Sunday, November 30, 2014

2014 Books Part XV

Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation by Joe Queenan - I have enjoyed several of Queenan's books. Here he skewers my parents' (and his own) generation with the insight, humor, and broad vocabulary that I've come to expect. 4 stars

Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars by Paul Ingrassia - I don't think the subtitle fits the book very well, but the car stories are really interesting. 4 stars

Deadlift Dynamite: How to Master the King of All Strength Exercises by Andy Bolton and Pavel Tsatsouline - Like most Dragon Door publications, Deadlift Dynamite is beautifully produced and informative. It would have been more useful a few years ago when I was really into barbell deadlifting (now I mostly do DVRT sandbag training), and its target audience is competitors who take this stuff way more seriously than I do, but it's top-notch as far as weightlifting books go. 5 stars

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David H. Freedman - I got halfway through this book and realized it's similar to The Half-Life of Facts with a different perspective: instead of looking at how information "changes" over time, Freedman explains how much of it was never true in the first place. He also offers ways to sort the good from the bad, but after reading this I just find myself more skeptical of everything (which is saying something). 4 stars


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Authenticity

I went down to the basement to fetch our candy bowl for Halloween:

Look what I found inside:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Early Voting

I would be first in line to vote early if it meant I wouldn't have to see any more damned political commercials or listen to the answering machine pick up another damned robocall.

Today during a TV show there was a commercial break where every single advertisement was for politicians, one after another. Please, somebody try to sell me auto insurance instead! For the first time in my life, I wished I could see a Massengill commercial.

Why, yes, Illinois politics does make me feel, you know, not-so-fresh.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

2014 Books Part XIV

Who's Better, Who's Best in Football? Setting the Record Straight on the Top 60 NFL Players of the Past 60 Years by Steve Silverman - Ranking the greatest football players is a fool's errand for many reasons, but Silverman's choices probably aren't any worse than anyone else's. I learned a few things from the four or five pages of biographical and statistical evidence he gives for each player. This book is a bit dated, but an update with 65 players of the past 65 years is coming out in early November (which I'm linking to below instead of the edition I read). 3 stars

Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike by Grant Peterson - Wow, this may be the best bicycling book I've ever read! American recreational bicycling has become unnecessarily complicated by companies drawing their primary inspiration from professional racing. Actually it's getting better; when I got back into riding in 2000 it was much worse. Anyway, Peterson cuts through a lot of the bullshit with great advice about everything bike-related. Had he written this 15 years ago, he could have saved me a lot of money. 5 stars

We Thought You Would Be Prettier: True Tales of the Dorkiest Girl Alive by Laurie Notaro - I didn't enjoy this quite as much as her first two books, but it's still mostly funny. 4 stars

Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song by Ted Anthony - I didn't expect an entire book about "House of the Rising Sun" to be so riveting. I love the idea of how Anthony became obsessed with one song and spent years tracking down recordings and interviewing performers. It's a great case study of how folk music evolves. 5 stars


Monday, October 20, 2014

2014 Books Part XIII

Because I Said So! The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales & Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to its Kids by Ken Jennings - This may be the only book I've ever read that can be found in the parenting section (though I found it in new arrivals). Writing in an enjoyable style, Jennings looks at scientific research to determine which parental sayings or scoldings have merit. I also bought a copy for a friend who just had a baby. 5 stars

Visit Sunny Chernobyl and Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell - Anybody can enjoy a lovely beach, a lush meadow, or a waterfall on a clear mountain stream, but fewer can find beauty in exploited tar sands, a clear-cut Amazon forest, or a river of human waste. Blackwell takes us to places I'd rather not go myself, which is the best kind of travel book. 5 stars

I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tall Tales by Todd Snider - Anyone familiar with Snider's music knows he is a great storyteller and a funny guy. This book doesn't disappoint. The backstories of his songs are as good as the songs themselves. 4 stars

