Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Year In Books: 2012

These are the books I read this year. I won't rate them or suggest certain books over others. Instead, I suggest you read them all, or read something – everything you can – in 2013.

Join me over at Goodreads!

  1. Deaf Sentence: A Novel by David Lodge
  2. The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper
  3. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  4. Ghost: A Novel by Alan Lightman
  5. How To Talk To A Widower: A Novel by Jonathan Tropper
  6. This Side Of The River (manuscript) by Jeffrey Stayton
  7. Plan B by Jonathan Tropper
  8. Enchanted Night: A Novella by Steven Millhauser
  9. The Saturdays (The Melendy Family, #1) by Elizabeth Enright
  10. Every Night's A Saturday Night: The Rock 'n' Roll Life Of Legendary Sax Man Bobby Keys by Bobby Keys
  11. North River by Pete Hamill
  12. The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern
  13. The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo
  14. We Are Billion Year Old Carbon: A Tribal-Love-Rock-Novel Set in the Sixties on an Outpost Planet Called Memphis by Corey Mesler
  15. Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut
  16. The Story of a Marriage: A Novel by Andrew Sean Greer
  17. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  18. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  19. The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley
  20. The Four-Story Mistake (The Melendy Family, #2) by Elizabeth Enright
  21. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (re-read) by Michael Chabon
  22. One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty
  23. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
  24. One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper
  25. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  26. The Simplest Pattern (manuscript) by Richard J. Alley
  27. The Zero by Jess Walter
  28. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
  29. Then There Were Five (The Melendy Family, #3) by Elizabeth Enright
  30. Elsewhere by Richard Russo
  31. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  32. In the Night Season: A Novel by Richard Bausch
  33. Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze (The Melendy Family, #4) by Elizabeth Enright
  34. Junior Ray by John Pritchard
  35. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
  36. Franny and Zooey (re-read) by J.D. Salinger

Friday, December 21, 2012

Because I Said So: Good deeds can help get us through tragic times

I wrote yesterday's Because I Said So column one week ago today. I had in my head a silly idea where I would come to the defense of Christmas carols, those ditties that become stuck in our heads from Halloween until sometime in early March. I love them, but I know there are others who avoid them at all costs. It's a shame, many of them are good, simple songs with a common denominator and nostalgic flavor we can all take comfort in. My hope was to make you laugh, a little Christmas gift from me to you. When the news started rolling in about the violence in Newton, CT, though, I lost my taste for funny. As the numbers climbed, I lost my voice for singing. I walked up the street that day to meet my kids after school and seeing them walk towards me was like hearing those first few bars of Nat Cole singing "The Christmas Song." It lifted me up, but only for a time, there were too many parents - both in Newton and around the country - grieving. So I sat down and wrote this version in about five minutes, it just poured out of me like a song.

Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth.

Helping out can allow us to reclaim holiday spirit
This being the last column before Christmas, I had this funny little bit planned, in the defense of Christmas carols, that much maligned music genre that pops up earlier and earlier each year.

I walk my kids to school in the mornings, and during this, the most wonderful time of the year, we sing on the way there. My youngest daughter has been leading the caroling lately with favorites "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "O Hanukkah" from her school's holiday program.

The column was going to be funny and light and possibly a little off key.

And then last Friday, after walking and singing them to school, I went on the Internet to learn that two Memphis police officers had been shot and that one, Martoiya Lang, a mother of four, had died. About the same time, news started coming in about a school shooting in Connecticut that would eventually leave 26 dead, including 20 children.

All of the funny went out of me. All of the music left my voice. What was left was a void and the indescribable urge to see my children, so that I practically ran up to the school at the end of the day.

The acts, of course, are senseless. The fact that they were perpetrated on a mother of four, on the children of so many, is unforgivable. It throws a pall on the most wonderful time of the year, doesn't it?

That day, though, my kids hadn't heard the news. We walked home, and while one daughter prattled on about her class' Christmas party, I heard my 6-year-old, bringing up the rear, singing "Silent Night."

Silent night, holy night.

Mister Rogers, everyone's neighbor, once said that when the news was scary, his mother told him to "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping," and urged us to tell our children the same. And we have, my generation, through Columbine and 9/11 and Virginia Tech and every other unthinkable tragedy that comes to us within seconds through today's technology.

