2011: The Year In Books

I will have written another book by the time you finish this sentence.

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At Ben’s place of employment (a bookstore), we have a running joke that if you missed the latest James Patterson novel, just wait three weeks for the next one. (We also have a running joke that James Patterson and James Caan are in fact the same person. Have you ever seen them together? No? Us either.)

So it seems only fitting that Mr. Patterson, who officially “wrote” eleven books in 2011, introduce our “Year in Books” post with his trademark door-kicking bravado. Brace yourself!

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“Killer” entertainment, get it?

As is usually the case, the majority of our favorite books this year were fiction. One technically came out in 2010: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. The main character of Rachman’s book is an English language newspaper in Rome, with each chapter focussing on a different staff member at the paper. Rachman’s comic, bittersweet tone hints at a prevailing sense of decline; these characters are an endangered species in an era of shrinking profits and online journalism. Rachman instills them with honor even though they are on the verge of becoming extinct. “This room once contained all the world,” Rachman writes of a deserted newsroom. The Imperfectionists does likewise.

Before plunging ahead with the rest of the fiction, we’ll highlight the two non-fiction picks on our best-of-the-year list. And for the record, in case it needs to be stated, we have really in fact read all of these books. We promise.

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LITTLE PRINCES, Conor Grennan. We were surprised how much we liked Grennan’s account of volunteering at a Nepalese orphanage called the Little Princes Children’s Home. Surprised because it was billed as “inspirational,” a word we typically associate with the latest Mitch Albom book and therefore avoid like the plague. But Grennan’s story is genuinely uplifting without being melodramatic or schmaltzy. A three month volunteer stint turns into a full time calling after Grennan realizes that these orphans are anything but and travels into the remote mountain villages of the Himalayas to reunite them with their families. What’s most appealing about Grennan is that while his story is extraordinary he is unremarkable. Little Princes reminds us that virtue possesses no special skill, except sometimes stubbornness.

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THE DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC, Candace Millard. James Garfield probably got scant mention in your high school history class, and the worst thing that can be said about Millard’s The Destiny of the Republic is that it perhaps makes Garfield out to be a slightly more consequential figure than his tragically brief presidency allowed. The best thing that can be said about the book is that it is highly readable, even gripping popular history — the kind of story you read and think, “How did I never know about this moment in American history?” If you read and liked Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, this is better. Larson’s book is fine enough, but whereas Devil was a smattering of historical details that all occurred in the same time and place, Destiny is a masterful narrative where every seemingly disparate thread fits together by the end.

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And now on to the fiction. We’ll start with our favorite young adult book of 2011:

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, Ransom Riggs. Ben may be slightly biased as he attended school with Ransom, but even if we didn’t know Mr. Riggs, Miss Peregrine (soon to be a movie) is the kind of offbeat read that imprints you with its strangeness and peculiar charm. If the creepy picture of the levitating girl on the cover didn’t tip you off, it won’t take long before you realize you’ve entered a world that makes the “Twilight Zone” look mundane. That Riggs can bridge the fantastic with the commonplace and do so in a way that feels completely fresh in the burgeoning field of “Strange YA Novels” bodes well for whatever he does next. (He’s already promised a sequel.)

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THE ILLUMINATION, Kevin Brockmeier. The Illumination starts with a simple premise — what if our pain expressed itself in light? — and spins it into a fantastical but grounded meditation on love and suffering. This conceit could easily devolve into a gimmick in the hands of a lesser writer, or played for easy sentimentality or blunt allegory. Brockmeier is craftier. It helps that he really knows how to write a sentence. The lives of his characters may ripple with pain, but in wrestling with that pain they escape superficiality. Brockmeier, to his great credit, does the same.

