Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review - Everything I Never Told You

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."

And thus begins a terrific book. A couple weeks after finishing Anthony Doerr's fabulous All the Light We Cannot See, I now already have another 5-star book in 2015 - Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014, Penguin Press, 292 pages). This is a debut novel, and one of the best I have read recently.

This is a powerful story of the oriental and mixed-marriage experience in the 1960s and 1970s, the failures and disappointments of parents, the expectations parents impose on their children, the crushing weight this brings to bear, and the damaging secrets kept within families.

Given the captivating opening line, this wasn't about what had happened, but about why. It is both tragic yet perhaps hopeful, and powerful because it rang true to me. It was predictable in places, surprising in others, and kept me turning pages until I was done in three evenings.

"Stunned, Lydia fell silent. All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders; that a book or a dress meant more than something to read or something to wear; that attention came with expectations that - like snow - drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight. All the words were right, but in this new Nath's voice, they sounded trivial and brittle and hollow. The way anyone else might have heard them. Already her brother had become a stranger." (pg. 263)

"...she had been afraid so long, she had forgotten what it was like not to be - afraid that, one day, her mother would disappear again, that her father would crumble, that their whole family would collapse once more. Ever since that summer without her mother, their family had felt precarious, as if they were teetering on a cliff. Before that she hadn't realized how fragile happiness was, how that if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it. Anything her mother wanted, she had promised. As long as she would stay. She had been so afraid." (pp. 272-273)

5 stars out of 5. I loved it.

Books this year: 3
Total pages: 1,050
New authors: 1

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Review - The Laughing Monsters

The second book this year is The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson (2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 228 pages). The dust jacket blurb calls this a "high suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post 9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game." Meh.

I have read some of Johnson's previous works and enjoyed them, but I found this to be good but not great. The story is that a Scandinavian intelligence agent (or not?) returns to west Africa to meet up with a former associate to do...I'm not sure what. There was talk of Uranium, money making schemes, marriages, visits to the Uganda-Congo interior borderlands, CIA involvement, and more...stuff.

As you can tell, this was not my favorite book, mostly, I suppose, because I am not sure what the point was. Which in fact, may have been the point - that the fragmentation of society in modern west Africa, and the resulting "every man for himself" attitude, has turned the region into an unpredictable mess. If that was the point, it made an OK but unspectacular read.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Books read this year: 2
Pages: 758
New authors: None

Best book of the year so far - still All the Light We Cannot See.

Looking ahead, I am deep into another book that is shaping up to be a fantastic read...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Book Review - All the Light We Cannot See

As far as books go, I have begun 2015 with what will probably end up being a strong contender for my favorite book of the year, no matter how many more I read. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014) is a captivating 530 pages.

Set primarily during World War 2 and the years leading up to it, the book traces the lives of a handful of different people, and is told from each of their varying perspectives. It is a compelling page turner full of well developed characters, and is constructed in a very interesting way. The book is comprised of a multitude of short chapters, generally not more than 2-3 pages each. The chapters bounce from person to person, and jump backwards and forwards on the timeline. Working your way through the story gives glimpses of the climax, the beginnings, and the development of the plot, all intermingled. It is like reading a 500 page puzzle where the pieces are placed for you, one by one, in a seemingly random but actually very calculated manner. While you are given glimpses early on of where things are headed, and it is relatively easy to make certain deductions, it is the unravelling (the journey to get there) that helps to make the book so fascinating.

The characters are compelling and include French civilians (prewar and occupied France), as well as Germans who begin as children in prewar Nazi Germany and end up as soldiers. Eventually all the pieces come together in occupied St Malo, France in 1944. It is about people being molded by the time and place in which they live. About some people taking advantage of war, and others being taken advantage of by it. It's about fear, duty, obligation, perseverance, love, kindness and cruelty.

