Thursday, December 31, 2009

Number 100!

I wanted my 100th book of Book Challenge 2009 to be something special. I thought about doing something out of character, like reading fiction for once (Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl). Many thick volumes called to me (such as James Loewen's Sundown Towns), but I only had a few days until the end of the year so those were out of the question. I didn't want to be reading feverishly at 11:30 PM on December 31, and I really didn't want to set myself up to fail by picking a long or complicated book.

I looked through the five two-foot stacks of books in our dining room, selecting half a dozen prospects. I could have read any of them, but none were particularly special. Then I went into our library and scanned eight more two-foot stacks of unread books (remember, I haven't been winning this battle by much, so I still have almost as many books to read as I had on January 1). I picked out a few that I've been meaning to read for a long time, but again, nothing set them apart. Then I saw a book I got for Christmas a few years ago... In Life, First You Kick Ass: Reflections on the 1985 Bears and Wisdom from Da Coach by Mike Ditka with Rick Telander.

I've written before about the 1985 Bears. I was 15, old enough to appreciate football but not yet jaded like I am now. Mike Ditka is my favorite coach of all time, in any sport. Ditka wore his heart on his sleeve and said what was on his mind (I don't like Lovie Smith because he's the anti-Ditka). He wasn't perfect, but he didn't try to hide that either.

Needless to say, I absolutely loved reading this book. Every page was a treat, reliving that fantastic season. I laughed and cried, turning page after page. Ditka has so many great stories, like about contract negotiations with George Halas. After Ditka had a spectacular rookie season (as a player), Halas actually tried to sign him for less money the following year! I found out a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff from the 1985 season, and I also was reminded of so many great moments. Any Bears fan should enjoy this book almost as much as I did.

Current tally: 100 books finished, 96 books acquired

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small Town America

This book by CBS correspondent Bill Geist is one of my favorites for the year. I've always been more interested in visiting small towns than big cities, especially since I already live in the best city in the world (but seriously, since I already live in a city, going on vacation means not going to other cities). Geist describes all sorts of unusual sights, people, events, and adventures in out-of-the-way towns. The chapters are short and Geist's writing is humorous and irreverent. One chapter decribes the famous Moonshine Store in south-central Illinois, which you all know from "Ride 45 - Moonshine Run" in Biking Illinois (by the way, my book came out before his). If I had to find a fault, I'd say the interludes about motels, car rental, restaurants, etc. come across as more forced than the regular chapters, kind of like a weak stand-up comedy routine abruptly spliced into a funny movie. Regardless, those bits weren't enough to diminish my enjoyment of Way Off the Road, which has the added appeal of being a fast read (which is important if you're trying to read 100 books in a year and it's late December!).

Current tally: 99 books finished, 93 books acquired

In the Home Stretch

With just a few days remaining in the year, Book Challenge 2009 is winding down. It took more discipline than you can imagine, but I have managed to build up a comfortable lead in books finished versus books acquired. My advantage is safe enough that I asked for several books for Christmas, plus I can enjoy the post-holiday sales. More incredibly, my goal of reading 100 books this year is also within reach. I have fallen behind in blogging about each book, however, so let's get caught up...

Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History by Laura Lee - This book describes more than 50 historical events impacted by meteorological incidents from biblical times (the story of Noah's ark is probably based on a real flood) to the present (global warming, of course). An amusing recurring chapter title is "Gee, It's Cold in Russia," which describes failed invasions of Russia by Charles XII in 1708, Napoleon in 1812, and Hitler in 1941, as well as the extension of the Crimean War in 1854. The tone is light and often humorous since the book is an entertaining survey rather than a history textbook. It is not comprehensive, but each chapter provides ample background info. Anyone with a casual interest in world history should enjoy Blame It on the Rain.

Christmas Sucks: What to Do When Fruitcake, Family, and Finding the Perfect Gift Make You Miserable by Joanne Kimes - I couldn't resist this book based on the title -- in fact, my mom put a copy in my Christmas stocking, not knowing that I already had it -- but it wasn't as funny as it could have been. For one thing, Kimes takes countless, unnecessary shots at men. There's plenty of humorous potential in holiday stress without conjuring a "lazy husband on the couch" stereotype. My wife enjoyed this book more than I did, although she agreed that the male-bashing was a bit much. As a humorist, Kimes is only so-so. I could have written a similar book (sans advice) better myself. And I sure as hell would have proofread it better, too.

Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front by Francis MacDonnell - This book is predominantly about Nazi espionage, or at least the fear of it. Concerns were rather overblown (in part because the Germans had a bit of success in that arena during World War I), though the author recounts some amusing tales of bungling spies who were caught by the FBI. He also discusses how Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, and others used spy fears to their political advantage. The fear of Nazi spies in the United States precipitated the "Red Scare" and Cold War paranoia of the following decades (I couldn't help noticing that even 70 years ago, people were ignorantly conflating fascism and communism/socialism just as many conservatives do today*). This book may not interest casual readers, but as a longtime student of World War II, I enjoyed reading about a topic that is barely discussed in most history books.

Turning Points in Rock and Roll by Hank Bordowitz - This is a different rock history book. Instead of weaving everything together in one big mess, Bordowitz selects 20 moments in rock history and describes a thread extending from each. For example, he starts one chapter with the founding of Crawdaddy! magazine as a jumping off point to write about rock magazines and criticism. Although I'm pretty well versed in rock history, I learned a lot from this book about people like Les Paul and Dick Clark. Bordowitz backs up his work with ample source information, something often missing in rock and roll books. Turning Points in Rock and Roll is far from exhaustive, but I'd recommend it to all but the most obsessive rock and roll fans for its fresh perspective.

Current tally: 98 books finished, 86 books acquired

* While I sincerely doubt that Barack Obama is either a socialist or a fascist, I know for certain that he cannot be both.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Baseball & Bicycling

Holy Cow! by Harry Caray with Bob Verdi - Caray is my all-time favorite broadcaster so when I saw this for $2 at Half Price Books, I couldn't pass it up. It's from 1989, a year that would prove memorable yet ultimately -- inevitably -- disappointing for the Chicago Cubs. Many Cubs fans also may have been disappointed with this book since most of it describes Caray's earlier years broadcasting in St. Louis and for the White Sox, but I enjoyed it. Longtime Chicago Tribune sports columnist Verdi stays true to the sportscaster's inimitable voice; I could easily imagine Caray telling these stories from an adjacent bar stool. I only wish there were more tales about the late-night carousing for which he was famous (the Mayor of Rush Street). This book could have been 100 pages longer without wearing out its welcome.

Tour de France/Tour de Force: A Visual History of the World's Greatest Bicycle Race by James Startt - I got the original hardcover edition of this when it came out and read almost half as evidenced by the bookmark, a lunch receipt from January 2001. This summer I saw the paperback "100-Year Anniversary Edition"* in the bargain bin at the local Borders. I was pretty sure I already had the book, but I couldn't remember. After all, I hadn't looked at it in eight years. Since it was only $1.00, I went ahead and bought it. When I got home, I found the hardcover edition and started reading the softcover where I had left off (conveniently, the page numbers match up). When I finished, I went back through the final pages of the hardcover edition just to see how much Startt had updated (very little, it turns out).** Tour de France/Tour de Force combines a photo-packed coffee table book with a fact-filled historical narrative of the Tour. Unfortunately, its ostensibly chronological organization is flawed. The author highlights a famous champion and then describes the Tours of that champion's era. The confused reader gets redundant chapters essentially telling the same story but with different details included. Aside from that, this book is a decent introduction to the history of the Tour de France with lots of quality photographs, many taken by the author.