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FAITH, Jennifer Haigh. This is a tough one to recommend because of its subject matter — a priest accused of sexually abusing a child. Ben tried numerous times to put it in the hands of customers, but the second he revealed what it was about they thrust it back at him, as if the book itself was stained. So, please, just hear us out: Faith is a beautiful book that handles a delicate subject with grace. Haigh is less concerned with religious belief than the kind of feeling that holds a family together — or tears it apart. In less capable hands the subject matter would be the stuff of tabloid drama. Not with Haigh. She proves you can write a beautiful, redemptive story about an ugly subject.

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STATE OF WONDER, Ann Patchett. State of Wonder is Patchett’s play on Heart of Darkness, with a feminine twist: Her Kurtz is Dr. Anneck Swenson, a tough, compelling, single-minded force of nature  laboring deep in the Amazon jungle on a miracle drug that would extend a woman’s fertility into old age. Dr. Marina Singh is her ex-student who goes to the jungle in search of the remains and affects of a deceased colleague who worked with Swenson. Patchett is a skilled writer, and she does a masterful job painting the Amazon as “the beating heart of nowhere.” There are many surprises in store in State of Wonder, and she dispenses them patiently, all in good time.

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THE ART OF FIELDING, Chad Harbach. The jacket designer for The Art of Fielding was careful to convey baseball without saying baseball, for fear of scaring away potential readers who loathe the sport (a k a, women). However you feel about the sport should not keep you from The Art of Fielding, a college baseball book which may outwardly resemble a Jonathan Franzen novel but is superior in several ways, not least of which is the warmth and humor Harbach demonstrates towards his characters. They all go through miserable stretches, but Harbach’s touch is light and his writing both precise and expansive. He makes it a pleasure to read about people going through unpleasurable circumstances.

(Incidentally, James Patterson himself blurbed this book, saying, “Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is one of those rare novels — like Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh or John Irving’s The World According to Garp — that seems to appear out of nowhere and then dazzles and bewitches and inspires until you nearly lose your breath from the enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well.” We can’t say we lost our breath, but maybe Patterson said this right after he kicked that door down.)

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And finally, our favorite book of 2011:

THE TIGER’S WIFE, Tea Obreht. Set in the war-torn Balkans, The Tiger’s Wife moves between multiple storylines and characters, central among them the narrator Natalia and her deceased grandfather, both physicians; a “deathless man” who haunts the narrative with his cheerful inability to pass on; and a tiger and the deaf-mute woman who shares an uncommon bond with it. The novel evokes the rhythms and language of an elaborate folk tale. Everything in the book — not just the people but the animals and the ravaged landscape itself — has a story to tell, and Obreht’s balance between myth and fact, superstition and reason, is consummate, belying her youth. (She is all of twenty-six years old.) The Tiger’s Wife is, above all else, a family saga, the story of those people who came before us and how their stories shape our own. We can’t wait to see what Obreht does next.

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Previous Best of Year in Books: 2008, 2009 and 2010.

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The Lowest Price And The Best Deal.

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Last Saturday, Amazon invited customers, while browsing brick-and-mortar retailers, to use its new price-check app and earn up to five dollars off any three non-book items. Today, the novelist Richard Russo penned an op-ed for the New York Times gathering the thoughts of some of his author friends, among them Stephen King, Ann Patchett and Scott Turow (president of the Authors Guild), about this kind of promotion. They describe it with phrases like “invasive and unfair,” “a bridge too far,” a “bare-knuckles approach” and “scorched-earth capitalism.” The most eloquent of Russo’s subjects is Patchett, the owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. Says Patchett,

I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.

Writing in trademark contrarian fashion over at Slate, Farhad Manjoo, in an article not-so-subtly titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” takes issue with Russo, Patchett et al. After acknowledging that “Amazon just did a boneheaded thing, and it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it,” Manjoo counters,

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

Readers of this blog are well-acquainted with our views on independent retailers (particularly bookstores), shopping locally and the virtues (in our minds) of a book you can hold in your hands versus one you can read on a computer screen. Because one of his makes his livelihood working at a bookstore, we obviously have a dog in this fight. It’s no mystery where we come down on Russo vs. Manjoo.

