Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Genre

When I read the BookRiot request for new contributors the following statement caught my eye: “There are a few areas we are especially interested in right now: sci-fi/fantasy, Christian, self-published, romance, mysteries and thrillers, and young adult.”. I spent a lot of time thinking about essays I could write focusing on these genres. Forgotten thrillers that need a movie adaptation right now (Vertical Run). Sci-fi movies based on books that are actually better than the source material (Starship Troopers). How I learned to stop worrying and love The Hunger Games (not really). But the more time I spent thinking about it the more I felt trapped. What differentiates a thriller from a non-thriller? And isn’t it easy to imagine a self-published Christian romance novel with a sci-fi mystery at its heart targeted to young adults?Quick! Someone write this and option it off to Miramax! All this led me to think of one of my favorite anecdotes.

During the events of the novel Lila, Robert Pirsig (of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance fame) describes himself walking through an American Indian reservation with the tribe’s chief, a professor of anthropology, and a woman from the Association of American Indians. Pirsig spoke of how a dog had been following the group and someone in the group had asked, “What kind of dog is that?” and the tribe’s chief had replied, “That’s a good dog”. Pirsig continues:

“Laverne had been asking the question within an Aristotelian framework. She wanted to know what genetic, substantive pigeonhole of canine classification this object walking before them could be placed in. But John Wooden Leg never understood the question. That’s what made it so funny. He wasn’t joking when he said, “That’s a good dog”...The whole idea of a dog as a member of a hierarchical structure of intellectual categories knows generically as “objects” was outside his traditional culture viewpoint. What was significant, Phaedrus realized, was that John had distinguished the dog according to its Quality, rather than according to its substance.”

And when I look at my bookshelves this is what I see. I see good books. Books that I recommend over and over (Ken Grimwood’s Replay). Books with prose so good it makes me want to get up and slap my momma (Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities“I arrived here in my first youth, one morning, many people were hurrying along the streets toward the market, the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet, and all around wheels turned and colored banners fluttered in the wind. Before then I had known only the desert and the caravan routes. In the years that followed, my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and the caravan routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me on that morning in Dorothea."). Books that make me say, “I cannot believe she pulled this off” (Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon SquadEgan also wrote a piece for The New Yorker set in the same universe as Goon Squad written entirely in the form of twitter updates. And it was AMAZING.). I also see bad books. Books that make me hate songbirds (Jonathan Franzen’s FreedomThe songbird rant should have been entitled: “An essay on the importance of keeping house cats inside, extraneous to this narrative and yet my pet peeve and dammit I’m a Time magazine cover boy, which the impatient may skip and animal rights activists might enjoy”). Books that make me throw up my hands in disbelief as the protagonist sleeps with every single female character. But genre? Does Cloud Atlas belong with Billy Budd or with 2001: A Space Odyssey? I don’t know and most importantly I don’t care. Cloud Atlas is a good book. That’s the important thing.

Monday, April 29, 2013

My Protagonist Has a Husband and She Hates That Dick

"...I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do." "So as to do them?" asked her aunt. "So as to choose" said Isabel. – Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady 1881

"This is life. What a fucked up thing we do. What a nightmare come true. Or a playground if we choose. And I choose." – The Offspring, I Choose, 1997I believe I can say with 99.9% certainty that I am the first person in the entirety of human existence to compare a line from a Henry James novel to a lyric in a song by The Offspring.

In case you were wondering, James is the one on the right.

Epiphanies often come when you least expect them. For example, when I was 22 and in my first year of graduate school I was complaining about not knowing how to iron clothes to a fellow classmate. A professor overheard our conversation and said, "Kyle, it’s not that you don’t know how to iron, it’s that you choose not to learn". I was so dumbstruck by this remark I immediately changed my name to Lyle and stopped persecuting Christians.Sorry, classical reference. Had to be done. But more importantly I realized how right this professor was. How hard is it to learn how to iron clothes? How pathetic was it to sit there and bitch about something that was totally in my power to change?

Fast forward a few more years and I’m listening to this Offspring song for the 1200th time but I finally really listen to the lyrics. Life can be a nightmare or a playground, but it is your choice! I can choose to sleep in late and eat a huge breakfast or I can get my ass up and run 10 miles. Yes I can make excuses as to why I can’t run the 10 miles. I am le tired. I have two kids who kept me up all night. It’s cold. It’s rainy. But still it is my choice. And I choose.

Which made it great when I encountered the above conversation in James’ The Portrait of a Lady. This novel contains the story of Isabel Archer, whose life changes dramatically when she is whisked away from her childhood home by an Aunt she had never met. When describing the room Isabel sits in when encountering her Aunt for the first time James describes how Isabel had always looked at the door:

"But she had no wish to look out [this door], for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side, a place which became, to the child’s imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or of terror.

That strange, unseen place on the other side is the adult world which is waiting for Isabel and as she discovers, it is very much a place of delight and terror. But the important fact, the most important fact is that it is entirely within her own power Yes Yes cousin Ralph’s help in obtaining her a large fortune definitely helped in this but still. to choose between the two, and the rest of the novel consists of Isabel learning this. So, in the end when she makes the decision to return to her evil bastard husband instead of turning towards the safety of Caspar Goodwood’s arms, don’t pity Isabel. I don’t know what happens to her after she got on that train to Rome. But I do know that it was her choice to make and she chose. And I choose to believe she has more delights than terrors, and more playgrounds than nightmares, ahead of her.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Getting Jobbed

As previously discussed, I love professional wrestling. The wrestling industry is filled with all sorts of jargon from faces (the good guys) to heels (the bad guys) to marks (people who think professional wrestling is realThis guy for example.) to my favorite: jobbing. When a wrestler is scripted to lose this is called jobbing and wrestlers who lose a lot are called jobbers. Sometimes, when a new wrestler is being introduced a long time tough guy is often jobbed out to the new guy to show how tough and dangerous this new wrestler is. This practice also occurs pretty frequently in movies and TV shows, so often in fact that TV Tropes describes it as “Want a quick way to show how dangerous one of your unknown characters is? Simple, make him do well or win in a fight with a character that the audience already knows is tough.” This tactic often annoys the hell out of me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an Avengers comic when the team encounters a bad guy for the first time, the bad guy punches out Thor, and then someone says “Oh my God he knocked Thor unconscious! This guy is TOUGH!” Unfortunately jobbing also happens in books. Here are three of my least favorite literary jobbing moments.

Sirius Black jobs to Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix)

First introduced as the badass who escaped Azkaban Sirius Black demonstrated his toughness from the get go. He might be the only person not driven insane by the dementors, takes no shit from crabby house elves, can get past all the safeguards to communicate with Harry inside of Hogwarts, and can fight off a werewolf that’s three times his size. So when Bellatrix Lestrange shows up in The Order of the Phoenix Rowling decides to job out poor Sirius to Bellatrix to show that Voldemort isn’t the only big baddie in town. Bellatrix hits Sirius with a curse and sends him through the enchanted archway in the Death ChamberSeriously who leaves shit like this lying around? Not even some caution tape in front of it?.

What sucks most of all about this is Sirius was jobbed simply to make Bellatrix look tough so she could in turn job to Mrs. Weasley in Book 7 and prove once again that mama rage is greater than psychopath rage.

Luca Brasi jobs to Virgil Sollozzo (The Godfather):

Early in The Godfather you are introduced to a gangster named Luca Brasi and learn just how much of a badass he is. Puzo provides all sorts of great background information about how many men Luca’s killed for Don Corleone and how he hacked up some of Al Capone’s men with an axe. When I read this I could not wait for Luca to get started and I was looking forward to his new adventures in whacking. But then Virgil Sollozzo shows up and takes out Brasi when he refuses to betray the Don Corleone, instantly transforming Sollozzo from a two bit street hood to a badass gangsta with upper management potential written all over him. Brasi was created and then jobbed to make Sollozzo into a credible threat to Corleone. I’m just sad I never got to see Brasi in all his badass glory.

Randall Flagg jobs to Mordred AKA Roland’s demon spider love child (The Dark Tower):

This, by far, is the job that hurts me the most. I absolutely loved the first four books in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. The opening line in the series is, “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” The man in black is none other than The Ageless Stranger AKA The Walking Dude AKA Russell Faraday AKA Richard Fanin AKA Randall FlaggOkay actually in the original version of The Gunslinger it was just a dude named Walter, but King retroactively changed it to Flagg.. Flagg has shown up all over the Stephen King universe, appearing as the big bad guy in The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon as well as making cameos in Hearts in Atlantis and the early Dark Tower books. Everything pointed to an epic confrontation between Flagg and Roland. In Wizard and Glass (Book IV) Roland caught up to Flagg who disappeared right before two of Roland’s bullets would have ended him. I spent more time than was probably healthy thinking about how awesome their final fight would be.

