Thursday, February 26, 2009

Breaking Even

I read three books last week to even up my finished/acquired counts.

The Tunguska Fireball: Solving One of the Great Mysteries of the 20th Century by Surendra Verma - I've long been aware of this, but a passage in The Ridiculous Race inspired me to finally buy a book about it:

Steve: A Story About How Empty Siberia Is
In 1908, either a meteor, a comet, or an alien spacecraft (scientists are still arguing) exploded over northern Siberia. The blast blew down something like eighty million trees, flattening an area of 830 square miles. This explosion -- the Tunguska event -- was so huge that if it had happened in New York it would've annihilated Manhattan and blown out windows in Boston and Washington. But because it happened in Siberia, nobody paid much attention. No one even bothered trekking to the explosion site for thirteen years. When they got there, they concluded, "Man, good thing this happened in Siberia!" and trekked back home.
That's a loose summary of The Tunguska Fireball. Verma describes the event through firsthand accounts and scientific evidence, and then he examines numerous explanations. The Tunguska event was most likely a meteorite/asteroid or a comet, but over the years it has been attributed to all sorts of scientific phenomena (a mini black hole, an anti-matter rock, and so forth), alien intervention, or man-made experiments. There is no consensus because the known facts don't completely support any of the proposed answers.

The Tunguska Fireball is a fascinating look at an awesome event and the ongoing debate surrounding it. Although theories veer into some weird science such as anti-matter and mirror matter, Verma explains them plainly enough that no physics degree is required. In fact, the book is surprisingly easy to read considering the subject matter. Anyone interested in astronomy, astrophysics, or atmospheric phenomena would enjoy this book. It's easily the best of the three reviewed in this blog entry. Note: I read a hardcover edition; the paperback is titled The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball.

UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don't Have to be Crazy to Believe by Richard Belzer - The comedian/actor/author loves conspiracy theories (in a nod to Lee Harvey Oswald, his HBO comedy special and his CD are titled Another Lone Nut), and here he conducts an amusing but not dismissive survey of the evidence and what the government wants us to believe. My wife loves this conspiracy stuff, especially when written in a sarcastic or humorous tone (Belzer even gives a shout-out to one of her favorite books, The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen), so I read this book aloud to her.

The title is somewhat misleading. JFK should come first because Belzer's questions surrounding November 22, 1963 take up slightly more than half of the book. The UFO material ranges from sightings and the Roswell incident to some really "out there" stuff, such as, "The moon is populated by aliens, and we haven't been back since the Apollo missions because we are not welcome." Belzer admits up front that some of these theories are pretty nutty. As for Elvis, the only mention the King gets is when Belzer quotes George H.W. Bush dismissing JFK conspiracies by saying that some people also think Elvis is still alive. Yeah, as if you'd believe anything a former CIA director says about JFK!

Belzer's writing style is entertaining, and UFOs, JFK, and Elvis is a pretty quick read. A lot of weird things happened in Dallas, and it's quite possible that the Warren Commission didn't give us the complete story. On the other hand, it's kind of scary to think that anyone gives credence to some of the more outlandish scenarios in this book. There isn't anything new here for those who have studied a lot of conspiracy stuff, but the humorous presentation makes it fun for those of us who have suspicions but live a bit closer to reality.

Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home by Gil Reavill - I'm not really into the CSI shows or true crime stories, but I read an article about a biohazard clean-up company that piqued my interest. My wife had bought this book but hadn't read it (granted, she's not as bad as I am in that respect), so I checked it out of our overflowing library.

The author tags along with Plainfield, IL-based Aftermath, Inc. and helps out on assorted postmortem clean-up jobs: a murdered family, a shotgun suicide, a corpse that went undiscovered for weeks in July. Reavill is a crime writer, and as such, he structures most tales using the "true crime" formula: introduce someone, draw the reader's interest, and then kill that person in some ghastly fashion. He probably spends as much time telling the stories of the victims as he does describing the clean-up. I consider that a flaw. I wanted to learn about the clean-up business -- if I wanted to read true crime, I'd read true crime.

The book goes further astray toward the end when Reavill meanders off on a navel-gazing tangent: "why does homicide/death interest me as a writer and us as a society." I can't count how many times I thought, Okay, now let's get back to blood spatter and brain pieces. He writes about deaths and murders that occurred when he was a child, which of course have nothing to do with Aftermath, Inc. or cleaning up crime scenes. The author makes much of the book about himself rather than his subject.

Aftermath, Inc. (the company) is based within ten miles of where I grew up. That's good because I could relate to a lot of the stories geographically and bad because my inner fact-checker was always on duty. I cringed when I read, "We left I-90... on the southern edge of Milwaukee." Spotting such obvious errors makes me question the veracity of other facts in the book. On another local note, Reavill writes excessively about the relationship between death and Chicago. John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, and H.H. Holmes are fair game, but the Union Stockyards? Sheesh.