What is Manjoo really asking for, though? Yes, it can be a frustrating experience to go shopping anywhere this time of year, and there’s a certain sedating charm in the ease of ordering online (assuming you know what it is that you want). But what we find lacking in Manjoo’s perfect world is anything resembling human interaction. The joys of browsing a bookstore, beyond comfy chairs, hot coffee and a space to do your best thinking, are running into a friend or former teacher while you’re there; hearing an author speak in person and then meeting him after the reading while he signs and personalizes your book; having a place to go on a cheap date night; taking your child to story time, where you are treated to the sublime pleasures of Pete the Cat; and conversing with a bookseller about an author you just read and loved (or hated) and being told what you should read next (or avoid). Yes, Amazon has wonderful algorithms that tell you what other people who bought the same book as you bought next. But is that really an educated recommendation? Isn’t a person — hopefully a knowledgeable one, who asks what you like to read rather than just foisting something he likes upon you — far better than an algorithm? (Manjoo is a technology columnist, so he probably has poor interpersonal skills.)

Manjoo also takes issue with “the hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo” by arguing that there really isn’t much that’s “local” about your local bookstore. “Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house,” he writes, “an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community.” Except, of course, for the investment that any local business has in its schools, nonprofits and the community; for the tax base it provides that community, which Amazon does not; and (not least of all to us) for the jobs it provides.

Today at work, I (Ben) saw one of my favorite customers, someone who hadn’t been in for a while. I asked him how he was doing. His mother was in the hospital. He had just finished moving into a smaller home with his wife, who was newly retired. Neither of them had found their retirement footing yet. He said he needed to come to the store to “relax and get lost in a book.” He asked for two that we had in stock, and I put two more in his hands that he hadn’t heard of yet. He gave me a smile and shook my hand. Both of us had a better day for it.

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Voreblog Power Rankings: December 8, 2011

Ranking who’s currently wearing the pants in the Vore household. Previous rankings here and here.

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Entering the list dead last.

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8. TUESDAY’S DATE NIGHT. Previous ranking: N/A

You know you’re in for a bad date night movie when your babysitter tells you, as you’re walking out the door, “Oh, I saw that over Thanksgiving break and it was terrible.” We knew the movie in question, Breaking Dawn, would not be good, but just how not good it was startled even our low, low expectations. Taylor Lautner needed all of five seconds to rip his shirt off, while the CGI sequences involving wolves speaking to one another were almost as bad as the flaming moose CGI sequence from Knowing. (Almost.) Date nights being a rare commodity, Tuesday’s date night was, shall we say, a Flaming Moose. Did you know? Jacob imprinted.

7. OUR CHRISTMAS TREE. Previous ranking: N/A

Charlie Brown, move over.

Our five foot artificial Christmas tree is sparkling and festive … starting at three and a half feet up. The Vore Christmas tree is #7 this year thanks to #4 and #1. O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, how lovely are thy topmost branches.

6. ERIN (down). Previous ranking: #4

After being dealt a grievous blow by David Stern and the National Basketball Association, Erin last night suffered another setback at the hands of the site Vistaprint, which suckered her into designing a super-sweet Christmas card only to tack on an egregious charge for envelopes before slipping in an even more egregious shipping charge which we had to pay if we wanted to see our cards before next February, so that what started out as an enjoyable endeavor filled with Christmas cheer soon devolved into a price-gouging, knicker-twisting, profanity-laced tirade at 11:30 at night. To top it all off, Gmail’s new look is terrible. Future prospects: Grim. A Google search about how to switch back to the old Gmail format proved fruitless. On the bright side: Vetoed Ben’s favorite cow ornament. On the less bright side: Ben put her Graeters black raspberry chip in the fridge instead of the freezer the other night. This was honestly not payback.