Current tally: 94 books finished, 86 books acquired

* The Tour de France started in 1903, but it was not held during the World Wars. Although the "100-Year Anniversary" Tour was in 2003, the 100th Tour has not been run yet.

** For the purposes of Book Challenge 2009, the paperback counts as "acquired" this year but the two editions count as only one "finished."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Imaginary People and Black People

The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan & Jeremy Salter - This book looks at the power of fictional characters in society and culture. The authors draw from 17 categories ranging from mythology to literature to television to propaganda. Unfortunately, I think the concept is better than the execution. For starters, I would prefer a list based on something more than the opinions of three American guys and their friends, especially when it comes to ranking the characters from 1 to 101-- it's just too arbitrary. Worse, it is painfully clear that the essays were written by three authors because the tone from essay to essay is jarringly inconsistent (a better editor might have smoothed over those differences in writing style). Their attempts at humor often fall flat or just feel out of place. Plus, most of the essays spend more time telling who the characters are rather than what their influence is, even though most readers should already know most of them. Bottom line: it's an intriguing idea but a disappointing book.

Making Friends With Black People by Nick Adams - Black comedian Adams starts with advice for whites interacting with blacks, but eventually this book develops into a platform for his opinions about race relations, pop culture, and politics. He maintains a humorous and sarcastic tone throughout. I particularly enjoy his lists such as ethnic food "delicacies" and Tom Cruise's variations on Top Gun (e.g., Cocktail is Top Gun in a bar, Days of Thunder is Top Gun on a racetrack). I still don't have any black friends, but this book is pretty funny and often thought-provoking.

Current tally: 92 books finished, 83 books acquired

Friday, November 27, 2009

On the Write Track

This has been a pretty slow year for me business-wise. While I'd like to blame the economy, my own listlessness is the real problem. Maybe reading a few books about writing will give me the kick in the ass I so desperately need. Speaking of kicking...

And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft by Mike Sacks - I knew I'd like this book, but I didn't think I'd plow through its 337 pages so quickly. To my surprise, I even enjoyed the chapters about writers whose work I have never read or seen. I wish Sacks had spoken with more stand-up comedians and fewer TV writers, but that's just my personal preference. The six interludes of "Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer" are very useful; I only wish there were more. And Here's the Kicker has a misleading subtitle, however. Most of Sacks' questions cover what the writers have done rather than how they do it, so the focus isn't really on "their craft." Regardless, I'd recommend this book not only to humor writers but also to fans of comedy in general who like to hear "behind the scenes" stories. Note: See the book's Web site for excerpts and bonus interviews.

Some Writers Deserve to Starve! 31 Brutal Truths About the Publishing Industry by Elaura Niles - This humorous look at getting a book printed imparts many valuable lessons about dealing with agents, publishers, and fellow writers. Aspiring authors will learn a lot, and published authors will laugh or sigh in agreement with many of these "brutal truths." Niles includes many anecdotes from her own experiences and those of others. It's a quick read in an informal format, but the information is pretty good.

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost - Like Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, 100 Ways is a book that I purchased years ago when I changed careers. There are a hundred similar books out there, and getting a variety of perspectives about how to write well is a good thing -- as long as one doesn't spend more time reading about writing than actually doing it. Provost's book is as helpful as many others, although parts are quaintly outdated (don't type your final draft on onion skin paper!). Just the fact that it's still in print after 37 years is evidence of its value. Most of these tips are applicable to all writing; don't look here for genre-specific guidance. Also the format is convenient for reading in small chunks a few minutes at a time.

Current tally: 90 books finished, 83 books acquired

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Precious Liquids

Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It by Paul Simon - In recent years, many books have been published about water issues, but back in 1998 there were few. Since I've read extensively about the subject, I figured I wouldn't learn much from this book. All the same, I was interested in Simon's perspective. Much of "Section I: The Problem" covers familiar territory (alas, the problems haven't gone away), but "Section II: The Answers" is surprisingly informative, particularly the chapter about desalination. As a senator, Simon was a huge proponent of desalination, and this book includes historic quotes from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy endorsing the need for desalination research. The U.S. was at the forefront of desalination technology until government funding was cut drastically during the Reagan years, which Simon felt was a serious policy failure. He offers other solutions as well, calling for realistic pricing, reduced pollution, and population control. Despite its age, Tapped Out is still an excellent introductory text about a crisis that has only intensified in the years since.

Return to Thunder Road by Alex Gabbard - Almost two decades before Bruce Springsteen invited Mary into his car, another "Thunder Road" was part of American pop culture.* Robert Mitchum directed and acted in the 1958 movie Thunder Road about running moonshine, plus he wrote and sang the theme song:
Thunder, thunder, over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine and
White lightnin' was his load.
Moonshine, moonshine, to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him,
But the devil got him first.
This book is a joy to read. Gabbard explains the origins of homemade whiskey and the motivations of the men who risked their lives to deliver the illegal goods across the rural South. Much of Return to Thunder Road is presented in oral history form with extensive recollections from moonshiners, whiskey runners, and ATF agents. The 'shiners talk about the distillery process and how they built and concealed their stills. The drivers describe dozens of heart-racing midnight escapes in souped-up cars with big motors and heavy-duty springs. The U.S. Treasury agents recount raids and chases, along with the frustrations of a never-ending battle. In fact, moonshining came to an end not because of enforcement, but because of new economic opportunities (in the case of legendary Wilkes County, NC, a Holly Springs chicken plant). Gabbard discovers that the movie Thunder Road was likely inspired by the real-life final run of a certain driver. In the book's climax, he leads the reader along the fateful route, interlacing his narrative with the lyrics of the song. Anyone interested in fast cars, whiskey, the South, and/or 20th century American history should enjoy Return to Thunder Road. I'll have to bump the movie to the top of my Netflix queue.

Current tally: 87 books finished, 82 books acquired

* There is a Springsteen connection to this book, not in his "Thunder Road" but in "Cadillac Ranch." When he sings of "Junior Johnson runnin' through the woods of Caroline," he's talking about the famous moonshine runner turned NASCAR racer/owner. Junior and his family are quoted and mentioned many times within these pages.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Squeezing Oil From Planet Rock

Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising by Luke Sullivan - When I started writing copy, I bought a stack of books about writing and advertising. I suppose nothing reveals what a slacker I am more than admitting that it took me almost half a decade to get around to reading this one (and I haven't touched most of the others, either). Hey, Whipple is an introduction to the world of advertising from the perspective of a "creative" at an agency. Sullivan not only provides examples of great advertising, but he also offers many helpful tips for those attempting to produce such ads. This book won't make you an advertising genius, but it will set you on the right path -- and give you a few laughs, too. Note: I read the second edition; the third edition came out last year and includes new chapters about "new media" and direct-response TV.

Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska by John Strohmeyer - This book describes the impact of the oil industry on Alaska's government, Natives, environment, and even newspapers as they ride the waves of boom-and-bust from the 1950s to the 1990s. Strohmeyer writes this history in a journalistic style, though he skews a bit to the left in favor of the environment and the citizenry over the oil corporations. Several later chapters describe the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftermath, which was recent news when this book was published in 1993. This book has restored my pride in being a Chicagoan because corruption here is nothing compared to Alaska's. Considering the rogue's gallery that has led the state so poorly over the past half-century, the title of Sarah Palin's new memoir, Going Rogue, is incredibly ironic (though she was a mere Wasilla city councilperson when this book came out). Overall, Extreme Conditions is a reasonable, readable recounting of the changes that oil drilling and oil money brought to Alaska.

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, a Backstage Journey through Rock's Most Debauched Decade by Lonn Friend - Although I had never even heard of RIP magazine before (I was never into heavy metal enough to read the magazines), I enjoyed this memoir by its former editor. Friend's anecdotes are often funny and sometimes quite touching; despite their angry, bad-ass reputations, many masters of metal are actually decent guys. Most chapters are about a particular band and Friend's relationship with them. This makes Life on Planet Rock a little jumpy chronologically but otherwise works well. I found the chapter about the frustrations of working as an A&R man for Arista Records very revealing. It made me wonder how much great music we've all missed due to the capricious nature of the music industry. One weakness of Life on Planet Rock is the way Friend dances awkwardly around the edges of his marital problems, as if he couldn't decide whether it belonged in the book. Although his earlier personal life is entertaining and illustrative, it becomes a distraction from the narrative during the RIP years and beyond. As a memoir, this book is less thorough but more engaging and fun to read than David Konow's more historical Bang Your Head. Friend tells some great tales, and anyone who loves or at least grew up with this music should enjoy Life on Planet Rock.

Current tally: 85 books finished, 73 books acquired

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk

First, I must apologize to author Steven Lee Beeber: When I saw that you were signing in August at The Book Cellar (the first time I'd heard of the book), I knew I'd want a copy. As an author myself, I know successful signing events are critical to a writer's mental health. I was free that night, and the bookstore is only a 10-minute walk from home. And yet, I did not drag my lazy butt out of the house that evening (I purchased a signed copy there a few days later). So I'm sorry, and I hope all went well (it probably did -- Suzy T. hosts great signings). If I had attended, I probably would have pestered you with stupid questions about the Dictators like, "What is a two tub man?"

Now that I got that out of the way... I love this book! I've been a fan of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground for 25 years (my first live concert was Reed at the UIC Pavilion in 1986), and the Dictators are one of my favorite recent discoveries, so I was excited to read about them. Plus Beeber tells much more about Blue Oyster Cult (another longtime favorite) in this book about punk than David Konow does in his book about heavy metal. I've never considered myself much of a punk rock fan, but maybe I've been in denial (probably because by the time I came of age in the 1980s, "punk" meant hardcore like Black Flag, early Husker Du, and the Dead Kennedys).

Beeber essentially credits New York Jews with creating and defining the punk movement. Reed is sometimes known as the godfather of punk (an ironically Christian label considering how many Jews it's been assigned to), and the Ramones (at least half Jewish) are arguably the best known American punk band. Beeber also profiles other Jewish New York punkers like the Dictators (5/6 Jewish), Richard Hell, Chris Stein of Blondie, Helen Wheels, et al. Hilly Kristal (owner of the legendary club CBGB's) and most of the first wave of rock critics (including Lenny Kaye and Richard Meltzer) were Jews, too. This book is about more than artists and their music, though. The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's also describes post-World War II New York Jewishness -- a real education for me, having been raised as a Chicago (area) Catholic.

Anyone interested in punk, particularly the New York scene, must read The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's. I think Beeber makes a convincing argument for Jews being critical to the rise of punk, but even readers who disagree with that premise will learn a lot about many influential performers and the background that informed their work. In Chapter 1, Beeber notes that another book could be written about Jewish influence in heavy metal (heeby metal?) including KISS, Twisted Sister, Geddy Lee of Rush, Scott Ian of Anthrax, and, of course, the aforementioned Blue Oyster Cult. Mr. Beeber, I would love for you to write that book. If you do, I promise I'll attend your book signing!

Current tally: 82 books finished, 69 books acquired

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Answers & Advertising

Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (& Not-So-Everyday) Questions by Bill Sones and Rich Sones, Ph.D. - The Sones brothers write a syndicated column called "Strange But True" which is similar to Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope". I read a lot of books like this because the format is ideal for reading aloud to my wife as she gets ready for work (a few questions/pages per day). Having sampled this very uneven category, I can say that Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is far better than most. Instead of providing trite responses or mealy-mouthed ramblings, the Sones brothers consult and quote experts to get their answers. The only weak portion of the book is the section about love. Those questions just aren't as scientifically explainable as those about the body, death, and animals. Regardless, if you like this sort of book, Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is one of the best (don't confuse it with Why Do Men Have Nipples?, which is more popular but inferior).

Selling It: The Incredible Shrinking Package and Other Marvels of Modern Marketing by Leslie Ware - The inside back cover of Consumer Reports is my favorite part of the magazine. Each month, the editors put together a page of perplexing advertising and packaging. Examples include garbled English, misleading promises, and oddities like a photograph of a rose bush that appears in several catalogs, each time illustrating a different variety of rose. I was quite excited to buy a compilation of such items, yet this book took seven years to finish. The entries are like bacon -- it tastes great as a garnish, but one can't eat it all the time (and I've tried; eventually the salt and grease overwhelm). Each time I picked up Selling It, I read 5-10 pages, got tired of it, and moved on to something else. Ware's chapter introductions provide some basic consumer education in bullshit detection, but the examples are the best part... even if they don't read well in one sitting.

Current tally: 81 books finished, 69 books acquired

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Waiter, The Bard, And Lots Of Cops

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica - Dublanica (whose blog I haven't read) humorously describes the challenges and frustrations of waiting tables. Waiter Rant isn't exactly the book I wanted it to be -- I'd rather have less of the author's life story -- but I enjoyed it much more than Debra Ginsberg's Waiting. If you're browsing at the bookstore, at least take the time to read "Appendix A: 40 Tips on How to Be a Good Customer." Not only is this useful advice, but if you like the way it's written, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the book.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson - To be honest, I've never had much interest in Shakespeare. I endured Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth in high school freshman English class, and I haven't given him much thought since. But when I saw this book by Bryson, an author I enjoy very much, and found that it was about Shakespeare the person rather than his works, I figured it was worth a shot (its brevity also attracted me). My gamble paid off, as Shakespeare is a fascinating book that examines the playwright's life in the context of late 1500s-early 1600s England. This is not a groundbreaking work (nor does it pretend to be), but Bryson succeeds in making the biography of someone I wouldn't ordinarily care about into something entertaining and worth reading. Note: an updated and illustrated edition is coming out next month.