Brilliant book. Very highly recommended. 5 stars out of 5. A National Book Award finalist for a very good reason.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Years Day Hike

Well, it's 15 hours into 2015 and purely by chance I have taken a step toward addressing a few things I would liked to have done more of in 2014 - I went for a hike and found 5 geocaches along the way.
Ready to set out

Dave texted me yesterday that he and Leo were planning on trying to get in a day hike today somewhere not too far from home and asked if I wanted to go. We didn't have anything specific planned at home, so I said "sure." Within a few hours of that we had a plan to meet at my house at 9:30 this morning and drive an hour down I-95 to Susquehanna State Park in Maryland, where we would have a number of different trail options to choose from to cobble together a 6-8 mile hike, and still be home by 3-ish.
Along the Susquehanna River

After a little New Years Eve celebrating last night and getting to bed at around 1:15am, I was questioning the wisdom of my choice, especially given that the high was only supposed to be around 35 degrees.
Beaver damage

As it turned out, the excessive layering options I brought along weren't necessary, as it was a sunny cold day, but not Arctic by any means. The first 2.5 miles or so were along the banks of the river on an old rails-to-trails trail that was like walking on a sidewalk. The gurgle of the water over the little sections of rapids was peaceful. At one point there were a grove of trees with obvious beaver damage, but they looked older and not very recent.
Giant American Beech

Getting away from the water, the remainder of the hike was on parts of the Deer Creek and Susquehanna Ridge trails, along with some of the connector trails. Plain forest in the winter (with the occasional glimpses of roads and civilization) isn't always the most beautiful kind of hiking, but it was great to get out.
Even bigger White Oak

Highlights of the hike (besides for the river views) were a pair of amazing old specimen trees; a giant American Beech and a 200+ year old White Oak. Gorgeous.
Ridge top river view

When all was said and done, we had covered a fairly leisurely 7.0 miles, found five geocaches including an earthcache, and were back home at my house by 3:30pm. It was a very nice day, and a good start to the new year.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Review 2014 - Distractions and Diversions

Having covered the most important stuff - family - in an earlier post, I'll cover the remaining odds and ends here...

Hiking and Outdoors
I spent less time doing short little hikes around home than I have in any recent year, but there were two very good trips that did happen. The first was an overnight trip to Rickett's Glen State Park in northeastern PA in April, and the second was a three day trip to West Virginia in June.

Rickett's Glen was a two day trip, the second day to actually hike the park, the first day to drive up. Dave and I left early and did a bunch of geocaching on the way to the hotel, which was one of my more interesting caching expeditions of the year. The hike itself was truly spectacular, and everything it was hyped up to be.
Rickett's Glen

The West Virginia trip was also memorable for the scenery, the companionship, the hikes, and the marvelous campsite with a view of Sunset Rocks.
Sunset Rocks WV

The Sunday we spent hiking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness was a hot and grueling day, but the scenery was some of the prettiest I have seen in the East. I would gladly go back to that area again.
Dolly Sods Wilderness WV

With one of our regulars planning a big trip to Ireland for his 50th, there will not be a big trip this year, but the plan is to make up for that by squeezing in a few long-weekend trips, like West Virginia was this year. There are a multitude of nice places to go within a 4-5 hour driving radius, and I'm sure we can come up with something good.

Music and Concerts
I didn't get to see as much live music as I would have liked this year (not counting musicals and special events with the family). Anthony and I saw The Musical Box in Wilmington in January, and I saw Justin Hayward again in Wilmington in May.
Justin Hayward in Wilmington at the World Cafe

The Tedeschi Trucks Band near home in Aston in June was the last concert of the year.
Tedeschi Trucks Band in Aston PA

2014 also saw the arrival of yet another guitar in the house, an Epiphone EJ-200CE acoustic electric. I'm still a hack, but perhaps a little better than before. Actual practice would improve that, but for whatever reason, it never seems to happen. So you get what you get. And speaking of getting - no more guitars. Probably.
Epiphone EJ-200CE

As always, I read a ton this year, with only the tip of the iceberg getting documented here. Fifteen fiction books (posted about separately), lots of short stories, lots of history and wargaming materials, and lastly (and quite unexpected) I think I read through an entire file box of old Dungeons and Dragons stuff I had kept from years ago. That jaunt down memory lane sure brought back a lot of fond memories.

Blogging would also have to be considered a hobby unto itself given the time and effort put into it. All told, across three blogs, I have written more than ever before. This will be post number 138 for this, my main blog, and I have also managed to squeeze in 28 posts on the D&D campaign blog and 19 more on the food blog. Perhaps I should do more and write less, although I certainly do enjoy the writing on its own merits. It's a balance I guess. Most of these posts are fairly easy and quick to write, and it has proven very nice to be able to go back and reread posts and look at pictures from as far back as 2009, when I first began.

