Now that you’ve had some time to digest the
also-rans, and now that I’ve had time to present them to friend-of-blog P
for her birthday, allow me a moment to discuss three of the best books I read
this year. It’s holiday shopping season, after all, and few things* make better
gifts than books. Keep in mind that my reading tastes may not match yours,
though keep in mind I have excellent taste in books.
Dad Is Fat
A collection of comedic essays on parenting by Jim Gaffigan.
Before reading this book, I knew Gaffigan only as the guy who played a version
of young David Letterman (Indiana weatherman-cum-funny-guy) on a short-lived
sitcom a few years ago. I’d never seen the Hot Pockets bit or any other of his
routines. And I obviously wasn’t looking for something to increase my
appreciation of parenting, because the No Babies Here policy remains in full
Which is why I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this book.
I laughed. A lot. Because Gaffigan is the rare** parent who realizes that
parenting is terrible. It’s loud, messy, and exhausting all at once. It’s
expensive and logistically difficult, especially when you live in a large city.
In short, this is a book written by a parent BUT with sympathy towards
The best book I read this year in the biographical, comedic,
and essay collection genres.
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the
History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
My 2013 was full of trivia. Even more so than usual. I
participated in the World Quizzing Championships. I won scads of money on a TV
quiz show. I tested for Mensa.*** I found myself needing to know a lot of things
about a lot of things, and my modus
operandi in these situations has always been to read voraciously. Among the
books about history, biology, and geography, I consumed this gem about the
It’s probably been a while since you considered the periodic
table, if ever you did. (I myself was always more of a biology person, because
classification soothes my inner obsessive compulsive.) But it turns out that
that grid contains some fascinating characters. Learn how they got their names,
how they were discovered, and some of the freaky things they can do.
The best nonfiction book I read this year, and the better of
the two I read specifically on the periodic table.
Calling Me Home
One of the authors I greatly admire posted her summer
reading list online, and I tried to read every book on it. Alas, they tended
mostly towards vaguely-romantic fiction. Couples separated for various reasons,
kids estranged from parents, and the like. If I’m going to read about kids, I
want them thrown into an arena fighting to the death.
But calling me home, about an interracial relationship in a
pre-Civil Rights Era America, managed to rise above the fray. It’s a little
like The Help.**** There’s a big
twist about ¾ of the way through, and it made me sob like a ridiculous person.
The novel simultaneously tells stories set in the past and in the present, and
they show both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. But all that Big
Idea stuff aside, it’s just a good story.
The best fiction book I read this year (that I also feel
good about recommending to people).
So that’s me. What did you read and like this year? My
roster for 2014 needs filling.
Cash, property, vacations, and vital organs excepted.
As far as I can tell, anyway. If I never again hear from a parent about how
wonderful their kid is, it will be too soon. Unless I’m related to it, I don’t
want to know. Sometimes not even then.
Results not in as of press time.
This year’s Gone Girl was Before I Go to Sleep, which I read with
a growing sense of dread. I didn’t want to stop reading, but I also didn’t want
to keep reading. Open at your own risk.
I’m going to combine the last two days of my Vegas trip into
one entry because I didn’t do all that much on the very last day of the trip
and also it’s taken me two freaking months to write these four measly recaps.
Honestly, I’d consider a recall-the-blogger petition if I were you.
My first stop was the Hoover Dam. (Pretend I made a series
of clever puns on the word “dam” here.) Though the Dam is in fact run by the
federal government, and though the government was still sequestrated down at
the time, the Dam was open because it’s funded by revenue collected through
fees. For my friends in the federal budgeting world, it was a revolving fund
situation. For my friends not in the federal budgeting world, it means I got to
go on, in, and around the Dam.
Oh, and the nearby Callahan Bridge, which was built so
regular people could avoid the tourist traffic chaos of the Dam.
IMO, just as spectacular as the Dam.
I love the Art Deco era, and the stylings of such novels as The Great Gatsby and The Fountainhead (if not the novels
themselves), so I totally dug the feel of the Dam. Say what you will about the
1930s; those people built things to LAST.
