Category Archives: literature

Books I Return To

All my life, I’ve loved to re-read. When I was 9, I checked out The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss from the school library and renewed it every month for the entire year. Something about the gadgetry fascinated me, and I spent hours poring over the Yooks’ and Zooks’ extravagant armaments and accompanying uniforms.

A few years later, I read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and ended up going back to it again and again. The appeal at that age was clear: solitude, self-sufficiency, and a forest all to one’s self.

I am still a re-reader, regularly going back to favorites just like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. Some books convey a time, a place, or a culture so irresistibly that I find myself wishing to revisit: the North Africa of The Stranger by Albert Camus and Collected Short Stories by Paul Bowles; the foggy and gaslit London of The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the artistic melting pot of 1920s Paris in A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

There are others. I pick up Tenth of December by George Saunders for its razor-sharp wit, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell for its characters, and Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Bashō for its depth and perspective.

Each time I return to these books, I discover something new and precious, while at the same time settling into the familiarity and comfort that they provide. Even as I read and enjoy something for the first time, I won’t forget that these books continue to shape me.

Memories of the Past

My great-great-great grandfather wrote his memoir in 1916, the year he died. He called it Memories of the Past, and dropped hints throughout that he would like for it to be published someday. Over the past few years, I’ve edited and annotated Memories of the Past in my spare time, and am ready to publish with the generous assistance of the Dennis Historical Society. The project is being funded through Kickstarter. Please back it and get yourself a copy of this wonderful book.

View Memories of the Past on Kickstarter

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A Brief History of Book Club

My book club has met each month for over three years. Though it started in February of 2010, I only became a member after moving to the District of Columbia in 2011. Since then, we’ve read: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor After Rain by William Trevor Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar Waiting by Ha Jin A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes The Fault in Our Stars by John Green What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander Blue Nights by Joan Didion Swamplandia! by Karen Russell Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter Tenth of December by George Saunders The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes The Manhattan Transfer by John dos Passos The Round House by Louise Erdrich The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri These books account for the vast majority of my reading, given my other projects and ways I choose to spend my free time. As a group, we tend to pick a lot of contemporary, literary fiction novels, though I’ve advocated successfully for short story collections, older classics, and non-fiction. Judging by the lukewarm response to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I’m not sure everyone appreciates those deviations.Book Club I’ve thoroughly enjoyed gathering to share perspectives on what we read. Though the group is mostly female and, aside from me, all current or former teachers, opinions and insights are varied and the discussions are intellectually stimulating. Moreover, the book club has introduced me to fabulous authors like David Mitchell and George Saunders. Our meetings remain among the most anticipated items on my calendar.

The Practical Hand

We went strolling around Eastern Market, idling past jewelry vendors and fruit merchants. Next to a tent hawking odd fur caps, we found a mess of unsorted books; some were on shelves, some on a table and some in boxes. The Book of the Hand caught my eye and I began leafing through it, wondering how its antiquated nomenclature would divine and define me based on the geometry of my hand.

The Practical Hand

As I turned to page 48, I saw it there, my hand with its stubby fingers and knotted knuckles. Eagerly, I read the caption. This is what I saw:

Fresh Fall Links

The past few days and months have been a whirlwind of activity. I prefer understatement, so I’ll just provide some links that you absolutely shouldn’t miss, and you click on them. Deal?

– My friend Dan wrote a terrific article about canvassing in New Hampshire.

Dinky won a Fat Cat photo contest, giving me an excuse to meet some interesting people who know a lot about Springfield and Hartford politics.

– I’ve been taking a lot of pictures.

– I’ve gone sailing in Newport.

– I’ve joined a stock club.

– I tried my hand at knitting in Connecticut.

– I’ve been reading a bunch of books.

– I’ve become a regular at my local Manchester pub.

– I’ve been writing in my Field Notes.

– I’ve been meeting a lot of new people and realizing how much all of my older friends mean to me.

41st CA International Antiquarian Book Fair

Where would I be this weekend if I lived in Los Angeles? The LA Book Fair. Held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in LA, it features over 200 booths full of all kinds of things, from first edition Ray Bradbury books for sale, to seminars on bookbinding and calligraphy. There are also talks teaching about collecting and appraising antique books. I’m something of a bibliophile, so it’s a shame I’ll have to miss seeing things like this giant Koran.

A big Koran

Even if you’re not interested in collecting, learning about the processes of creating, preserving and appreciating books seems like plenty of reason to stop by and take a look.  From the looks of things, there are going to be a few vendors specializing in maps as an added bonus! The Los Angeles Book Fair opens today at 2 PM and ends late Sunday, so don’t miss it if you’re in the area.