Dungeons and Dragons
From a hobby/fun-time activity perspective, this is the year I remembered how much I loved playing D&D as a kid, and started playing again as an adult. Five of us have played four sessions beginning in October, and may get one more in over the holidays. I love the pure unfettered creativity of it, and we all seem to be having a good time, which is all that counts.
Kingdom of Alsberg

I may not have blogged about too many recipes, but I think I probably did a better job this year than usual in actually trying new and different recipes out of all the cookbooks we have accumulated over the years. Most used book of the year was without question Giada at Home by Giada de Laurentiis. Every one we make turns out great so we just keep trying more. Grace continues to show some interest in cooking, so it is nice to have a helper in the kitchen with me sometimes.
25 Year Old Easter Treat

It's pretty safe to say that I have become an occasional geocacher at best. I still enjoy it, but more often than not it's really only something that hits my radar screen when I will be traveling to someplace new or unusual and have a chance to grab a new state or a new county. The modicum of interest that the kids had in the first year or two that I did this has worn off for them, and they have no interest in going out with me, so that limits my interest in going out just to go out. Geocaching as a solo endeavor doesn't hold much appeal anymore, although if I have an opportunity to get out in the woods for a walk somewhere, I would still rather pick a place that has geocaches than not. I guess in that regard, I have become a geocacher very much like brother Dave has always been. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Geocaching our way to Rickett's Glen

Perhaps the best part of writing these year end posts is not in the remembering of what has gone before, but to begin to think about the future; not what have we done this year, but what experiences are yet to come. Places to go. Things to see and do. Interests to explore. In other words, life to live.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Year in Review 2014 - Literature

After reading almost no fiction at all in 2013, I got back on that particular horse and managed to get in a decent amount of fiction reading this year.

At the halfway point of the year, posted in summary here on June 30, I had read 11 books by ten different authors. Over the second half of the year I was mainly reading history and wargaming stuff, but did mange to get in 4 more fiction books, all by authors I had read before.

Total books: 15 (by 11 different authors, including 6 new ones for me).
Total pages: 4,386.

Best books of the year for me in 2014 (in order):
  • The Painter by Peter Heller. A marvelous work by someone I hadn't read before. My only five star book this year.
  • The Son by Philipp Meyer. Another sensational (and big) book by the author of American Rust, one of my favorite books of 2009.
  • A terrific pair by Wiley Cash (another new author for me); This Dark Road to Mercy and the almost equally good A Land More Kind than Home.
There were other good books, but these were cream of the crop this year for me.

Full year summary (new authors for me in italics):
  • 5 - The Painter (Peter Heller)
  • 4.5 - The Son (Philipp Meyer)
  • 4.5 - This Dark Road to Mercy (Wiley Cash)
  • 4 - A Land More Kind Than Home (Wiley Cash)
  • 4 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
  • 4 - The Realm of Last Chances (Steve Yarbrough)
  • 4 - Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather [Stories] (Gao Xingjian)
  • 4 - St Burl's Obituary (Daniel Akst)
  • 3.5 - Netherland (Joseph O'Neill)
  • 3.5 - The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout)
  • 3.5 - There Must Be Some Mistake (Frederick Barthelme)
  • 3.5 - The Brothers (Frederick Barthelme)
  • 3.5 - Drown [Stories] (Junot Diaz)
  • 2.5 - Two Against One (Frederick Barthelme)
  • 4.5 - The Vintage Caper (Peter Mayle) 
I was fortunate enough to get a pair of fiction books for Christmas that I have been looking forward to reading, and I am partway into one of those but will likely not finish it before the end of the year. (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - absolutely terrific so far).

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Year in Review - 2014 - Family

December is winding down, and my thoughts wander back across the year that is drawing to a close. First and foremost, the girls (all three, big and little) are healthy and happy. I could stop there and consider the year a success.

But that would make for a very short year end post, so I will soldier on....

High School and Musicals
Julia is in the middle of tenth grade and doing well. She is beginning some preliminary job training, and is involved in a lot of activities. She's a very busy young lady.

March was probably the highlight of her year, being involved in the production of Les Miserables, her favorite thing of all time.
Les Miz - Makeup call for Bystander number 2

I am especially proud of the amount of time and work that she put into the play, and equally happy that despite all the work she wants to be involved in all the musicals going forward. This continued with The Little Mermaid in December where she was a chorus fish in the Sea Chorus, which included a new part time career for Amp as a costume designer and seamstress.
Les Miz Opening Night w/Uncle Let

Julia also puts a lot of time in cheerleading with the Spirit Squad, and competes in three or four local area competitions every Spring. I should also note here that we are all very grateful to the local Whole Foods Market and the Whole Foods Foundation, which made a very generous donation to the squad to cover uniforms and other costs.
Spirit Squad

Julia also continues to compete in Special Olympics bowling and swimming, where Grace is a "unified partner" and swims relays with her sister.
Special Olympics Bowling

Wrapping up Elementary School
Having a daughter the age that Grace is now is a constant (and somewhat unwelcome) reminder of just how fast kids grow up. It seems like just yesterday that we were carrying her around because she was so little and she couldn't keep up. Now I can't keep up with her.