Northern Songs: The True Story of the Beatles' Song Publishing Empire by Brian Southall with Rupert Perry - Had this book been about any other songwriter(s), it probably would have bored me to tears. Being about the Beatles makes it more interesting, but Northern Songs isn't something most people outside the music business would enjoy reading. Also it seems like the authors rushed the last few chapters, or maybe the copyeditor quit early. 4 stars


Saturday, September 27, 2014

2014 Books Part XII

A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest by William deBuys - As regular visitors know, water scarcity is one of my favorite reading topics. This is the most comprehensive book I've found about water and/or climate in the Southwest. deBuys examines impacts on all facets in the region from development/growth to flora and fauna to immigration to fires, as well as looking at past civilizations. It should be required reading for every resident of the Southwest. 5 stars

Crashes, Crises, and Calamities: How We Can Use Science to Read the Early-Warning Signs by Len Fisher - To be honest it's been a few weeks since I finished it and I don't remember much, just that it's interesting and has an incredible notes-to-content ratio: 47 pages of endnotes supporting 170 pages of text. 3 stars*

An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town by David Farley -  I learned more about holy relics, particularly Jesus' foreskin, in this book than I had learned in decades of being Catholic. You may think you don't want to know about the Holy Prepuce, but after reading this book, you'll realize you were wrong. Very entertaining and informative with a quirky cast of real-life characters. 5 stars

Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier by Dayton Duncan - Roughly 25 years ago I read Duncan's first book, Out West: An American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail. The only thing I remember is that I liked it.** In this book, Duncan visits counties with fewer than two residents per square mile (all of which are west of the Mississippi River). By definition, this is a world most of us are unfamiliar with, and it's fascinating. My only regret is that the book is from 1993; I'm curious what impact the Internet has had there. 5 stars

* I had given it four stars at the time I read it, but I decided to take one away since it has faded from memory so quickly. I think a four- or five-star book should stay with you for a while.

** But I'd still give Out West five stars. It's okay to forget a book in a quarter of a century.


Monday, September 08, 2014

Casey Trail View

Here's a picture I took along the Casey Trail today because I'm a lifelong Illinoisan who thinks prairies are pretty.

Career Advice?

I saw this on the Casey Trail, a lovely addition to Lake County's multi-use path system that opened this year. Lake County does trails so well. The Milwaukee Avenue underpass even has lights, for goodness' sake. Lights! In Cook County you're lucky if a trail underpass doesn't have six inches of standing water, much less any kind of illumination (reflections off the water don't count). And like the Des Plaines River Trail, the Casey Trail has quarter-mile markers. They're overkill for bikers but great for runners and walkers.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Health Food

I don't know which is sadder... that I think adding lettuce, tomato, and peppers to a sandwich makes it healthy... or that compared to everything else I eat, it is healthy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

10th Blogiversary!

Today is the 10th anniversary of The Hum of Desperation blog. This is the 1,584th post I've published.

I began blogging as DJWriter, my not-particularly-creative name for my nowhere-near-successful freelance writing business. I thought blogging would drive traffic to my business site. I thought having a personal blog could get me a gig writing a corporate blog. What a fool I was.

Inspired somewhat by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn's blog, I began with more political material, although books, music, and my personal life were always in the mix (Jen Garrett was another early influence). Does that sound like a recipe for success? Of course not. This blog has never had a focus so it has never attracted much of a following. Heck, even my wife and my best friend never read it. After a few years I burned out on politics and turned to writing mostly about books. Occasionally I get the thrill of receiving a comment from an author.

My most popular post over the years is a little rant about Las Vegas from 2005 that struck a nerve with a lot of Vegas haters (many of them residents), drawing more than 300 comments to date. That's probably five times more than all my other posts put together. For the past few months, strangely, it has been eclipsed by another nine-year-old post about gay hookups in rest areas. Perhaps even odder, the second most popular post recently is about the 2006 State of the Union address!