Things like this cue up Rhapsody in Blue in my head. MURICUH.
On the way back to Vegas, our tour bus driver stopped near
Lake Mead (actually for serious
closed due to the slimdown) so we could get some pictures from afar.
Shouldn't it be tarped or something?
Once I got back to the Strip, I was drawn like a moth to a
flame to the World of Coke store. Specifically, their tasting tray: 16 samples
of Coke products sold around the world.
Definitely let the colors freak you out. They're a hint of the danger ahead.
I consider myself a champion Coke drinker, averaging at my
peak four cans a day. But even split between me and TheBoy, this tray did us
in. Also doing us in: flavors like cucumber, pine nut, and Beverly. Beverly is
served in Italy and we thought it tasted like death. Fun!
I knew I had to see the Strip at night, because it
was my best chance of finding Ocean’s Eleven it’s entirely different
then than during the day. The Bellagio fountain looks different:
You’ve got the Mirage volcano:
And don’t forget the freakishly-bright column of light emanating from
It’s like Christmas decorations. Some look best during the
day, some during the night. And rarely do those two groups overlap.
So will I ever go back? I think I probably will, once enough
years have passed. Maybe for my 40th birthday. I need to see whether
David Copperfield has aged at all, and if perhaps Beverly tastes better when
I was reminded during a brief Twitter conversation with
friends of blog M and D that Hulu is a wealth of original/exclusive programming
these days. As if you didn’t have enough to watch between television, film, and
the crazy show being put on by the dude across the street. (That last one
applicable only to urban apartment dwellers.) We’re living during the best age
of entertainment since bread and circuses. (GLADIATOR!)
But back to Hulu. They dipped their toe in the original
programming pool with Battleground, a series I enjoyed a great deal. It was
about politics. It was set in Wisconsin. Friend of blog M worked on it. And so
on. This was a series that radiated quality, despite the fact that it aired on
a website and not a network. (These days, they’re becoming the same thing.)
And Hulu’s been purchasing and airing various British
productions, including Spy, Whites, and QI—some of which you may be able to find on
YouTube elsewhere, sure, but still. Spy is a bit like a British version of Chuck (or so I assume, having only the vaguest idea what Chuck was about). Same with Whites and Kitchen Confidential. QI, short for Quite Interesting, is a panel
show that teaches me more in 30 minutes than some of my college classes taught
me in a semester. Word.
Currently, two Hulu shows are tickling my fancy.
The first is Behind the Mask, which follows the lives of four mascots at different levels: high school, college, semi-pro, and professional. They’re scattered across the country, from Las Vegas to Pennsylvania. Some of them are just doing the job while it’s convenient. Others have made it a life calling. I’m pleased to report that the dude who plays Bango (of your humble blogger’s very own MILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLWAUKEE BUCKS!) is not only amazing at it; he loves doing it.
Not as much of the show is dedicated to logistics, but they’re
definitely in play. Those costumes are hot. Block your sightlines. Make it even
harder to do cartwheels, or slam dunks, or whatever crazy routine you had in
mind to pump up da crowd. Plus you’ve got to come up with dances and stunts,
get along with the players, keep the peace with your parents/spouse/children…cripes.
In this era, when every profession under the sun has its own
reality show, it’s refreshing to get a series about a job I’m actually
interested in. Nothing against loggers, truckers, fishers, cupcake artists,
duck call makers, beauty pageant contestants, or the Kardashians. But still.
But let me also mention The Wrong Mans, about two lowly municipal government employees pulled into a Jack Bauer kind of day. The main character played the sidekick on Spy, so don't keep asking where Tim is (as I did), because they're different shows entirely. It's set in Britain, and chock-full of comedic misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and general incompetence. Think David Brent pretending to be James Bond. I believe it's limited to six half-hour episodes, so the entire time commitment is barely three hours. You know you've wasted more time on movies that weren't half as deserving.