BUT NO! Instead in possibly the worst decision any author has ever made, King decided to job Flagg out to Roland’s demon spider love child MordredThe details of Mordred’s origin are as follows: Roland sleeps with some demon to... you know what nevermind. Mordred sucks. The hell with him. who somehow controls Flagg’s body making him pluck out his eyes and tongue before... eating him. King also gives Flagg the suckiest origin possible for a previously badass immortal agent of evil: he’s the son of a miller who got raped by a hobo when he was a kid. I just cannot fathom why King, after building up Flagg for so many years, chose to dispose of him this callously. I’m almost positive that this decision alone is responsible for 75% of why King is no longer my favorite author.

Thankfully, I can't post a video link to this travashamockery because The Dark Tower remains in film limbo. Instead here's some Randall Flagg goodness from The Stand with some horrible death metal soundtrack.

Whew. That last one got kind of personal. Sorry about that. What beloved characters of yours have been jobbed out to lesser ones?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mikael Blomkvist: Stud Muffin

After I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I wrote the following as part of my Goodreads review:

For a book that was entitled Men Who Hate Women in Sweden and that spent a long time developing strong female characters I thought it was a poor choice to undermine this development by having every major female character (Lisbeth, Erika, Cecilia) swoon at the very sight of Blomkvist. Hell I thought for sure Blomkvist was going to get some more loving when he finally tracked down Harriet.

I have yet to read the other two books in the trilogy but when I was discussing how crazy Blomkvist’s sexual prowess was with a friend he informed me that in the next book Blomkvist does in fact sleep with Harriet. The ridiculousness of this can only be expressed visually.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Book of ...

One of my favorite websites is Grantland.com, a site that covers sports and pop culture, mainly because it has such a great stable of writers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read a great article and thought, I wish someone would pay this person to write an in-depth book on this topic. So, inspired by Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, which covers the 96 greatest NBA players of all time here are four Grantland writers and the three best of books that I wish they’d write.

Steven Hyden: The Book of Rock

I first came across Hyden’s work when he was writing for the AV Club, the Onion’s entertainment website. Hyden’s 10 part feature, Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation was just a pure dose of nostalgia for a guy like me who grew up listening to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Each part of the series focuses on a year from 1990 to 1999 and covers the highs and lows of alternative music beginning with the emergence of Nirvana and ending with the Woodstock '99 debacle. Once he moved to Grantland, Hyden was at it again discussing the rise and fall of rock and roll within mainstream culture with articles on the most important rock bands through the ages: Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Metallica, Linkin Park, and The Black Keys in a series called The Winner’s History of Rock and Roll. I would love nothing more than for Hyden to expand this stuff out to a full size Book of Rock. I'd assume to make Hyden's Rock Pantheon bands would have to pass the five album test: has the band released five great albums in a row? Based on this rubric Hyden would include Queen, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, but not The Rolling Stone or MetallicaHey I'm with you. Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, And Justice for All, and The Black Album are all awesome. I hope one day Hyden can look past his distaste for the lack of bass on And Justice for All, but I fear I hope in vain.. Whatever the metric, Hyden needs to get on this before, as he puts it, books disappear.

David Shoemaker: The Book of Wrestling

I absolutely loved professional wrestling when I was a kid. While all the other kids were drawn to Hulkamania I was a Macho Man Randy Savage guy. As I grew older I stopped watching wrestling and was only vaguely aware of the WWE’s attitude era with guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. However, when Macho Man passed away at an early age due to a heart attack I tuned into Monday Night Raw that night to watch the tribute. I was immediately sucked back into wrestling and of course was drawn to an anti-hero named CM Punk, who immediately struck me as the Macho Man to John Cena’s Hulk Hogan. When CM Punk raised his arms and delivered the Macho Man elbow off the top rope my inner 8 year old went nuts. And no one has captured the rise of CM Punk like David Shoemaker, who prior to contributing to Grantland wrote this Dead Wrestler of the Week Column. Luckily Shoemaker has a book coming out in October called The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling which I’m looking forward to. But what I really want to know is who is at the top of the rankings? I think obviously Hogan has to be #1 right? But where is everyone else? I need an expert to figure it out. Do it Shoemaker!

Louisa Thomas and Brian PhillipsAnd after reading Phillips' awesome article (and website design clinic) on the Iditarod, I'd read a book ranking the Iditarod finishers as well.: The Book of Tennis

I grew up playing tennis and I have fond memories of Breakfast at Wimbledon during summer vacation. I’m always on the lookout for great books on tennis but they are inevitably either guides to playing well, biographies of one player, or discussions of a specific important match. What I crave, what I need is a book that compares and ranks players against each other. Is Serena better than Steffi Graf?It's Graf. Accomplishments mean more than potential.. Federer is #1 on the men’s sideYes Nadal owns an advantage in their one on one battles, but here’s the statistic that is mind blowing. The record for most consecutive Grand Slam finals appears is Federer with 10. Second place? Federer with 8. The next highest? Nadal with 5. Nadal is the greatest on clay, but Fed is still the GOAT. but is Nadal #2 or is Pete Sampras? How many Grand Slams would Don Budge have won if professionals could have still played in the slams back then? To answer these questions I need to turn to Grantland’s tennis pros, Louisa Thomas and Brian Phillips. Just read Phillip’s piece on Federer winning Wimbledon in 2012 or and Thomas’ piece of Sloane Stephens beating Serena Williams. Make this book happen!

So what about you? What best of books would you like to see and who would you like to see write them?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tournament of Children's Books Championship

At long last we are down to the final two books: The Very Hungry Caterpillar and We're Going on a Bear Hunt.In case you missed how we got to this point, here are links to Day 1, Day 2, the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, and the Final 4. Before we tip-off here's one last look at how we got here:

Click here for a zoomable version..

The Tournament of Children's Books Championship

(1) The Very Hungry Caterpillar versus (4) We're Going on a Bear Hunt
My wife’s family lives about 3 ½ hours away. Being stuck in a car with two kids under two for 3 ½ hours is no one’s idea of a good time. On our most recent trip, after about 2 ½ hours stuck in his car seat James was finished. He was just fussy and wanted the trip to be over with. There’s no room in the car for one of us to be in the backseat to entertain him so out of desperation I tried something different. I started reciting We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

In addition to the previous virtues assigned to We’re Going on A Bear Hunt in this contest, it also has the benefit of being easy to memorize. You’ve got the main chorus “We’re Going on A Bear Hunt, We’re Gonna Catch a Big One, What a Beautiful Day, We’re Not Scared, OH NO!” and then you encounter the obstacles (Grass, River, Mud, Forest, Snowstorm, Cave) which each have their own sound effects (Swishy Swashy, Splash Splosh, Squelch Squerch, Stumble Trip, Hoo Woo, and Tiptoe). Then you just reverse it when the bear chases you home. Easy!

So as I started reciting the story James calmed down and just listened with wide eyes. Then we got to the cave. I repeated, “Tip Toe Tip Toe Tip Toe! What’s that?!?!? One Shiny wet nose (I see James start smiling in the rear view mirrorDon't worry, he is still rear-facing. We have a mirror on his seat's headrest.), two big furry ears, two big googly eyes, IT’S A BEAR!”. At this point James let out a big growl (He’s always the bear) and had a huge smile on his face. When I finished he immediately made the “more” sign. For the next half hour we kept going on a bear hunt until eventually the little guy nodded off to sleep.

As you might recall The Very Hungry Caterpillar worked wonders on an airplane, but it just wouldn’t have worked in this situation where we didn’t have the book. The visuals in The Very Hungry Caterpillar are very important. For We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the sound effects are the part that James loves. For allowing us to keep our sanity by keeping James entertained in the most challenging situationDAGGER!, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt takes home the title.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Tournament of Children's Books Final Four

Of the 32 books that started this tournament only 4 surviveIn case you missed them, here are links to Day 1, Day 2, the Sweet 16, and the Elite 8.: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Monster at the End of this Book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and Shark vs. Train. On one side of the field we have two of my favorite books growing up, books that I love sharing with my son. On the other side are two books that I never read as a child but are books that James has discovered and will one day love reading to his own children. Which books will make it to the title game? Let’s get to it!

Click here for a zoomable version..

The Final Four

(1) The Very Hungry Caterpillar versus (3) The Monster at the End of this Book
Wow. What a great matchup. These two books have quite possibly the two biggest shocking twist endings of all children’s books. In The Very Hungry Caterpillar you have a sweet little caterpillar going about his business eating every single thing in sight. As a kid reading this, everything seems to be going along normally: “Wow this caterpillar eats a lot of food… some of it looks yummy. And oh hey look the caterpillar has gotten bigger from all that food. I guess that’s still normal…Mommy and Daddy tell me I grow too. Okay wow that cocoon thing is weird looking but I guess it’s similar to my crib maybe the caterpillar is taking a nap and OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?!?!?! HOW DID THAT CATERPILLAR TURN INTO THIS COLORFUL MONSTORSITY?!?!?!”

