Saturday, September 27, 2014
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
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
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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
Saturday, May 24, 2014
VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave by Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn with Gavin Edwards - I watched MTV a lot during the 1980s when the original VJs were on the air (and very rarely after they left). This oral history tells where each VJ came from and what went on behind the scenes. I Want My MTV is a more thorough history of the network and music videos, but VJ is great for learning about the people who kept me company for so many teenage hours. 4 stars
Steel Rainbow: The Legendary Underground Guide to Becoming an '80s Rock Star by Jordan Hart - I guess I was on a bit of a 1980s nostalgia trip. This book tells how to achieve stardom by emulating Van Halen like so many "hair bands" did. I liked this book, but my wife loved it. Fun and funny, especially for those who lived through that era. 4 stars
Present at the Future: From Evolution to Nanotechnology, Candid and Controversial Conversations on Science and Nature by Ira Flatow - This book bounces from topic to topic in the vast realm of current science. It's fairly interesting but spread too thin. I'm tempted to give it three stars for lacking cohesion, but Flatow's discussion of science and religion is worth an extra one. 4 stars
Friday, May 16, 2014
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Sandbag Fitness: The Complete Guide to Sandbag Training by Matthew Palfrey - Having mostly followed Henkin's guidance, I wanted to broaden my horizons with this book. Palfrey has a different perspective, and he illustrates the exercises well. This book is better than the one above, and very good for the average devoted but not obsessive exerciser (for obsessives like me, Henkin's new book is the best). 4 stars
Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better by Dan Gardner - Faking It made books of rock criticism less appealing to me, and Future Babble has done the same for books about the road ahead.* The most interesting takeaway: the more certain people are about their predictions, the more likely they are to be wrong. 4 stars
Official Book Club Selection by Kathy Griffin - I bought this four years ago when I felt only lukewarm about her. Late last year we watched four seasons of My Life on the D List (the last two seasons haven't come out on DVD) and this moved to the top of the stack. I've read a lot of books by comedians, and this one is pretty good. I could have done without the chapters about her messed-up brother and Woz, though (Woz is interesting, but the e-mail conversation is a dreadful literary device). 4 stars
* This is a reference to Bill Gates' 1995 book, The Road Ahead. I bought it circa 1998, never got around to reading it, and got rid of it a few years ago. I figured there was no point reading about the future 15 years later.
Sunday, May 11, 2014
Shooting for the Moon: The Strange History of Human Spaceflight by Bob Berman - The actual subject is much narrower than the subtitle implies; this is a history of U.S. spaceflight ending with the Apollo missions. It's interesting because, holy shit, it's about putting people on the moon, for goodness' sake—an incredible feat that is taken for granted nowadays— but it's only an average telling of the tale. 3 stars
The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? by Russell Stannard - This is a survey of the current knowledge of science with reasoned conjecture about what sort of things we'll never be able to figure out. Examples: Do we have free will? Are there universes other than ours? What happened before the Big Bang? Stannard writes clearly about complex concepts. 4 stars
The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Haffner - I had to take a break from science books, and having studied World War II intensely many years ago, I find it easy to return to the subject. Haffner evaluates Hitler's actions and categorizes them as successes, mistakes, crimes, etc., providing a revealing portrait of the man. I haven't read a bunch of books solely about Hitler, but this must be one of the best. 5 stars
Saturday, May 10, 2014
The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies by Edward Jay Epstein - Considering I'm not much of a movie person, it's surprising I would read a book like this, but the money side interests me. The Hollywood Economist explains how money is raised, how it is spent, and how it is recouped. Overall this book is pretty interesting, but sometimes it gets a bit repetitive like a collection of overlapping magazine articles. Note: I read the first edition (2010); version 2.0 (2012) is shown below. 4 stars
Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped by Dean Budnick & Josh Baron - This information-packed book (wish it had an index!) is a history of the live performance side of the popular music business—ticket vendors, promoters, venue owners, etc.—since the 1960s. It's a must-read for someone really interested in the topic (as I am), but it's probably too much for most concertgoers. 5 stars
Backstage Past by Barry Fey - This book is so much fun! Fey is a legendary concert promoter who worked out of Denver starting in the late 1960s. He tells great stories about the business and especially the performers he worked with. Any rock music fan should love this book. 5 stars
I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman - I love everything I've read by Klosterman (though I haven't read his fiction yet). Here he muses about "bad guys"—what makes them bad and why we hate them. Speaking of hate, I hate when the paperback edition contains new material that those who paid more for the hardcover (like me) don't get. This isn't the first time Scribner and Klosterman have done this. 5 stars