Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

( #StephenKing )

I finished up my "holiday reading" choice last night around 3:00 AM. I had "11/22/63" by Stephen King sitting on the shelf for a month and decided it was time to knock it out. The story centers around a teacher that finds a time portal to 1958. He quickly decides to stick around in the past for a few years to stop the Kennedy assassination.

Once you accept the time portal as a plot device, the book falls into a steady pace. The first half sets up the main character (Jake) and how he operates in the past. King develops rules about time travel, essentially cosmic forces push back when someone attempts to alter time. For example if you are trying to stop someone from getting shot, the road you are taking may be blocked by an overturned truck. Jake also opts to take on a few smaller side missions, averting tragedies that happened to friends or children he read about. Failure means Jake would have to go back into the time portal which hits the reset button every time (so he has to do each thing over again and it becomes harder).

The book slows down considerably when Jake hits Texas. He establishes a life for himself and bunkers down for the three years while he waits for Oswald to arrive in Dallas. Life in small town Texas and the friendships Jake develops reads well, but when the plot shifts back to stopping Lee Harvey, something doesn't feel right. The tone of the book never recovers. Without giving too much away, the cosmic forces start to push back and the crazy commences. King does such a good job foreshadowing these threads, they never come off as shocking. Since you know it is coming, it just feels like you are flipping pages until the next thing happens.

Without giving the big plot point away, Jake being in the past for 5 years changes things, which cause some "Back to the Future Part 2" kind of problem at the end of the story. King introduces characters/concepts at the end of the book that feel like they may be part of another King story, but I haven't read it (King has a cameo featuring "It" characters in the first part of the book). He offers a little more information about the time portal which was nice, but unnecessary.

Even though the "11/22/63" drags in the middle, I liked this book. If for nothing else, King does a great job of painting life in the 1960s. My friends and I often sit around and talk about our zombie survival plans, I feel like people who grew up during the Kennedy era probably had similar conversations about "if you could go back in time, how would you stop the Kennedy assassination". This is how Stephen King would do it - I can respect that.

What Are You Doing On New Years Eve?

( #nye )

This video already went viral, but for those who don't haunt twitter and rss feeds...

Seasons Greetings Joey Style (2011)

( #nye )

Happy New Year friends! 2011 is slipping through our fingers and I find myself trying to conjure words to summarize what that means to me. I am going to be honest with you, I am struggling with this year’s love note. Not due to any dark feelings, in fact, just the opposite. I have been feeling pretty calm this past week, which is good for the blood pressure, but bad for writing clever things.


Even though times are tough and there is a bit of uncertainty regarding the future, it seems like my friends and family made it out of 2011 in one piece. It is easy to turn sour watching your 401k shrink, the value of your house decline, and services you depend on disappear. But all things considered, the Philadelphia area is breeding grounds for plucky people that take all this shit in stride and figure out how to get through it.

It is hard to focus on the negatives when I look around and see all these kids that I mention every year growing up strong and smart. The world is hard, but I am glad to see my people have their priorities straight. As far as my priorities go, I will be in good company with a baby on the way. I am not going to turn this post into “my child is going to change my life...bla bla bla” because anybody with a kid knows that as fact (a fact I have been told a million times along with “get your sleep now.”).

Jangled nerves and worry have subsided and I am looking forward to becoming a parent. Fundamentally, I really hope I don’t suck as a dad (that is not me fishing for kind words btw, just consider that line a karmic message in a bottle). It is a funny thing writing about the baby because I haven’t done it much and thanks to the holidays I am burned out on active baby conversation. I do want to mention that I feel bad about the news getting out late to certain friends. I guess people really do use social media to keep in touch (oops)...

All that being said, the quiet has been a blessing. Babies tend to bring out lots of opinions, all those voices talking at the same time can be overpowering. That brings me into a nice transition...

[Thank You]

If you have been reading these little year ends, you know that I view this section as a loaded gun... time to point and shoot. Here is hoping I don’t get a bullet in the foot:

Thanks to my wife. Outside of making this whole baby thing happen, she gets me. My odd sense of humor, my “in your face” method of dealing with...everything, my musical taste (very important in this house). Compatibility makes life so much better.

Speaking of the babies, when we told our parents, we asked them to keep it quiet for a few weeks until we got solid news from the doctors. My father-in-law was so excited, he had to tell someone... so he told his barber. That little story sort of made it all real to me. Also thank you Mr. D for making me look like I know how to pick out a bottle of wine.

I really don’t know how else to say this... I want to thank my mom for not being up our asses. My mom is at the ready to help Allison and I at a moments notice. But she never second guesses our decisions about anything. She offers her personal perspective or experience and leaves it at that. There is grace in accepting (and enjoying) your children as adults. I can thank her for a million things that she does for us, but this is the thing I appreciate the most.

