Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top Ten Books of 2011

I'm a big end-of-the-year list kind of guy, and I enjoyed doing my own book and movie lists last year. I'm back at it this year, and since I'll be squeezing in a few more movies this year, I'll start with my top ten books of 2011. I read 42 books this year, down from 49 in 2010. I read more YA last year, which tends to go faster for me. The books on my list weren't necessarily published in 2011, just books I read this year.

10. The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers: Published in 1946, this is the oldest book on my list. Frankie Addams dreams of escaping her Southern hometown, going away with her brother and his fiance. McCullers nails the Southern gothic thing. Hell, she may have created it for all I know. I am certain Harper Lee was a fan of this book, as there are many similarities to her own Southern coming-of-age book.

9. Half a Life, Darin Strauss: This is one of two nonfiction books on the list. Strauss struck and killed a girl with his car when he was 18. He writes unblinkingly about the next half of his life, his reaction to the tragedy and his struggle to accept happiness again in his life.

8. Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman: Newlyweds Becca and John die on their wedding day, and the remaining members of their families must find meaning with the rest of their lives. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Waldman is able to find beauty in tragedy.

7. the imperfectionists, Tom Rachman: This book tells the story of the rise and fall of an English newspaper in Italy. Within the larger story of the dying paper, Rachman gives us the lives of the people who are affected by its demise.

6. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach: This one had me with the northeastern Wisconsin setting, the description of which brought back more than a few pleasant memories. Much of the book centers around a baseball team, but this book, like all great books, is about so much more than what is presented on the surface. A passing knowledge of Moby Dick makes this book even more impressive.

5. The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings: Matt King is an out-of-the-loop husband and father who must step up after a tragedy. I have to admit, I read this one after hearing about the movie. I knew I'd see the movie, so I wanted to read the book first. I didn't have many expectations, but I really enjoyed the book. Hemmings has a sparse writing style, much more direct than your typical literary fiction, a style I quite like.

4. Townie, Andre Dubus III: This is the second nonfiction book on the list, and it's a powerhouse. This book shows the evolution of a man, from fear and anger to some kind of understanding. Ultimately, it's about Dubus coming to terms with his father, coming to understand, perhaps not fully, but enough. Sometimes that's the best we can do.

3. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer: The beautiful story of Oskar Schell, a young boy learning to live after losing his dad on 9/11. Some may find this one overly sentimental, but if it's well done, and Safran Foer is a master, I'm a sucker for sentimental.

2. The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter: Matt Prior's life is a mess. He loses his job, he can't pay the mortgage, and to top it off, his marriage is crumbling. What's a guy to do? Matt has a unique idea to solve his problems, if he doesn't get himself killed. Walter uses one man's personal descent as a metaphor for the times.

1. a visit from the goon squad, Jennifer Egan: This is a brilliant book. Don't take my word for it, Egan won a little something called the Pulitzer Prize for this baby. Egan masterfully uses multiple characters, weaving their stories together to create a transcendent whole. I don't want to give anything away, but at one point Egan uses the power point format, and if for no other reason, you should read this book just to see how she pulled it off. 

Let me know what think of my choices. I'd love to hear what other people enjoyed reading this year in the comments, might give me some ideas for 2011. Your top book, top 3, 5, 10, whatever works for you.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

I caught the SNL Christmas special earlier this week, and this skit killed me. I hope everyone has a better time than the family in this clip (obviously someone filming their TV, but it's all I could find).

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Perfection and Loss

The Green Bay Packers quest for a perfect season ended yesterday in Kansas City. I suppose most people thought the Packers would waltz out of KC with another victory, but as any football fan knows, Any Given Sunday and all that.

The Packers had won 13 in a row this season, 19 going back to last season, the 2nd longest streak in NFL history. Before yesterday, the Packers hadn't lost in 364 days.