She is doing very well in school, but one of the more gratifying things for me is that she is involved in a lot of musical things, and shows a very good aptitude for it. She is about one year into piano lessons, and her teacher calls her "my little prodigy." She is also now in her second year of clarinet and is doing well enough that her teacher recommended that she move up from the starter (plastic) clarinet to a real wooden one. Have I mentioned how expensive real musical instruments are? Egads. Anyway, as much as I love music, that is an expense I'll gladly deal with. Between the instruments and chorus, there is something musical going on at all times (which is how I would choose to have it).
Casted ankle - January

Gymnastics continues as well, along with the periodically gimpy ankle that comes along with that. Six weeks in a walking cast seems to have helped some, but not completely. Apparently, this is something that they believe she will just grow out of. Fingers crossed...
Glasses in August

I couldn't possibly be more proud of both of them.

Around the House
Having been in this house 17 years now (really?!?), there are no shortage of rooms that we would like to re-do and other projects that need addressing. Grace and Julia both some new pieces of furniture this year, and I am in the middle of finishing up the crown molding in Julia's room and then repainting it. The main floor powder room got a complete cosmetic reno including crown and trim moldings and a repaint.
Printer table

Lastly, we put some power tools to use and made some new custom furniture for ourselves. Julia got a modified version of a console table, and I got a perfectly sized printer stand and end table for my office. I still have a hard time looking at the printer table and believing that I made it with my own two hands (it looks too good).

Getting Out and About
One of the commitments we have made to ourselves is that we will try to expose the kids to as much culture as we can, and hopefully do it in a way that they will enjoy. This year we got them to see a Cirque de Soleil Michael Jackson show in Philadelphia, Stomp at the Dupont Theater in Wilmington, Aladdin on Broadway, and Mary Poppins in Philadelphia to round out the year.
Aladdin on Broadway

We also got to Washington DC again in the spring (to see Mount Vernon) and Avalon NJ in the summer (for the beach), as well as many trips to our in-laws in New Jersey.
Mount Vernon

Thinking about what all we did this year makes me start thinking about what we can do in 2015. Most of all, I just hope that everyone stays happy and healthy. That would be plenty.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Gifty Goodness

It was primarily a book year this year for me in terms of gifts. Trolling Amazon identified a likely list of candidates, and these are the ones that ended up making the cut.
Christmas library additions

The history books are a pair by Desmond Seward (The Demon's Brood; A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty and The Warrior King and the Invasion of France - an Agincourt campaign book). The first is new in 2014, the second is a new 2014 edition of a 1988 book. There is also The Hundred Years War; A People's History by David Green and The Greatest Knight (a life of William Marshal) by Thomas Asbridge (both new in 2014). I have read some of Seward before, and have read Asbridge's Crusades books as well as Green's Poitiers book, so I am pretty sure I will like all of these.

As for the fiction, I like Johnson, and the Anthony Doerr book is one of the best regarded books of the year. I think I read one of Doerr's short story collections a few years back and liked it. As I write this, I am 45 pages into All the Light We Cannot See.

I also got a few packs of miniatures to fill in gaps in some periods, and hopefully will make some painting progress on some of those before too long (house guests leave for home tonight and I can put my painting area back together again). These new packs include muslim infantry and archers, Bedouin light cavalry and Arab armored cavalry (all of which can be used for Crusades or southern Italy) as well as a couple packs of early crossbowmen and German foot knights (mainly to be used as commanders on bases of common infantry).

Watching the kids enjoy the holidays is by far the best part of the season, but getting some presents is always nice too.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

Another Christmas Day is winding down, and we have a house full of content people. Us, kids, in-laws and nieces. And of course Uno, their dog.

We have been stuffed with good food (a light Mediterranean Baked Cod last night to give us room for the meat-fest of standing rib roast today) and good drink.
Christmas Eve - Mediterranean Cod

Gingerbread houses have been made. Fresh Santa cookies have been baked, laid on the hearth, and were gone this morning. I bet Santa liked them a lot.
Cookies for Santa...or just playing

Shockingly enough, not a peep was heard from the girls until 7:45 this morning, which I think must be a new record. Despite a few moments of less than ideal behavior, Santa did come again this year, and pampered the kids as he usually (always) does.
Christmas Morning - The Calm before the Storm

Toys and games, video games and clothes for Julia. A new iPod Touch, Beats headphones and some books for Grace. Plus footie pajamas, a surprise gift request (but you do have to love footie pajamas...). Tennis stuff and some clothes and books for Amp. Books for me (4 history, 2 fiction). And a new iMac for the house, to replace the old slow PC in the basement. No more fighting for the one good Mac. (Mine mine mine.)
Footie pajamas!

It was a very relaxing day in which we were able to do absolutely nothing but sit around the house and relax in the company of family, capped off by an easy but excellent 8pm dinner (prime rib roast, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy and ratatouille).

Everybody had a great day, especially the kids. By the time dinner was done and the dishes taken care of, and after a few glasses of wine and 45 pages of reading into one of my new books, I dropped off to sleep, a happy Daddy.

Not having to go back to work until Monday January 5th doesn't hurt either. Ten more days off. But who's counting...

Mary Poppins at the Walnut Street Theatre

With the kids having enjoyed the Broadway shows we have seen in the past, and with us looking to do something different for the holidays (rather than seeing the Nutcracker again), Amp got us tickets to see Mary Poppins at the Walnut Street Theatre on Tuesday December 23.

In short, the show was terrific. It was true to the screen version with all of its famous songs, but had enough additional music and variations to the plot that it made for a sense of seeing something familiar and yet new at the same time. The playbill lists 7 new songs added for the stage production, a few of which (along with Chim Chim Cher-ee) provide the recurring musical foundation of the show. The central theme of saving Mr. Banks is also more of a direct focus of the stage show, including an additional important character that helps explain some things.

The show was in two acts, each about an hour and a quarter, with a 20 minute intermission in between. All told, it started a little after 8 and ended a little before 11. The kids loved it (we all did), but it was a long evening for them, being about 11:45pm when we got home (with holiday house guests having arrived while we were out - so more excitement for the kids).

The cast was terrific, with David Elder as Bert, Jeffrey Coon as George Banks, Rebecca Robbins as Winifred Banks, and Lindsey Bliven as Mary Poppins. Nobody can match Julie Andrews, but Ms. Bliven came very close. She had an amazing, bright and clear soprano voice. Remarkable.

The sets were straight forward but very nicely done, the effects were very good, and the song and dance numbers were great. It was also fun to see Mary Poppins fly, although given the relatively small
stage of the WST, there wasn't a ton of room to work with for that effect. My understanding when this was on Broadway was that she actually flew over the audience a little bit, but that wasn't possible in this little old place.

The Walnut Street Theatre itself had a lot of charm, and is billed as the oldest theater in America. It was on the small side, with cramped lobbies, stairways and aisles, but had that wonderful charm of an old building.

A great evening and a highly recommended show. It will make you feel young again!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas to All...

...and to all a good night.
Two fishes, not seven

Parents were wishing they were snug in their beds...
Ready for Santa

And kids are bouncing off the walls.

As it should be.

Happy Holidays and a happy healthy New Years to all....

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Year in Review 2014 - Figure Painting

I am getting a jump on some of the blogger-required end of year recap posts, as we have family coming to stay for the holidays soon, and I expect free time will be at a bit of a premium over the next week or so. Specifically, with the basement painting table cleared and briefly put into storage, the chances of me getting any substantial painting time in is unlikely. I may have some time next week (I hope to...), but whatever I accomplish in those last few days won't change my year end position by much if at all...
Always more medievals

In summary, 2014 may have been my most productive year of painting output in memory, or maybe ever. I paint on the slow side, and paint in spurts, with weeks or even months in some cases between bursts of activity. This year really wasn't any different, but a few of the bursts I had, notably in April/May and October/November were more sustained than usual.

