December 15, 2011
Books Read 2011
Theses are the books I read in 2011, in order of my favorite to least favorite. It was a good year for reading books, namely because of how much to the Twins and Vikings stunk it up. I had a lot more time on my hands to read. As always, every one of these books was checked out from a library. Buying books is for suckers. Before we begin, here are the books I've read in years past:
Books Read 2011 (in order by how much I enjoyed them):
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Best book of the year, and certainly the best of the many fantasy books I read this year. Usually I find fantasy to be pretty insulting ("The Sword of Truth" series comes to mind), but this book has renewed my faith in the genre. Easily the most creative and memorable book I read this year. The book tells the story of Vin and Kelsier, two Skaa slaves who find out that they have the power of the Mistborn, and decide to try to overthrow the Lord Ruler himself. This book is so creative, it makes the reader wonder, "How do these authors come up with this stuff?" The ending just blew me away.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
HeLa cells are one of the most powerful tools scientists have today to find cures and fight disease. Where they come from may be even more of a fascinating story, though. HeLa cells are the first "immortal" cells, so called because they are still alive and growing 60 years after they were discovered, after they were taken from a poor, black woman in Baltimore without her or her family's knowledge. This book tells their story, discusses bio-medical ethics in general, and finally gives some credit to Henrietta Lacks without whom we wouldn't have many of the medical breakthroughs of the 20th century. Great book.
- The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
It is hard to describe why I liked this book as much as I did. The story is strange. Sebastian lives with his grandmother in a geodesic dome in Iowa. She home-schools him, mainly with the teachings of Buckminster Fuller. One day, Grandma has a stroke, and Sebastian goes to live with Jared, a chain-smoking, heart-transplant recipient who fancies himself a punk rock musician. Their unlikely friendship, and the lessons the innocent Sebastian learns along the way, make this story a real treat.
- Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams
This book reminded me a lot of The Lost City of Z, which was another great book I read two years ago. Mark Adams is an adventure and travel magazine editor who decided to retrace the steps of Hiram Bingham, the "discoverer" of Machu Picchu in Peru. This book intertwines Hiram Bingham's fascinating journey with the Adams' own journey into the heart of the Incan Empire. I've read a lot of adventure books, but never have I finished one with the absolute, overwhelming desire to do what this author did. Before I die, I have to take the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. No question about it.
- At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
A room by room tour of a typical house ... at least a typical house in Great Britain. At Home is a fascinating book full of amazing stories of why we live the way we do. Who knew domestic life could be so interesting. One of the more fascinating chapters was on public sanitation. Other chapters cover the history of window glass, or parks (public and private), or waterproof cement ... the book goes all over the place. Bryson uses the home as a jumping off point for whatever interesting story he wants to tell us, and writes a book that is both highly informative and extremely fun.
- In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
Erik Larson is a good writer. I loved his Devil in the White City, and with this book he writes another story that is hard to put down. The book tells the story of William Dodd, the newly appointed US ambassador to Germany right as Hitler was just beginning to gain more power. Life as an ambassador is full of parties and diplomatic get-togethers, and this is especially true for Dodd's daughter Martha who has more affairs with high-ranking German (and Russian) officials than one would think possible. Eventually Hitler's ruthlessness comes through and Dodd is really left powerless to do anything about it. This is actually a terrifying and frustrating book. We all know what happens in the end of this story, but like Dodd we are powerless to stop it. Could Dodd have done more? Probably not, but what he and the State Department actually accomplished through his ambassadorship was wholly unsatisfactory. Again, knowing what we know now ...
- Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
This is a surprisingly good book, but then again I enjoy most of Scazi's writing. Jack Holloway is an independent mining contractor on a far away planet who finds a mother lode as well as a possible sentient species on the planet he is surveying. But what is "sentience"? The book turns into a surprisingly good courtroom drama on this question. Very thought provoking actually and easy to read.
- Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean
It is a fact that churches and synagogues are losing members as well as the interest of young people. If churches are going to survive they need to appeal to the next generation of churchgoer. However, Dean makes a convincing argument that the current dominant message of "moralistic therapeutic deism" is not doing the job. Teaching our children that God is little more than a kind and caring old man that wants us all to be good and do good may be easy in the short term, but is not engaging or powerful enough a message to sustain a healthy overall church. Dean suggests some necessary possible solutions in this academic look at a well-known problem.
- Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Major Ernest Pettigrew is the epitome of a proper English gentleman. A widower, the Major tries to always do the right thing and follows the rules of personal etiquette at all times and in all situations. However, when he falls in love with a local Pakastani shopkeeper, worlds collide and the question of what is proper for both cultures comes into play. Will love win out? You can probably guess the answer, but the journey is still fun and has even been described as "whimsical." I agree, it was a fun read.
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The book begins with Bennie, an aging music executive, and Sasha, his kleptomaniac secretary and delves into their pasts and future through the stories of other people whose lives all intertwine in surprising ways. This is a very creative book, with an interesting timeline which jumps to and from numerous points-of-view. The most famous chapter of the book is a powerpoint presentation from a teenage girl that has become one of the most touching things I read all year. Not your typical work of fiction, but because of its creativity it actually works.
- The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
This book has a fantastic premise: what if a polygamist had an affair? Golden Richards has four wives and 28 children, but still feels alone and is overcome with grief over the death of a disabled daughter. Meanwhile his family is overcome by petty squabbles and rivalries. While he doesn't have a typical affair, more of an affair of the heart, he still has to come to grips with his own lack of satisfaction and what it means to be a good father and husband to such a large family. This was a decent book. It was engaging, and the character of Rusty was hilarious. Udall also treats polygamists with about as much dignity as possible which is no easy feat.
- A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
I'm not even going to try to summarize this, the 5th book in the Song of Ice and Fire series made famous by the HBO series The Game of Thrones. While it was better than its predecessor A Feast for Crows, this book still somewhat collapses under the weight of all the sub-plots found throughout it. I swear, there must be 20 stories you have to keep track of, all with their own characters and problems. It is exhausting. And towards the end, just when something worth reading actually starts happening, Martin drops a bomb that should anger most readers ... and make them clamor for the next book. Very sneaky Mr. Martin. Very sneaky. It was a page turner, but I hope Martin tones down the complexity in the next book.
- The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Another page turner, but still a huge disappointment when compared with the first book in this series The Name of the Wind. My feelings on this book can be summarized with one phrase: too much fairy sex. Enough with the fairy sex! Sheesh! This may sound like a strange thing to say, but Kvothe's main purpose in life, finding and defeating the Chandrian, took a back seat to all sorts of crap, including loads of fairy sex. Really disappointing. Having said that, if Rothfuss is going to keep this a trilogy, the final book should be packed with information and action.
- Love Wins by Rob Bell
A surprisingly controversial book with an interesting look how we come to be "saved" and what it means to be "saved." More specifically the book is about the never-ending love of God. If God's love is never-ending, does God ever stop fighting for us? Even after death? This book suggests no, He doesn't, even if in our lives we rejected Him. As you might imagine, this idea has caused a major freak-out from conservative Christians. It is a comforting idea, that God never stops fighting for us, but is it theologically accurate? Does it matter?
- Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
Funny, funny, funny book. This a book that had me laughing, hard, whenever I read it. I can't believe some of the crazy things Halpern's father said to him while he was growing up. Just hilarious. I had to stop reading this book numerous times on the bus because people were looking at me strange after I'd blurt out a laugh. A quick and entertaining read.
- Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
If you haven't read this book, stop what you are doing right now and read it. Your life is incomplete. This is actually the third time I've read this book, this time with my 13 year old son (who refused to read it ... you will read it and you'll like it!). One of the classics of 20th century science fiction.
- Lost Fleet: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell
Black Jack Geary is back in this sub-series of the popular Lost Fleet series. In the previous installments, Geary saves the Lost Fleet, but is now at home dealing with a political mess as politicians decide what to do with him as a popular war hero. And of course, there is still the problem of the alien species he discovered on the far side of the Alliance space. An entertaining read, as always, from Jack Campbell. I wouldn't be surprised if these books were eventually made into some kind of television series.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Finally read this famous book. This is an excellent "Young Adult" novel. It has an engaging story where someone is being wronged, big time, and the reader really yearns for justice, or at least the main protagonist to come out OK. Having said that, the premise of this book is so unbelievable it hurts the overall quality of the story, at least for me. I actually think this will make a better movie than a book. I'm excited for that.