Then there’s Grover. As a kid you so delight in his increasing terror at facing the monster at the end of the book, but deep down you too feel a little afraid. But that little bit of fear is nothing compared to Grover’s increasingly hysterical antics, and from the safety of Daddy’s lap you are enjoying putting the screws to poor old Grover. But still you hesitate on that final page thinking oh my maybe I should have listened to Grover after all and you begin to close your eyes just in case and hug Daddy a little tighter and then BAM! Grover IS the monster at the end of this book! Your jaw drops and you crack up at how Grover scared himself (and you) silly over something that turned out to be nothing. There’s a life lesson here you file away in your subconscious for later reflection.

So who wins this battle of surprise endings? Well, only one of these books ended up on the wall in the kids’ playroom:

(4) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt versus (4) Shark vs. Train
What a Cinderella run for Shark vs. Train. It was helped by a very easy draw in the early rounds, and buoyed by a late surge of interest from James, Shark vs. Train rode that momentum to upset Goodnight Moon in the regional final. So is it enough to knock off We’re Going on a Bear Hunt?

Well I was struggling with this one. In fact, I had paused after the above paragraph for a few days, thinking about how to approach this matchup as I enjoy reading both books to James very much, he loves each of them, and I don’t have any nostalgia from my own childhood associated with them. Should the mural approach be the deciding factor again?

But today an interesting thing happened. As James was settling down for his afternoon nap I asked if he would like Daddy to read him a story. “Sure” he replied. We walked to his room and as we approached the chair we read in he made the shark sound (“Doo Doo”) which always indicates he wants me to read Shark vs. Train. Halfway through the book something caught his eye and he pushed the book away. “What is it?” I asked. He proceed to roar and point at something lying on the ground… it was We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. I asked him if he wanted to read that instead. Big nod yes. So let it be written. So let it be done.To kill the firstborn pharaoh son. I'm Creeping Death! (Sorry, classical reference. Had to be done.)

Well at last we are down to the final two. Tune in tomorrow night for the championship match-up between The Very Hungry Caterpillar and We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tournament of Children's Books Elite 8

Today we determine the Final 4! Which books get to cut down nets and raise banners? Which ones fall short just on the cusp of greatness?In case you missed them, here are links to Day 1, Day 2, and the Sweet 16. Here's the Elite 8:

Click here for a zoomable version..

There are no easy outs left in this tournament! Let’s get down to business!

Mother Goose Region

(1) The Very Hungry Caterpillar defeats (6) Curious George to the Rescue
Curious George to the Rescue can occupy James for maybe 10 minutes. When James was about 11 months old we took him to Florida to visit his Great Grandmother who had been sick. We were fortunate enough to book a two hour direct flight, but as anyone who has ever flown with small children knows that two hours can be a long time. Luckily I was armed with The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This book somehow managed to keep James occupied for almost the entire flight there and back. How did we do it? Remember that page where the hungry little caterpillar goes nuts and eats a piece of chocolate cake, an ice cream cone, a pickle, a piece of cherry pie, a lollipop, a cupcake, and all sorts of other junk? On this page I would take James’ index finger in my hand and say where’s the lollipop? I’d point to the pickle and yell “ERNT”. I’d point to the cake and do the same. Then I’d point to the lollipop and yell “DING”. He thought this was hilarious and we proceeded to repeat this game over and over and over. I was so happy to have him happy on the plane the repetitiveness didn’t even bug me. For keeping my son happy on an airplane The Very Hungry Caterpillar deserves a spot in the Final Four.

Little Golden Books Region

(3) The Monster at the End of this Book defeats (1) Peek-a-Who
Peek-a-Who has made a great run so far in this tournament with its owl powered offense and great sound effects. But Peek-a-Who’s weaknesses finally caught up to it in this match-up against a well-rounded opponent. Peek-a-Who suffers because by trying to include every word that rhymes with who that is easily illustrated, they forgot that the words should also all be onomatopoeia. Yelling boo with ghosts, hoo with owls, and choo-choo with trains all make sense; yelling zoo at a bunch of animals or yelling you at a very shoddy mirror? Not so much. It just feels silly yelling Peek-a-Zoo! On the other hand, The Monster at the End of this Book excels with how the author uses font size and color to help the reader know exactly how to enunciate effectively. WHAT did that say? On the VERY first page WHAT did that say? Did that say there’s a MONSTER at the end of this book? OH I am SO SCARED of MONSTERS! Not even the most tone-deaf adult reader can mess this one up. Grover might be a scardey cat but he secures his spot in the Final Four.

Dr. Seuss Region

(4 )We’re Going on a Bear Hunt defeats (3) Mr. Brown Can Moo Can You
I’ll never forget James’ first trip to the zoo. He was just under a year old and I knew what I was expecting my favorite moment to be: when James first encountered a real live bear. As soon as we entered the zoo I informed him that we were going on a bear hunt. He was definitely excited as we moved from animal to animal even as we failed to encounter bears. Little did he know we were slowly but surely moving towards the bear exhibit. The whole time I kept singing “We’re going on a bear hunt”. The great thing about the Cincinnati Zoo bear exhibit is there is a fake cave you can walk through. So just like in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt James and I tiptoed, tiptoed, and tiptoed through the cave.

And when we came out… BEARS! When I picked James up so he could see better he pointed and said “Bear”.

He could barely say anything other than Mama and Dada at that point so I can’t put into words just how thrilling this was for his Mother and I. So apologies to Mr. Brown, it's a cute book and all, but only one book in this match-up has produced a memory that I’m sure will last a lifetime.

Good Night Region

(4) Shark vs. Train defeats (2) Goodnight Moon
I have never understood it when authors say things like “The way this character turned out really surprised me”. I’ve always wondered how that made any sense. I mean they are the ones who created the character right? But now I know because when I saw how this region looked I fully expected Goodnight Moon to win easily. After all it had been one of James’ favorite books early on, had experienced a revival when we discovered that the mouse moved on every page and we could play a game trying to find him, and of course it’s one of the all time classic children’s books. But then a funny thing happened. As I was writing these match-ups James became more and more obsessed with Shark vs. Train. He is just so adorable as he makes shark and train sounds as we read. The book also has tons of cute little details to point out, absolutely horrible puns (which I love), and holds James’ interest despite its length. James started out liking this book because of the shark but now he also loves trains. In fact, his new favorite book (discovered too late for inclusion in the field) is The Little Engine That Could, which before Shark vs. Train was too long for him. It was a good run Goodnight Moon. I look forward to reading you to James’ little sister. But in this matchup you got railroaded and chewed up. CHOMP! Shark vs. Trains wins in an upset!

The Final 4 is set! Tomorrow we find out who among The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Monster at the End of this Book, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, and Shark vs. Train will be battling for the title!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tournament of Children's Books Sweet 16

Welcome back to the Tournament of Children’s Books! Only 16 books remain in the fight for James and Daddy’s favorite children’s book of all time. In you missed the first round action here are links to Day 1 and Day 2. Here's the Sweet 16:

Click here for a zoomable version..

We have some great match-ups today as we find out which books make the Elite 8. Let’s get to it!

Mother Goose Region

(1) The Very Hungry Caterpillar defeats (5) Around the Farm
Let’s be honest here. If the three Eric Carle books left in this tournament were the 96 Chicago Bulls, The Very Hungry Caterpillar would be Michael Jordan, Brown Bear would be Scottie Pippen, and Around the Farm would be Toni Kukoč. Or for you non-sports fans The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a vacation to Hawaii, Brown Bear a vacation to Florida, and Around the Farm a day trip to a water park. Yes Toni Kukoč was a fine NBA player, but MJ is one of the all-time greats. Yes, going to an amusement park is better than hanging out in your neighbor’s pool but Hawaii’s a honeymoon destination. Sorry Around the Farm, you’re great and all but you are just outclassed in this one.

(6) Curious George to the Rescue defeats (2) Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
This match-up was fairly easy to determine. James had a good solid three weeks recently where he wanted to read nothing but Curious George to the Rescue. He really loves when the poor chef gets covered in spaghetti and when George, Hundley, and Gnocchi all end up falling into the lake. He’s never had a similar run with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. On top of that, this short version of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (which ends when the letters fall out of the coconut tree) is knocked down a few pegs on Daddy’s list because of its association with the long version where Capital letters show up to rescue the letters that fell, all rhythm is lost, and nothing makes any sense. The long version is the director's cut that should have been left on the editing room floor. Curious George in the upset!

Little Golden Books Region

(1) Peek-a-Who defeats (4) Hand Hand Fingers Thumb
James loves monkeys, but he was an owl for Halloween for a reason. The boy loves owls. He loves making the owl sound. And not only does Peek-A-Who let him make owl noises he also on the very next page gets to make one of his other favorite sounds, BOO!. We always played Peek-a-boo with James and before I put him to bed after story time I always say “Give Daddy a Boo” and he puts his hands over his eyes, removes them, and yells "Boo". It’s super cute when he is so tired that it's barely a whisper. On Halloween we put a ghost figurine in the china cabinet and he learned to say boo when we asked him what sound it made. And if having both Hoo Hoo and Boo! wasn’t enough, Peek-a-Who also has a moo (he loves when Grandpa makes a cow noise) and choo-choo (he also has a thing for trains).