On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department by Daniel P. Smith - Despite my negative predisposition toward any book that I could've/should've written myself (my wife is a Chicago police officer), I found On the Job to be pretty insightful. Smith combines a history of the department with plentiful mini-bios of current and former officers. He interviews a broad range of men and women from various units, collecting humorous and heartbreaking stories from throughout the city. On the Job is undoubtedly favorable toward the department, which probably explains why it didn't get much attention from the local media where cop-bashing has been in fashion lately. Although the frustrations of police work are not ignored, the book avoids the jaded cynicism of bloggers like Second City Cop. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Chicago history or policing, especially anyone considering a career in the field.

Current tally: 79 books finished, 69 books acquired

Saturday, October 03, 2009

My Favorite Talk Show Host

My wife and I are big fans of Craig Ferguson. We've seen his stand-up show live, we've seen his stand-up DVD, we've seen most of his movies, and I've read his novel, Between the Bridge and the River. During his first year as host of The Late Late Show, I actually missed him on weekends. I've been waiting anxiously for several months since I heard he was putting out a memoir/autobiography, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

Any fan of Ferguson will no doubt enjoy this book. It nicely fills in the gaps in his background that he only alludes to on television. If you want to know more about his ex-wives or his years as a punk rock drummer, American on Purpose has the details. And unlike many comedians, he doesn't recycle material in his book. In fact, I was surprised that many of the amusing anecdotes he has told on his show were left out (for example, on TV he tells how he was bored in Winnipeg and shaved his entire body; in the book, he describes shooting a movie in Winnipeg without mentioning the shaving incident).

I read this book aloud to my wife, and (predictably) we both loved it. I wish it was 50-100 pages longer -- his recent years in Hollywood are practically a blur (surprisingly little about The Drew Carey Show considering how long he was on it), and I'd like to know more about The Late Late Show and his citizenship process. I also wish there was an index. One of the things I love about Ferguson is his ability to be simultaneously hilarious and human; that emotional element makes American on Purpose a great book. I laughed plenty, but I couldn't read it aloud without an occasional lump in my throat. The photos are a hoot, too.

Current tally: 76 books finished, 69 books acquired

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Black Comedy

Both of these books are funny, but like many books by comedians, they recycle a lot of material from their stand-up routines. If you like the performer, you'll like the book, but if you know the comedian's material well, you won't find much new here. On the other hand, if you don't like the comedian, it's unlikely that anything in these pages will change your opinion.

Rock This! by Chris Rock - My wife's favorite comedian is Chris Rock so when I saw this in the Borders bargain bin, I had to get it for her. It was a perfect gift because I knew I'd enjoy it as much as she would (although I bought it for her, I'm including it in my "acquired" count since I read it). It's hilarious, as one would expect, but to someone who has seen all of his HBO specials over the years, it sounds awfully familiar. Rock This! is even written in a stand-up-like format with lots of short paragraphs (i.e., pauses between lines).

Yeah, I Said It by Wanda Sykes - I haven't seen as much of Sykes' stand-up, but according to reviewers, this book reuses a lot of jokes, too. At least Yeah, I Said It is formatted more like a regular book. It helps to imagine Sykes' voice while reading (even if you haven't seen her comedy routines, you may have seen her acting on The New Adventures of Old Christine). Yeah, I Said It is occasionally political, so right-wingers will undoubtedly be offended.

Current tally: 75 books finished, 68 books acquired

Monday, September 28, 2009

Creepiest Book Spine Ever?

A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically, The Know-It-All) has a new book called The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment. I didn't look inside because I was terrified by what I saw on the bookshelf:

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Tale of Two Critics

Two of my favorite pop culture critics are Chuck Klosterman and Joe Queenan. I read books from both this month.

Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman - This is a collection of essays divided into three categories: Things That Are True, Things That Might Be True, and Something That Isn't True At All. The first section consists of previously published articles covering music, movies, and sports. The middle section contains opinion pieces that appeared mostly in Spin and Esquire. The last part is a short story, perhaps a "feeler" to see how the public would receive Klosterman's then-forthcoming debut novel (the paperback edition includes an excerpt from Downtown Owl). I don't always share Klosterman's opinions and taste -- heck, the guy's favorite band is KISS -- but I enjoy his writing immensely. He even makes basketball sound interesting, and I hate basketball. My only complaint about IV is the publisher's decision to include extra material in the paperback edition. This is a big f-you to everyone who paid more for the hardcover edition. Out of spite, I sat in a Borders this week and read all the new essays, which are mostly in the Things That Might Be True section. As much as I like Klosterman, I'm not going to buy the same book twice. Note: I wouldn't expect anyone to actually buy the now-obsolete hardcover edition, but I included it below anyway.

Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan's America by Joe Queenan - As a longtime cultural snob, Queenan decides to immerse himself in the worst our country has to offer for an entire year. He goes to Broadway shows like Cats. He listens to Michael Bolton and Kenny G. He reads books by Joan Collins and V.C. Andrews. He watches movies starring Adam Sandler and Demi Moore. He dines at Sizzler and the Olive Garden. He visits Las Vegas and Branson. And of course, he skewers them all with the mischievous, sarcastic wit I've come to expect from Queenan. But suddenly, he starts to like all this crap. Instead of recoiling, he begins seeking out and reveling in the pop cultural junk of the masses. Although these are easy targets, Queenan's wicked critiques are hilarious. As a book, however, Red Lobster isn't great. The plot is weak and predictable. The copyright page reveals that several chapters were originally magazine articles, which explains the book's patched-together construction. And in the end, it's a lot of snark without much insight about what makes something bad or good.

This month I've been trying to clean up DJWriter World Headquarters. About 90% of the books I've read and reviewed this year are still in my office, as well as stacks from the past several years (books that I reviewed as well as books that I meant to review). It has reached the point where I can barely fit between the piles, and one of the cats is always knocking them down. Perhaps the best way to sum up these two books is to say that I enjoyed reading both, but Chuck Klosterman IV is going on a bookshelf while Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon is going in a box for my next visit to an used book store.

Current tally: 73 books finished, 65 books acquired

Thursday, September 24, 2009

100 Reasons to Hate Your Country

100 Ways America Is Screwing Up The World by John Tirman - I didn't like this book. If not for my New Years resolution, I would have given up halfway through (it took me two months to finish). Don't get me wrong -- for the most part, I agree with the author -- but this book disappointed me. For starters, Tirman apparently doesn't understand verb tenses. Although one can make a case for lingering impact, it is ridiculous to recount our country's every post-World War II sin as "ways America is screwing up the world." Going back as far as the Reagan administration -- a quarter of a century ago -- is reasonable since that ideology still holds sway (besides, I love to read criticism of "Saint Ronnie"), but CIA shenanigans in 1954 Guatemala? That seems like a stretch in 2006 (when 100 Ways was published). Tirman even repeatedly dredges up the extermination of Native Americans in the 19th century, hardly relevant in the present tense.

