2008 Year in Review: Favorite Books

Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year not books published in 2008.  For previous years see 2007 and 2006, and of course Every Book I’ve Ever Read are cataloged in Library Thing.

  1. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
  2. The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
  3. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1 and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol II by M.T. Anderson
  4. The Deportees and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle
  5. The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Steven Budiansky
  6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  7. This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust
  8. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
  9. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester
  10. The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil Degrasse Tyson

Below is the list of all the books I’ve read in the past year.  Books actually published in 2008 are in bold.

Books Read in 2008

Book Review: Great Fortune by Daniel Okrent

Great Fortune : The Epic of Rockefeller Center (2003) by Daniel Okrent is a lively and engaging popular history of the origins of the most famous urban development in the world.  It’s chock-full of facts that I never knew.

For example, the land Rockefeller Center is built upon was originally the “Upper Estate” of Columbia University, something of an albatross on the university’s neck especially after it moved further uptown. The university collected rent from the Rockefellers into the 1980’s.  The plan for Rockefeller Center was originally to construct a new opera house for the Metropolitan Opera, a plan that fell through as the greater plan for a commercial development stormed through into the Great Depression.  There were scandals of the Communist Diego Rivera painting a mural in the RCA building, and the Facist Benito Mussolini giving his blessing to a building for Italian commerce.  The most famous element of Rockefeller Center – the skating rink – was something of an afterthought to bail out a failed plan for a shopping plaza.  The opening of Radio City Music Hall was an overlong, over-the-top bomb that resulted in the venue being used as a movie theater for the next four decades.

Okrent also weaves in the biographies of the various characters involved in creating Rockefeller Center.  Most obvious of course are the Rockefeller family including the introspective John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who spent his life trying to atone for Senior’s greedy excess, and Nelson Rockefeller a steamroller of a personality who took charge of the Center in the later years of development.   Architects, designers, artists, corporate executives & businessmen all get their fair share as well.  Okrent writes of these people sympathetically without being adulatory, and shows their warts (not to mention having a few laughs at their expense) without it being a hatchet piece.

This is a very enjoyable historical work which I believe does a good job of capturing an era through the myriad people who worked on and at Rockefeller Center.

Great fortune : the epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent. New York : Viking, 2003.

2008 Beer in Review

Another year of beer drinking will soon come to an end.  Consumption was low in the early part of the year due to my back injury, and parenthood has kept me out of darkened saloons in general.  Also in my old age I tend to forget to write up reviews, so there are some beers I’ll just have to drink again.

I rate beers by awarding points for their appearance, aroma, taste, how they look after a few sips, and overall quality on a ten point scale. Any beer that earns 5 or more points is worth trying again and I rank these with one to five stars. Any beers below five points are on a descending spiral of badness. I tend to screen out bad beers ahead of time so I don’t get many no star beers.  For more beers check out my 2007 Beer in Review.

Here’s a handy chart of all the beers reviewed in 2008:

Five Stars

Four Stars

Three Stars

Two Stars

One Star

No Stars

  • (Whew!)

2008 Year in Review: Movies

Listed below are all the movies I’ve watched in the past year.  Much like last year, I’ve rated all the movies on a five star scale. Five stars is an all-time classic, three stars is the baseline for an enjoyable film end-to-end, one star is a bad movie with perhaps one good sequence or performance. A film with no stars has no redeeming characteristics at all.

2008 Year in Review: First Sentences

The first sentence from the first post of the first day of each month of this year.  Exciting, eh?

January:  “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) tells a familiar story.”

February:  “It’s early morning on Sunday 1 February 1998 and mist shrouds Galway as I board a bus to Rossaveal.”

March:  “On the first of March 1998, I made a rail journey across London to the borough of Greenwich.”

April:  “Here’s a bunch of short movie reviews, notes for my memory at least.”

May:  “Nobel Prize Laureate Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine represents Germany for Around the World for a Good Book.”

June:  “On Sunday, the Forest Hills Educational Trust and Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston presented a family concert in the lovely Forsyth Chapel called Tunes, Tales & Tricksters.”

July:  “Boston By Foot offers a special walking tour during Harborfest called Son of Boston: A Salute to Ben Franklin.”