- The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca
This is a fun book about the unwritten rules of baseball, and there are a lot of those. What makes this book especially fun though is its portrayal of the studliness that is Nolan Ryan. Wow, what an absolute beast. Even the slightest provocation would cause Ryan to quip, "I do believe that boy needs a new bow-tie" and he'd throw right at the player's head. Dangerous? Yes, but there is little doubt that Ryan respected the game and all its rules and was determined to be the judge, jury, and executioner concerning all of them. Today's game is a pansy-fest compared to when Ryan played.
- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I love a good baseball book. Unfortunately this isn't quite what I had in mind. The main protagonist of this story is Henry Skrimshander, a flawless fielding shortstop who plays for Westish College in eastern Wisconsin. Just as Henry is about to break the record for consecutive innings without an error, something terrible happens which sends his life, and the lives of those around him, on a different path. The deeper theme of this book is the nature of relationships, friendship, and love (of all varieties). I would have liked more baseball.
- In Cod We Trust by Eric Dregni
A book about the author's year long trip to Norway and all the oddities and quirks he learns along the way about Norwegian culture. This was an entertaining read, but I was a little put off by the author's irreverence, especially when they go to get their son baptized. I was hoping for more care and respect but instead just got what in many ways could be described as a typical American reaction to a different culture. Disappointing.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Read this book in high school and again this year with my son for his English class. It is amazing how well this book holds up. It is still easy to read and understand and it still has a timeless message. I guess that is why it is timeless.
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
A true story about a boy, Kamkwamba, who builds a windmill for his family's home to give them electricity, and what happens to him after he does this. It is a nice story, to be sure, but I didn't find it particularly engaging or memorable. Cheers to Kamkwamba for showing this kind of initiative and making his community a better place to live, though.
- Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
This book was a whole lot more popular than I thought it should be. It tells the story of 24 servicemen and women who crash landed into Shangri-La, a remote and beautiful valley in Dutch New Guinea populated by spear-carrying native tribes. Of the 24 people on the plane, only three people survived. The story of their survival, especially their interactions with the natives, is interesting and compelling, but for whatever reason I thought the writing in this book was too simplistic and disappointing. I thought the story could have been told a little better. It appears though that I am in the minority.
- The Blade Itself by Joe Aberombie
I'm not a big fan of books that make torturing people a center-piece of the story. The idea of a government paid "torturer" is probably not something that should surprise me from a fantasy book, I just don't want to read about one. The story was engaging enough to finish, but I probably won't be picking up the next book in the series.
- Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
This book is billed as somewhat of a comedy, and got excellent reviews from the majority of book critics, but I did not find it all that humorous or worthwhile. Let's see, it deals with drugs, pedophile priests, molestation, psychopathic cruelty, and, yes, love and just trying to get through the teenage years. But as the title implies, Skippy does in fact die, and I just didn't enjoy reading about how and why it happened.
- Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is funny. This book is not. Except for his description of his time working in a movie theater, I found this book kind of boring for the most part. A big disappointment.
- Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
A book with little to no redeeming value. I read this in the early part of the year, and it still haunts me. The characters are disgusting, nihilistic, and self-centered, and their story is without hope or feeling. I know this is the author's point, or at least the story he was trying to tell, but I wish I hadn't read it. Mesmerizing, yes, but am I a better person for having read it? No. Steer clear, unless you want to be thoroughly depressed.
There you have it. Let me know what books you read or if you have any suggestions for me to read! I am always looking for a good book.
December 6, 2011
My speech for Alex at his Eagle Court of Honor - December 6, 2011
I'll try to keep this brief, and hopefully I won't cry too much. Alex, I am really proud of you. You've been at this a long time, and I know how hard you've worked to reach this point. Congratulations. Again, I'm really, really proud of you. As I thought about this evening and what I wanted to say I tried to think of some stories that would help frame your scouting career, really our scouting career, and two relatively obscure events kept popping back into my mind.
The first is from your first ever extended campout as a Bear Scout. You were going up to Camp Stearns for 3 nights, and for whatever reason, probably work, I couldn't be there for the first night. I told Scott that I'd be there the next day. So, I packed you up and sent you off to camp for a night without me. Like any father sending his son off alone for the first time I was worried about you. I was worried that you were homesick. I was worried that you weren't making friends. I don't think I slept that night. Anyway, the next day I drove up to camp, parked the car, and started to look for you. It didn't take me long before I spotted you and the rest of your Den walking along a trail. And lo and behold, you were happy! In fact, you were singing. You and Richard were singing some song, probably "Ain't that funky now," and you were laughing and having a great time.