I remember that game well. It was Dec. 19. The Packers played the Patriots on Sunday Night Football. Aaron Rodgers was unable to play due to a concussion he'd suffered a week earlier against Detroit. With a back-up quarterback, no one gave the Pack much chance. The team rallied behind Matt Flynn and battled admirably, in the end falling just short.

It wasn't the kind of game that most fans will remember, but it's a game I'll never forget. It was the last game I watched with my dad. He was in the hospital, but he thought he might go home the next day. He was in good spirits as we watched the game. When the Packers fell short, he characteristically went into positive spin mode, seeing the loss as a springboard to bigger things.

As it turned out, he was right about the Packers. Wrong about his health. My dad was technically still alive the following Sunday when the Packers beat the New York Giants, the beginning of their Super Bowl run, the first of 19 straight wins, but he was in a morphine haze in hospice, the game just background noise because it felt like the right thing to do.

So the Green Bay Packers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday, ending the quest for perfection. It was the first time the Packers lost a game since my dad died. Man, he would have loved those 364 days.

My dad would have said this was just a bump in the road, something to learn from. As I drove home from my friend's house, I could hear our conversation. It brought a smile to my face, and tears to my eyes.      

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Little Girl and her Piglet

Our trip to Anaheim was quite eventful. The girls danced beautifully, but failed to qualify for Nationals. This was Quinn's first Oireachtas (O-rock-tus), so she was mostly just happy to be there. Scout, on the other hand, had high hopes. This was her third crack at it, and she worked very hard the last couple of months. Her disappointment was palpable, but she mostly kept it together. She stayed to watch her friends who were recalled, and bugged us to stay for the awards. We opted for Downtown Disney instead, but I was proud of her for wanting to support her friends.

As we walked around Downtown Disney, Scout was unusually distant. I figured she was still recovering, but when we got back to the hotel, the truth came out. Scout burst into tears and told us that she had left her Piglet back at the Hilton (we'd moved over to the Best Western that afternoon). First the dancing, then Piglet, it was all more than she could take. It's silly I know, such trivial things in the big picture, but no matter what the cause, watching your heart-broken child is never fun. Especially when you're the one who did the final look-through in the room.

We called the hotel, but no Piglet in the lost and found. We left our number in case he turned up, but there wasn't a lot of hope.

I knew Disney would buy us some time. No matter how sad she was, Scout couldn't resist the happiest place on Earth.

There were many great moments during our two days at Disneyland, but the highlight of our stay was when the hotel called to tell us they'd found Piglet hiding out in the bedsheets. We were standing in the Tower of Terror line, and I'll never forget the look on Scout's face when Meg told her the news.

I'm not exactly sure when Scout got Piglet, but I know he's been around for a long time. It's a bit like Toy Story 3, Piglet a symbol of Scout's childhood. Scout wouldn't have been the only one devastated if that little guy hadn't shown up. Here's hoping Piglet is around for a long time to come.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Quick Check-in

I'll spare you the details, but I've been feeling a little overwhelmed lately. I feel like JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist, that scene where she runs down the hall to save her kids, going as fast as she can, but always farther (farther/further-never been very sure about these two) away. We watched Poltergeist with the girls recently, so it's fresh. 

The Rileys are heading over to Anaheim tomorrow for a big Irish dancing competition and a couple days at Disney. Things have been so hectic lately, I'm actually looking forward to 8 hours of blissful driving. I never thought I'd be a big Disney guy, but we went a few years ago, and I have to say, the place worked its magic on me. I'm looking forward to a whole bunch of things over there.

There's still a lot to do before we go, but I wanted to post a quick video. There was a great skit on SNL this weekend involving Adele's song "Someone Like You." I love the song, it's a musical short story, a quick shot of melancholy to make it easier to face the rest of the day with a smile . The skit is hilarious and perfectly captures why the song is so popular. 