August:  “New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).”

September:   “I arrived early for a tour in Ashmont and with nothing better to do, I got my geek on and rode the Mattapan-Ashmont High Speed Trolley Line.”

October:   “Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) begins with a pre-teen boy arriving to move in with the father he never knew, hoping to avoid going to military school. ”

November:   “Last year when I went through a liturgical year with posts on my favorite saints, inspired by Fr. James Martin’s book My Life With the Saints, I failed to make a post for All Saints Day.”

December:   “I read Freeman Walker (2008) by David Allan Cates on the tails of completing The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, both of which feature young men in slavery in extraordinary situations, but their tales diverge rapidly from that similarity.”

Previously: 2007 Year in Review: First Sentences

Christmas Eve

It’s Christmas Eve.  As you wrap (or unwrap) gifts, sip eggnog, and/or get ready for Midnight Mass, you’ll want to start off by clicking the youtube link below:

Then you’ll want to click this youtube link, and replay it in a loop for about 3-4 hours.

If you need more music, check out these podcasts.  I guarantee that there is good holiday themed stuff  here that you’ll never here on that Light Rock station that’s playing holiday music 24/7:

For a more sobering  Christmas Eve viewing experience, watch this vintage propaganda film “Christmas Under Fire” about Christmas in England during the Blitz:

Via Crooked Timber.

Finally, for even more uplifting memories, celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 8’s Journey to the Moon.

Happy Christmas to all!

Book Review: Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest To Wash Dishes in All Fifty States by Pete Jordan

I’m the official dishwasher in our household and love travel and eccentric characters so it was natural for me to want to read Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest To Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (2007) by Pete Jordan.  It is pretty much what it’s long subtitle say it is:  a ten-plus year journey around the United States washing dishes in different establishments that reads as part travelogue, part memoir, part humor, part worker’s manifesto and suspiciously at times like a big put on. The basic gist is that at a young age Pete Jordan discovers he has no customer service aptitude and no desire to hold a job with any real responsibility.  Since dishwashing is really the lowest job around because no one wants to do it, getting a job as a dishwasher is generally as simple as walking in and asking.  Leaving the job can be similarly serendipitous.  Jordan decides that he can see the country by working as a dishwasher just long enough to get the money to move on to another job and another state.  Along the way he dishes at a commercial fishery, a summer camp, a Jewish retirement home, an offshore oil rig, a dinner train and a commune as well as dozens of Mom & Pop restaurants.  He also takes a great interest in the history of dishwashing, it’s role in labor movements, and some famous plongeurs:  Malcom X, George Orwell, and Gerald Ford among them. This was a fun book.  Inspiring, humorous, and a little annoying at times (especially at the beginning when you just want to cuff him by the ear).  Read it and you may wish to travel the country looking for the handmade plaques Jordan made to mark the sites of great moments in dishwashing history.

Author Jordan, Pete.
Title Dishwasher : one man’s quest to wash dishes in all fifty states / Pete Jordan.
Publication Info. New York : Harper Perennial, c2007.
Edition 1st ed.
Description 358, 16 p. : ill. ; 21 cm.

Movie Round-Up

I’m way behind on movie reviews. Here’s everything I viewed since October (I think?).