I need to thank Verizon. They have made it possible for my father and I to communicate at a frequency that I did not think possible two years ago. Here is the best part... I am the bastard. If I haven’t seen or talked to my dad during the week, I get the call. “Sonny Boy, where have you been!?!” For a man that is fairly indifferent to just about everything, it is good to know that he cares.

Thank you to Tony Bombardi, the master detective - I love you, your family and your mini adventures that often lead right back to the starting point. Whenever I do freak out about this kid, I think “what would Tony do” and then you usually end up calling me anyway.

So I just went back and carved out a huge section thanking friends. This is what I am going to say instead: to the people that I talk to regularly - the people who call me to talk about music, house stuff, gear, zombies - you know who you are. I love you guys (and gals). If it were not for you, I would probably lock myself in my house and take all the phones off the hook (fine - take the batteries out of my cell phone - damn you nerds!). There are dozens of people I should mention, but nobody wants to read two pages of thanks (and then probably, rightfully, wondering why you are not on the list).

[Looking Forward]

There are times in my life, and if you know me I am sure you have been caught in this, when I want to hold everyone I know close to me. Then once that exercise becomes (inevitably) futile, I will retreat, ignoring everyone, and rethink my position. I have been in retreat mode the last few months. I have been thinking about what is right for me and my growing family. And right now I think change is good.

Instead of some grand statement of how to make yourself better in 2012, or jumping on some soapbox about the state of the world, I hope you - my friends, family, and readers - find happiness or something that smells like it.

May 2012 become whatever you want it to be.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Guatemalan Christmas

( #xmas )

I think I would like to burn things in the street today... A man can dream.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tis the Season: Guilty

( #xmas )

Tis the Season....

( #xmas )

Tis the Season: Skating

( #xmas )

My friends Jack, Lorraine, Amber, and Tom played some tunes last year at my house on Xmas Eve. They won't be attending this year, so I figured I would share some video throughout the day to help everyone get in the Xmas spirit.

NOTE: Looks like youtube added a snow effect for the holiday season. Be sure to turn it on! There is a snowflake button on the controls if you mouse over it (how cool is that!)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

( #TheNightCircus, #ErinMorgenstern )

I just finished reading Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" and I found myself liking it more than I thought I would. The book is about a mysterious traveling circus that (if you can't figure it out by the title), opens only at night. This circus is essentially the best ever because there are a few members of the crew who can actually do "real magic." Morgenstern hints that the "magic" is more like science but never gets to deep into the technical details.

The story revolves around a bet made by two old rivals. They train young children (the more villainous of the two uses his own daughter) to engage in a decades-long competition that neither student know the rules to. The circus becomes their battleground as each one tries to out-do each other with attractions and optical illusions. Neither student can interfere or tamper with the other's work. Of course as the children get older and find out each other's identities, they fall in love (snore).

The best part of the book is that Morgenstern doesn't give the reader a hint about how the ending. Neither character "goes dark" or tries to take advantage of the other, and Morgenstern plays by the rules she created for her universe. The romantic aspects of the book are weak and feels like "Water for Elephants" - the "I love you but I can't be with you" nonsense, but Morgenstern wisely leverages her secondary characters to add atmosphere and back story so the primary plot of the love story utilizes the least amount of pages possible.

"The Night Circus" works because the plot moves along at a good pace and the writer did an excellent job of keeping reader interest high. I won't say it is a great book, but it is good and I enjoyed the time I spent with it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

( #MichaelChabon )

Michael Chabon has a well documented love affair with comic books. He wrote the script for the first Spiderman movie, he has written his own comics, and he wrote "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" which may be one of the finest books about the funny pages in recent memory (if not all time).

This book might as well be a history of the comic industry. The plot focuses on two cousins that write comics right before World War II. Sammy Clay is a struggling writer who discovers his cousin Joe, who just escaped Nazi Germany, is an excellent artist. Together they invent a character named "The Escapist" that is able to fulfill fantasies that they could never manage in the real world. As the situation in Germany becomes increasingly dire, "The Escapist" comics become more politically charged as the hero regularly fights Nazis.

The cool thing about this book is that it parallels the origins of Superman. Superman was created by two Jewish kids that were frustrated with the situation in Germany and had the man of steel regularly beat the hell of out the Nazis back in the 40's to drum up support for the war effort. The book touches on women's rights, the whole comic code being introduced, and the accusation that the introduction of sidekicks promoted homosexual activity (and how many real life artists found themselves being interrogated by police and media because of the fad) and the eventual decline in popularity (due in some part to the comic code).