11 Terrific Design Elements: From Books, For Web

Truly classic design elements transcend specific media. Casting an eye over old books can inspire imaginative solutions for web design. And why shouldn’t those books be French? The Frogs are renowned for their appreciation for the finer things: food, wine, art, deodorant… So without further ado, here are 11 terrific elements of design from old French books that can give your web designs something different.

Absinthe

1. Majuscules – Besides being a great word to bust out at cocktail parties, majuscules are a good opportunity to spice up text. An ornate capital letter can help text look more palatable and also reiterate the rest of a site’s design. A recent poll that I made up revealed 8/10 people are more willing to read a paragraph that begins with a majuscule. Take this “M” for instance:

Majuscule

2. Font Contrast – I always find it difficult to pick fonts. There are so many good choices, but one convention is to juxtapose a blockier font with a script font. Done correctly, you can achieve any effect you want, from comic to kitsch to classy. This is a good example of the latter:

Font contrast

3. Borders – In web design, borders are unpredictable since heights and widths are unpredictable. Still, there are plenty of ways to pull it off and a surprising amount of variety from shadows to patterns to gradients. It’s also possible to fade out a border if you’re confident in knowing a minimum height and width of a site. Here’s a simple but decorative border:

A sample of a border

4. Spines – When shopping for used books at the Salvation Army, it’s too time-consuming to really read the title of every book on the shelf. Fortunately, the design of the spine often says a lot about the genre of the book. There is, for instance, the Danielle steel and VC Andrews design, whose volumes comprise about 70% of all thrift store libraries. A tastefully ornamental or pleasingly simple spine can be found on most good volumes, which just goes to show you that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a book by its spine.

Tasteful book spines

5. Text and image blending – Interplay between text and image is a great way to reinforce the theme of a work and add visual interest to content. At the moment, CSS doesn’t allow for styling type quite like the image below, but some selective images can punch up a web page without adding too much file size. You can find another good example in this champagne ad.

text and image blending

6. Collages – If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a collage must be worth millions. Combining related graphics into a whole is easy, but a great collage is more than just the sum of its parts. Everything from spacial relationships to color palettes to the various depths of the elements must work together to tell a story or create an effect. Fortunately, the Web is awash with all sorts of images with which to build collages.

A collage of drawings

7. Rays and Reflections – Radiating bands of light have become a favorite Photoshop element of mine, since they really make graphics look slick. Likewise reflections. Unfortunately, both are subject to overuse in the current Web 2.0 design craze. Still, there’s a reason why both are so widely used; they’re cool and appealing. Try them. You’ll like them.

Rays and reflections

8. Repeating backgrounds – The insides of book covers are terrific for classic patterns. Historically, probably, printers used patterns to save themselves the trouble of designing large and detailed engraving plates. These days, web designers use patterns to save file size and bandwidth. A pattern can also serve as a watermark, a reiteration of an important symbol that tags a work as belonging to a particular designer. For instance, check out the lion background here on The CookBlog. If you right-click on it and select “View Background Image”, you’ll see that the site’s background is really only 120px wide by 400px high. Weighing in at only 11kb, it can nevertheless expand sideways forever.

Repeating patterns on a book

9. Color palettes – Maintaining a consistent color palette is one of the best ways to keep a design looking professional. A hodgepodge of colors, however well they complement each other, makes it much more difficult to create a design that it sharp and coherent. Choosing a color palette before getting into a project is well worth the time. One of my favorite sites for this is Colourlovers.

A good example of a color palette

10. Text Alignment, Kerning and Justification – Another good polishing method is to experiment with various text attributes. Again, less is more. A unifying theme almost always makes a design look better. The image below, for instance, shows text that is centered. The block below “(fibre de rayonne francaise)” is justified to the margins of the large “FLESA” text above it. In general, the letters of the text are given a little extra space (kerning). The overall effect is stylish and cohesive.

Text alignment is important!


11. Three dimensional objects – Another Web 2.0 trend is three dimensionality. Whether or not that’s a real word, it’s a great effect. Just a bit shadow or perspective can suddenly give a design depth, turning a flat piece of paper or computer screen into something more. It’s the difference between comic strips and Caravaggio. Which do you want to be?

Three dimensional objects are nice

Of course, there’s one final way to design, explained with perfect eloquence by the late, great Edward Gorey.

“I just kind of conjured them up out of my subconscious and put them in order of ascending peculiarity.”

My Top 5 For 2007

After seeing numerous end-of-year lists around the web, I thought it fitting to sum up my Top 5 in each category of The Cookblog. And so, without further ado, here they are:

The Cookblog's Best of 2007

Art

These are the best web sites and artists that I discovered during the past year.