5. BEN (down). Previous ranking: #3

Despite once again failing to appear on People’s Sexiest Men list, Ben has, for the first time in his five year fantasy football career, qualified for the Mustache League playoffs thanks to his savvy midseason pickups of Cam Newton, DeMarco Murray and whoever is playing defense against the Chiefs. Ben is also ecstatic to have an NBA season this year, and has spent the last two weeks doing meticulous research on the new luxury tax and its ramifications on Utah’s bloated payroll. Though things look grim in Salt Lake this season, at least there’ll be basketball. Good news: A Dunkin’ Donuts opened across the street from where Ben works. Bad news: A Dunkin’ Donuts opened across the street from where Ben works. Also: Unlike Tim Tebow, Ben cannot pull another man into the bathroom during a tug-of-war contest.

4. SCOOTER THOMAS (up). Previous ranking: #5

After his precipitous fall from the top spot in the power rankings, Scooter Thomas has since regained his footing by asserting his dominance over the Christmas Tree (#7) — by eating the (fake) needles off all the bottom “branches” and then regurgitating them back into his food dish. (Why?) Despite the incoherence of this behavior, what’s undeniable is that Scooter T. has his mojo back. On the downside: Negligent owners forgot to fill his water dish yesterday, resulting in him licking the bathtub floor after Erin’s shower this morning. Sad.

3. CAMILLE AND MIKE ALLEN. Previous ranking: N/A

For sending us a Christmas card with the following message on the front: “Happy Holidays!” And the following message inside: “…is what terrorists say. Merry Christmas!” We were going to do the same thing but we didn’t have the cojones. Future prospects: Bleak. How will they top this next year? Guess they’ll have to have a kid or something.

2. GRANDPARENTS (same). Previous ranking: #2

The grandparents maintain their perch at #2, thanks to traction with the head honcho (see #1) and a willingness to indulge his sweet tooth with second helpings of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving (Nana and Papa) and fawn over him via Skype while he attempts in vain to pound the keyboard (Mamaw and Papaw). Grandparenting. Can’t beat it.

Papa and le tigre.

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Papa, Nana, le tigre.

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Papaw and Mamaw, Skypers extraordinaire.

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1. SAM (same). Previous ranking: #1

Aside from a small bout of diaper rash, Sam continues to own the power rankings with his Christmas Tree dominance and irrepressible ability to bend everyone’s will to his liking. (“Sam wants more pie? Well sure, let’s give it to him!”) With a burgeoning vocabulary and firm handle on the sign for “more,” Sam runs shop at the Vore household, crashing trucks down the stairs to his heart’s content and getting Classical Baby on demand whenever he so chooses. He also knows just the right moment to grab and pull at Scooter Thomas’s tail whenever his feline nemesis gets a little too chippy. Future prospects: Bright. Despite the need for absolutely nothing for Christmas, he’s still everyone’s favorite to shop for. Ain’t that the life.

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BREAKING NEWS: NBA Season is On!

NEW YORK (AP) — NBA owners and players reached a tentative agreement early Saturday to end the 149-day lockout despite intense, eleventh hour attempts by Erin Vore to provoke tensions on both sides and prolong the standoff until the end of time.

“I am bitterly disappointed that both sides reached an agreement,” Vore told reporters. “I thought maybe I’d never have to be subjected to a Utah Jazz post again. Well, that dream is dead.”

The NBA hopes to begin the delayed season on Christmas Day. “Great, way to ruin my favorite holiday,” Vore said.

“We want to play basketball,” NBA commissioner David Stern said. “No, we don’t,” Vore added.

After a secret meeting earlier this week, the sides met for more than 15 hours Friday, working to try to save the season. Vore, present at the talks, sat next to Derek Fisher and held up signs that said, “CAN’T WAIT FOR NUCLEAR WINTER!” throughout the tense negotiations.

According to sources present during the talks, Vore berated Stern for being a “pansy” and a “turdburger.”