"The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is an outstanding book. Chabon used real stories of the comic industry to paint a picture of life during WWII and what it is like to be an immigrant during that time. It won the Pulitzer Prize when it was released, which I think was well deserved. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

( #MichaelChabon )

Over the years Michael Chabon has cemented himself as one of my favorite writers. His recent (and under-appreciated) book of essays "Manhood for Amateurs" resonated with me deeply. Chabon's fictional work is equally outstanding and almost always extremely quirky.

Quirky is the word that I would use to describe "The Yiddish Policeman's Union". This is an alternative history story that presents a world where Israel was never created after WWII. Instead, a section of Alaska is set aside (essentially like a Native American reservation) for Jewish Holocaust survivors. All of this is the background of a strange murder investigation by (of course) a Yiddish Policeman.

Like most of Chabon's characters, Meyer Landsman is a semi-broken man that yearns for former lovers, has a career that is badly damaged, and has substance abuse issues. As Meyer pushes deeper into his investigation, a larger plot about the fate of the entire Alaskan reservation is uncovered that puts Meyer's life in danger as well.

I liked this book because it was a good ride, but it falls apart at the end. Once "YPU" links the murder plot into a larger mystery about fate of Sitka District (the name of the "city"), it loses focus. There is a whole situation with a missile that comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit with the gritty snowy-noir vibe that Chabon spends the entire book creating.

Even with a nutty conclusion I like the book for the characters, the alternative history (I am a sucker for alt history books), and the interesting blend of genres and location.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

( #Zombies, #MaxBrooks )

This is a bit of a departure for me, because I read this book years ago. Actually, I read World War Z at least three times in the last few years, so that should tell you how much I liked it. The reason I am doing the review so late is because I am actually writing this for another website (but cleverly posting it here as well). Enough blog politics, on with the review...

World War Z is so good is because it is not about zombies. Don't freak out, there is plenty of terror and gore, but the true momentum of the book is carried by the stories of how society failed and rebuilds itself after a major disaster. Unlike most Zombie books (where everyone usually dies), humans basically learn from their mistakes. The world isn't perfect after the plague wipes out most of the population, but the book gives the reader the sense that the world is going to be a better place as a result of the carnage.

Brooks does an excellent job of rationalizing why certain societies did better during the crisis (island nations like Cuba were naturally protected, while militant societies like Israel were generally well prepared and took action quickly). Instead of the following a traditional linear format, the events are told in a series of survivor interviews. This was a very effective narrative device that I have noticed other genre books adopting (notably Robopocalypse). The interview approach allowed Brooks to convey the terror of the situation without getting into B-grade horror writing. Aside from the concept of the dead walking around trying to eat people, the plot feels very plausible. Brooks also does a very good job of making the book feel like a historical document which adds to the fantasy that this could actually happen.

I have said this in other zombie book reviews, World War Z is by far the best zombie book on the market and is a great read for any fiction/genre fan. WWZ is clever, creative, and scary the best possible way - I highly recommend it.

Video: Hero

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Live Reporting from the Mantua Chick-Fil-A

( @ChickfilA, #Mantua )

I was driving home from the gym today and noticed several tents popped over around the Chick-Fil-A that is scheduled to open tomorrow. My wife told me they were doing a free food give-a-way for the first 100 customers, so I (correctly) guessed that was the reason for the crowd. I decided to pop back over with my camera and capture the scene.

There were a few things that caught me off-guard:
1. I can't believe how many people showed up that were willing to sleep in parking lot overnight.
2. Most of the crowd was not local, not even South Jersey local (which I have mixed feelings about).

I am glad that the Chick-fil-A is opening. It may be fast food, but at least it isn't McDonalds.

Book Review: Zombie, Ohio by Scott Kenemore

( #Zombies, #ScottKenemore )

Frequent readers of this blog know that I have a thing for zombies. A few weeks ago, Amazon had a Kindle sale on a zombie book that I never heard of before called “Zombie, Ohio”. For a few dollars, I didn’t mind taking a risk.

While reading, I could tell that the author (Scott Kenemore) was a fan of the zombie genre because it reads a bit like fan fiction (I found similarities to a book I read last year called “Living with the Dead” by Joshua Guess). The benefit from being a legitimate fan of the genre is that Kenemore was trying to avoid using cliches, but the writing lacked a certain polish that could have pushed “Zombie, Ohio” to be much better.

The plot centers around a man who wakes up as a zombie. Although a zombie, he still has the ability to think but has no memory (at first). As the book progresses the zombie tries to remember how he died and attempts to find his place in the world. The plot was creative, but Kenemore misfires in his attempt to have the character explore his zombie nature and then go back to being a hero. Kenemore has a good time blowing up zombie cliches by using the thinking zombie in unique ways. He would have been better off leaving zombie as an antagonist for the human characters, since the redemption sections were very weak and the zombie playing mind-games with the humans was one of the things that worked well.