The third day of my trip to Vegas ended up involving the
three Cs: chocolate, cactus, and Copperfield. Pretty standard desert stuff,
The chocolate refers to Ethel M, the fancy-schmancy branch
of Mars. Y’know, the M&Ms people. TheBoy has a long-standing family
connection to the company, so I’m only allowed to eat Hershey bars in secret.
(Not really, but I pretend.) Ethel M has a factory in Henderson that you can
tour (!) and that gives out free samples (!!) and that is accessible by public
transportation in case you’re a tourist without a rental car (!!!).
Indeed, we took not one but two buses to the factory, and I
was pretty proud of myself for figuring out how to do that. (My second-finest
public transportation-related hour, after the time I rode the bus in LA. That
was a scene straight out of Southland.)
Can you spot the heart containers? They were producing for
Valentine’s Day already.
For some reason, the Ethel M factory has a delightful cactus
garden outside. Because it’s in the desert? Because the Mars family is really
into cacti? Because they’re secretly putting cactus in the M&Ms? Perhaps
all three. But for your humble Wisconsin-raised, Virginia-living blogger,
getting to see a real-live cactus was sorta mind-blowing.
In the books of my childhood, these were always wearing
Called the purple pancake cactus, for (hopefully) obvious
It may always be Christmas in Vegas, though I doubt it’s
ever snowy. Rendering these snowmen even more incongruous.
The evening was spent watching David Copperfield make stuff
appear and make stuff disappear and pretty much Blow Everyone’s Minds just as
he did during the television specials of my youth. No pictures because I'm pretty sure they would have executed me on stage and I'm too young to die in a non-food related event.
After the magick show, I
played $1 at a penny slot machine (walked away with $2.32 so booyah) and spent
not a little time Googling the secrets behind David Copperfield’s tricks. You’d
think that sort of thing would be easier to find out these days. It isn’t. The
magician’s guild apparently has a pretty close hold on the internet.
In part 4: A dam,
Vegas after dark, and a drink named Beverly.
My birthday trip was happening smack dab in the middle of what has been referred to variously as a government shutdown, a government slimdown, sequestration, and WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THEY’VE CLOSED THE GRAND CANYON?
It was that last one that worried me most, because one of the side trips I’d planned for my time in Vegas was a visit to said canyon. Turns out it’s not that far away, despite being in a completely different state. (Now that I live in the DC area, jaunting from state-to-state isn’t nearly as exotic to me as it seemed when I was a kid. Growing up in Wisconsin, out of state license plates are cause for excitement. Until you realize it’s just Illinois. BEARS SUCK.)
So I spent August and September haplessly planning for my once-in-a-lifetime 30th birthday trips to the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. Tra la freaking la. Then the government shut/slimmed/sequestered down and I would say I was up a creek without a paddle except the National Parks Service had barricaded off the entire creek. Closed for business.
But wait! Turns out that not all of government shut down, for reasons many and varied. In my specific case, both the Grand Canyon* and Hoover Dam** were open. At which point I stopped paying attention to the news because GRAND CANYON.
The West Rim is operated by a Native American tribe, and they do their best to make you feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of a John Wayne movie. Complete with western village:
In my opinion, the orange safety cone just adds to the ambiance.
And wagon rides. Oregon Trail, anyone?
You have died of dysentery.
To be fair, my favorite part was the meal:
Not pictured: The rest of my chicken, and all of TheBoy's chicken, which I also ate.
Shuttle buses moved us from lookout point to lookout point. And though it was cold and windy, at least I got to see the thing.
It was so cold, the Hualapai were selling a boatload of Grand Canyon hoodies. I toughed it out, but barely.
In part 3: The Candyman can ‘cause he mixes it with love. And cacti. Also, David Copperfield blows my brain. Figuratively. * The West Rim of the Grand Canyon is operated by the sovereign Hualapai Nation. ** The Hoover Dam is funded by fees, and so is not subject to authorization by appropriation. Real life West Wing is boring.