The usually unflappable Stern appeared particularly shaken when, after calling for reconciliation and labeling past disagreements as “unfortunate,” Vore shouted, “Your mom is unfortunate!” Later Vore added, “Before we’re done here, y’all be wearing gold-plated diapers.”

“What does that even mean?” Stern whispered to NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who shrugged as he deleted the 724th e-mail from Scott Guldin to his BlackBerry requesting that the price of the League Pass be lowered.

This handshake deal almost didn’t happen when Vore began pulling down her pants in an apparent attempt to poop on the actual handshake. She was restrained by security and escorted outside where she crumpled on the sidewalk and sobbed for an hour.

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Crazy, Stupid Love

All cringe, all the time.

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“It’s been a really long year,” Emily (Julianne Moore) says to Cal (Steve Carell), at the end of Crazy, Stupid Love. The year in question has seen Emily and Cal separate following her unfaithfulness, which leads to Cal’s serial unfaithfulness, given a big assist by Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who decides one day to take this sad, rumpled, middle-aged man whom he met in a bar under his wing and teach him how to be a womanizer. (The first thing to do, apparently, is not wear New Balance shoes or shop at The Gap.) Meanwhile, Emily and Cal’s kids, Robbie and Molly, deal with their parents’ separation by masturbating and dancing in front of the TV, respectively. Robbie’s babysitter Jessica just happens to walk in on him doing the deed, which is kind of ironic because Robbie tells her afterwards that he thinks about her when he does it. It’s even more awkward when Robbie later discovers that Jessica is in fact in love with his dad.

There’s more, but we won’t spoil the convoluted mess that is Crazy, Stupid Love for you if you missed it in theaters but plan on catching it on DVD. We spent the movie alternating between these two thoughts: Why did all of these A-list actors (including Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon) sign on to this movie, and how much worse would it be if they hadn’t? The coincidences are outrageous, the contrivances numerous. The most profound thing the movie appears to be saying about love is that it hurts. But Nazareth told us that thirty five years ago, and they did it in under four minutes.

Crazy, Stupid Love ends with a big set piece involving a middle school graduation where Cal steps out of the audience to interrupt his son Robbie’s salutatorian speech. Carrell has always been good at making audiences laugh and cringe at the same time, but this scene is all cringe. Robbie spews cynicism about life and love as only a jilted thirteen year old can, so Cal must reaffirm for his son — and his estranged wife, and the viewer, lest anyone fear this movie about things going wrong won’t make them all right in the end — that there is such a thing as soul mates and that loving people sometimes means hating them too but that’s okay. Robbie, emboldened by his father’s sudden recovery, professes his love again for babysitter Jessica, also in the audience. Later, Jessica rewards Robbie for his bullheaded but delusional romantic pursuit by giving him naked pictures of herself originally intended for her dad. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The best part, by far, was finding out during the credits that the dopey-looking guy who Emma Stone was originally with was in fact Josh Groban. That’s not saying much.

Our favorite remark from Metacritic’s page for Crazy, Stupid Love comes from the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips: “This is the ‘Babel’ or ‘Crash’ of ensemble romantic comedies.” I think we can all agree that the romcom genre does not need its own Babel or Crash.

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Friday Recommends: Up All Night

Gob Bluth and Veronica Corningstone, parents.

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The dustbin of history is littered with bad parenting sitcoms. “Baby Talk.” “Family Matters.” “My Two Dads.” “Baby Bob.” “Small Wonder.” (You remember this one. It was the one where a family created a robot named Vicki but treated her like a normal little girl so the neighbors wouldn’t know. Remember?) “Up All Night” is, thankfully, not one of them.

Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) are first-time parents to Amy (one of the cutest TV babies ever). Their travails are familiar to any new parent: Balancing the demands of work and family. Maintaing a romantic relationship with your spouse. Finding a reliable babysitter. Outclassing the other parents in Mr. Bob’s Toddler Play Class.

