check them out while the mood is right and the spirit’s up:

“Mvmt II: Begin and Never Cease” by The Oh Hellos, The Oh Hellos Family Christmas Album. You really ought to listen through the whole (short) album in one go, which is like one long medley, but the second movement’s ecstatic exuberance echoes Mumford & Sons mixed with Anathallo.

“Snow” by Sleeping At Last, Christmas Collection. O’Neal explains on a recent episodes of his podcast that it’s heavily inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life but also about the concept of home during the holidays.

“Silent Night” by Rosie Thomas, A Very Rosie Christmas. Rosie’s bouncy original “Why Can’t It Be Christmastime All Year” is always a fun listen, but don’t sleep on the rest of the album’s dreamy, riverine covers like this one. Great for a cozy nights staring at a twinkling Christmas tree.

“All I Need Is Love” by CeeLo Green & The Muppets. For successfully turning “Mahna Mahna” into a Christmas song.

“First Snowfall” by Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Leave it to OTR to capture a different kind of Christmas, ramshackle and real, far from the Norman Rockwell scenes traditional Christmas songs paint.

“12 Days of Christmas” by Relient K, Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer. There aren’t a lot of great versions of this song because it’s such a pain to make 12 repetitive verses interesting. But Relient K pulls it off with verve.