In 25mm mounted, I painted 55 figures:
  • 36 German knights, some totally repainted and some new.
  • 6 Ottoman akinji light cavalry.
  • 3 Ottoman sipahis.
  • 10 mounted crossbows.
In 25mm foot I painted 84 figures:
  • 56 Norman heavy infantry.
  • 10 Hundred Years War crossbows.
  • 12 voynuk heavy infantry.
  • 6 medieval civilians.
In 15mm WW2, 87 pieces of various types:
  • 10 US tanks.
  • 8 US trucks.
  • 6 US jeeps.
  • 3 German tanks.
  • 6 US antitank guns.
  • 12 US gun crew.
  • 42 US infantry.
And in terrain:
  • 12 buildings in 15mm.
  • Many bocage/hedge terrain pieces.
  • Some modular road sections.
  • Three 4' by 6' terrain boards of foam insulation board and green tie-dye fleece (more on these later). In addition to the three boards (two of which are perfectly flat), I made 10-12 hill pieces of various sizes and shapes that can be used with the boards (made of the same carved foam and glued-on fleece).
I'm pretty sure I painted a few more things, but I couldn't remember what...

To this total should be added the fact that I spent a lot of time in various increments throughout the year brightening up and partially repainting some of my older figures (German medievals, generic medievals and Normans especially). In all, this probably encompassed dozens of mounted figures and well over a hundred foot figures.
A village worth of buildings

Heading into 2015, there are a bunch of figures in various stages of painting that should be showing up in blog posts at some point, and a lot more figures after that which have been prepped and primed and are waiting in the wings. These include large batches of Ottoman armored and unarmored sipahis, Ottoman foot of several kinds, Hungarians to go against the Ottomans, lots of 15mm WW2 German infantry and US paratroops, German vehicles (8-10 halftracks and a dozen or so tanks), French Hundred Years War infantry of various kinds, and the list goes on. If I didn't prep and prime another figure, I doubt I could get through what I have ready to go in 2015. That's a good thing.
Tanks and Trucks and Jeeps

Lastly, as far as my figure collecting goes, I finally came to terms with reality and sold off some of my little children (actually, lots of them). Flea market tables at Cold Wars and Fall In were both good to me in terms of selling off distractions, diversions, and things I will never either paint, or use if already painted. At one end of the spectrum is what my figure collection would ideally look like with regards to periods and scales (given my primary interests), and at the other end of the spectrum is the unfocused "little bit of everything that ever caught my fancy gone haywire" approach. It's probably fair to say that I started the year much closer to the latter, and have ended the year well closer to the ideal than I began. I won't reach the ideal in my lifetime, but it's the journey that counts. More progress will be made this year.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book Review - The Brothers

Back in October, I read two books by Frederick Barthelme, liking one and disliking the other. I thought There Must be Some Mistake was a solid effort typical of Barthelme's last few novels, and thought the much earlier Two Against One was the worst of his I had read (by quite a bit). Perhaps to wash the taste of T.A.O. out of my mouth, I went back and read another of his older novels; The Brothers (Viking, 1993, 262 pages).

This was back in late October or early November but I never got around to blogging about it. By now, details are fuzzy, but The Brothers was another good read of the type that I expect from Barthelme - believable everyday people getting on with their lives as best they can. This particular book is about a pair of brothers, struggling with their careers and their relationship with each other, and not doing an especially good job of either.

There is a follow up book to this (which is sitting on my night stand), but I am Barthelmed-out for the moment, and will move on to something else before going back to that at some point.

"The birds were amazing, the way they flew and then folded up like daggers and slammed into the water. Everything was turning a wonderful gunmetal gray. There were a few yellow lights shimmering on the water, reflected from car lights up on the big highway.
Fog was coming in from the Gulf, and it was thick. Out toward the mouth of the bay, toward the Gulf, it looked as though the water went maybe half a mile and then stopped dead. Everything past that was gray." [p79]

A solid 3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Little Mermaid - Opening Night

After a couple of months and countless hours of preparation, Garnet Valley High School's production of The Little Mermaid opened Thursday 12/4 and ran for four shows over three days. Once again, it seemed like a smashing success to me, with great performances, music, sets and costumes.

The most important thing for me is that Julia had a great time doing it, just like she did for Les Miserables last spring. She was a fish in the "sea chorus" and was in (I think) four scenes as part of the background chorus. She's already talking about Oliver! in the spring, where she gets to be an orphan/urchin.

Somewhere along the way, Amp's involvement changed from sewing a few costumes into what seemed like a seven day a week job for two months. Our spare room upstairs and the dining room turned into a design studio and our own little costume factory. She did a great job, and it was fun to watch the show and pick out all the different things that she designed or otherwise worked on. I know that her commitment and effort was very much appreciated.

A few videos posted on YouTube of the show:
The more I see of these shows and understand what goes into putting them on, the more impressed I become. It takes a tremendous effort by an awful lot of people to put on a show involving upwards of 150 students ranging from the main bulk of high school students supplemented with backing roles for kids in middle school and even elementary school. Grace, in 5th grade, is already asking about getting involved in the future. That's a very nice thought.