Friday, October 28, 2011

Fast Five Friday: Scary Movies

My oldest (she's 11) is really pushing to watch some scary movies. She loves reading scary books, and now she wants to check out what the movies have to offer. In another sure sign that western civilization is crumbling, she tells us about all the movies the kids at school have seen, or at least say they've seen.

Meg and I aren't ready to get into the really scary stuff, but we are ready to start easing into some scary movies. Little sister has a sleep over Saturday night, so we're going to watch Signs. Meg and I love M. Night, well, early M. Night anyway, and we think this will quench our daughter's tween thirst for cinematic thrills. For now.

The oldest has also been asking what our favorite scary movies are, and since it's almost Halloween and all, why not. For this week's Fast Five, I present the five scariest movies I've ever seen.

5) The Thing: I watched this with a buddy this summer, and we were surprised by how well it's held up over the years. I know there's a remake out, but I doubt I'll see it.

4) An American Werewolf in London: A couple scenes stick out from this one: the two travelers being attacked on the moor, and of course, the famous scene where the guy turns into the werewolf.

3) The Shining: I remember reading somewhere that Stephen King was disappointed with Kubrick's adaptation, but it scared the hell out of me.

2) Alien: When that alien popped out of John Hurt's chest, I nearly lost my mind.

1) The Exorcist: To this day, the very thought of this movie reduces my chances of getting a good night's sleep.

What are some movies that send chills up your spine?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Young Writers

I've been in the computer lab the last couple days. My students are typing the final drafts of short stories they've written. It's the final project for a unit on the elements of literature: characters, setting, plot, theme. We read a number of stories together, identified the elements, and now the kids have to demonstrate their knowledge by writing their own story that incorporates all of the elements.

Last week we worked on our rough drafts in class. I let the kids listen to music as we worked. This isn't something I normally do, but I thought I'd give it a try. A colleague of mine told me Michael Jackson is usually a big hit, so I brought in Thriller. I have to say, the kids worked very well to MJ.

My school is in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate school, and one of the goals of the International Baccalaureate program is to foster open-minded students. Let's just say, it is quite the challenge to open the average middle school mind.  In an attempt to open minds through music, I decided to bring in some music from international artists.

Day two I played some Beatles for the kids. I wish I could tell you they were excited about it, but alas, there was much whining. Mr. Riley patiently explained to his students that it was important for them to expand their musical horizons. And when that didn't work, he told them, kindly mind you, to shut up and listen to the Beatles.

I was ready for more whining day three, but I was pleasantly surprised. When I told the kids we'd be listening to Bob Marley, the room exploded with enthusiasm. Score one for the reggae master.

On day four, I went with Ireland's finest, U2. I thought most of the kids would be familiar with U2, but I was wrong. Having established a whine-free environment, the kids managed to muffle their skepticism. I could see it in their eyes, so I tried explaining that just last year I had seen U2 in Phoenix, along with 80,000 other life-long fans, but this didn't seem to impress them. To the kids credit, they gave it a chance. I don't think Bono and the boys won everyone over, but they may have managed to open a few minds.

Friday was the last day to work on the rough drafts. I needed the most conducive environment possible, so I let the kids choose the music. Three of the classes played it safe and chose more Michael Jackson, but a couple classes told me to mix it up. I complimented them on being open-minded and did my best dj imitation.

It was a fun week. There were plenty of kids who squandered their time, but unfortunately, that's par for the course. You can lead a horse to water, as they say. I do think the music helped, and I can see myself using music when we write in the future.

The final product is due Thursday, and I'm looking forward to reading the stories. Let's hope MJ, Bono, Bob Marley, and yes, even the Beatles, helped my students write some decent fiction.   

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fast Five Friday: Movies in the Big Apple

I saw a fun infographic on /Film last week about movie landmarks in NYC. It reminded me of the carriage ride we took with the girls through Central Park a few years ago. Our driver, in a movie-thick Russian accent, pointed out a number of spots in the park that have featured in popular films. I can't really remember the spots or the movies, but I still chuckle remembering that guy's delivery.