My interest in The Hum of Desperation waxes and wanes, but my most prolific days are surely long gone. Lately, more often than not, I'll consider writing about something and ultimately decide it isn't worth the effort. I wish this anniversary had come at a time when I was more enthusiastic about blogging. Regardless, ten years is a long time for me to stay interested in anything so it's worth celebrating.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

2014 Books Part XI

Take a Seat: One Man, One Tandem and Twenty Thousand Miles of Possibilities by Dominic Gill - I had to buy this the instant I read its gimmick: guy pedals a tandem bike from Alaska to Argentina and invites strangers to hop on the stoker seat. Gill takes his time with many extended layovers, collecting some great stories along the way. I could never tour that way, though. I don't have the temperament for dealing with so many strangers in unfamiliar cultures and rolling with whatever happens. So one disappointment with this book is that it failed to reawaken the bicycle tourist in me. My other disappointment is what Gill left out. I understand that a book about a long trip cannot tell everything, but he should have written more about the people who rode with him since that is what sets Take a Seat apart from other bicycle touring stories. 4 stars

Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling by BikeSnobNYC - Never having read the BikeSnobNYC blog, I was shocked by how different this book is from what I expected. I thought the author would be judgmental and full of attitude but actually he's pretty reasonable. Sure he makes fun of hipsters, but hell, they deserve it. I bought this at Borders several years ago mostly because I'll buy any bike book if it's cheap enough. If I had known how much I would enjoy it, I wouldn't have waited so long to read it. 5 stars

I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life by Al Goldstein & Josh Alan Friedman - This memoir from one of America's most (in)famous pornographers is hilarious, disgusting, and entertaining. It's also pretty sad. The publisher of Screw magazine wrote this after his world collapsed—he blew millions of dollars and stayed in homeless shelters before Penn Jillette gave him an apartment. He tells some great stories here, but sometimes it's a little hard to follow. 3 stars

Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock 'n' Roll Journalist in Los Angeles by Dean Goodman - I had never heard of Goodman, probably because he wrote for Reuters. The material is largely from the 1990s, but most of the artists he covers were past their commercial prime by then (that's just an observation, not a complaint). Strange Days is pretty good as far as the rock interview genre goes. 4 stars


Saturday, July 19, 2014

2014 Books Part X

F My Life World Tour: Life's Crappiest Moments from Around the Globe by Maxime Valette, Guillaume Passaglia, and Didier Guedj - This book is funny, but not as funny as the first volume. I was disappointed that entries are so similar across countries, which kind of renders the premise pointless. 3 stars

How to Be Pope: What to Do and Where to Go Once You're in the Vatican by Piers Marchant - A book like this could go wrong in many ways, but Marchant manages to be informative, funny, and yet respectful. I had no idea there is a popular gas station next to St. Peter's Basilica. 4 stars

The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire by Tom Zoellner - I enjoyed Zoellner's book about uranium, and he employs a similar approach here. After a broken engagement, he travels around the world (12 countries on six continents) to learn about the diamond trade past and present from prospecting and mining to marketing and selling. 5 stars

The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture by Nathan Rabin - This is a funny book, as one would expect from an Onion A.V. Club writer, but many of the stories just aren't very interesting. Rabin devotes too many pages to the TV show he appeared on for a few months, and the paperback bonus chapter is forgettable if not downright regrettable (when a blogger thinks you are over-sharing, you've gone too far). The earlier chapters about growing up in a group home in Chicago are better, though. I also expected more pop culture references based on the subtitle. Ultimately, The Big Rewind is mildly entertaining but disappointing. 3 stars


Monday, July 14, 2014

2014 Books Part IX

Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway by Matt Dellinger - For decades, Interstate 69 was a short highway through northern Indiana and southern Michigan. But in the early 1990s, various highway boosters banded together to envision the "NAFTA Superhighway" from border to border via Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Michigan. Dellinger gives an excellent, background-rich account of the controversial genesis of an interstate in the modern political landscape. 5 stars

God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (And How We Can Get It Back) by Will Leitch - As one would expect from the editor of Deadspin, this book pokes fun at people in the sports world. The parenthetical subtitle overreaches, though—a couple pages at the end say we can get it back with blogs, or something weak like that. Since I don't watch ESPN and don't follow sports other than NFL football, a lot of jokes went over my head but I enjoyed it regardless. 4 stars

