Thursday, January 29, 2009

Easy for Him to Say

In today's news:
Pope Benedict XVI decried what he called a spreading pessimism about marriage, saying Thursday it is not the impossible undertaking many make it out to be.
Sure, take marital advice from the world's most famous bachelor!

My favorite thing about this story is that it comes on the eve of our tenth wedding anniversary. Do I agree with Il Papa? Well, I'd say it helps to have a spouse who puts up with a lot.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Catching Up

Book Challenge 2009 has been going well so far. Even though I ordered two books from Daedalus last week, I'm still ahead in the game.

(Not that You Asked) is a funny and thoughtful collection of non-fiction essays by Steve Almond. I had read Almond's Candyfreak on a recommendation from someone at The Book Cellar (one of those little handwritten cards on the shelf). Even though the subject -- famous regional sweet treats -- didn't excite me that much, I enjoyed his writing style. I bought (Not that You Asked) at the same store.

The book gets off to a rough start with a series of letters written to Oprah which aren't as funny as Almond probably intended. The next section about Kurt Vonnegut is fascinating even though I've never read his work. The essays about sex are hilarious, and "Red Sox Anti-Christ" is a thoughtful tale about what makes us baseball fans as well as the perils of being a hometown fan outside your hometown. The next few essays are a mixed bag, but I really enjoyed the "In Tribute to My Republican Homeys" section. This includes the story of how he quit his adjunct professorship at Boston College because they invited Condoleezza Rice to give a commencement speech. Then he describes his experiences within the right wing noise machine, which he calls the Hateocracy, culminating in an appearance on the always fair and balanced Hannity & Colmes show. The final essays about having a baby are pretty good, too.

This week, I also finished George Plimpton's Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur's Ordeal in Professional Baseball. I first knew Plimpton as the TV spokesman for the Intellivision video game system, which I owned and loved (everyone else I knew had Atari 2600s) and later as the author of a Sports Illustrated April Fool's Day 1985 story about pitcher Sidd Finch.

Out of My League takes place in 1960, the first of a series of regular-guy-plays-with-pros adventures that Plimpton documented in Sports Illustrated articles and books. The author pitches against top hitters in Yankee Stadium prior to a post-season all-star game. I was surprised that he didn't practice more for his big day, but he didn't have much time. The most amazing thing to the modern reader is the part where Plimpton is told that if he wants to interest the major leaguers, he has to get Sports Illustrated to put some money on the line. How much? Well, this is 1960, so it takes $1,000 to be divided among the eight hitters (pitchers didn't bat) on the team that gets the most hits off Plimpton. These days, you couldn't get a pro baseball player into the on-deck circle for $125!

I'm always skeptical of books that use "hilarious" in their subtitles, but Out of My League is pretty amusing. It's also a quick read that should entertain any baseball fan, especially one familiar with the stars of the time. However, I can't help thinking it may have been better in its original, more concise magazine form. Also, the $12.95 list price is a bit steep for such a thin volume, but I found it at Half Price Books for $1.00.

Current tally: 10 books finished, 9 books acquired

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Aloud

My wife enjoys it when I read to her, especially while she gets ready for work. For this purpose, the ideal book is easy to pick up and put down. With only 10-15 minutes per day, it's not worth following a plot. Books with very short stories or entries like trivia and quotations work well. Along those lines, I recently finished reading The Book of Classic Insults, edited by Tom Steele.

As such collections go, it's fairly entertaining. The insults are mostly from famous people and often are directed at other famous people. We particularly enjoyed the chapters about actors and politicians. I suppose the book's weakness is that one needs a broad background to fully enjoy it. There were a few insults that didn't mean much to us because we'd never heard of the target.

I am also linking to some other books that we've read "together."

Current tally: 8 books finished, 7 books acquired

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Physics of Football

Late last year, I worked on a chapter for an engineering book. While it excited certain mathematical brain cells that have been understimulated since I left the computer programming world, it also reminded me of my greatest academic shortcoming. Dig into my transcripts past that perfect GPA and you'll find a dark secret: I managed to get through college without taking a physics class. At the time, I was determined not to take any science class that required lab time. Looking back, however, this left a rather large hole in my scientific background.

Last year also marked a sort of rediscovery of football. I used to watch it all the time when I lived at home, but with rare exceptions (a few Bears games and Super Bowls), I've ignored it for the past 15 years or so.

With those thoughts in mind, one can imagine that The Physics of Football: Discover the Science of Bone-Crunching Hits, Soaring Field Goals, and Awe-Inspiring Passes by Timothy Gay practically leapt off the shelf at Half Price Books, especially since it was only $2 on clearance. The idea for the book came from a series of short videos that Gay created at the University of Nebraska to simultaneously educate and entertain fans (which also led to some work with the NFL Films people).

For the most part, I enjoyed the book. Gay admits that physics cannot explain everything -- particularly that it can't predict who will win -- but he highlights certain aspects of the game where some physics background helps to understand what happens and why. For example, a kicked ball has a different range depending on whether it spirals or tumbles, as well as whether it's kicked at sea level or in Denver. In other words, air drag and air density affect the distance of a kick.

