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


Sunday, May 04, 2014

2014 Books, Part II

The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman - This book got me on a science kick that has lasted for months (also spurred by Cosmos). Arbesman studies scientometrics—measuring and analyzing scientific research—and The Half-Life of Facts is about the endless march of science and how knowledge changes over time. Interesting stuff. 5 stars

Agorafabulous! Dispatches from my Bedroom by Sara Benincasa - The catchy title and lovely cover photo drew my attention to this book. I think it's funny that someone with her name was once housebound ("been in casa", get it?). Overall it's a pretty enjoyable memoir about a topic that isn't overdone (drug addiction memoirists, I'm looking at you). Funny and thoughtful. 5 stars

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson - I read this during the pre-Cosmos media rush when Tyson seemed to be everywhere. This book is a clear and entertaining history of the former planet and the uproar surrounding its reclassification (FWIW I agree with Tyson about Pluto's demoted status). Now that Cosmos is on, I have a huge man-crush on this guy. 5 stars

Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife - This book is about the power, misuse, and abuse of numerical data. I think there's too much about elections, clearly a personal interest of the author, but otherwise it's a good book. 4 stars


2014 Books, Part I

I haven't been motivated to blog since I officially gave up my half-assed writing career last fall. There are other factors, but that's the biggest. After a few months thinking about what the point of The Hum of Desperation is, I haven't come up with a good answer. But when in doubt, it's easiest to keep on keeping on. In that spirit, I shall plow through this huge stack of books I've read thus far in 2014. I will be brief, both because I lack the motivation to write more and because after a few months I've forgotten a lot about what I've read. In lieu of verbosity, I am going to add Amazon-style ratings. Dumbing it down is always in style. Anyway, I'll post by fours from the start of this year:

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor - This book is incredible. My drummer friend Jeff recommended it, saying it changed how he looks at music. Later he added that it ruined rock criticism for him. I agree with both sentiments. Faking It looks at how artists and fans perceive authenticity, and whether it really matters. 5 stars

The Authenticity Hoax: Why the "Real" Things We Seek Don't Make Us Happy by Andrew Potter - This book talks about authenticity in many fields, and the bottom line is that authenticity is bullshit. This set off an existential crisis for me as a blogger, and it's another reason I haven't written much this year. 4 stars

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein - I never took a philosophy class, so the subject is one of my weak areas. I found this book entertaining, but a few months later I haven't retained much from it. The jokes are more illustrative than hilarious. 4 stars

Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota - I liked listening to Sirota talk politics on Al Franken's Air America radio show a decade ago (complete with a theme song parodying the Knack, "My Sirota"), so I was inclined to like this book. The premise of Back to Our Future is okay, but I don't think Sirota was the guy to write it—he's too young, born in 1975. When he talks about the 1970s and 1980s, you know it's just stuff he read about, not stuff he lived through as an adult. 3 stars


Perhaps you wondered why I chose to write about four books per post instead of five. It's purely aesthetic: as you can see, the Amazon links only fit four to a row.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Quote of the Day

"I sure wish the Winter Olympics were longer."  —any Ukrainian

Thursday, January 23, 2014


However bad winter is in Chicago, it seems like it's always worse in Northwest Indiana.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

December Wrap-Up/What's Next?

I wrote most of this on January 1st but never got around to posting it...

Unfinished business month was a great success. I didn't expect to read half of the unfinished books I started with, but that's what I did. Of the eleven, the best were You Never Give Me Your Money, Don't Believe It!, and The Ig Nobel Prizes. But then there were others that I had stopped reading previously for good reasons.

Overall, my approach to books in 2013 was interesting but stifling. By August, there were a lot of books I wanted to read but didn't because I wanted to stick to the monthly theme. I finished a total of 95 books in 2013. While that was much lower than 2012 (122 books), it was more than I expected and not far from my 2009 total of 101. Of course, it helped that I only had to read about two thirds of each book I finished in December.

I didn't keep track of how many books I acquired as in previous years, but I'm sure I came out far ahead in 2013. I think <gasp> my book buying binge days might be over. In early October I was surprised to realize I hadn't been in a bookstore for an entire month. Then I didn't go to a bookstore in all of December either, not even for Half Price Books' 20% off store-wide sale (seriously, during those sales I used to hit at least four locations).

I'm not sure what to do for 2014. I won't bother tracking finished versus acquired because I don't think that's an issue anymore. I had a few ideas for how to select what to read next, but I think I will simply read whatever I want and write about it here. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Rexy Johnsen 1999-2014

The Chicago Police Department lost one of its finest veterans on Thursday night. After many months of watching her condition slowly worsen, we put retired bomb sniffer Rexy to sleep a few weeks short of her 15th birthday.

Rexy had megaesophagus; basically, her throat didn't work properly. That made it difficult for her to swallow food and especially water. There isn't much that can be done other than taking great care in feeding and watering. For the last two months of her life, we gave Rexy most of her hydration through canned food and jello. We couldn't even let her outside when winter came because she would just eat snow until she regurgitated (fortunately she adapted well to using pee pads by the backdoor). As her condition deteriorated, she also began to have violent sneezing fits (caused by megaesophagus).

Aside from megaesophagus, Rexy was in decent shape for a dog her age. She was small for a labrador retriever, about 50 pounds, and she still had pretty good mobility. That made saying goodbye an especially difficult decision, but it was becoming clear she was enjoying life less and less. When she refused to eat deli slices of turkey on Thursday, we knew.

Rexy served about eight years for the CPD sniffing for bomb materials at O'Hare Airport. For some reason she didn't get along with her handler's new service dog, and that's how we ended up with her in October 2012. I had trouble relating to her at first. Perhaps due to her training, Rexy wasn't as demonstrative as a typical lab. I could only pet her for a short time before she would walk away (Moose, on the other hand, would never leave while being petted, and usually nudges me for more whenever I stop). Over the last few months, we got much closer as I took on more of her care. By the end, she often slept by my side of the bed.

Rexy was a somewhat dignified dog, but you wouldn't know it from this picture of her with a Yoplait yogurt container: