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


Saturday, May 24, 2014

2014 Books, Part VI

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman - This neuroscience book really messed with my head. Imagine thinking about how you are thinking while you are thinking. Meta-level conundrum aside, this is a great book, at least for the layman. Mind-blowing, pun intended. 5 stars

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

Maybe You Should Just Turn Around...

I found this while going through my photos from 20-25 years ago. I did not record the location.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

2014 Books, Part V

Sandbag Training for Athletes, Weekend Warriors & Fitness Enthusiasts by Josh Henkin - I've been using Henkin's Ultimate Sandbags for many years and lately for 90% of my weight training. He offers loads of useful info online for free, but I thought I may as well pick up this book. Big mistake. I've read some poorly proofread books, but this may be the worst. Plus it's only 85 pages, and there are too few photos to demonstrate many of the exercises. Henkin recently put out a new book with Dragon Door that is much better (review to come). 2 stars

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

2014 Books, Part IV

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach - I have purchased several of Roach's books over the past eight years because they looked interesting, but this is the first I've read. Why did I wait so long? 5 stars

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

2014 Books, Part III

Note: Looking at the books I've blogged so far this year, I realize there are a lot of 5-star ratings. My first thought was that I've been too generous, but there is another explanation. Last year, I read books with a different theme each month. Because of that restriction, I started 2014 with a pile of great books that hadn't fit those themes. The ratings should even out later in the year. And if they don't, then I'll just say it's because I don't choose lousy books in the first place.

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