This book was much easier to read than I had feared. I understood more than I expected, although my eyes glazed over during Chapter 6 when Gay was explaining the forces acting on a passed football as it spirals. Without a physics background, I can't judge whether Gay hit all the important points, but he definitely gave me some new insights about football. I wish I had read this earlier in the season so I could apply them while watching a game. In general, I'd say anyone interested in a cerebral approach to football would enjoy reading The Physics of Football.

Current tally: 7 books finished, 7 books acquired

Monday, January 19, 2009

Not a Drop to Drink: America's Water Crisis [and What You Can Do]

Sub-zero high temperatures last week kept me in the house (the greatest perk of freelancing, no doubt), so I made some progress toward rebalancing acquisitions versus completions.

I have a peculiar interest in books about water issues. Ever since I read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert seven or eight years ago, this stuff just fascinates me. Now I've reached the point where whenever an author refers to another book about water issues, the odds are better than 50-50 that I've already read it. I have more books about the subject than most Midwestern libraries.

It was once hard to find books about water, but there has been a flood (sorry) of them in the past few years as problems become more acute all over the world. Almost all of them state that water is becoming "the new oil" in terms of scarcity and conflict. I first saw Not a Drop to Drink: America's Water Crisis [and What You Can Do] by Ken Midkiff in my local bookstore in December 2008, although it came out in 2007.

The book serves as a decent introduction to the range and severity of water problems in the United States. It discusses the Ogallala Aquifer going dry, the Colorado River being overallocated, and the looming threat of privatization. Midkiff scores points for including (albeit briefly) some regional issues that aren't mentioned in similar books, as well as discussing the negatives of solutions such as desalination plants and Arctic icebergs. He also devotes more coverage to privatization, which is rarely addressed in general books that tend to focus on scarcity. Unfortunately, most topics are not covered to a satisfying depth.

The "What You Can Do" part of the title caught my attention even though I'm too pessimistic and jaded to ever be much of an activist. Midkiff didn't really convince me otherwise; I still think money and power will determine the outcome of most water wars regardless of the sign-wielding, parched masses.

Overall, Not a Drop to Drink is an adequate Cliffs Notes about American water issues. If you haven't been paying attention to water troubles, it will bring you up to speed and perhaps inspire you to read further. Alas, for someone well-read in the subject, there isn't enough new ground covered to make the book particularly noteworthy. I have included links to some other water books that I like below.

Current tally: 6 books finished, 7 books acquired

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Challenge's First Challenge

Everything was going well as of January 4. I had finished three books and managed to stay out of bookstores. Then I got an e-mail from After-Words, one of my favorite used bookstores, announcing that any book that has been sitting on their shelves since 2006 or earlier is 50% off in January and February. I had a dentist appointment near the store last Monday, and I couldn't imagine missing a 50% off sale. As an additional incentive, $31 in store credit was waiting for me at After-Words from books I sold there last year.

To make a long story short, I bought seven books, which put me four books behind for 2009. I decided there was a little wiggle room in my resolution -- I don't strictly have to maintain a positive balance every day of the year. I limited myself to few enough books that I can catch up soon, and I didn't buy books that weren't part of the sale.

On Wednesday, I finished Them: Adventures With Extremists by Jon Ronson. This was one of my Powell's purchases from June 2007, and I don't know why I took so long getting around to it. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats (which investigates secret government/military experiments). In Them, the author hangs out with a colorful cast of people who fervently believe that an international conspiracy (Bilderberg Group, Illuminati, et al., though surprisingly Freemasonry isn't mentioned) controls the world from a secret room. Among these "extremists" are a Ku Klux Klan leader, a Muslim who calls himself Bin Laden's man in Britain, Randy Weaver and his daughter (of the infamous Ruby Ridge incident), a paranoid but determined magazine editor, and a radio talk show host who raised money to rebuild the Branch Davidian compound. Ronson shows that these people aren't necessarily evil or insane, despite how the mainstream media often portray them, but he also has some downright weird experiences along the way. An intriguing undercurrent is that Ronson is Jewish, and many of these people/groups are notoriously Anti-Semitic. He also finds that the Anti-Semite label has been used to smear extremists regardless of their actual feelings about Jews.

Overall, Them is an entertaining and insightful book. Ronson uses lots of dialogue and humor to put a human face on people that we tend to blindly label. While he expresses his doubts, he doesn't harshly judge these people. I got the feeling Ronson may have a similar position to mine: I'm not quite paranoid enough to believe it, but I'm not so naïve that I'd be surprised to find out it's true.

I bought Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed by Annabelle Gurwitch last year after my dad got fired from his job of 35 years. I thought I'd read it and pass it along to cheer him up. Alas, the book is mostly about Hollywood people who got fired from crappy jobs and went on to fame and fortune, so I don't think it would provide much solace to someone like my dad. I left it half-finished a few months ago and read the last 100 pages this weekend. As one might expect, this collection of termination stories is a mixed bag. Some tales are hilarious, others okay, and many forgettable. I would have enjoyed this book more if it had included more stories from "regular" people and fewer tales from Hollywood screenwriters. Gurwitch also made a documentary called Fired!, which is available on Netflix (I haven't seen it).