  1. Edward Gorey – I’ve posted about him before, but the maestro of macabre was my #1 artistic discovery of the past year. Meticulous pen sketches combined with a wickedly dark sense of humor make him my favorite by a country mile.
  2. Rockwell Kent – Moby Dick is a terrific book (at least the first few chapters), and these illustrations are great. They capture the majesty of the ocean, the madness of Captain Ahab and the calm of an evening anchorage in attractive woodcut style.
  3. Chema Madoz – There’s something about black& white photography that is just cool. The pictures on these sites juxtapose and re-imagine common elements in interesting ways, like a match set against a plank so that the grain of the wood looks like smoke. Check it out.
  4. BibliOdyssey – A really fascinating site packed with high-res illustrations of esoteric old books. The quality of the images and care with which they’re chosen really sets the site apart.
  5. OldBookIllustrations – I love old books and I love the types of illustrations on this site. On top of that, most are in the public domain, so I definitely plan on returning if I need fodder for any graphic design projects.

Food & Drink

These rate as the best beers I’ve discovered during 2007.

  1. 840 IPA – An absolute classic, this well-balanced but beautifully-hopped India Pale Ale is the standard by which I now measure all others.
  2. Ten Penny Ale – The perfect counterpoint to the hoppiness of an IPA, the malty, smoky Ten Penny is made in East Hartford and finds its way into the refrigerator more than any other beer.
  3. Chocolate Stout – A great beer for a change of pace, this goes particularly well mixed with Saranac’s Carmel Lager or Guinness.
  4. Racer 5 IPA – A tasty brew offered on tap at The Library, a bar near my brother’s apartment in Los Angeles. Nice and floral.
  5. Southampton IPA – A random discovery at the local package store, this IPA with an orange label is thoroughly drinkable and always welcome.

Games

I’ve played a lot of games this year, but only a few stack up against my high standards. They are:

  1. Carcassonne – Board games don’t get more classic than this. Every game is different and the social aspect makes it perfect for beginners
  2. Tichu – A favorite at work and probably the best card game in the world, combining bluffing, anticipation and cooperation. It’s only $7. Get it.
  3. Caylus – The opposite of Carcassonne, involving almost zero luck and total diplomacy, Caylus would be the chess of board games if chess wasn’t a board game.
  4. Foosball – The only non-board game here, there have been some epic shots and games over the past few months with my work colleagues. The laws of physics bow down before our deft control and puma-like reflexes, but we’re still easily beaten by the slow roller.
  5. Ticket to Ride: Europe – The chosen game at home, it’s good for two players and conjures up images of actually riding a train from Edinburgh to Athena. Also, my girlfriend and I can usual overcome our rage at losing after only a few minutes.

Literature

I haven’t had a chance to read as much as I would have liked, but these are the books that I enjoyed at least part of this past year.

  1. Morbo – Phil Ball has a wonderful turn of phrase and the intensely interesting subject of Spanish soccer comes alive with his words.
  2. Selected Verses of Ogden Nash – Perfect for reading to that special someone, the quirk and wit of Ogden Nash never fails to bring a smile to my face.
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – That’s right, I’m a Harry Potter fan.
  4. The Stories of Paul Bowles – Imagine my delight when I found one of my favorite books at a library book sale for 1/4 cover price.
  5. The Devil Drives – A biography of Sir Richard Burton, it’s a gripping account of a man who lived in constant adventure, from India to Mecca to Ethiopia.

Music

There was some great music this year, and though I usually prefer individual tracks to full albums, these were great the whole way through.

  1. Radiohead – In Rainbows – One again, Radiohead has delivered a phenomenal album packed with electronic hooks and human feeling. By far the most played this year.
    Reckoner
  2. Feist – The Reminder – A great discovery, Feist has since come to prominence for her role in an iPod commercial, but the rest of the songs on her album are equally bouncy and catchy.
    I Feel It All
  3. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Vintage Spoon and no complaints from me. This is piano rock at its best.
    The Ghost of You Lingers
  4. The National – Boxer – One of the most genuine bands around today, The National’s “Fake Empire” is one of the songs of the year.
    Fake Empire
  5. Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block – According to the Wikipedia, this was a 2006 album, but Rolling Stone put it in their best of 2007 list, so I am, too.
    Up Against the Wall

Soccer

I like to think I have a talent for spotting quality when it comes to soccer players, not that it’s difficult to tell that these five footballers are several cuts above the rest.

  1. Kaka – The Brazilian is the Zidane of this generation. His seemingly-effortless skill has been winning match after match for AC Milan, including the World Club Cup and the Champions League trophy
  2. Lionel Messi – The only player that can rival Kaka, Messi has been carrying one of the biggest and proudest clubs in the world on his shoulders. That he’s already made Ronaldinho dispensable is an indication of his importance to Barcelona.
  3. Christiano Ronaldo – Like the two players above him, he has dragged his team to victory even when they haven’t deserved it. If he can deliver European success to Manchester United, he’ll move higher up the list.
  4. Didier Drogba – His questionable temperament doesn’t take away from his qualities as a player. Powerful and intelligent on the field, he takes his team into a different class when he plays and is worth far more to Chelsea than the rubles they paid for him.
  5. Daniel Alves – A marauding right fullback who has been the impetus behind Sevilla’s recent success, Alves will surely earn a move to a major club soon, where he should establish himself as the best wingback in the world.