All Madden: Hey, I'm Talking Pro Football by John Madden - I always enjoyed the way Madden saw and explained football as a sportscaster. Whenever I see one of his old books cheap, I buy it. Though no longer timely, his books are still fun to read. 4 stars

People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East by Joris Luyendijk - This is the second book I've read translated from Dutch in the past two years. Luyendijk illuminates the world of foreign correspondents: it's not about finding stories so much as covering the ones your editor pulls from the wire service. He describes the particular trials of working in the Middle East's dictatorships, where visas and information are hard to acquire. Along the way, he shows that the people of the region and the realities of the situations there are not necessarily what we see on television. 5 stars


Saturday, July 12, 2014

2014 Books Part VIII

Everyone Loves You When You're Dead by Neil Strauss - This is an interesting collection of interview excerpts, mostly from musicians. Generally it's more about the absurd world of celebrity rather than the art these people have created. Strauss should have included dates to provide context, but I think he intended for this book to be a jumbled mess of some sort. I enjoyed it in spite of its nutty structure, which cost it a star. 4 stars

The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: Or, How I Tried to Stop the World's Worst Ecological Catastrophe by Rob Ferguson - This book combines two of my interests, water and Central Asia, but it's mostly a post-Soviet bureaucratic nightmare. Working with an NGO in 1999, Ferguson attempted to raise public awareness about the Aral Sea's destruction with disappointing results. It's a crazy and entertaining tale, but I was hoping for more about the Aral Sea itself. 4 stars

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes - Garbage is much more interesting than one might expect. Humes looks at the mess (sorry) we've made, what we can learn from it (including landfill archaeology!), and what we can do about it. I suppose the author is a little biased, but how could anyone other than Oscar the Grouch not be biased against garbage? 4 stars

I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I've Dated by Julie Klausner - As a middle-aged dude, I am not the target audience for this book. I think I bought it because I read a page or two and thought it was funny. I guess I should have read more before adding it to my stack (in my defense, this was during the Borders bankruptcy sale, and I had a lot of ground to cover in a short time). As yet another young-woman-dating-in-NYC memoir (ugh), it isn't particularly memorable, but I'll give it some points for being funny. 2 stars


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

2014 Books Part VII

Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? by Ted Rall - Central Asia, aka "the 'Stans" (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, et al), is a corner of the world that interests me. Rall's book is funny and informative. My wife loved it, too, but for some reason she asked if we should visit these countries. I told her I read stuff like this to convince myself not to go there. 4 stars

The Story of Astronomy: From Babylonian Stargazers to the Search for the Big Bang by Peter Aughton - Purchasing and reading this book was inspired by watching Cosmos. Though I knew a fair amount about the history of astronomy already, I still found this book useful. It is well-written and easy for the layperson to understand. 5 stars

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism by Geoff Nicholson - This book is best when delivering on its subtitle, but the author's own experiences are less interesting. I find this excerpt fascinating:
Of the 70,000 or so pedestrians who are injured by cars in America every year, 15,000 of them are New Yorkers, a staggering proportion. With 2.7 percent of the nation's population the city has 21 percent of the injuries. Nearly three-quarters of these occur on crosswalks, and quite a few of them occur when the pedestrian is actually on the sidewalk... Drunken driving accounts for just a few percent of pedestrian deaths, but in 1998 one-third of pedestrians killed by a motor vehicle were legally drunk.
That makes me reconsider the times I've walked around Chicago with a good buzz on. 3 stars

DVRT The Ultimate Sandbag Training System: For Dynamic Power, Superior Athletic Performance and Enduring Strength by Josh Henkin - This is the book for sandbag training. I've read a lot that Henkin has written over the years online and in his not-so-good first book, but I am surprised how much additional info he packs into this one. Like other books published by Dragon Door, this isn't cheap but it's high-quality and worth the price (Kindle edition is much cheaper). If you want functional, "real-world" strength, buy this book and a sandbag or two (and use them, of course!). It really works. 5 stars