Congratulations to all involved in a terrific show.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Analogue Hobbies Painting Challenge

Something I have followed on other's blogs in past years is the Analogue Hobbies annual painting challenge. Basically, people pick a target number of points, and (this year) have between December 5 and March 20, 2015 to amass as many points as they can. Points are awarded based on type of figure and scale. Given that I paint almost exclusively in 25/28mm, to me this would mean 5 points for each foot figure and 10 points for each mounted figure (or artillery piece). If I were to do some additional 15mm WW2 painting, these would be 2 points per foot figure and 6 points per vehicle.

In the official challenge, figures must be painted, based and flocked (in other words, completely done), and then submitted to the website via photo with description. I don't intend to officially enter the Challenge, but I do intend to paint along on my own. I will score my results the same way.

With that in mind, given that the cold winter "indoor" months are upon us, I will challenge myself with a stretch goal of 1,000 points. This would be a lot of painting for me to tackle in 3 months (a year's worth in some cases). To accomplish this would require painting 4 bags of Old Glory foot (120 figs for 600 points) and 4 bags of Old Glory mounted (40 figs for 400 points).

Under the contest rules, figures could be prepped and primed before 12/5, but no paint could be applied before then for a figure to qualify. By those rules, I will have completed 12 foot figures for 60 points as soon as I get the Voynuks based up - they were painted on the 6th and 7th. I have Ottoman sipahis and a few Spanish jinetes in process that will not qualify, but lots after that that will.

If nothing else, this gives me a little bit of focus and perhaps some sense of urgency. I don't generally set painting goals, but this might be fun to try. We'll see how it goes...

[12/14/14] - In retrospect... Looking back at the above a few days later, I must have been out of my mind. A more reasonable goal would be 500 points, taking into account that there are other hobby things going on these days, such as running our fledgling D&D campaign. But I did say 1,000 points, so I'll stick to that. And when I fail (most likely badly), I can say "I told me so!"

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Painting Table - Mounted Crossbows and Voynuks

This past week, and the weekend, was primarily about the Fall musical, The Little Mermaid, but in and around those obligations I was able to continue to make some painting progress.

The first four mounted crossbowmen pictured previously were finished, along with the other six in the pack, giving me 5 stands of mounted crossbows. All that remains is to flock and finish the bases (and take a good final picture). From a painting standpoint, they are complete.
Five stands of mounted crossbows

I also spent a little time prepping part of a bag of Old Glory 12th Century Infantry, which are a good multi-purpose medieval foot pack. You can never have too many basic foot in this period. My only complaint with this pack (which is a joy to paint) is that prepping them is a pain in the a$%, especially drilling out and attaching the separate spear-holding hands. These figures could have been designed a lot better in that regard...

The next small project (skipping over the mostly complete Ottoman sipahi cavalry that need some additional work) is a unit of 12 Voynuk heavy infantry allies for the Ottomans. These are proving to be exceptionally easy figures to paint, being mostly chainmail and other armor, with only some bits of cloth and shields to paint. In a short period of time, these are probably more than half done, and should be easy to complete in a couple of short evening sessions this week.
Ottoman Christian Voynuks in process

After the Voynuks I really should get back to the sipahis, but we'll see what mood strikes me at that point.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Feel Good Flash Mob Fun

Don't ask me how I got here (OK, it involved searching YouTube for anything that might have been uploaded on our high school's new musical production, clicking a link, clicking another link, and another, and so on...down the rat hole I go...).

Some of them were enjoyable enough, or holiday appropriate enough, to capture...

The British Army band flash-mobbing Christmas carols in an English mall.

The US Air Force Band flash-mobbing holiday music at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

A Choral group flash-mobbing America the Beautiful to a service man and his family at a mall.

And lastly, the cast of a professional production of Les Miserables flash-mobbing One Day More at an Orlando Florida mall.

They made me smile... Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Delle Donne Basketball Day

Way back on Sunday November 9, Julia had the opportunity to participate in something that ended up being an absolutely wonderful experience.

We were emailed by one of the Special Olympics people that WNBA star player and Wilmington native Elena Delle Donne was doing a girls basketball academy on that Sunday, and that there were a few spots being given to Special Olympics athletes, and would Julia like to take part. Of course we said yes.