New York is of course one of the great movie settings, a city so vibrant, so alluring, it is often a character in its own right. This week's Fast Five features some of my favorite movies set in the Big Apple.

5) A Bronx Tale: This movie was based on a Chazz Palminteri play and directed by Robert De Niro. It tells the story of a father trying to keep his son on the right path after he is befriended by a mafia boss. De Niro clearly learned a lot from working with Scorsese over the years, especially the art of picking great music for film. 

4) Quick Change: Bill Murray starred in and directed this movie about bank robbers at the mercy of New York City. This is one of my favorite Bill Murray movies, right up there with Rushmore

3) Annie Hall: There has to be a Woody Allen movie on any list of great New York movies. This was my first Allen film, and he painted a beautiful picture of New York City for this kid from Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

2) Do the Right Thing: This one sparked a lot of controversy when it was released. Spike Lee challenged audiences with this story of racial tensions erupting on the hottest day of the summer. Wherever you stand on the ending, this movie made you think.     

1) After Hours: In my mind, Scorsese is the ultimate New York filmmaker. This isn't one of Scorsese's most popular movies, but it may be my favorite. The main character's journey through a wild and wacky night in the city captured this Green Bay kid's imagination. 

What are some of your favorite New York movies? 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Just a Thought

I haven't been paying much attention to the news lately, but I did plug in last night for a little while to catch up a bit. I knew about the Occupy Wall Street protests, but I hadn't put much thought into them. If anything, I thought they were just a flash in the pan.

As I flipped between CNN and Fox (I like to keep tabs on what everyone is saying), an interesting thought occurred to me. What if the Wall Street Occupiers and the Tea Partiers worked together?

Sound crazy? Allow me to elaborate.

The common perception, and one that I would have to agree with, is that Wall Street Occupiers are liberal and the Tea Partiers are conservative. Fair enough.


Banks really do seem to be pushing their luck these days, what with Bank of America, and logically, all their banking brethren, about to charge $5 a month to use a debit card. That surely riles up every red-blooded American. Who knows what other rapacious fees banks will devise if people don't cause a ruckus.

We know the Tea Partiers can mobilize. Hit 'em in the wallet enough, and they might just find some common ground with all those good-for-nothing Wall Street Occupiers.

That would be something, wouldn't it?

Discuss (think Mike Myers doing his Linda Richmann voice)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fast Five Friday: Pay it Forward Blogfest

I came across a fun Blogfest this week, and I though I'd incorporate it into my weekly Fast Five. The Pay it Forward Blogfest is the brainchild of Matthew MacNish and Alex J. Cavanaugh, and here's how it works:

The idea is to introduce everyone to everyone else. We want this to be an easy post that allows you to meet and follow as many other bloggers as you can. In your post, we would like you to please list, describe, and link to three blogs that you enjoy reading, but that you suspect may fly under the radar of a lot of other bloggers. Or they can be famous blogs, as long as they're awesome.

But don't stop there! Certainly visit and follow all the blogs that are featured in people's posts the day of the blogfest, but those don't have to be the only blogs you visit. You can visit everyone who enters in on the fun, and signs up on the linky list. In the interest of time you don't even have to leave a comment. You can just follow, and come back another time. After all, we all know we don't have time to visit every blog we enjoy every single day.

I hope that Matthew and Alex don't mind, but since this is a FFF post, I'm going to give you 5 blogs (and there are plenty more) that I enjoy reading.

1) Munk Davis: Consistently funny and thought-provoking, with great tips on music. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Munk is simply blogalicious.

2) Suburban Soliloquy: Blogging with a literary flair.

3) Brits in the USA: One of the first blogs I ever followed, and still going strong. An eclectic blog with excellent writing.    

4) Bards and Prophets: There are a lot of blogs that deal with all things writing, but this one stands out for me.

5) SLC Kismet: One of the more unique perspectives I've come across in the blogosphere.

This is a Blog Hop!