As adults now, and parents, we shouldn't just look for helpers, but we must also be the helpers. There are people in our community who need help, whether from a sudden, inconceivable act of violence, or through a long season of neglect. This is the time to begin helping, during this most wonderful time of the year.

All is calm, all is bright.

If your child is safe at home today as mine are, sitting on the floor beside the tree in anticipation of next Tuesday, watching SpongeBob, eating a Pop-Tart, making a mess, all of the things I make light of here in this space, be thankful and be gracious. Hold them tightly, and do your best to put that music back into their lives.

As I write this, news is still pouring in fast and furious, and things could change, though not necessarily for the better. More bad could happen between now and the day this runs.

But also a lot of good could happen. That's up to you, and it's up to me.

Sleep in heavenly peace, and Merry Christmas from my family to yours.

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Because I Said So: Blood pressure numbers go up with math homework

A couple of years ago I started going for regular checkups with our family doctor. There, among a maze of beige hallways, waiting rooms, exam rooms and bathrooms, various fluids are extracted, body parts are handled and questions are asked. It's like some sort of safe and sterile torture chamber with a copay.

That said, I'd rather go through having blood drawn and urinate in a cup once a day rather than deal with homework time around this house. There are some kids who take to it easily and urgently, almost aggressively. And then there are others who need ... prodding. The first graders at Richland Elementary School are given a packet of homework to be completed by week's end. That makes for a busy Thursday evening. The idea, of course, is to do a little each night, but a little each night would, indeed, cause my blood pressure to skyrocket dangerously.

She's a smart little girl, my first grader, and Procrastination is her favorite subject. It's difficult for me to be too upset by this, however, because the idea for today's Because I Said So column on the misery that is first-grade homework, came to me as I begrudgingly sat down to write the column at the last minute.

Don't get me wrong, I love writing for a living. It's just that I hate writing for a living. Eudora Welty said, "I like to have written." Being finished with writing is the greatest feeling in the world as is, I'm sure, being finished with homework. The trick is to get to that point, to pull yourself (and your first-grader ... or third-grader ... or sixth-grader) up over that mountain of textbooks, worksheets, pencil shavings and projects, to the other side. That's the side where serenity lives, the side where my blood pressure dips down to a normal, healthy measure.

Please enjoy this week's Because I Said So column:
The hardest thing about kids: Math homework
A word to the wise today for new parents out there: Take your eyes off your sleeping baby just long enough to read this column. She'll be fine; they rarely up and roll out of a crib or burst into flames. And she'll still be just as precious when you return,
What you should know is that there is a time coming that will make you forget who that sparkling newborn come forth to brighten your lives ever was. My fellow veteran parents know what it is and I apologize now for any post-traumatic stress you may suffer when I tell these new mothers about the mother of all headaches: a first-grader's homework.

Is there anything more dispiriting, more threatening to our blood pressure, than sitting at the dining room table trying to induce a 6-year-old to focus — please focus! — on this next math problem? The induction of labor might be a more pleasant experience.

Walking? Piece of cake. Talking? It's only natural (though be aware that once it starts, it will not stop). Learning to ride a bike? The worst you might end up with is a broken bone, and it won't be yours. Even the teens and puberty, driver's license and prom have nothing on that half-hour … hour? … You'll lose all track of time trying to teach your child about time.

The table, normally the site of tranquil family dinners, becomes a battleground, the only weapons a stubby pencil, wrinkled worksheet and a fleeting grasp of the most basic in mathematic fundamentals. I point, again, at the problem at hand and read it aloud to my daughter. She's there with me, physically, but her mind is across the house with her siblings, or in a pineapple under the sea.

When I finish reading, she looks up as though surprised to find me there, and then she answers: "Four?" No. "Eight?" No. "Three." An exasperated look. "Two. Twelve. Four?" When it becomes too much, when the intensity over these integers becomes more than I can bear, the answer is, at long last, shouted: "Five! It's five!"

And then we both just sit and stare at each other because, once again, it's I who blurted it out.

Our homework session ends when I stand to leave the room as she writes an "S" in the wrong blank.

I love my daughter. Perhaps I don't say that enough in this space. I love all of my children just as much as you new parents cherish that ball of drool and gas sleeping in its crib beside you (I know you haven't even left the nursery), but this one might not be cut out for academics. She's more Frankenstein than Einstein these days.

But we're working on it together, and throughout first grade I expect her grades to rise as steadily and as high as my systolic pressure.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.