The session was 4 hours of drills and instruction at the Tatnall School in north Wilmington. Approximately 60 very talented basketball girls of middle school and high school age took part. The girls were divided into two large teams, with each large team subdivided into three smaller teams (a total of 6). Many of the drills were conducted in the form of relay races and competitions between the 6 smaller teams. The Special Olympics athletes were divided among the teams, and took part in all the drills with as little accommodation as possible; our athletes were integrated into everything that was going on. It was very gratifying that most of the typical athletes were very supportive and helpful, with only a few minor bits of obvious frustration at those who couldn't really keep up.
Delle Donne Academy - Drills

As for Elena Delle Donne, I couldn't be more appreciative and impressed with this young woman. Read the linked Wikipedia entry if interested, as her story is an interesting one. The short version is that she was one of the top women's basketball recruits in the country coming out of high school in Wilmington. She got a full scholarship to UConn, but bailed on that out of the desire to stay home and be near her family, particularly her handicapped sister. She ended up being a star at the University of Delaware, was drafted second overall into the WNBA, and was WNBA rookie of the year. She's 25 years old now, and plays for the Chicago Sky.

Besides for all the athletic stardom, Elena couldn't have been nicer at this session. She ran the entire session (with help from some friends, apparently including some who were teammates in college). She also really paid attention to the Special Olympics athletes. Each of the 6 or 7 that were there got at least 5-10 minutes of individual attention from Elena while drills were going on, and she was wonderful with them. At one point Julia came off the floor and stood beside me, overloaded from all the activity going on. Elena saw her, came over, and asked if Julia was OK. I said, sure, she just needs a moment to regroup. Elena smiled and asked if Julia would like to help her coach while she was resting. Julia loved the idea, and spent the next 10 minutes in the center of the floor with Elena while she ran drills.  It was very cute; Julia at 5 foot 2 inches standing next to Elena at 6 foot 5 inches. The first time Elena blew her whistle, Julia jumped and covered her ears. Elena noticed, and after that each time Elena was about to blow the whistle, she would tap Julia on the shoulder, Julia would cover her ears, and she would whistle when Julia was ready. Very cute.
Julia assistant coaching

It was a long day for Julia - 4 hours of physical activity is an awful lot for her, but she liked it very much. Julia loves being a part of things, and this was certainly a special event.
5 foot 2 inches, and 6 foot 5.

Thanks to Elena Delle Donne, the other coaches and athletes, and the Special Olympics folks for getting Julia involved.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Another wonderful meal has been prepared and eaten. With family. Football was watched (including the beloved Eagles dismantling the hated Cowboys 33-10). Every pot, pan, plate and cup was used. The fridge was stuffed, then emptied, then stuffed again. The kitchen was trashed, and then cleaned. Kids were (eventually) happily put to bed, with Grace's final smiling words before sleep being "I...ate...three...pieces...of...pie...".

I don't think any of us that were here and fortunate enough to spend the day together forgot what the day is supposed to be all about. Being thankful for what we have, and enjoying it in the company of family. I am luckier than most, and far more blessed than I deserve, and for that I am very grateful.

Thanksgiving for me has also become a time to remember my father, since he died shortly before Thanksgiving in 2010. So pardon the indulgence as I raise a glass to him. Four years ago today we laid him to rest, but I do not forget. Black Friday, indeed. I still remain in awe of a time when a 17 year old would lie about his age to fight in a war a half a world away. Bravery, as they say, is ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Sometimes just volunteering to show up is extraordinary.
Service in France and Germany, 1944-1946

To anybody out there, Happy American Thanksgiving, and a joyous holiday season yet to come...

Painting Table - Mounted Crossbows

There's a lot going on this weekend, not the least of which is pulling out the Christmas decorations, but if I have any time for hobby stuff this weekend I will have the very modest goal of finishing this unit of four mounted crossbowmen. There isn't much left to do but some detail work, highlighting and finishing of the horses, so this should be very manageable.
Mounted crossbows (Old Glory Hundred Years War)

There are six more on the table beyond the first four, and a number of medieval civilian types for dressing up the little towns that often hug the sides of the gaming table. If I do get past the first four mounted crossbowmen, I will probably return to the Ottoman sipahis that I was working on before getting sidetracked. Or not. Hard to say.

I've also spent a few spare moments tweaking the table slightly from the solo game I played last weekend. I'll try to post a few pictures tomorrow. A variant of my solo game will be used for an upcoming game to introduce one of our D&D players to historical miniatures gaming.