(3) The Monster at the End of this Book defeats (7) Eight Silly Monkeys
It’s a tough day for monkeys as lovable furry ole Grover comes out swinging. When I was a kid The Monster at the End of this Book was one of my favorite books. When my Mother read this to me I remember feeling so strong when I was able to turn the page despite Grover tying the pages together with knots, nailing them together with boards, and covering them with bricks. Thirty years later it is just as fun watching James do it. I remember how awesome it was when he began to turn the pages of books on his own and it’s so much fun to say “Please do not turn the page” in Grover’s voice and then whispering “Go ahead and turn it” into his ear. The smile on his face is just awesome when we turn the page and see the destruction we have wrought.

Dr. Seuss Region

(4) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt defeats (1) The Going-to-Bed Book
As we learned in Round 1 The Going-to-Bed Book has some great things going for it. It is super catchy and it does a great job of getting James ready for bed. Unfortunately, there’s one specific moment where it goes completely off the rails. The book starts with a big group of animals on a boat who are getting ready for bed. They take a bath, hang up their towels, find pajamas, and brush their teeth. Everything is perfectly normal so far. But then the animals exercise. What? I’m trying to wind this kid down and after I have him all clean and calm you want him to do some jumping jacks? I don’t think so! Now without that moment We’re Going on a Bear Hunt would still win this match-up, but exercising at night after cleaning up makes this a blowout win.

(3) Mr. Brown Can Moo Can You? Defeats (2) Brown Bear Brown Bear
This matchup of Brown vs. Brown was the hardest decision of the tournament thus far. In fact I had initially penciled in Brown Bear with the victory. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that Brown Bear had been skating by on James’ love for bears and the possibility of an all-bear regional final. But really, the brown bear is only on the first page and by the time we’ve reached the purple kitty or the blue horse the brown bear has already been forgotten and James is often losing interest. Mr. Brown Can Moo Can You on the other hand keeps James interested with fun sound effects the entire way including a Knock Knock (with Daddy knocking his hand on the wall), Splatt Splatt (lightningThe night we brought James home from the hospital lightning struck one of the huge trees that surround our house. It was the loudest thing I've ever heard. The tree is half dead now and needs to come down. You can bet I'm getting a baseball bat made out of it.), and James’ favorite Hoo Hoo (those owls are everywhere!). Mr. Brown moves on!

Good Night Region

(4) Shark vs. Train defeats (8) A Cuddle for Little Duck
James and I love to play a game we call Daddy Shark. It starts with me chasing James while making the shark sound (the doo doo doo doo from Jaws). He laughs, falls down, I tickle him, then I go and hide. If he doesn’t find me at first I make the shark sound as many times as it takes for him to track me down. I jump out, scare him, tickle him, and then run off and hide again. We repeat this over and over until Daddy Shark is lying on the floor trying to catch his breath. It’s a great game and I think James loves this book so much by association. In fact he makes the shark sound whenever he wants to read this book, which lately has been all the freaking time. The best thing about this book is it is so good and funny that even after reading it approximately 879 times it still amuses me when I get to the page when the shark and train are competing at carnival rides and the sign in front of the shark tank says, “You Must be This Crazy to Ride”. And of course I love the lack of opposable thumbs when they are playing Extreme Zombie Squirrel Motocross. James also loves to find the shark hiding behind the bed and the train in the closet when they are playing hide and seek. And … well you get the point. You had a good run Cuddle for Little Duck, but it ends here.

(2) Goodnight Moon defeats (6) B is for Bear
As previously mentioned James loves tractors. As word of this passed among family and friends he began receiving tractor toys. And of course if you have tractors you need a farm and animals. Before you knew it, what began as a small family owned farm turned into a giant toy agribusiness. The boy has 3 tractors, 1 barn, 1 silo, 4 pigs, 4 cows, 4 sheep, 3 horses, 1 chicken, 1 goat, and employs 4 farmers. James also happens to have several blocks shaped like half moons. Why do I mention this stuff here? Well, the look on James’ face when we lined up the half moon blocks and then had his cows jump over them just like the picture in Goodnight Moon was awesome. B is for Bear is a great book, but it doesn’t have a moment like that.

What a day! Fan favorites Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Brown Bear Brown Bear go down! Come back Sunday night as we find out which books make the Final 4!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Round of 32 Day 2 (Tournament of Children's Books)

Welcome back to the Tournament of Children’s Books! Yesterday we had some blow outs, some upsets, and some hard fought victories. Here's how the field looks after Day 1:

Click here for a zoomable version..

Let’s see what happens when the Dr. Seuss and Good Night regions kickoff!

Dr. Seuss Region

(1) The Going-to-bed Book defeats (8) ABC What Will I Be
ABC What Will I Be is a great book. For each letter of the alphabet there’s a cute illustration of a kid in an occupation (A is for Architect, B is for Ballerina, etc.), with each illustration hidden under a flap that James can lift up. This interaction is lots of fun for him and I enjoy the fact that traditionally male occupations like engineer are occupied by girls which will hopefully provide some inspiration for my five month old daughter someday. I only wish P would have been for Psychologist instead of Pastry Chef. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough to overcome the super catchy Going-to-bed book which I had memorized after the 2nd read through.

(4) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt defeats (5) Goodnight New York City
Tough tough draw here for Goodnight New York City, one of the two Goodnight World books (and the best) in the field. One of the great things about Goodnight New York City is it’s fun for both Daddy and James. There’s all sorts of cool things to point out (the horse in Central Park, the lions in front of the library) and it has wry nods that go right over James’ head such as when a previous illustration of a hot dog vendor is shown hanging in the art museum next to Van Gogh’s A Starry Night on a later page. But Goodnight New York City just doesn’t have the game to hang with We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. The fun of singing “Rock of Ages” on the Broadway show page just can’t beat the fun of going swishy swashy, squelch squerch, splash splosh, stumble trip, and hoo woo on our bear hunt.

(3) Mr. Brown Can Moo Can You defeats (6) Baby Woof Woof
Baby Woof Woof is cute and all with its animal noises and baby animals. But there’s just no way that style of play can compete with “BOOM BOOM BOOM Mr. Brown is a wonder. BOOM BOOM BOOM Mr. Brown makes thunder”. James loves the part when he gets to knock on the door and when he gets to make owl noises. Throw in the fact that Daddy always stumbles over the phrase “Friendly Foal” in Baby Woof Woof and this is a blowout.

(2) Brown Bear Brown Bear defeats (7) Good Night Little Star
As will become apparent in the later rounds of this tournament, James loves bears which you would think gives the edge to Brown Bear here. But Good Night Little Star features a Baby Bear and a Big Bear on every page. Even better, the parent bear is never identified as Mama Bear or Papa Bear so when I read it he’s always Daddy Bear. I really enjoy Good Night Little Star for that reason and because it features Daddy Bear and Baby Bear sitting in a hammock reading a book. We have a hammock and though James was too impatient this past summer to enjoy reading in it I have high hopes for this summer. Unfortunately it’s just not enough to get past Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle’s classic that seamlessly teaches colors, animals, and animal sounds in a way that entertains both James and Daddy. Carle is 3-0 in the tournament so far! As Mark Hamil once said, “Don’t f*** with the Jedi Master son”Yup. I just linked a video that drops an f-bomb in a post about children's books. This is why my wife is always yelling "WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE IN FRONT OF THE KIDS" at me.

Good Night Region

(8) A Cuddle for Little Duck defeats (1) Where’s Baby’s Belly Button
I have no idea why Where’s Baby’s Belly Button is such a big seller. James absolutely loves belly buttons. When he was younger he’d reach out and poke my belly button, I’d make the Pillsbury Doughboy noise, and he’d crack up. And he loves it when you try and get his belly button. But his reaction to this book is usually a big fat meh. Why? Well there’s only one belly button! But if you want to find a baby’s feet hiding behind a cat or baby’s hands hiding behind some bubbles then have at it! Many lift the flap children’s books lack an entertaining story but this one is especially egregious. A Cuddle for Little Duck on the other hand tells a great story of Little Duck’s adventures throughout the day, featuring all sorts of animals and bugs to point out and what has to be a Shake Your Tail Feather reference. A Cuddle for Little Duck pulls off the shocking upset and moves on.

(4) Shark vs. Train defeats (5) Goodnight Washington DC
The Goodnight World series heads home 0-2 after Goodnight Washington DC runs into the buzzsaw that is Shark vs. Train. Goodnight Washington DC is shorter than its New York counterpart but does have some pretty awesome pages. The first two pages are a zoo scene with about 20 different animals to point out including bears and monkeys. The Museum of Natural History spread has dinosaurs and more bears while the National Air Space Museum page has rockets and astronauts. But James can tell you what sounds the following things/animals make: Owls, Bears, Vacuum Cleaners, Pigs, Tractors, Cars, Sharks,In case you were wondering a shark makes a sound like “Doo Doo. Doo Doo. Doo doo doo doo doo”. Still confused? Think the music from Jaws. Toddlers believe anything you tell them. and Trains. A book that features two of these things in the title? And they go mano a mano in activities ranging from high diving to basketballJames also yells like Tarzan whenever he sees basketball because Daddy has taught him how to yell when you hang on the rim after you dunk on fools. It's important to teach kids the fundamentals. to ping pong? Yup that’s a Sweet 16 book right there.