Word Wars
A documentary about four of the top competitive Scrabble players. I didn’t find it as engaging as the similar documentary Wordplay, about crossword puzzle players, nor was it as insightful as Stephan Fatsis’ book Word Freak. The movie seems to emphasize the “freak” but not capture the human.
Water Lillies
French film about the angst of being a teenage girl. The rare film in which follows girls’ lives without having to contrast them to boys.
State of the Union
Classic Frank Capra film starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. An honest man seeks the Republican nomination for President and becomes corrupted in the process. This movie seems very timely albeit there’s some bad old-fashioned sexist and racist stereotypes mixed in.
Strange Brew
Needed to know if this Bob & Doug McKenzie movie is as funny as I remember it. Parts of it still hold up pretty well. And if you disagree, you’re a hoser.
Another classic comedy that stands the test of time. Best of all, I watched if for free on Hulu!
Mean Girls
A biting satire about high school cliques.  Well-written and very funny.
The Straight Story
David Lynch makes a G-rated film and it still remains fully Lynchian and fully wholesome at the same time. Based on a true story of an Iowa man riding a lawnmower to visit his estranged brother, this is an episodic film with some great performances and beautiful cinematography (filmed on the same route followed by Alvin Straight.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Documentary about the famed architect in which I learned that FLW was 1) an arrogant ass, 2) an extremely talented arrogant ass, and 3) an arrogant ass who did his best work after the age of 60.
A satirical film from Iran about teenage girls disguising themselves as boys to attend a FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Tehran. The majority of the film takes place in a holding area where soldiers keep the girls tantalizingly in earshot of the match. They alternate between discussing the absurdities of the laws and patriotically trying to follow the game as best they can. Surprisingly funny and eye-opening. Who knew that people in Iran could get away with giving so much lip to soldiers?
The Reading Room
James Earl Jones plays a wealthy widower who puts his book collection in a public reading room in a poor Los Angeles neighborhood in fulfillment of his wife’s dying wish. He encounters problems with crime, vandalism, indifference, and suspicious residents of the neighborhoods, but is also able to win over several children and a teacher as they help one another learn. Somewhat episodic it feels a bit like a pilot to a tv series that never happened. Very hokey but irresistibly heartwarming.
Story set in 1978 about a girl who wants to try out for the varsity soccer team after her brother, the star soccer player, dies in a car wrecks. The movie follows a predictable formula but good acting that highlights the tensions and family dynamics make it better than it should be. The soccer scenes are well-filmed too.

Beer Review: Leinenkugel’s Fireside Nut Brown

I just can’t resist the name Nut Brown Ale, especially on a snowy day.

Beer: Fireside Nut Brown
Brewer: Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company
Source: 12 oz bottle
Rating: * (5.7 of 10)
Comments:  Not all Nut Browns are created equal.  This one had the earthy brown color and a musty aroma, but OMG! this beer is so sweet.  I’m just overwhelmed by the caramel sweetness and the sticky mouthfeel it leaves behind.  It’s not a bad beer otherwise, but it definitely is a stumbling block to greatness that it can’t overcome. Overly sweet seems to be a problem with Leinenkugel’s beer.  Maybe they like it that way in Wisconsin?

Book Review: The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil Degrasse Tyson

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil Degrasse Tyson is a Library Thing Early Reviewers advance copy book and a very enjoyable one at that.  Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, writes of the former ninth planet Pluto and it’s special appeal to Americans.  He credits this partially to the fact that it was the only “planet” in our solar system discovered by an a American (Clyde Tombaugh) , as well as cultural relics like the Disney animated dog Pluto named in the same year the planet was discovered.

Americans took recent demotion of Pluto by the International Astronomic Union in August 2006.  Tyson explains in clever and lively detail the reasons behind the demotion and better yet, the ways today’s astrophysicist classify heavenly bodies.  Tyson doesn’t see value in the traditional teaching of planets as something to be counted from one to nine and memorized with mnemonic devices.  Instead he prefers to classify things that share similar characteristics into broader groups as a better way of understanding the dynamics of the solar system.  The five groupings are:

  1. Small round & rocky planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth & Mars.
  2. The asteroid belt made up of smaller, rocky bodies, the largest being Ceres (once upon a time considered a planet).
  3. The large gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
  4. The Kuiper belt – small, icy bodies of which Pluto is king.
  5. The distant Oort cloud of comets.

Under Tyson’s direction the Haden Planeterium reopened in 2000 with the Solar System arranged in these groups rather than the simplistic nine-planet model.  This became controversial after a 2001 New York Times article documented the “omission” of Pluto from the planets.  As a result, Tyson received lots of hate mail and some interesting correspondence from children.

This book works well not just because it’s educational, but also because it’s funny.  Tyson himself writes in a humorous, engaging style.  The book is chock full of illustrations including many editorial cartoons about the demotion of Pluto and the aforementioned letters and drawings sent to Tyson.

I highly recommend checking out this book if you have any interest in science and astronomy.  It’s a quick read, I pretty much read it in one sitting, but I learned a lot.

The Pluto Files by Neil Degrasse Tyson. W.W. Norton & Co. (2009), Hardcover, 224 pages