Sunday, July 26, 2015

2015 Books Part V

Dying to do Letterman: Turning Someday into Today by Steve Mazan - I chose to read this book in honor of David Letterman's impending retirement, which shows how far behind I am in reviewing books this year (his last show was May 20). Mazan gets a dire medical prognosis and channels all his efforts into realizing his dream of performing stand-up on Dave's show. It's a good memoir about trying to succeed as a comedian. I never knew how much the show's staff worked with comedians to select and tweak jokes for their routines. 4 stars

We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Showbiz Saga by Paul Shaffer with David Ritz - Who doesn't love Paul Shaffer? (Robin Sparkles sure did in one of my favorite How I Met Your Mother episodes.) This is a fun book to read because Shaffer has done so many things in his career. He loves showbiz, and he loves telling stories about his favorite stars. I expected more about working with Letterman, though. 4 stars

Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw - Never having taken a physics class, I struggle a bit with relativity. I think I get it, but barely. This book has drawn me a few steps further from dropping off the edge of understanding. 4 stars

Around the Weird in 80 Days: Adventures in Small-Town America by Rich Smith - I enjoyed Smith's first book, You Can Get Arrested for That, in which he and a friend visit America with the goal of breaking ridiculous laws. In this book, he participates in unusual events across the United States such as a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Summer Redneck Games, and the World's Longest Yard Sale. It's entertaining, although he overuses just-kidding fantasies as a literary device. 4 stars


Sunday, July 05, 2015

Worst "World Watch" Ever

Sorry this is late, but I just got around to reading last week's (June 28) Chicago Tribune Travel section.

I regularly read the "World Watch" column even though I have no intention of traveling overseas (I've been to 48 states but I've never been outside the USA) because I often learn things that I haven't heard about in the regular news. But the June 28 installment is not particularly useful. It's behind their pay wall (I have a free six-month pass) so you'll have to settle for my summary:

  • Mexico: Don't go over a fence into a restricted area or a crocodile might attack you,*

  • England: Hay fever is bad so bring your allergy pills.

  • Italy: Don't pee atop the Florence Cathedral or you might get arrested.

  • Greece: Carry lots of cash because of the banking crisis. Or don't carry lots of cash despite the banking crisis.

  • India: Don't drink bootleg liquor because it could contain chemicals or pesticides.
  • Okay, so obey warning signs, bring allergy meds if you have allergies, don't pee where you're not supposed to, bring extra money or don't, and don't drink questionable booze. Only an idiot learned anything from reading this column. Even worse for a column that highlights problems in specific countries around the world, all of this obvious advice is independent of location.

    * The columnists (Larry Habegger and Dani Burlison) admit that the story of a drunken American doing this sounds like a Darwin Award.

    Is this because the Grateful Dead are in town?

    I only wish I had taken that screen shot at 4:20.

    Saturday, May 23, 2015

    I Am a Terro-ist

    We've had more ants in our house than usual this spring. They created an ant superhighway along our kitchen counter to the sink. If I reached up to the cupboard wearing a loose shirt, a few would hop on. Eventually, I started thinking every little itch I felt was an ant crawling on me. Before I went insane, I decided it was time to end this. It was time for Terro Ant Killer.

    Look at those poor bastards lapping up that sweet, deadly sauce. Within two days, our ants have virtually disappeared.

    Friday, May 22, 2015


    They scraped the deteriorated asphalt off our street this morning to prepare for resurfacing. This will be the second time our street has been repaved since we moved in, and that makes me feel old.

    We've owned this house for 17 years. I am old.

    Confession: the main reason I am posting this is because those machines are really cool and I was excited to photograph one in front of our house.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2015

    2015 Books Part IV

    The Gospel According to The Fix: An Insider's Guide to a Less Than Holy World of Politics by Chris Cillizza - I rarely read about politics these days because so much is dreadfully slanted (both ways), but this is a pretty good book that doesn't choose sides. It's about politics itself rather than ideology. Although it was published three years ago, the material has a longer shelf life than most books about politics (the opposite of what one might expect from a political blogger). 4 stars

    How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage by Sascha Rothchild - This quick and funny read has a clever format: 30 chapters as "steps" such as "Date a Jerk in Your Early Twenties", "Resent Each Other", and "Marry an Actor". I bought this during Borders' pre-bankruptcy glory days, when each store had a slightly different collection of recent $2.99-$3.99 remainders and sometimes they would be on sale for only $1 (as on the receipt tucked into this book). 4 stars

    Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay - The title is misleading. It's about conspiracy theories in America more generally and mentions a lot of groups. I expected to read more about the Truthers as people, but Kay includes just a few character sketches. Much as Anti-Semites blame the Jews for all the world's problems, Kay blames Anti-Semites for all conspiracies, which I find rather dubious. From the clever cover design I expected this book to be more entertaining, but it took me a long time to plow through it. 3 stars

    Where Is the Mango Princess? A Journey Back from Brain Injury by Cathy Crimmins - This heart-wrenching memoir is by a woman whose husband was run over by a boat in Canada and recounts his recovery. Although he was rather successful in becoming functional again, he was not the same person he was before the accident. Everyone thinks of brain injury affecting memory, but personality can change as well. Crimmins had a tragic life, medically. She wrote another book a few years later about her daughter's medical problems, and then she died at 54 due to surgery complications. 4 stars


    Tuesday, April 07, 2015

    2015 Books Part III

    This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin - I wanted this to be a five-star book. I love music and I enjoy books about the brain. But somehow this didn't quite work for me. Levitin begins with a lesson on music theory, but I never really "got it" and struggled through the book. 4 stars

    Ticket to Ride: Lost and Found in America by Sarah Darmody - Aussie Darmody wins the visa lottery and the opportunity to become an American. After spending some time in Florida with her father, she sets out to see the country she has won.,, via Greyhound. This is a great story packed with experiences around the Lower 48 and all-too-vivid details of riding the bus. Along the way, she examines what America and being American are all about from a balanced, thoughtful perspective. 5 stars

    Thin Is the New Happy by Valerie Frankel - This is a memoir I shouldn't have even bought. It's a total "chick book" about a lifetime of body image issues. Then I almost never read it.* But Frankel is a talented writer (she wrote 14 novels before this memoir), and I breezed through this entertaining though narcissistic book. 4 stars

    Life Is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America by Bruce Weber - Ostensibly about a bike tour, this book is really more of a memoir than a travelogue. Throughout his journey, Weber delves into various aspects of his 57-year life past and present. After all, there is a lot of time for reflection on a solo bike trip. This isn't necessarily a great bicycle touring book, but it is excellent nonetheless. 5 stars

    * Much like Frankel and her body image, I have had a long and complicated relationship with this book. I bought it for $2 in the clearance section of Half Price Books (Minneapolis in 2010, IIRC). Several times I put it in my "read soon" pile, and once I even took it along on a trip but didn't read it. Eventually it lost favor and wound up in The Boxes, an attic exile for unread books that I doubt I will ever read (ultimately headed to Open Books, but perhaps not until I die). Then I bought Frankel's follow-up memoir a few months ago from (which was odd since I had previously examined and rejected it in a store, but this time it was a good deal—gee, how did I end up with so many books?). Several weeks ago I revisited The Boxes and fished out a few dozen books for another chance, replacing them with an equal number banished from the "unread" bookcase in our library (which also includes half a dozen stacks in front of the bookcase—I am awful). When I finished Ticket to Ride, I decided to choose one of the formerly exiled books and settled on this one.


    Sunday, March 29, 2015

    2015 Books Part II

    Mental: Funny in the Head by Eddie Sarfaty - The author bounces along through funny episodes from his life, then he hits you with a poignant tale. Warning: Sarfaty is gay and there's some hot dude-on-dude action (in case that bothers you). 4 stars

    The Urban Hermit by Sam MacDonald - This book wasn't what I expected. MacDonald isn't really a hermit, he just stops going to the bar. His diet is interesting but brutal. Overall the book has its moments, but it isn't great. 3 stars

    Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Macur - As a former fan of pro cycling, I've read many books about Armstrong from the hagiographic to the accusatory (six from this book's Selected Bibliography plus at least two more). Cycle of Lies is exceptional. If you want to know the whole story from childhood to scandal, this is the book to read (though Macur doesn't get into the blow-by-blow of the now-tainted races). Moral of the story: If you are going to cheat, don't be a dick. Armstrong burned too many people who knew too much. 5 stars

    Pornification by Andrew Benjamin - Twenty years ago, I was at a bar with a couple of female friends who loved the X-rated movie title Edward Penishands (I don't recall whether they actually saw the film). They challenged me to pornify some movie titles. I remember they said Pulp Fiction and I replied with Pump Friction. Pornification is that game in book form. It's funny sometimes but for the most part I could have written it myself a long time ago if I thought enough people would buy it (in fact, Pump Friction appears on page 37). Maybe it's worthwhile if you find it cheap like I did. 2 stars


    Sunday, March 08, 2015

    2015 Books Part I

    Note: As in 2014, I am going to bundle these reviews in fours. Because the publisher gave me a free copy of Popology, I felt I should give it an entire post of its own. Consider that the fourth book of this post.

