Friday, September 08, 2006

Book Reviews! Book Reviews! Book Reviews!

My blogging has been sporadic because I've been reading a lot. These books deserve separate reviews, but I need to catch up...
  • Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson - For anyone who writes or simply loves language, this is a great book. Bryson wrote it when he was a newspaper editor, before he became a popular writer. He does not declare himself a linguistic expert; he wisely consults the works of others, sometimes tracking changes over the course of centuries. This book will help you distinguish between historic and historical, flaunt and flout, and many other oft-confused words. It also tells you that James Joyce's Finnegans Wake has no apostrophe. It is particularly ruthless in exposing tautological phrases and dead weight. I love this book -- it has earned a place on my desk.
  • Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?: Music's Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed by Gavin Edwards - Edwards has been answering weird questions about rock and roll for many years, most notably in a column called "Rolling Stone Knows." If you've ever wondered how many states are mentioned in Bruce Springsteen songs, why Guns N' Roses named an album The Spaghetti Incident? (including the question mark), whatever happened to Cynthia Plaster Caster, or what the German-sounding phrase that introduces Def Leppard's "Rock of Ages" means, this book is for you. It's a quick and fun read that even a casual rock fan will enjoy (but the more you already know, the more questions will be relevant for you). Although it doesn't have an index, it does list sources in the endnotes for further reading.
  • Amarillo In August: An Author's Life On The Road by Jonathan Miller - I bought an autographed copy of this on vacation in Colorado. Miller is a minor legend in the Southwest since he's been signing his novel Rattlesnake Lawyer at every bookstore that will let him. This book chronicles his adventures while creating and promoting that book. I gleaned vital information from Miller's introduction:
    This is not a how-to-market-your book because the secret is already out there. The secret to marketing your book is to get distribution, then get reviews, then get media, then keep doing book signings until you are sick of them. Then rinse. Then repeat. You will feel like a homeless person begging for money on some signings, except it is worse because homeless persons don't have to give plot summaries to passers-by.
    I successfully applied those strategies to marketing my own book when I got home. Most beginning authors will enjoy this book, and Miller's humorous style should appeal to non-writers as well. The book is rather short but inexpensive.
  • Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast - This is easily the best current events book I have read all year. Palast really does his homework as a BBC reporter, and this book synthesizes that work (which most Americans never get to see), adding depth and background. Many of his conclusions will surprise readers. Did the U.S. invade Iraq for oil? Sort of, Palast says, but the objective wasn't to take the oil, it was to keep it from being pumped. He looks at the concept of "peak oil" from several perspectives, too. This isn't a leftist screed; anyone who hasn't been completely brainwashed by the Bush administration's version of the truth will find interesting material here. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what those in power are doing and why. Palast explains complex concepts clearly and injects just enough humor to keep it from getting too heavy.
  • Oops: 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger - The authors previously wrote a book called Poplorica, and Oops is similarly rooted in pop culture. The "fiascoes" range from fads (paper dresses, leisure suits) to follies (the Spruce Goose, flying cars). Remember the XFL, Vince McMahon's football league that only five years ago promised to change the world of sports? That's another chapter. I don't agree with all of the authors' choices, though. They include "the Y2K scare," claiming it was just hype that made doomsayers rich. But just because there were few problems on January 1, 2000 doesn't mean Y2K was all hype -- it means a lot of programmers busted their tails in the late 1990s to make sure life would continue smoothly into the new millenium. Also the first two chapters, though entertaining, don't quite fit in since they precede the third chapter by decades (the rest of the chapters are closer together chronologically). The recipe cards ("Recipe for Disaster") at the end of each chapter are redundant and goofy, but overall Oops is an interesting look at some notable screw-ups.
  • Living in the Runaway West: Partisan Views From Writers on the Range - This book is a compilation of pieces by numerous authors for the "Writers on the Range" column in High Country News. Another book purchased on vacation (at The Book Mine in Leadville), this has limited appeal for Midwesterners but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Columns range from humorous to experiential to informational, and anything about the American West is fair game. Naturally, a favorite topic is the influx of outsiders and developers over the past few decades and their impact on the "real" West. Other articles in this potpourri discuss ecology, guns, public lands, water, ranching, coyotes, prairie dogs, wolves, cowboy poetry, and casinos. As in any anthology, there are a few misses, but the editors did an admirable job of including multiple viewpoints on a broad array of issues facing the region. If you are interested in the modern West and all facets of life there, you will like this book.

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