(6) B is for Bear defeats (3) On the Day You Were Born
Imagine that a bunch of new age hippies got together and decided to write a children’s book explaining photosynthesis, tidal forces, the atmosphere’s role in the existence of life, and gravity to a toddler while also suggesting that the toddler's birth was so important that news of it passed from animal to animal across the world. This book just drips with pretentiousness. B is for Bear on the other hand teaches the alphabet using a fun rhyming scheme and has tons of awesome textures to play with. With On the Day You Were Born James’ eyes glaze over by page 2. In fact the only way On the Day You Were Born is interesting is if I change the words to “On the day you were born, dun dun dun dun dun the nurses all gathered round dun dun dun dun dun and gazed in wide wonder dun dun dun dun dun at the joy they had found.”Bad to the Bone better be stuck in your head now. With B is for Bear James loves playing with the kitten’s yarn, pointing out his mouth and nose, hooting and oinking with the owl and pig, shushing when the quiet puppy appears, getting super excited on the Y is for You Go On Take a Look page, and smashing his face into the mirror.

(2) Goodnight Moon defeats (7) 10 Tiny Puppies
10 Tiny Puppies had a good strategy here. The “The only thing cuter than a tiny puppy is MORE tiny puppies” strategy has made millions102 Dalmatians made $183 million. I can just imagine the Disney meeting: “What’s cuter than 101 Dalmatians? I know! 102 Dalmatians!”.. James loves the two page spread with the tiny puppies playing with a baseball and a glove amidst a plethora of bugs that he can point out. And the line “8 tiny puppies know to go on the funnies” still amuses me after reading this book for over a year and a half. Unfortunately, 10 Tiny Puppies got matched up with possibly the toughest 2 seed in the tournament, Goodnight Moon, one of the all time best children’s books and a favorite of both James and Daddy. 10 Tiny Puppies is cute but cute only gets you so far.

That takes us to the end of the first round. Things heat up tomorrow in the Sweet 16!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Round of 32 Day 1 (Tournament of Children's Books)

On Monday we set the field. Today, the Tournament of Children's Books begins with first round match-ups in the Mother Goose and Little Golden Books regions. Here's the field:

Click here for a zoomable version.

Let's get started!

Mother Goose Region

(1) The Very Hungry Caterpillar defeats (8) Teddy’s House
The Very Hungry Caterpillar chews right through Teddy’s House in this first round blowout. My son absolutely loves Teddy’s House…when he can find it. Teddy’s House comes with a little stuffed bear (the eponymous Teddy) that fits inside the book. Each page of the book is a different room in Teddy’s house and has text describing items in each room. And that’s it. No plot. No story. Just here’s Teddy’s Bathroom. Here’s Teddy’s toilet. Here’s Teddy’s toothbrush. After 2700 or so times reading this book (my son loves to have Mommy or Daddy read this over and over) the mere sight of Teddy’s House puts my brain into sheer agony, so in a very mature response my wife and I hide Teddy’s House. A recent game of asking my son questions like, “Here’s Teddy’s crib, can you show me your crib?” has helped a bit, but The Very Hungry Caterpillar is sitting his starters in the second half of this match-up.

(5) Around the Farm defeats (4) Goodnight, Johnny Tractor
Goodnight, Johnny Tractor has a lot of things going for it. My son loves my tractorDespite its 62 inch mowing deck, ability to plow snow, and five figure price tag, my wife insists our tractor is a riding lawn mower. Of course she's from Northern Ohio where the tractors are bigger than battleships. and when the weather is warm we are always taking tractor rides around the yard. But unfortunately Johnny Tractor doesn’t look a lot like my tractor (even though both are John Deere machines) so James hasn’t put it together that the star of this book is one of his favorite things. Johnny Tractor is also fun because we can point out which animals are still awake and which ones have fallen asleep. But the amount of hoops you have to jump through to make the glow in the dark feature work (high powered flashlight? really?) and the blatant product placement gives the nod to the collection of cute Eric Carle farm animal illustrations with accompanying sound bites, ensuring that the Sweet 16 will feature Carle on Carle crime.When I read books to my son I always tell him who the author is. I mispronounced Carle (I was saying Car-lee) approximately 700 times before my wife overhead me and said something akin to, "The E is silent dumbass".

(6) Curious George to the Rescue defeats (3) The Runaway Bunny
Curious George to the Rescue has everything a 22 month old with a short attention span could want: slide and peek action, a monkey, a dachshund on roller skates, an adult getting covered in spaghetti, and awesome opportunities for Dad to make fun sound effects. In comparison The Runaway Bunny has huge chunks of text with boring black and white photos and zero text to read on the interesting color photos. It also has a Mama Bunny that makes the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother look like June Cleaver. The Runaway Bunny is sent packing, as chants of “overrated” fill the gym.

(2) Chicka Chicka Boom Boom defeats (7) I Kissed the Baby
A tighter than expected battle as my son’s current enjoyment of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom narrowly defeats the fun I had reading I Kissed the Baby to him when he was a baby. In I Kissed the Baby various animals boast of feeding, singing to, tickling, and kissing the baby. So for each part I’d singOne of the many reasons I love my son is he is the only person on the planet who requests that I sing., tickle (love his little laugh), or give him a big kiss. Also, any chance I get to quack like a duck is one I have to take. But nowadays James just wants to hear about how A told B and B told C to meet him at the top of the coconut tree. This short version of Chicka Chicka Boom BoomThe long version takes a great nursery rhyme and turns it into a Lynchian nightmare without rhythm or sense. heads to the Sweet 16.

Little Golden Books Region

(1) Peek-a-who defeats (8) Good Night, Little Bear
Daddy: “James, what sound does a doggy make?” James: blank stare
Daddy: “James, what sound does a kitty make?” James: blank stare
Daddy: “James what sound does an owl make?" James: "Hoo! Hoo!"
We have a garden and James will often help me while I am pulling weeds or tying up tomato plants. To keep the birds away we have a plastic owl that sits on a tomato stake. James loves the owl and quickly learned what sound an owl makes. He always get super excited when we read a book with an owl in it. So whenever we read Good Night Little Bear he wiggles impatiently, turning the pages furiously when allowed, all so he can get to the page with the owl on it, point it out, and yell Hoo! Hoo!. Peek-a-who has an owl on the first page. Delayed gratification has nothing on instant satisfaction for a 22 month old. Peek-a-who marches on.

(4) Hand, Hand, Fingers Thumb defeats (5) Daddy Cuddles
I have to admit, I’m very partial to Daddy Cuddles. There are just way too many books where it’s always Mama Bunny or Mama Duck or Mama Bear. Daddy always gets the shaft. But not in Daddy Cuddles! We have Daddy Kangaroos and Daddy Penguins and Daddy Koalas and Daddy Monkeys. But it’s always a little awkward at the end when we read “Just like your Daddy cuddles you” and the picture looks nothing like us. Put a mirror at the end Daddy Cuddles! Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb on the other hand is rip roaring fun the whole way through. I defy anyone to read this book without bouncing to the rhythm. And every children's book is better when it has a barrel full of monkeys.

(3) The Monster at the End of This Book defeats (6) Five Little Pumpkins
I honestly have no idea what the selection committee was thinking here. If you are going to include a seasonal Halloween book why not go with The Pumply Dumply Pumpkin? Yes there are some fun moments with Five Little Pumpkins: making the ooooooooooooooooo sound when the wind blows and laughing as the pumpkins roll out of sight is great and the pun on the back cover blurb is deliciously groan worthy. But come on! The best Halloween book moment is when the reader has to try and figure out what Peter is going to do with that pumply dumply pumpkin. Nothing puts Daddy to the test like having to spit out pumpkin pudding pumpkin pie pumpkin pickles pumpkin fry without getting tongue twisted. Bad bad call by the committee. Regardless, the lone seasonal book in the tournamentWe have yet to encounter a good Christmas children’s book. They are all awful. Especially the one with the weird alien elf. And the one that makes loud noises. And so on. gets bounced easily by Grover.

(7) Eight Silly Monkeys defeats (2) Dr. Seuss ABC
In a hard fought contest Dr. Seuss ABC loses on a last second shot by Eight Silly Monkeys. On paper this looked like a sure thing for Dr. Seuss. Sweet alliteration (Jerry Jordan’s Jelly Jars, Painting Some Pajamas Pink, Willy’s in the Washtub Washing Walda Woo) and great illustrations make this fun for both Daddy and James. But Eight Silly Monkeys pulled off the victory thanks to an unfortunate event that occurred when James was younger. One night he was playing on our bed and he fell face first into the foot board, opening a cut above his eye. From that day forward whenever we read Eight Silly Monkeys he gets very serious, points to the bed, and says, “Boom”. That’s right James! You went boom just like those silly monkeys. If only we had read Eight Silly Monkeys before we played on the bed. Solid fundamentals (teaching life lessons) carry Eight Silly Monkeys into the Sweet 16.

That's a wrap for today! Join us tomorrow when the books in the Dr Seuss and Good Night regions square off in their first round match-ups!

Monday, April 15, 2013


While this blog is focused on my love of reading, one of my other passions is running. I just ran a half marathon two weeks ago and am currently focused on training for a marathon in September. One of my long term goals, and I’m sure a long term goal for many weekend warrior age groupers like myself is to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Unlike other races, in order to compete in Boston runners must meet a certain qualifying time. There’s really no bigger goal for non-elite runners than to BQ (Boston qualify).

When I checked Twitter and Facebook this morning my running store, Up and Running, had a picture up of some employees and customers ready to take on Boston. My running club, the Ohio River Road Runners had a post up asking who was running Boston today. On the Beginner Triathlete message boards someone had posted a link to live coverage of the race, so I watched the winners of the women’s race finish while on break. It was awesome watching American Kara Goucher finish sixth and seeing American Shalane Flanagan hang right with the top three finishers until the very end to take fourth place. The men’s race ended shortly thereafter with a thrilling dual between three runners going stride for stride the last 800 meters.

A few hours later my phone started going crazy with Twitter updates. As you know by now two bombs were detonated in the spectator areas for the marathon right before the finish line. Everyone was trying to make sure the people they knew who were running the race, and those cheering them on, were safe. I just can’t imagine what the victims’ families and those injured are going through. I’m thankful that it seems like everyone from Up and Running, the ORRRC, and Beginner Triathlete are safe. I’m thankful my cousin who BQ’ed last year decided against running the race. I’m thankful that last year when my wife, my son, and my mother came to cheer me on at the Air Force marathon nothing bad happened. Please keep the victims in your thoughts.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Tournament of Children's Books

While watching the NCAA basketball tournament last monthAnd crying because my Kentucky Wildcats missed the Big Dance this year I decided that this blog needed its own tournament. Over the next seven days 32 children’s books will battle for the coveted title of Writing Bout Reading’s Best Children’s Book of All Time! To start with, here's a look at how the books were selected, why your favorite book might have missed the field, how the books were seeded, and how the books will be judged.

The Selection Process: The 32 books included in the bracket were selected based on how much my 22 month old son seemed to enjoy them. Obviously books aimed at older children (Charlotte’s Web, The Narnia Books, Harry Potter, etc.) were sent packing and encouraged to try again in a few years. Classics that we do not yet own were also left hoping for an NIT bid (sorry The Giving Tree, Where the Wild Things Are, and what would have been one of my preseason favorites if we owned a copy, Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum).

The Seeding Process: Once the 32 book field had been selected the books were sorted into four regions (Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Little Golden Books, and Good Night) and seeded 1-8. Seeds were based on each book’s Amazon bestseller list ranking. The overall #1 seed, The Very Hungry Caterpillar clocked in at #67 on Amazon while the final #8 seed, A Cuddle for Little Duck was ranked #5,307,777.

The Match-ups: Match-ups will be determined based on how much my son enjoys reading the book, the book's staying power (does my son still like it two months down the road), and how little the book burns me out when I’m required to read it over and over and over and over.

So without further adieu, here’s the field! Let the speculation begin! Who do you expect to make it to the Final Four? What potential match-ups are you looking forward to? What upsets do you think will happen? Tomorrow, the Round of 32 begins with first round games in the Mother Goose and Little Golden Books regions being decided.

Click here for a zoomable version!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Finding Neil

Before Neil Gaiman had 1.8 million twitter followers, New York Times bestsellers, and shelves full of Hugo and Nebula awards he was a comic book writer, writing 75 issues of The Sandman, one of the best comic stories of all-time. This got me thinking… who are some of today’s comic book writers that could make the transition to best selling novelist? These three immediately came to mind:

Jason Aaron – Currently he is absolutely crushing Marvel's Thor: God of Thunder, a story that connects events in three different periods in Thor's life: when he was a young man not yet worthy of his hammer, the present day as a member of the Avengers, and in the far future as an old man sitting on the throne of destroyed Asgard. But as great as this Thor story is Aaron made his bones with Vertigo's Scalped, a comic that follows FBI agent Dashiel Bad Horse, a Native American who has returned to the reservation where he was raised to try and take down the criminal organization ran by Lincoln Red Crow. Unlike superhero comics Scalped is as real as you can get and over the course of Scalped's sixty issues Aaron takes you on an emotional roller coaster. It’s easy to imagine him sitting down and busting out something like No Country for Old Men.The only thing more gritty than Aaron's writing is his beard.

Ed Brubaker – While Brubaker has had great runs on both Marvel and DC superhero books he really excels with his criminal fiction comics and the way he mashes them with other genres. Incognito brings together the criminal noir and superhero worlds, Fatale the noir with Lovecraftian horror, and an unforgettable arc of Criminal brought noir together with Archie exposing the seedy underbelly you always knew had to be present in Riverdale.Think of the worst possible ending to Archie, Betty, and Veronica's love triangle. It's still better than what Brubaker does to them. Obviously Brubaker would be great at writing a Hard Case Crime type of novel, but where he could really succeed is bringing in elements from other genres…something like a better version of Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid.

Jonathan Hickman – After a very long and successful run revitalizing Marvel’s first family The Fantastic Four and pitting Isaac Newton against Leonardo da Vinci in S.H.I.E.L.D, Hickman had been handed the reins to arguably the most important Marvel book: The Avengers. Before Hickman hit it big at Marvel he rattled off a string of titles that broke the mold of the sort of stories you could tell in comics. He burst onto the comic scene with The Nightly News (he was both the artist and the writer) and I remember being blown away by the way he used his graphic design expertise to tell the story. Hickman freed us from being trapped by boxed panels and word balloons. His use of data charts, huge chunks of text, and transcripts all made The Nightly News a truly innovative way of telling stories in comics. He followed that with Pax Romana, in which we learn just what would happen if The Vatican discovered time travelHINT: Bad things. You can read the first issue here.. In addition to his Marvel stuff Hickman has an ongoing series with Image called Manhattan Projects, which envisions a world where The Manhattan Project was just a cover story to hide all the cooler stuff Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Feynman were working on. Hickman’s comics are already so close to novels in terms of their scope that it’s a no-brainer for him to try his hand at one. I fully expect that when he does he’ll proceed to break all the rules of novel writing and the results will be mind-blowing.

So what about you? What comic writers would you like to see take a shot at novels down the road? Who do you think would be great at it? Who would struggle?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Masters of the Footnote

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. We are talking about footnotes here, not endnotes.On webpages, sidenotes work best because they eliminate scrolling. I almost spent more time getting the sidenotes functional then actually writing content. Footnotes are placed at the bottom of the same page that they are referenced in. Endnotes are those annoying notes placed at the back of the book. Endnotes require the use of an extra bookmark as well as the patience of Job as you sort through the many Ibids and horribly long journal article titles hoping to find an enjoyable anecdote. While endnotes frustrate and bore, footnotes, in the hands of a master, elucidate and entertain. When I first thought about this topic three names immediately came to mind as Masters of the Footnote. In the hands of lesser men the footnote is as dull as an old butter knife. In the hands of these three mighty men the footnote is as honed as a new Kramer knifeAs featured on Top Chef Season 10. I’m coming for you too FoodRiot.

3. Bill Simmons – The editor and chief of ESPN’s Grantland.com and author of the NY Times best seller The Book of Basketball, Simmons’ is famous for his use of footnotes and thankfully his style has spread to the rest of Grantland’s contributorsWhich I have blatantly copied here.. Simmons’ massive book comes in at over 700 pages and it must have over 1000 footnotes. Yup, you did the math right, that’s more than one footnote per page. The book is so big it can even stop bullets:

And every footnote brings the funny starting with the first that takes a swipe at 19x NBA All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “That’s the first of about 300 unprovoked shots at Kareem in this book. Just warning you now. Kareem was a ninny”.

2. David Foster Wallace – Full disclosure, I’ve yet to read Infinite Jest, which based on reputation could very well put DFW in the #1 spot on this list. In fact, I’ve just started my DFW journey and (following BookRiot’s path) have only read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of non-fiction essays. However, the footnotes of the titular essay (in which DFW writes about his experiences on a cruise ship) are just mind blowingly awesome. Frank Conroy’s admission of how the cruise ship operators paid him to write a positive review about Celebrity cruises ("I just prostituted myself"), Captain Video (a lone man determined to videotape every second of the cruise who ended up inspiring a mutiny against his efforts when he interfered in a conga line), and a rant on the professional smile (how every waiter, room cleaner, etc. always has a smile), are just a few of the many footnotes that had me rolling.