    The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day by David J. Hand - This book has turned me into a bit (more) of a killjoy. Now when people tell me about some amazing coincidence, I just shrug and say it's no big deal. Also I love the four aces cover design: not only do playing cards figure prominently in probability, but the author's name is Hand4 stars

    Little New York Bastard by M. Dylan Raskin - I think I bought this because I read a bitter, judgmental excerpt in the store and thought it was funny. Unfortunately, the whole book is like that, and it gets old. Plus he hates on Chicago a lot. 2 stars

    Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet by Mark Adams - I had never heard of Macfadden when I picked up this book. His life story is fascinating, and in it one can find the roots of so many popular health fads. 5 stars


    Sunday, March 01, 2015

    Popology: The Music of the Era in the Lives of Four Icons of the 1960s by Timothy English

    Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a free copy of Popology because I reviewed a previous title by the author.

    In Popology, English writes about the musical tastes of John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy; and Thomas Merton. This is a great time for a book like this. Had it been written 20 years ago, we wouldn't be able to follow along by listening to these songs on the Internet.

    The first chapter about JFK gets the book off to a slow start. He grew up with "American Songbook" tunes, so I couldn't relate. This chapter also exposes the book's biggest flaw: sloppy typographical errors. Composer Richard Rodgers, famous for co-writing songs for Broadway musicals with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, suffers the indignity of having his last name spelled three different ways!

    The Martin Luther King, Jr. chapter is a little more interesting, getting into what most people consider "the music of the 1960s" (the era beginning with the Beatles' arrival in America a few months after JFK's assassination). I was not aware of Harry Belafonte's financial and strategic contributions to the civil rights movement, nor did I know that his Calypso was the first million-selling LP by an individual singer.

    My favorite chapter, both musically and biographically, is about Bobby Kennedy. I didn't know a lot about him before, and now I can better understand how devastating his assassination was to many Americans.

    I had never heard of Thomas Merton. Even my mom hadn't, and I would expect her to know a prominent 1960s Catholic. Frankly, Merton's inclusion seems a bit forced by the author. His story is interesting and includes 1960s music, but his fame and impact are not on the level of the Kennedys and MLK.

    Overall, Popology is new way of looking at the music of the 1960s, and as such is a worthwhile read.

    4 stars

    Sunday, February 08, 2015

    Bastard of the Day

    Once again, newly minted Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner is the bastard of the day. In Wednesday's State of the State address, Rauner looked at our state's economic woes and said, "You know what's wrong with Illinois? Unions!" And then the bastard businessman dared to call his anti-union initiative "employee empowerment zones" as if the employees gain power from rejecting unions.

    Let the race to the bottom begin!

    Oh well, at least he didn't blame the Jews.

    Friday, February 06, 2015

    2014 Books Part XIX

    Here is the 73rd and final book I read in 2014...

    America, You Sexy Bitch: A Love Letter to Freedom by Michael Ian Black and Megan McCain - A liberal and a conservative embark on a cross-country road trip to talk with Americans. Black is just okay. McCain is more complicated, veering from naive and obnoxious to thoughtful and poignant. They meet a few entertaining characters, but there isn't much substance here. 2 stars

    Saturday, January 31, 2015

    2014 Books Part XVIII

    Yes, I'm still wrapping up last year...

    Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola by Mark Thomas - A friend who knows how much I love drinking Coca-Cola told me not to read this book. In the end it didn't really change how I feel about the stuff. I'm just too cynical; I think all multinational corporations are bastards. 4 stars

    Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones by Bill Janovitz - This book kicked off a month-long Stones obsession for me. Janovitz offers a musician's perspective on classic Stones songs and puts them into the context of the band's history. 5 stars

    50 Licks: Myths and Stories from Half a Century of the Rolling Stones by Peter Fornatale with Bernard M. Corbett - Like Rocks Off, this book tells a chronological story of the band, but former DJ Fontanelle focuses more on tales than songs. 4 stars

    Life by Keith Richards with James Fox - I have read a lot of rock memoirs, and Life is one of the very best. Richards has so many great stories, and some are augmented by remembrances from others. 5 stars


    Saturday, January 24, 2015

    Game Over

    Spotted in an alley in Albany Park...

    Monday, January 19, 2015


    Went to ride my bike on the trainer today, and I had a flat tire! How did that happen?