A bigger problem is that even after reaching back to the 1950s, the author doesn't have enough good topics. The 100 ways overlap, and sometimes Tirman fails to convincingly explain how certain domestic issues are meaningful abroad. A few of his ideas are weak or peculiar (oh no, America is fomenting anti-smoking laws worldwide!). Especially toward the end, Tirman's case devolves into curmudgeonly whining. Liberal whining can be just as annoying as conservative whining (though not as mean-spirited).

I presume this book was inspired by the right-wing screed about 100 people (liberals, naturally) who are screwing up America. Unlike that book, 100 Ways is not a complete waste of time. Although a less informed reader probably would enjoy it more, even a jaded leftist like me learned a few things, such as how the NRA helped defeat anti-gun laws in Brazil. The trouble is that "answer books" are like "answer songs"; they rarely get as much attention as their inspiration. Tirman probably could have written a better book without the "100 ways" gimmick.

I suppose it works as a mediocre introduction to "why they hate us." In that sense, the worst thing about 100 Ways is that the people who need to read it the most are precisely those who will ignore it. I should send my copy to my Fox News-addicted grandmother.

Current tally: 71 books finished, 65 books acquired

Friday, September 11, 2009

Freight & Fark

A Thousand Miles from Nowhere: Trucking Two Continents by Graham Coster - The English author rides along with a truck driver from the U.K. to Moscow and back, and then he comes to the U.S. to make a couple of cross-country runs. The first half about Europe was pretty interesting, especially the hard luck stories such as drivers waiting in line for days at border crossings and a guy making a run from the U.K. to Iran only to discover that his employer has gone out of business and can't give him money to get home (he carried freight locally in Iran until he could afford the return trip). In one chapter, Coster takes driving lessons. Like many would-be truckers, he struggles with backing up. I found his solution ingenious -- he buys a toy truck and watches what happens to the trailer as the tractor makes various maneuvers. Part Two about U.S. trucking is less interesting mainly because I already know a fair amount about the industry here, but the foreigner's perspective is sometimes illuminating. All in all, this book is okay, maybe good but not great. Anyone interested in trucking culture would probably enjoy it, but it's not engrossing enough to recommend to a general audience.

It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News by Drew Curtis - Based on the popular Web site, this book combines media criticism with a sort of "best of" Parts are hilarious; I cheered up my wife on several occasions by reading this to her. As media criticism, however, the book overstays its welcome. Most readers will get the gist of what Curtis is saying long before he finishes saying it. More Fark examples (plus the snarky Farker comments) and less explanation would have made this book much better. Still, any book that trains the mind to look more critically at mass media is worthwhile.

Current tally: 70 books finished, 62 books acquired

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Labor Day Anniversaries

Two notable past Labor Day weekends:
  • Fifteen years ago, I moved into my first apartment in Chicago. Damn, that makes me feel old. In a couple more years, I will have lived in the city longer than in the house where I grew up.

  • Last year, Half Price Books had a 20% off sale all weekend. My wife was out of town, and I visited every Half Price Books location in Chicagoland (then four, now five). Although I didn't spend that much money, I ended up with a ridiculous haul -- at least 35 books, maybe even 45. I had so many bags that I stashed a few of them where my wife wouldn't see them because I was embarrassed by the sheer volume. Much as hiding a whiskey bottle is evidence of a drinking problem, that episode made it clear that I was out of control. The memory of that weekend inspired my New Years resolution to finish more books than I acquire.

This Labor Day weekend, I intended to have a big "Chicago weekend" and do a bunch of things in the city to celebrate my 15 years here. At the same time, Half Price Books had another 20% off storewide sale.

For better or worse, I didn't do much of anything last weekend. Rather than focus on how lame I am for not really celebrating my Chicagoversary, I'll take pride in announcing that not only did I sit out the Half Price Books sale, but I also resisted the urge to redeem a Borders coupon good for 40% off one book. Instead, I devoted several hours to increasing my six-book margin, still chipping away at that pile of books amassed a year ago. While cleaning, I also found my receipt from Powell's Books in 2007, a truly epic shopping experience.

Current tally: 68 books finished, 62 books acquired

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Movies & Money

A Year at the Movies: One Man's Filmgoing Odyssey by Kevin Murphy - The author used to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV show where a man and two robots made wisecracks as they watched the worst movies of all time. For the year 2001, he turned his obsession with film into a daily ritual. This book isn't about movies, though; it's about watching movies. Although Murphy lists every movie he sees, he doesn't necessarily write about them. Instead, A Year at the Movies is a collection of essays/rants about what's good and bad about the celluloid world, particularly the movie-going experience. Each week is a chapter, and each has a theme such as documentaries, in-flight movies, IMAX, and even sneaking in food. I very rarely see movies in theaters (three times since 1997!), but I enjoyed Murphy's humorous and thoughtful observations nonetheless.

What Happens to a Torn Dollar Bill?: Dr. Knowledge Presents Facts, Figures, and Other Fascinating Information About Money by Charles Reichblum - This book cost me one untorn dollar at Half Price Books. Reichblum shares a lot of interesting trivia and quotations about money. Unfortunately, there isn't enough material to fill the book's 320 pages. I read only a few pages per day over the course of two months (reading to my wife while she got ready for work), and I noticed a lot of redundancy.

Current tally: 68 books finished, 62 books acquired

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry

This topic has become near and dear to my heart over the past three years. Thanks to the magic of BitTorrent and, I've built a ridiculous collection of live music recordings. (How many? Thousands. At least five. Compulsive collectors should not be allowed Internet access.)

This book by Clinton Heylin is a fascinating look at the bootleg* industry (it also touches on free tape trading, which is analogous to today's BitTorrent community). The author focuses on rock and roll bootlegs, both studio and live recordings. The first section of the book, my favorite, tells about the vinyl bootleggers of the 1970s and 1980s. There are some hilarious stories, and Heylin reproduces some of the classic cover art. The second section covers the early CD era up to 1994. Much of this section is devoted to copyright law issues, and when things get complicated the narrative drags a bit. In the brief third section, artists such as Lenny Kaye and Graham Nash talk about the importance of bootleggers preserving performances.

This is a great book because no other author has addressed the rock bootleg industry in such depth. It does have some weaknesses, though. Each chapter begins with a 15 cm2 photo of a bootleg cover, but all of the other bootleg covers are restricted to the margins. Those photos are a disappointingly minuscule 4 cm2. I also would have preferred more bootleg stories instead of the lengthy distinctions about copyright law. Finally, be aware that this is by no means a guide to bootleg recordings. Only a few significant releases are discussed with any detail. All the same, anyone interested in rock and roll history should find plenty worth reading in Bootleg.

Note: I read the hardcover edition of the first book below. Although the second has a different title, it is merely an updated edition of the first. Without reading it, I assume Heylin blames stronger copyright laws and online file sharing for the "fall" of the industry.

Current tally: 66 books finished, 61 books acquired

* Note that true "bootleg" records and CDs contain material that has not been commercially released through official channels. Bootlegs are not the same as "pirate" recordings, which are merely counterfeit copies of official releases.