1. Mark Z. Danielewski – I have never read anything like Danielewski’s House of LeavesTo hopefully elaborate, how one usually scrutinizes expositions is somehow barely appropriate due to Danielewski's structure.. It begins with a man named Johnny Truant finding a book written by a man named Zampano. Zampano's book is an academic critique of a movie (which according to Truant doesn’t exist) filmed by a man named Will Navidson about his very strange house. Confused yet? Well just wait. The book begins with a description of how Truant finds Zampano’s book and then you are reading Zampano’s book while Truant’s story continues in that book’s footnotes. And the footnotes have footnotes leading to other pages and pretty soon you are lost and OHMYGODWHEREAMIHELP!?!?! I can’t convey how Danielewski’s structure/design/footnotes/etc. completely mirror the events taking place within the book without spoiling the awesomeness of encountering it for the first time so I won’t. But if you like to be scaredA psychological scare. A we can't see the monster that is chasing us scare. and you don't mind getting lost in the dark (and footnotes and appendices and indexes) then you should really check out this book.

So what about you? What do you think about footnotes? Are there some obvious masters of the footnotes I’ve missed?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

It's Not You, It's Me

Over the years I have found that my reading tastes aren’t very consistent. Authors I used to love have been sent packing (e.g. Tom Clancy, Orson Scott Card) as I’ve sought the thrill of new styles. In fact, I feel that I go through the same cycle with authors as I did with high school relationships. Using Michael Crichton as an example, here are the typical four stages I go through with an author:

Love at First Sight

This is the period where you first encounter an author and fall head over heels in love. Everything is new and fresh and after your first taste you see their huge back catalog and start salivating. I remember how Crichton's Jurassic Park not only captivated me by appealing to my childhood love of dinosaurs but also made me think by exposing me to the wondrous possibilities of science. He had me at velociraptor.

Current Example:

Jennifer Egan. A Visit from the Goon Squad is the only Egan book I have read and it pushed all my buttons. Her recent short story in The New Yorker composed solely of twitter updates, Black Box, left me desperately craving more. I’m madly in love.

All Hot and Bothered

This is the period when you can’t keep your hands off each other, spend the entire weekend in bed, love absolutely everything about the other person, and basically go insane. Right after I read Jurassic Park I dove headfirst into Crichton’s back catalog. Andromeda Strain became my favorite novel. I refused to see the movie the 13th Warrior because Eaters of the Dead was a great name and how dare they rename it to make it more palatable for the ignorant masses who didn’t understand Crichton’s genius. I was convinced The Great Train Robbery was the greatest historical novel of all time and that Sphere was an underrated masterpiece that future generations would discover and mock us for not appreciating.

Current Example:

David Mitchell. I am so obsessed with Mitchell right now that I purchased a book of critical essaysSarah Dillon’s David Mitchell: Critical Essays, which all kidding aside, is awesome. about his work with titles like Speculative Fiction as Postcolonial Critique in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas because I had already finished all his novels, short stories, reviews, interview transcripts, and grocery lists.

Everything's Way Too ComfortableAs best described by this Halestorm song.

This is the period where you’ve been together for a long time and the romance is fading. You start dreading another Valentine’s Day, you let farts rip instead of trying to sneak 'em, and that person who sits next to you in homeroom is starting to look pretty good. With Crichton, when Timeline came out I remember being slightly let down. Prey left me with a vague sense of ennui and State of Fear just got us into an argument about global warming and we went to bed angry.

Current Example:

Stephen King. I was once a huge Stephen King fan and obsessed over every single detail of the first four Dark Tower books. I was in a Stephen King fan club and I own about 70 of his books. But nowadays instead of buying his new stuff the day it comes out I wait until it’s on the Bargain Books shelf. And after what King did to my all-time favorite bad guy Randall Flagg I just can’t bring myself to read The Wind Through the Keyhole.

The Messy Breakup

It’s over. No couples counseling or lists of what you like the most about each other is going to fix things. I mean really Michael? Was there even a plot to Next or was it just a list of ideas you thought were pretty cool? And I’m not even going to try Pirate Latitudes. What the hell does that even mean? I’m picturing Capt. Jack Sparrow looking at a Mercator map and that’s not a good thing!

Current Example:

Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game blew my mind and I fell deeply in love. The rest of the Ender series was great, the Alvin Maker series was severely underrated, and I recommended Enchantment to every person I knew as it was the greatest modern fairy tale ever written. I went and saw Card speak 3 or 4 times and got about 25 books personalized. And then he went off the deep end and started spewing vile bigotry and nonsensical conspiracy theories. His political opinions started coloring everything he wrote. Ender in Exile was the last straw. I kicked him to the curb and started seeing Jesse BallGo read Ball's The Way Through Doors if, like me, you love the weird..

So who are some of the authors you have fallen in and out of love with? Are you in the midst of a messy breakup or are you all hot and bothered?

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Runaway Bunny Gets Taken

I’m sure my love of reading is due in large part to my Mother always reading to me when I was young. Hoping to pass that on to my own children (I have two under 2) I read each at least two books before bedtime and often more throughout the day. Thanks to our generous family and friends and my own inability to pass up a children’s book rack without buying one or two we have a library of children’s books that is the envy of every childcare center within 50 miles. As a somewhat regular feature in this blog I hope to feature some of the funny things that occur to me while reading these books over and over and overAnd over and over and over and over and over and over and over and oh god please make it stop.

First up is The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Clement Hurd. This book often causes confusion in our household because my son doesn’t like it at all, but thinks he does because it has a picture of one of his favorite books, Goodnight Moon (another Brown/Hurd collaboration), on the back cover. So inevitably he drags this book off the bookcase, sees Goodnight Moon on the back cover, gets all excited, and is then crestfallen when he discovers it is in fact The Runaway Bunny.

And for good reason! That Mama Bunny is a bit of a psycho! I mean sure the book’s message is supposed to be one of reassurance to young children: “Mommy will always be there for you”And it’s almost always Mommy in these books. Daddy gets the shaft. But that Mama Bunny is a helicopter parent on steroids. Whether little bunny climbs to the top of a mountain or turns into a bird and flies away Mama Bunny tracks his butt down.

Whenever I read it I hear Liam Neeson’s voiceFrom Taken. But you knew that already right? in my head:"I don't know why you're running away. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for junk food I can tell you I don't have any. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career as a Mama Bunny. Skills that make me a nightmare for runaway bunnies like you. If you come home now, that'll be the end of it and I will give you a carrot. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will hug you.”

So I laugh about it a bit and then move on to Goodnight Moon, a book I’ve read to my son hundreds of timesIt took me until read #354 to realize the mouse moves around the room. Toddlers love looking for the mouse. Pro Tip: When the mouse is on top of the bookshelf on the far left hide him with your thumb. Hilarity will ensure when your toddler realizes where the mouse is.. But then I turn the page and all of a sudden I’m seeing it for the very first time. My jaw drops open and hangs in horror as it dawns on me. That old lady whispering hush? It’s that psycho Mama Bunny! She’s in your bedroom Little Bunny and she is sitting there, rocking maniacally in her chair, staring with her cold dead eyes until you fall asleep.

And if you aren’t careful little bunny she’ll be there until you’re in your dorm room at college. Sweet dreams!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

And So It Begins

Recently BookRiot, a website devoted to writing about reading, put out a call for new contributors. After thinking about it I believe that writing about reading is something that (a) I would really enjoy doing and (b) I might be able to make entertaining for others. Rather than scrambling to put together a decent sample of possible contributions for BookRiot before the deadline I have decided to take a long-term approach. I don’t know if I have the time to be consistent with writing or if I have the talent to add anything worthwhile in an already very crowded internet but I think this blog is the way to find out. So here’s my goal: finally get the stuff I think about while mowing my yard, rocking my kids to sleep, and driving to work down on paper so the next time BookRiot puts out a call, I’ll be ready.

To begin, I will be posting a new entry every Sunday night – Thursday night for six weeks. This seems like a very difficult goal, but it is a goal I know I will achieve because I’ve cheated. I have already written 30 entries. New blogs are often launched with a bang, quickly fizzle out, and are soon devoid of any new content for months. Nothing is worse as a blog reader than checking a blog every few days and finding nothing new. When a blog becomes inactive like that I lose interest and stop checking in. I wanted to avoid this trap, so to begin, I'll be posting a new entry the night before every business day for six weeks. That’s my promise to you. At the end of that six week period, during which I’ll be writing additional content, I will hopefully have an idea of what a realistic update schedule is, and whether or not I have enough ideas to keep writing. What I hope to get from you Dear Reader, is feedback in the form of comments below.

I have some stuff I think that people will enjoy coming up soon, including a March Madness style bracketWhich is probably a mistake since BookRiot's founder recently complained of bracket fatigue on Twitter, but oh well! Click here for a sneak peak at the bracket! of 32 children’s books competing to see which book is the greatest children’s book of all time. But to begin, with this first post, it’s time to put my nose to the grindstone, ignore my inner Allen Iverson, and start practicing.