Throw into the mix Ava (Maya Rudolph), Amy’s boss and the host of an Oprah-like talk show, and reliable guest stars/supporting actors like Will Forte, Jason Lee and Molly Shannon, and you have a gently understated comedy that’s less zany than “30 Rock” but far funnier and less saccharin than, say, “Full House,” or, well, any of the sitcoms listed back in the first paragraph.

Like “30 Rock,” “Up All Night” was created by a “Saturday Night Live” writer, Emily Spivey, balancing work and motherhood. The show was retooled after the success of Bridesmaids to give a greater role to Rudolph’s character, and she’s the wild card. Whereas Applegate and (especially) Arnett underplay their roles (which makes them more believable as average parents, though a sitcom with Veronica Corningstone and Gob Bluth as parents would be pretty awesome), Rudolph spins out of control, like an ego hurricane. Threatened by a potential burglar while she’s babysitting Amy one night, Ava shouts into the dark, “I have got a glock in my purse and superb night vision!”

The best episode so far, “Birth,” flashes back to Amy and Chris preparing for and then going to the hospital. You get a glimpse of their pre-baby lives — Reagan and Ava coming to terms with how a baby will change their relationship at work and outside it, Chris weighing the decision to leave his law firm and become a stay-at-home dad — and a depth to the characters beyond simple parenting stereotypes. Perhaps being new parents themselves helps, but Applegate and Arnett hit the right notes and make “Up All Night” a rarity: a non-terrible parenting sitcom that even non-parents can enjoy.

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State College After The Scandal

The question now for the folks in my (Ben’s) hometown of State College, Pennsylvania, is where do we go next. I have continued to follow the developments involving Jerry Sandusky and the sex abuse scandal with morbid, guilt-ridden curiosity: I am sickened but I can’t look away. I read updates for an hour or so every night and then feel heavy with the weight of them. I listen to the excerpts from Sandusky’s disastrous Monday night interview with Bob Costas (who did an excellent job demonstrating how a professional interviewer conducts himself). I wonder what it will be like the next time we visit “home,” and how a community that has always identified itself with the university and, specifically, the football program — We Are Penn State — will find a new identity in the wake of all this.

No easy answers anywhere. But there have been some helpful things for me to read. If you have also been compelled by this sad saga, you may find some insight and perspective in these links:

  • John Amaechi, a 1995 Penn State grad (and my high school graduation speaker to boot), reflects on what it will take for Penn State to heal and move forward. “I will never forget or regret going to Penn State,” he says, adding, “I have great affinity for a place that helped me become who I am.” Amaechi also talks about his volunteer work for The Second Mile, lamenting that his and other athletes’ involvement were part of the draw for at-risk kids to get involved with the program.
  • Joe Posnanski, a columnist for Sports Illustrated, writes about “The End of Paterno” (h/t Scott Guldin and Emily Huie) and offers a note of perspective about the rush to judgment from many commentators on the scandal — “a piling on that goes even beyond excessive, a dancing on the grave that makes me ill,” as he puts it. Posnanski’s situation is a bit more complicated than most — he was already in the process of writing a book about Paterno when this all unfolded — but he writes about it with typical lucidity and insight while acknowledging that the real scandal was not Paterno losing his job or having his legacy tarnished. It took many sports writers a while to find this same context and footing. (ESPN’s ombudsman’s take here.)
  • Ben McGrath of The New Yorker sits in on Penn State’s “JoePa class” — Comm 497g: Joe Paterno, Communications, and the Media — and observes that “it seems clear that the national media and the campus have been engaged in two essentially separate conversations, almost from the start.”
  • Finally, Michael Weinreb, who grew up in State College and went to Penn State, writes for Grantland about going home last weekend. “In State College,” he says, “we liked to think we looked after each other, and then we found out that some of the most prominent members of our community had failed to look after helpless children, and because of our lifelong emotional attachments we now feel like we are being branded as complicit in these crimes.” That pretty well sums it up for me.

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