Bastard of the Day

Since BotD is probably the favorite recurring feature on this blog, it's appropriate to name one today as part of the birthday celebration.

Some people just beg to be named Bastard of the Day:
A 45-year-old Near Northwest Side man is facing felony animal cruelty charges, accused of throwing a 17-year-old Labrador retriever to its death from the a third-floor balcony Wednesday, police said.
Okay, "innocent until proven guilty" aside, this guy is one sick bastard. Any dog that age is pretty darn old, but for a dog the size of a Labrador retriever, 17 is ancient (Wikipedia gives a Lab's life span as "12-16 years"). No dog deserves that, especially after all those years of being a faithful companion and family member (even a cat doesn't deserve that, although my daily-barfing roommate here at DJWriter World HQ tests my patience). There could be no excuse for such barbaric behavior. Even if the dog was dying, my wife pointed out, there are several places in the city that will euthanize an elderly dog for free.

***** We interrupt this declaration of bastardry... *****

As I was writing the above, I got this e-mail alert from CNN:
A sex offender abducted an 11-year-old girl and kept her in a backyard shed for 18 years before his arrest, police say.
Damn, I think that's even worse. Too many bastards, not enough days...

One for the Birthers*

For the sore loser Republicans who doubt that President Obama was born in the U.S., I have two words: Hillary Clinton. Knowing the thoroughness (and perhaps ruthlessness) of the Clinton campaign, if there was any truth to this rumor, it surely would have been exposed during the Democratic primaries.

Alas, most of the "birthers" are also Hillary-haters, so they would probably say she's just part of the conspiracy. But seriously, this woman would have done almost anything to win, so what reason would she have to cover up Obama's alleged disqualification from office?

It's frightening how many people are buying into this birther bullshit. And how long will this go on? Sheesh, people, he was sworn in seven months ago!

* The title of this post is a tribute to the Hold Steady's "One for the Cutters", which is named in tribute to the townies in Breaking Away.

Happy Birthday to DJWriter Blog

It's hard to believe I've been blogging for five years.

A lot has changed along the way. I started out with a lot of political content, but eventually I got sick of it all. Then the blog developed into a journal of Biking Illinois filled with entries about signing events, interviews, reviews, etc. For a while, I got tired of blogging altogether and lost 90% of my already limited readership with sporadic posting (my subject matter was always too scattershot to attract a large audience anyway). This year I resurrected the blog mainly to stick to my New Years resolution to finish more books than I acquire. I figured making it public would help me keep it, and so far I've been successful.

In honor of the blog's evolution, today I'll post a political entry for old time's sake as well as the latest book review.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.

After I reviewed News Junkie by Jason Leopold, Chris went looking for it at Barnes & Noble. When he got home, he e-mailed me to say that he had purchased the wrong book, The Night of the Gun by David Carr. Who would have thought "junkie journalist memoir" was such a popular genre?

Chris suggested that I compare the two. Although I had plenty of other books to read, I replied, "Maybe I'll check out The Night of the Gun when it hits the bargain shelves." Eleven days later, I found a single hardcover copy for $6 at a Waldenbooks.

Addiction/recovery memoirs are pretty common, and they seem to follow a pattern: share titillating tales of "the Life" including drugs, sex, and crime to pique the interest of the white-bread masses (myself included); hit bottom and go into rehab (this part of the story often repeats); become a clean model citizen for some stretch of time; inexplicably relapse (in Carr's case, with booze rather than cocaine); repeat the recovery process; and swear it's not going to happen ever again. The most striking difference between the two books is how the authors approach their stories. Leopold's book is a traditional, confessional memoir while Carr reports on his life by interviewing people from/about his past, acquiring police and medical records, etc. In addition to the main addiction/recovery plot, Leopold's story is bolstered by his involvement in breaking the Enron story while Carr's memoir adds the challenges of battling cancer and raising twins as a single father.

The more cynical think Carr treats his life like a newspaper story in the wake of challenges to the veracity of James Frey's recovery tale, but the reason he gives is that his own memories too often run contrary to those of others. Carr discovers that many events, even some of the most pivotal in his life, may not have happened as he recalls. The discrepancies are not minor like "what color shirt I was wearing" either -- the book's title refers to an event in which Carr and his friend have different memories of who was pointing a gun at whom.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before the gimmick gets in the way of telling the story. Carr bounces back and forth between his past and his current information-gathering process. Sometimes he even rearranges the main story for the convenience of describing his interviews, which strikes me as the opposite of how a book should be written. Carr should have merely incorporated information gleaned from the interviews into the main story rather than making so many chapters into "where are they now?" episodes (while Carr may care how his junkie friends turned out years later, most readers probably won't).

Like most junkies who survive the Life, Carr is extremely lucky. He's lucky he didn't overdose (his coke addiction progressed from snorting to smoking to injecting), he's lucky he didn't kill anyone, and he's very lucky to have had the support of family and friends who helped him hold his life together.

Carr's use of only first names is annoying. I understand that he wants to protect the privacy of friends and fellow addicts, but when he refers to a Minnesota Vikings quarterback named Tommy and a story-fabricating New York Times reporter named Jayson when their last names are easily Googled, it's unnecessary and irritating (not to mention oddly un-journalistic).

Like this review, The Night of the Gun is too long, and Carr's style interrupts his story too much. The reporting approach puts some distance between author and events, which doesn't come across well in a memoir -- it's like watching life instead of living it. Any memoir is narcissistic at some level (which Carr acknowledges), but in this case I think he really wrote the book more for himself than for readers. Although Carr has posted videos of interviews and other material online, I cannot imagine anyone finishing this lengthy book and yearning to know even more about his ugly past.

Back to comparing the two junkie journalists, while I find Carr's approach interesting in concept, Leopold's book is more readable, more engaging, and more enjoyable. But after reading the addiction stories of two journalists and a rock star this summer, I am burned out on addiction/recovery memoirs. Too much drama, too much depressing shit, too many people hurt by addicts being assholes. This is dreary stuff, and I feel like a rubbernecking motorist passing a horrific accident when I read it.

Current tally: 65 books finished, 61 books acquired

Friday, August 14, 2009

Helen Thomas, Gerald Ford, and a Mexican

Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times by Helen Thomas - Anyone who knows anything about Washington knows that Thomas has been in the White House press pool practically forever -- since John F. Kennedy. This book, written ten years ago, is part autobiography but mostly a chance to share stories about the most powerful figures in America. I especially enjoyed the chapter about traveling on Air Force One, but most readers will be drawn to the later chapters where Thomas tells stories about each first lady and each president. She shares lots of humorous or interesting anecdotes, but nothing particularly shocking. As one might expect, the book is very journalistic in nature. Even in a book ostensibly about herself, Thomas knows that the real story is the people she covered. Overall, this book is good but not great. It might have benefited from tighter editing.

Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford by Thomas M. DeFrank - I've always had a soft spot for President Ford, perhaps because he was the president when I first learned who the president was. Even better, Ford despised Ronald Reagan (though he refused to say anything bad about him in the years after his Alzheimer's diagnosis). Although I wouldn't agree with Ford's ideology, he was a likable, decent man, the last of the reasonable, moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower before Barry Goldwater's acolytes took over the party. DeFrank first covered Ford as vice president, developed a special friendship over the years (a president considering reporters as friends? Yep, that's the kind of guy Ford was), and carried out a series of interviews starting in the 1990s with the stipulation that nothing from them would be published until after Ford's death. The result is a revealing and affectionate paean to our 38th president. Ford was blessed to live so long and so well after leaving the White House, staying active and lucid into his early nineties. The book could be more complete, though -- I wish DeFrank had asked more about the Warren Commission (the only mention being Ford's dislike of Oliver Stone's JFK), Ford's decades in the House, and some of the difficult decisions he wrestled with as president (besides pardoning Nixon). I haven't read other books about Ford so I can't say where this fits into the body of work about him, but I enjoyed Write It When I'm Gone.

¡Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano - This is a collection of questions and answers from a nationally syndicated (mostly in the border states) newspaper column that explains the culture, customs, and habits of Mexican-Americans. Arellano weaves irreverent humor and thorough research into his replies, making the book fun and informative. I wish a Chicago newspaper would carry the column, which originated in Orange County's OC Weekly.

Current tally: 64 books finished, 61 books acquired

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rock 'N' Roll X 4

I guess July is the month for themed reading. First it was three books about Lance Armstrong. This week I finished four books about rock 'n' roll.

Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: How a Wild Rock 'N' Roll Life Led to a Serious Golf Addiction by Alice Cooper with Keith and Kent Zimmerman - Since I'm taking my brother to an Alice Cooper concert next month for his birthday (he'd love this book except he hates reading), I figured it was a good time to learn more about the legendary performer. Despite having little interest in golf, I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiography (ditto for my wife; she stayed up all night reading it). Cooper describes a familiar career trajectory: get famous, get addicted (alcohol in his case), get clean, relapse, get clean again. Interspersed throughout the mostly chronological story is a 12-step program, the steps of golf addiction. Although Cooper started golfing earlier, it wasn't until after his second stint in rehab that he became fanatical, often playing 36 holes a day. The touring lifestyle involves a lot of waiting around, and golf fills that time better than drinking. Fortunately, this book isn't just about golf or recovery. Cooper spins tales about his life, music, touring, and famous friends. He writes about meeting Elvis, hanging out with Groucho Marx, and writing an album with longtime Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin. I just wish the book was longer. Anyone with an interest in golf or 1970s rock 'n' roll should enjoy Alice Cooper, Golf Monster.

Rock Star Babylon: Outrageous Rumors, Legends, and Raucous True Tales of Rock and Roll Icons by Jon Holmes - This English book was originally titled Status Quo and the Kangaroo, but since that band is a forgotten one-hit wonder in the States ("Pictures of Matchstick Men"!), the American publisher chose a more general title. Unfortunately for American readers, the book is still very British, packed with pop culture references that few outside the UK will recognize. Holmes also features too many semi-obscure British stars, although the better stories transcend that unfamiliarity. Those caveats aside, Rock Star Babylon is an entertaining collection of rock and roll mythology. Some of the stories are true, some might be true, and others are surely false. The classics are all here: Led Zeppelin and the shark, Keith Richards getting his blood replaced, and of course, the singer getting his stomach pumped (here about Marc Almond of Soft Cell (remember "Tainted Love"?) but also told about countless others). Holmes is an outrageous writer, which is good and bad -- he's hilarious when he's ripping on a band you hate, offensive when he's similarly sniping at your favorites. Sometimes he plays loose with the facts, but he never claims that anything in the book is true anyway. Rock Star Babylon recounts dozens of amusing, sometimes disgusting tales of debauchery, excess, and bad behavior. A few stories are duds, but there are enough others to make it worthwhile. By the way, if you suspect that the band Faith No More has ever stayed at your hotel, bring your own hair dryer!

Bandalism: The Rock Group Survival Guide by Julian Ridgway - I often discuss what I'm reading with one of the servers at the restaurant down the street (hi Lindsay!), and she seemed a bit perplexed about this one because I'm not in a band or planning to start one. But Bandalism appeals beyond the narrow audience of aspiring rockers. Ridgway takes prospective bands step by step from formation to rehearsal to record deal to first album to touring to second album... and that's about it because the rest of a band's career is just a matter of repeating the recording-touring cycle. Although this is another British book with some obscure band references, it isn't as bafflingly foreign as Rock Star Babylon above. Anyone interested in rock music and the interpersonal dynamics of band members should find it as instructive and funny as I did.

VH1's 100 Greatest Albums edited by Jacob Hoye - Halfway through the year, I'm still finding books that I started long ago and never finished. This book contains a ranking of the greatest rock/pop/soul albums and describes what makes them so. Each album gets one to three mildly informative pages, most including a photo of the cover. One can quibble with the choices, but they were selected by 700 music industry people deemed worthy by VH1 so that's what you get. While that approach prevents any real stinkers from showing up, it also makes for a rather predictable and unadventurous list. The book's greatest flaw, however (the reason I didn't finish it sooner), is that it goes from #1 to #100. Without the suspense of wondering which will be the best, it's all downhill after the first few pages. I'm almost certain that VH1 broadcast this as a countdown, so why change it in book form? All in all, this book is just okay, a broad list with little depth.

Current tally: 61 books finished, 58 books acquired

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lance, Lance, Lance

Over the years, my feelings about Lance Armstrong have shifted many times. I started as an admirer and fan -- though never truly fanatic -- around the time he won Tour de France #2 in 2000 (I hadn't followed pro cycling previously). Eventually, I decided he's kind of a jerk (which may be a polite understatement), but I also acknowledge that he has accomplished a lot more on and off the bike (winning seven Tours and assisting cancer survivors through his foundation) than I ever will. Oddly, although I consider Armstrong to be a polarizing figure, I personally feel ambivalent about him.

I think the problem most people have with Armstrong is that he isn't what they expect or want him to be. Many expect winners to be gracious and humble, but he's brash and arrogant. Some want to praise God for his recovery from cancer, but he is not religious. Amazon reviewers even criticize him for using the f-word in his book, as if Lance the Hero isn't allowed to swear. I give him credit for being himself and not trying to meet the expectations of others, but at the same time, I don't think he's particularly likeable.

In the past four years, I have accumulated several books about Armstrong, picking them up at bargain prices (total cost $12). With his return to the Tour this year, I decided that if I don't read them now, I never will. Thus began two weeks of Lance overload.

Chasing Lance: The 2005 Tour de France and Lance Armstrong's Ride of a Lifetime by Martin Dugard - A quick read, this book is the weakest of the bunch. It's part sports reporting and part travelogue but isn't exactly riveting as either. Only the greenest of pro cycling fans will gain much from it. Dugard describes the 2005 Tour as experienced by a sports journalist. He writes about the press tent and the logistics of getting from the start to the finish of each stage. He details the daily phenomena of the Tour, such as the assembly and disassembly of a miniature city in each host town along the route. Actual race coverage is inconsistent. This book could have been a long magazine article. The ideal Chasing Lance reader would probably be someone with little cycling knowledge who has been assigned to write about the next Tour and wants to know what to expect.

Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins - Wow, a book from the 2000s without a lengthy subtitle! I read It's Not About the Bike many years ago. That popular book, the now familiar story of Armstrong's life up to his first Tour victory, is a tough act to follow. Every Second Counts is Armstrong's version of the middle years of his Tour reign. Armstrong fanatics will no doubt enjoy this book (they've probably already read it). It gives a good feel for who he is and also what he has to put up with (such as the drawn-out French doping investigation of his team). He shares many anecdotes from cycling as well as his relationships with cancer survivors. It's a decent book, but knowing how Lance controls his image, one feels like it's only half the story. By the way, a third memoir is coming in December: Comeback 2.0: Up Close and Personal.

Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France by Daniel Coyle - This is the best book of the three. Coyle covers all facets of Armstrong's 2004 cycling season: training, racing, equipment, doping allegations, Sheryl Crow, teammates, trainers, business, lawsuits... plus his primary Tour competitors Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, and Iban Mayo. Although I followed pro cycling religously in the mid-2000s, I still found new information in this book. It gives the reader an idea of Armstrong's environment with all its challenges and distractions. I think it's reasonably balanced, tilting in Armstrong's favor. Since bookstores are filled with Lance hagiographies, some Amazon reviewers actually think this book is negative, but it's nothing like David Walsh's accusatory, innuendo-filled volumes. Aside from devout Lance-haters, any cycling fan should enjoy the breadth and depth of Lance Armstrong's War.

Current tally: 57 books finished, 54 books acquired

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Late Start for July

Although this is my first review this month, I've been reading a lot. This book took a long time to finish, and I also have a three-book review of Lance Armstrong coming soon.

Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mt. Rushmore by John Taliaferro - This lengthy volume is as much a biography of sculptor Gutzom Borglum as it is the story of his most famous work. It begins and ends with the author traveling the Black Hills region, which helps to set the geographic context of the tale. In between, Borglum's life story dominates the first half of the book and Mt. Rushmore fills the second. The biographical part is perhaps 50 pages too long, but it helps the reader to understand some of the conflicts Borglum had during his greatest project. The man was arrogant, abrasive, and accusatory. He often turned against people who were helping him, and he was terrible with money. His previous carving project on Georgia's Stone Mountain ended with Borglum fleeing the state and his benefactors hiring a new sculptor who promptly blasted Borglum's work off the mountainside. Even when work begins in South Dakota, the author devotes so much space to Borglum's other activities that the mountain becomes a background story. The artist was always scheming and begging for funding. The history of Rushmore after Borglum's death includes some interesting highlights, particularly the filming of Hitchcock's North by Northwest and the American Indian Movement's militant antics in the 1970s. The eight pages of black & white photos are exceptional, but more would have been helpful. Great White Fathers is worthwhile for the Rushmore fanatic, but the average reader would probably prefer something with more about the mountain and less about the artist.

Current tally: 54 books finished, 53 books acquired

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Coolest Biking Illinois Photo?

Yesterday I was thinking that since I'm not working much these days, I should be adding to the Biking Illinois Web site that I intended to finish years ago. I had forgotten about this photo of the Bald Knob Cross of Peace from Ride 55 "Climb to the Cross":

This was actually a mistake. My camera lens fogged up when I pulled it out of the air-conditioned car on this hot, humid morning nearly four years ago (I scouted the route by car before I pedaled it). The fogged lens gave the cross a freaky, mysterious, sort of Biblical look. I wouldn't say it's the best photo from Biking Illinois, but I think it's the coolest.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Finishing June with a Bang

Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal by David Konow - With the exception of Guns N' Roses, I was never a big fan of 1980s heavy metal. I loved AC/DC in the fifth grade when Back In Black came out, and Blue Oyster Cult (B.O.C.) is still one of my favorite bands, but I didn't listen to contemporary metal in high school despite (or maybe because of) its immense popularity. Nevertheless, when Ratt's "Round and Round" comes on the radio, I know every damn word thanks to MTV.

Especially in the "rise" part of the book, Konow makes questionable decisions about what is or isn't metal. Why include several pages about Boston and Queen? I don't know anyone who considers them heavy metal (at least there's some argument about Rush, though the author ignores that band). B.O.C. gets only a few brief mentions. I was particularly annoyed when Konow said Rob Halford had to shop in gay stores for his leather wardrobe in 1978 like it was a big deal. B.O.C.'s Eric Bloom was doing that at least five years earlier, and he wasn't even gay (which I think makes Bloom even more dedicated to his onstage look).

For the most part, Konow's idea of heavy metal is American, guitar-dominated, popular hard-rock music from the 1980s (a.k.a. "hair bands"). He writes a lot about Los Angeles bands from Van Halen to Motley Crue to Warrant. Metallica has a major presence. Slayer is the only speed/thrash metal band to get much coverage, and death metal is ignored. Konow also includes some East Coast bands like Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and Twisted Sister. Def Leppard is just about the only non-American band post-1980 that's covered thoroughly.

Although I wasn't a fan of most of the aforementioned bands, I knew enough about them from living through the 1980s to be interested in reading about them. Once one gets over his or her favorite band getting short-changed, this book is very entertaining. It is full of interesting nuggets about the signing, recording, touring, and lifestyles of metal bands, although some readers may be disappointed that little is written about the music itself. Some parts are hilarious, like how so many bands hated being parodied in This Is Spinal Tap and how Kip Winger blames Beavis and Butt-head for his band's decline. I wish Konow had adhered more closely to chronological order; sometimes it gets confusing. For fans of the bands covered in detail, this may be a five-star book, but I'd give it three for all the bands that are missing.

The Rock Bible: Unholy Scripture for Fans & Bands by Henry Owings - I bought this immediately after finishing Bang Your Head and read it in only a few hours (could have been faster, but I read it aloud to my wife). I could not have picked a better companion piece for Bang Your Head! The Rock Bible mocks all the narcisistic excesses of rock music, and almost every entry brought to mind a band from the 1980s L.A. metal scene. My only problem with this book is the list price. Sixteen bucks is a lot to ask for such a slim volume (I got it on sale for less, of course). Any fan of rock music will laugh often while perusing this book.

Unsolved Mysteries of American History by Paul Aron - The author takes a scholarly approach to answering such questions as Did Leif Ericsson discover America?, What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?, Why did Lee order Pickett's charge?, Why did Truman drop the bomb?, Who killed JFK?, and What did Reagan know about Iran-Contra? First he sets the scene and describes what happened. Then, instead of merely giving the reader what he thinks are the correct answers, he presents the findings of historians and others over the years. If one answer rises above the others, he says so, but he is also willing to admit where there is no definitive answer. Aron provides a short bibliography after every question with comments about each book. The curious reader (perhaps one who doesn't have as many unread books as I do) can use this book as a starting point to explore these topics in greater depth.

On Sunday, I went to The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Naturally, I had to buy some books to support this great local business. Congratulations to Suzy T, and my apologies for whatever impact my New Years resolution has had on the store's profits this year.

Current tally: 53 books finished, 48 books acquired