An essay on the importance of practice, extraneous to the goal of this blog and yet its foundation, which the impatient may skip and the reflective might enjoy.This essay, the title of which pays homage to the title of Ch. 13 from Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance, was originally written as one of my many aborted attempts at starting my dissertation.

“Genius can appear anywhere, but the origins of Carlsen's talent are particularly mysterious.” Time Magazine

A 2010 article in Time Magazine profiled Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian who at 18 became the youngest world No. 1 chess player in history. Carlsen, who became a grandmaster at 13, has been coached by Garry Kasparov who has stated of Carlsen’s play, “Before he is done, Carlsen will have changed our ancient game considerably.” As Kasparov is considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time this is very high praise. According to Kasparov, Carlsen “has a natural feel for where to place the pieces”. Experts watching him play are often surprised by his selection of moves and only after the fact realize his choice was perfect. Even Carlsen himself has a difficult time describing his ability: “It’s hard to explain, sometimes a move just feels right”. The take away message from the Time's article is clear: Carlsen’s genius is an innate ability and the origin of his innovative and creative play will remain an unsolved mystery.

Recent research has attempted to shine a light into the black box of innovation and creativity. The majority of this research has focused on answering the question, “When are people most creative”? Jia (2009) for example. The research has spawned an impressive list of items that may promote creativity: mood, intrinsic/extrinsic rewards, regulatory focus, bodily cues, temporal distance, spatial distance, and even sexual imagery. Though quite an impressive list, a laundry list of potential factors does not improve our conceptual understanding of creativity. Throughout the course of a tournament, Carlsen’s mood, his focus on intrinsic/extrinsic rewards, and his temporal distance from the chessboard most likely vary, and though these variations may impact his performance to a certain extent, his creativity and innovation on the chessboard remain consistent. Rather than focus on when Carlsen is creative, research must focus on why Carlsen is creative to uncover the mystery.

By all accounts Kobe Bryant is one of the best basketball players on the planet; Bill Simmons, author of The Book of Basketball, states that if Kobe maintains his current pace he will end his career with five championship rings, 34,000 points (3rd all time), 10 first team all-NBAs, and would be the 3rd or 4th greatest player in the history of the league. Most people attribute his success to “god-given ability” and obviously it helps your NBA chances if you are 6’6. However, if size and athletic ability were all that mattered, as Chris Ballard puts it, Eddie Curry would be all-NBA and Derrick Coleman would be getting ready for his hall of fame induction ceremonyQuotes in this paragraph are from this Sports Illustrated article by Chris Ballard. The reason Kobe has been so successful is that he works harder off the court than anyone else. Every day he makes (not takes) 700 to 1,000 shots, in addition to 4 hours of weight trainings and conditioning. Kobe’s method is consistency; in his words, “You have a program, and a schedule, and you have to abide by that, religiously. You just stick to it, and it's the consistency that pays off.” Additionally at the end of each season, Kobe sits down with his coaches to break down the season and establish goals and a plan for improvement over the off-season. This past off season while the majority of his peers were relaxing on the beach or even focused on their training, Kobe was working with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post-up movesLeBron James made a trip to Olajuwon University two seasons ago and the results speak for themselves, adding yet another skill to his bag of tricks.

The old joke goes something like this:
A tourist is wandering around New York City and he is clearly lost. He walks up to a local and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”. “Practice, Man, Practice” responds the local. If you want to be good at something you have to practice. The key to achieving mastery in a specific area is the amount of deliberate practice an individual performs Erickson (1993). Though it is easy to attribute Kobe’s success to his “god-given talent”, the amount of hours he has put in the gym are just as crucial if not more so to his success. Similarly, the genius and creativity Magnus Carlsen displays while playing chess are attributed to mysterious factors such as intuition or innate talent. However a closer look at Carlsen’s daily routine sheds light on the origin of his talent. Carlsen, Lehrer (2010)Yes that Lehrer. The self-plagiarizing, Bob-Dylan quote fabricating, lying while his hand was in the cookie jar former wunderkind who has only recently emerged from wherever he has been hiding. This essay was written several years before the scandal broke and I think the ideas are still good. writes, has taken advantage of something his predecessors like Kasparov didn't have, computer chess. He typically plays multiple games at once against sophisticated chess playing algorithms allowing him an unprecedented amount of deliberate practice. While previous generations of Chess players were limited by the the number and stamina of quality opponents they could find, Carlsen had played more games by the age of 13 than many grandmasters had their entire lives. Lehrer goes on to explain the how this practice allowed Carlsen to develop his famed intuition. All the games Carlsen has played allowed him the chance to make more mistakes than other players. Lehrer quotes Neils Bohr A quick Google search suggests Bohr did indeed make this statement. With Lehrer, you have to check.: an expert is, “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” Carlsen has been able to make more mistakes, and learn from them, providing him with so much experience that he is able to utilize the knowledge he gained through deliberate practice at a level so automatic it appears intuitive.

Thus, deliberate practice is key when you want to improve a skill. This seems like an obvious point, and most people grasp this idea when you are discussing an activity like driving a car or solving math problems. However, there seems to be a block when we encounter someone like Carlsen. Carlsen must be an innate genius is often the default mode of thinking. Why is this? Obviously, if we place the reason on innate talent it lets us off the hook. If we had only been blessed with “god-given ability” we too could be a chess master or an NBA superstarOr a BookRiot contributor!. To consider the role that deliberate practice plays might place the blame to close to our own doorstep. As Erickson states, there is nothing fun about deliberate practice. In fact, the desire to practice, even though practice is not fun, is another characteristic that is important in the development of any skill:

“There’s a difference between loving basketball and liking basketball. There are only about 30 guys in the league who love it, who play year round. Allen Iverson loves to play when the lights come on. Kobe loves doing the shit before the lights comes on. This thing, this freakish compulsion, may be the hardest element of the game to quantify. There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player’s ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he’ll need therapy to recover.”From that Chris Ballard article. No I ain't hyperlinking it again. Scroll up!

Carlsen provides similar statements. When asked by Time magazine if he saw chess as a game or combat or a game of art Carlsen replied: “Combat. I am trying to beat the guy sitting across from me and trying to choose the moves that are most unpleasant for him and his style. Of course some really beautiful games feel like they are art, but that's not my goal.”

The will to succeed and win is so dominant in both Kobe and Carlsen that they are able to overcome the negatives associated with deliberate practice. In fact, both men continuously work on their skill through deliberate practice. Like Kobe seeking out Hakeem, Carlsen has began working with Kasparov. This perseverance and passion of long-term goals has been referred to as GritDuckworth (2007) and is the second key component of developing any skill, including creativity.

Thus both the amount of deliberate practice and the willingness to engage in practice are critical to skill development. However there is one additional critical factor: type of practice. Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots has won three Super Bowls and was a miracle play away from the first 19-0 season in NFL History. What separated Belichick’s Patriot teams from the rest of the NFL? According to Gasper (2008) the answer is situated practice. Gasper interviewed a former Patriot who described his first day of training camp under Belichick. The head coach created the following situation: it was late in the game, the Pats are down by a field goal and had the ball at their own 17 yard line with 1:21 left and zero timeouts. This was a recreation of the Patriots drive to win Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick had his players practice these scenarios in training camp so they could make mistakes and learn from them so that by the time they needed to perform perfectly in the post-season they would be ready. Belichick understood that in addition to drills and conditioning, players needed to practice the skills they would need during games.

In order to design successful deliberate practice you have to understand the constraints of the task you are trying to practice for. Additionally, it is vital to understand that simply practicing the exact task is not enough. Edward Zagorski has spent the last thirty years teaching industrial design at the University of Illinois. After attempting to teach his students how to design he learned that it was more critical that he learned how to effectively teach students to design. He mentions how he once asked students to design a toy for a 5-12 year old child. The results, according to Zagorski, resulted in “push-pull, bland, and tired solutions”. The next time he asked the students to design a toy that would render a random decision. This resulted in much more creative designs including the creation of the best seller SimonThe sound that's played when you make a mistake while playing Simon is right below the You Just Lost Price is Right sound for most depressing sound of my childhood. Hence, the nature of the task and the task's constraints are important to understand when designing deliberate practice to improve a skill. Zagorksi’s method focused on providing enough constraints to allow the student to focus, but not so many that they were constrained.

In conclusion, any skill can be improved through deliberate practice, as long as the individual is able to commit to a significant amount of deliberate practice and that deliberate practice has been tailored to hone the critical skills needed to succeed at the target task. I will be using this blog as a way to engage in deliberate practice to get better at writing about reading in a BookRioty style: witty, not too lengthy,Off to a great start there bucko! This entry is turning into a manifesto! providing opportunities and encouragement for reader engagement, and lots of lists. I hope you decide to stick around for the ride!