I remember thinking to myself: he doesn't need me. He doesn't need me! I remember being both happy and sad about this. I was happy that you had obviously adjusted well without me, but I was sad that you really didn't need me there. I thought to myself, maybe I don't need to come on these camp-outs. Maybe I can just stay home. But then I looked again and saw how happy you were. I remember thinking right then and there, forget that! Even if you don't need me, I'm going to come on these camp-outs regardless and be with you having fun. I thought: I don't want to miss any of this.
The second story comes from a camp-out that we maybe didn't have the most fun on, the Whitewater Rafting camp-out of 2009. You remember that camp-out, right? It was the end of May, but it was really cold. We woke up the morning of our whitewater rafting excursion and it must have been in the mid-40s. We had to put on all the warmest clothing we had and then all our rain gear on top of that. And then we had to get into river rafts and potentially get really wet. It was crazy.
We ended up in separate rafts. The part of that adventure I remember most was when we were about to go down the most treacherous part of the river, what the guides called the "Electric Slide." The head guide had all of us line up and then he gave us instructions on how to raft through what was a waterfall-slash-slide that apparently a lot of people didn't make it through without falling in. The guide told us, "When you hit the slide don't lean forward too much, or you'll fall in. Also, don't lean back too much or you'll fall in. And when you hit the bottom, start paddling like crazy or you'll fall in." Then he added, "Got it? Let's go!"
Personally I didn't really get it. I remember thinking to myself, "You have got to be kidding me! I may as well just dive in now and get it over with." I looked over across the river at Alex to see if I could tell what he was thinking. Alex gave me a look that is difficult to describe, but one that I'll never forget. He shook his head quietly with a look of disgusted acceptance, anger, resignation, and determination all rolled into one, a look that non-verbally said, "Can you believe what this joker is telling us to do?" A look that ultimately said, "We're headed for a waterfall, surrounded by sharp rocks, on a raft in 40 degree weather with the outcome being we will most likely fall in. Bring it on."
I remember laughing. Man that look put a smile on my face. That look you gave me was exactly what I needed to get through the Electric Slide (and we didn't fall in). The reason I remember it now is because it also said, "Dad, what have we gotten ourselves into?" Really, what have we gotten ourselves into Alex? The whitewater rafting trip was just one of many things we got ourselves into during these last 8 years of scouting. And when you think about it all together it has been quite a remarkable ride.
On top of whitewater rafting we have done tons of kayaking, sailing, tubing, and probably close to 100 miles of canoeing.
We have gone swimming in some of the most beautiful lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
We have probably hiked well over 150 miles (including snow-shoeing), and biked together for close to 300 miles over some breathtaking countryside.
We have climbed the towers of Stearns, Many Point, and Tesomas, and the rocks of Basecamp. Well, actually you climbed and I provided moral and sometimes belay support.
We've gone orienteering, geocaching, fishing, and caving.
We've played Many Point water-polo and battled together for the greased watermelon. We've gone bowling, rollerskating, and rollerblading.
We've shot arrows, shotgun, BB gun, Paintball, 22 rifles, sling-shots, and we've thrown our fair share of tomahawks.
We've visited the state capitol, numerous museums, state parks like Itasca, St. Croix, Fort Snelling, and J. Cook, and a myriad of other cultural institutions.
We've done a ton of service projects together like food drives, buckthorn pulls, raking lawns, planting trees, flowers, and bushes, Feed My Starving Children, and shoveling driveways and sidewalks. We painted buildings here at the JCC for Richard's Eagle project, and of course, we built and installed anti-erosion bars at Westwood for your own.
We've been bitten by hundreds, maybe thousands, of mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies, black flies, no-see-ums, and wood ticks. Thankfully no deer ticks.
How many nights of camping have we done together? 70? 80? More? I tried to add them all together but I gave up. How many campfires have we sat around, eating whatever delicious dessert Scott has cooked up for us? How many campfire songs have we sung, how many skits have we watched and done? How many nights of camping have we done now with Anders, with all three of us together?
How many times have we looked up, away from the city lights, to see those beautiful stars in the Minnesota nighttime sky?
How many memories have we built? Too many to count. And through it all, I've had a front row seat watching you grow up and become a leader, for this troop and in your everyday life. I'm proud of you reaching Eagle Alex. So proud. But I am most happy that we were able to go on this journey together.
I wouldn't have missed it for the world.