Current tally: 5 books finished, 7 books acquired

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Challenge Begins

I bought Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed after hearing Al Franken interview author Jared Diamond on his Air America radio show in early 2005. My wife read a couple of chapters, but then it sat in one of many piles of books for years. Last October, a friend pointed it out in a bookstore and recommended it. I sheepishly admitted that I owned it but hadn't read it.

It took me a while to read this 500+ page monster, and I made finishing it my final goal of 2008. Alas, although I got within 25 pages of the end over dinner on New Year's Eve, I frittered away the rest of the night on the computer. Instead, Collapse became the first book I finished in 2009 on New Year's Day.*

This fascinating book examines past societies to determine what factors affected their success or failure and then analyzes the challenges facing contemporary societies. Despite differences in technology and other factors, the past and present are remarkably similar. Although Diamond is quick to say it isn't all about the environment (for example, warring or trading with other societies can be critical), it's clear that how a society manages its limited resources is often the difference between life and death. Anyone curious about past societies like the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi, and the Norse Greenlanders would enjoy this book. Diamond also looks at recent events in Rwanda and China and includes chapters about American "societies" in Montana and Los Angeles. He ends with a discussion of good and bad practices by extractive industries like oil, mining, and logging.

As yet another example of my compulsive book shopping, I bought a big stack of books for my wife to give me for Christmas last year. One of them was Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future by Greg Melville. This is a combination road trip and environmental book. The author and a friend drive a 1985 Mercedes diesel station wagon converted to run on restaurants' waste oil from Vermont to California. After spending a small fortune driving from Chicago to Portland, Oregon and back in 2007, I can appreciate the author's goal of crossing the country without paying for fuel (actually, I did that once, but it took longer). Along the way and in "errands" afterward, they visit renewable energy sites ranging from wind to ethanol to geothermal. It's a quick, entertaining read that covers some important energy trends without getting too deep into the details.

The Great American Road Trip by Eric Peterson is a small-format photo book of unique roadside attractions, most of them man-made. It is packed with color photos of odd museums, folk art creations, and roadside vernacular architecture (i.e., a hot dog stand shaped like a giant hot dog). It's light on text, but it offers a lot of travel ideas. I have a stack of books like this one that I reference once I have a destination in mind to make sure I don't miss something interesting along the way.

For some reason, I abandoned The Great American Road Trip with 50 pages to go a few months ago. When I found it amidst a pile of clothes next to the bed last weekend (along with several other unfinished books), I saw an easy way to get ahead on the Book Challenge. By January 4, I had finished three books and purchased none.

* I must mention that I didn't come up with my resolution until New Year's Day -- I did not deliberately put off finishing Collapse just to help my resolution. But since I need all the help I can get, it counts!

Book Challenge 2009

Normally, I scoff at New Year's resolutions, but for some reason, I made a ton of them for 2009. In retrospect, it's more like a to-do list, but if turning tasks into resolutions motivates me, I guess that's good. Anyway, the toughest resolution I made this year that I intend to keep (as opposed to merely "good intentions" like weight loss) regards books.

My book habit is out of control, as ridiculous and pathetic as heroin addiction, albeit not as unhealthy. It's been growing for a while (recall my 30-book purchase at Powell's in Portland in June 2007), but last year was just insane. Anytime I went somewhere, whether downtown or in the suburbs, I stopped at a bookstore or two on the way home. I began buying groceries in Niles so I could visit two bookstores in the process (this also fed another addiction, smoked bacon and cheddar panini at the Corner Bakery). When I finished a book, I often celebrated by buying several more. I hit every sale at Half Price Books, including a whirlwind tour of every store in the Chicago area for the "20% off everything" Labor Day sale. I bought so many books that weekend that I hid several bags full from my wife out of embarrassment (if that isn't a "cry for help," I don't know what is!). Plus I used an endless stream of e-mail coupons at Borders and Barnes & Noble. I was completely out of control.

Now I have piles upon piles of unread books. You'd think I was starting a library.

Ideally, I would stop buying books cold turkey, but I know that's unrealistic. Besides, I love a deal, and when Borders sends me a 40% off coupon (as opposed to the usual 20-30% offers), it would kill me not to use it. But I have to rein in this compulsive behavior somehow.

So here's my resolution:
To finish reading more books than I acquire.
Note the specific wording. I say finish reading instead of just reading. Finishing a book is more important than strictly reading the entire thing during 2009. That gives me an incentive to plow through my stack of half-read books. Since finish works in my favor, I counter it with acquire rather than purchase. That way I can't indulge my addiction by asking for a bunch of books for my birthday or Christmas.

My wife's first reaction was utter disbelief, so I know I'm in for a challenge!

This blog has been courting death for several months, but I hope to repurpose it for my resolution. That means it will be mostly about books (maybe I should rename it DJReader?). I'll list every book I finish and try to write at least a brief review, along with updates on my positive or negative balance for the year.