Overall this was a fun book that I didn’t mind reading or spending a few bucks on. It was certainly no World War Z which is the benchmark for any zombie book, but the author got creative and mixed up several genres into an entertaining quick read.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

( #JeffreyEugenides, #MarriagePlot )

When I found out that Jeffrey Eugenides released another book, I was excited to read it. His previous novel, the Pulitzer Prize winning “Middlesex” was (obviously) very good, with rich character history and unique plot. “The Marriage Plot” is a much different book in tone and story than “Middlesex” and not for the better.

Set in the early 1980’s, the book centers around a girl named Madeleine who is about to graduate college. She just broke up with her boyfriend and there is another guy that likes her. This love triangle makes up the entire plot of the book. The problem is that Madeleine is so unlikeable that you don’t want to read about her with either guy. You don’t want the guys to succeed in getting her, and I really couldn't envision this girl being happy with anyone unless she changes (spoiler: she doesn't). The whole love triangle was not enough to maintain the primary narrative of the book... what I am saying is that the book was boring.

Madeleine starts off as a self-centered over-privileged little snot and makes absolutely no progress in becoming a better person. One can argue that her caring for her depressed boyfriend Leonard during most of the story would count as growth, but I would counter that by saying she was just living up to social expectations. Her treatment of every other character in the book is horrid.

The other participant in the love triangle is a religious studies student named Mitchell. He spends most of the book traveling around Europe and India learning about religion and avoiding Madeleine’s relationship with Leonard. I would say he is the character you want to win in the story, but his attraction to Madeleine makes him suspect in my view.

I am not sure what the book was trying to accomplish. Perhaps it was a critique of expensive liberal arts colleges not preparing students for real life. Or it could be debunking the expectation that 21-year-old people should be treated like adults rather than children. Or perhaps it could be that relationships are complicated, but I would argue that is well covered grounds and this book didn’t add much to the conversation. My final thoughts on “The Marriage Plot” is that I found it to be a disappointing follow-up to an excellent book from a talented writer. The amazon reviews seem to disagree with my assessment, so feel free to make up your own mind.

Friday, December 09, 2011

DME: Frei Brothers Article

( @zanelamprey, #FreiBrothers )

Drinking Made Easy posted the 2nd part of my California Vineyards series. This article is about a visit to the super secret-Frei Brothers vineyard which is not open to the public.

Check it out: Drinking Made Easy: A Visit to Frei Brothers Vineyard

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Concert Review: Ryan Adams @ The Academy of Music (Philadelphia)

( @TheRyanAdams, #Philadelphia )

Image Credit: Ryan Adams

Opening Act: Jessica Lea Mayfield
Date: Saturday, December 2nd, 2011
Location: Academy of Music - Philadelphia, Pa

This is the second time I have seen Mr. Adams this year. My wife and I took a trip to California two months ago when it was unclear if Ryan was going to do a tour of the East Coast, not that I am complaining, any excuse to go to California is a good one. You can check my review of the California show right here.

When I found out that Ryan was playing the Academy, I was excited. It is a place that lends itself to good concert behavior and the acoustics are fantastic. Just to get it out of the way, everything about the venue was great last night and I am always glad to see a show there.

[Opening Act: Jessica Lea Mayfield]

My friend Jack commented on how great her guitar sounded last night (really good tone). I wanted to make sure that I started off with a compliment before I got into any kind of critique. I don’t want to be overly harsh, but Mayfield's songs all sounded similar and had a similar theme which took away from the performance (until the last song where she mixed it up a bit with little yip).

Mayfield has a nice voice and certainly wasn’t intimidated by the Philadelphia crowd, but she would do herself a service by introducing faster tempo songs about anything other than bad boyfriends, I really think she would shine with a band or at least another person on stage to banter with.

[Main Event]

Ryan came out and went right to business. The Philadelphia crowd was much more vocal than the California audience (no shock there), but at least my wife and I were not sitting in front of a group of drunk girls. Ryan definitely mixed up the set list between shows (yes, he did play “Come Pick Me Up”, now we can all shut up about it).

He knocked out excellent renditions of “Sylvia Plath”, “Dear Chicago” and “English Girls Approximately”, but the whole show was outstanding and (not to repeat myself) a love note to the fans. I thought his banter in California was great, but he turned it up a notch in Philadelphia. Adams went on this whole riff about Ghost Hunters when his guitars went out of tune and then connected it into making fun of loud audience members (you know there is always that one dude who has to be heard).
Adams left the stage and quickly came back out for an encore. He was going to play another 30 minutes but his main set went long and the teamsters shut him down. He managed to knock out a surprisingly earnest rendition of Ratt’s “Round and Round”.

Another fantastic show by one of the best song writers in the business.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Video of the Week

( #Zombies )

Missing the Walking Dead already? Here is a short film by Cameron McCulloch hold you over.