Travel

I haven’t taken too many exotic trips this year, but these places have been welcome breaks from the usual routine at home.

  1. Boston – An awesome trip up to watch the Red Sox earn a spot in the World Series still rates as one of the best days this year.
  2. Los Angeles, CA – A great visit with the family for Thanksgiving was the perfect way to spend those vacation days.
  3. Onset – Having returned there for every year since I was born, it’s impossible to underestimate its importance in my life.
  4. Danbury – Always a relaxing and comfortable place to visit, you never know who or what you’ll find at the casa de Angela, Kathleen and Connor, but it’s always a good time.
  5. New York – A weekend in NYC with John, Georgia and Co. was a ton of fun. My only regret is that it was the only one.

Web

I’ve seen a lot of websites in my 25 years on this planet, but these deserve special mention.

  1. Slightly Shady SEO – The best blog about SEO in my opinion. Gives away secrets that are worth plenty, which makes me wonder how much more he knows.
  2. Asobrain Games – A great place to play Carcassonne with no frills, no fuss and no fees.
  3. Strange Maps – Since maps are something of a hobby for me, this site is always full of interesting things.
  4. Coudal Partners – I’m still not sure what they do there, but their features, including Photoshop Layer Tennis and the Museum of Online Museums are worth regularly checking out.
  5. Smashing Magazine – With their fingers firmly on the pulse of web design, this site displays great examples for study and inspiration.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my picks and I hope that 2008 has as much good material to see, read, hear and blog about. If you’ve got something to say about any of my choices, go for it!

Book Review: Moneyball

Baseball is a game wrapped in denser layers of statistics than any other. Home runs, RBIs, batting average and others are quoted back and forth between scouts, managers and talking heads in the baseball community. Moneyball picks apart in great detail why those statistics are flawed, why those baseball people are wrong and why such idiocy continues.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

In brief, the book takes the example of Billy Beane, an uber-promising prospect out of high school who somehow failed in the Major Leagues despite his copious talents. Now the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, Beane has used a whole knew system to evaluate players and direct on-field strategy. This system, which is widely scoffed at by the baseball establishment, has allowed the Oakland A’s to win more games over the past several years than any other team, despite having one of the smallest budgets.

Moneyball gets deep into Beane’s system. Based almost purely on statistics, or sabermetrics, that system treats runs as the most valuable currency in baseball. It judges a player in terms of his ability to score more runs than he gives up. While seemingly obvious, this rankles many traditionalists, leaving out as it does RBIs and batting averages as metrics. It also leaves out more subjective judgments about body type, leadership, performance under pressure and other “intangibles.” It marginalizes crusty “baseball guys” with gut feelings and champions young Ivy League graduates with computers and no preconceived notion of what’s supposed to be important.

It’s a fascinating book, and its overarching theme is that there inefficiencies in almost every aspect of life that can be exploited by people who are smart enough and courageous enough to reject conventional wisdom, to think and act differently. It’s also satisfying to see the players who are illuminated by the light of Beane’s system; most players are slow, overweight, great at drawing walks, considered too old to develop and almost all are unwanted by other teams. They’re easy to root for, since most have given up on their Major League dream when the A’s come calling. Everyone’s wish is to be appreciated, to have someone see something in you that no one else does. And that’s what Moneyball is all about.

Why other teams haven’t adopted this system en masse is debatable. It’s led to Oakland’s success, and it was no coincidence that the Red Sox finally won the World Series after Theo Epstein, a young Ivy League graduate with a computer, became GM. The most likely explanation is that it removes opinion and personality from the equation. It also means that ex-players no longer have any way to stay in the game after they retire. The system is not about the romance of the game. It is simply about winning.

While Moneyball is a great book for baseball fans in particular, the ideas in the book can be understood, appreciated and applied by anyone.

Grade: A

Introduction to Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey came to my attention through the Stumble button, which is a little web browser extension that works something like a TV remote for the internet. You choose your favorite topics, click the button, and are whisked to random web sites that the system believes you will like. Fortunately, it’s right almost all the time, and I’ve taken a great liking to the art of Edward Gorey.

Gashleycrumb Intro

Best-known for his Gashlycrumb Tinies, a series of drawings depicting the imminent death of Edwardian-era children, Gorey manages to infuse humor, if not lightheartedness, into the dark themes of his art. It’s strangely compelling, recalling high collars and shadowy parlors. I think it would be an excellent theme for a Halloween party, and I’ll be sure to remember that come October.