Overall, Aftermath, Inc. is an interesting book when it sticks to the subject in the title. I would have enjoyed it much more had Reavill left out the irrelevant, self-centered musings. His editor deserves to be slapped.

Current tally: 18 books finished, 18 books acquired

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Book-Buying Bender

I did pretty well with my resolution in January, and I made it through almost half of February, too. I was up by six books. But this weekend, circumstances conspired to ruin me. First, Half Price Books sent an e-mail offering 20% off their entire stock for Valentine's Day weekend. Then my wife went somewhere with her mom and left me the car.

Had I stopped after Friday night's visit to Half Price Books in Bloomingdale, I would have been okay. My worst crime was purchasing a thick book that I may never read from cover to cover. I've decided not to count anything that is purely for reference like dictionaries, the World Almanac, price guides, etc. since virtually no one would read such a book from cover to cover, but this book didn't quite fit that definition. Anyway, I bought four books, but I was still ahead by two for the year.

But then came Saturday morning. My wife was still asleep, the car was available, and I hadn't been to Half Price Books in Highland Park in a couple of months. Soon I was speeding north on the Edens Expressway. I only found one book there, and although it didn't justify the drive, at least I still had a positive balance with one more book finished than acquired. On the way home, I stopped at the Corner Bakery for a bacon & cheddar (& scrambled egg) breakfast panini, just minutes before they switched to the lunch menu. But the Corner Bakery is in the same mall complex as... another Half Price Books location. There I bought four more books and put myself deep in the hole resolution-wise.

Gotta go, I've got some reading to do...

Current tally: 15 books finished, 18 books acquired

The Ridiculous Race

Television comedy writers Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran challenged each other to a race around the world without airplanes (one heading west, the other going east), with the winner getting a bottle of 40-year-old Scotch (mmmmm!). The Ridiculous Race is an often hilarious and sometimes surprisingly poignant travelogue about their adventures.

The book shifts between the authors as each tells his own story. This is a good way to present the racing aspect (mercifully, they don't switch back and forth too often). Of the two, I preferred Hely's writing, particularly because he tells more history about the places he visits, which is important for understanding the people he meets. Chandrasekaran's experiences tend to be more superficial, although he has his deeper moments.

A few Amazon reviewers complained that the authors didn't take the race seriously enough. That is true (they do call it ridiculous), but I think the end result is far more entertaining. Besides, racing around the world without taking a little time out to see things would be such a waste. Others say the authors are immature, but heck, they're comedy writers in their late 20s.

The Ridiculous Race is fun to read. Sometimes it's even laugh-out-loud funny. Unfortunately, I can't get too specific without spoiling it. If you enjoy humorous travel-adventure stories, then this book is worth checking out.

Current tally: 15 books finished, 9 books acquired

Power to the People!

When it comes to weight training, it's hard to find a better move than the deadlift. In Power to the People! Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American, Pavel Tsatsouline presents a workout program of just two exercises, the deadlift and the side press (a one-armed overhead barbell (yes, barbell) press, though one may substitute another pressing movement).

I haven't tried that exact routine, but it sounds fairly reasonable (keep in mind that he's talking about strength training, not "body building"). For me, the other training advice in Power to the People! is more valuable than the routine. The author covers a lot of ground and dispels a lot of myths that are widely spread by muscle magazines. He doesn't waste words, either; it doesn't take long to read. That's good because much is worth reading twice.

This book's biggest weakness is its price. For 116 pages with liberal amounts of whitespace (excluding 25-30 pages of advertising in the back for Tsatsouline's other products), the $35 list price is a bit much (of course, anyone who knows me knows that I didn't pay that much). Also the author's "evil Russian" schtick, though sometimes amusing, is pretty dated and probably sounded that way even when this book was first published ten years after the end of the Cold War.

Power to the People! presents a realistic way for mere mortals to build strength, none of that "use fancy machines, take lots of supplements, get huuuuge" garbage one gets from health clubs and fitness magazines. Tsatsouline offers practical, no-nonsense advice that can save readers a lot of time and money.

Current tally: 14 books finished, 9 books acquired

Debunking History: 152 Myths Exploded

First, I must quibble with the subtitle. While "myths exploded" certainly grabs one's attention, "152 Issues Examined" would be more accurate. The questions posed aren't always myths, and the authors don't always come up with definitive rebuttals. One chapter of the book is even titled "Unresolved Problems", so clearly the authors know these aren't all exploding myths. My guess is that the misleading title was stupidly concocted by an editor or publisher (like when my publisher turned "60 Great Road and Trail Rides" into "60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides").

That said, most of the issues and the authors' examinations of them are worth pondering. Many historical events are not as simple as a high school textbook presents them, and the authors are usually careful to consider each question from multiple points of view. All in all, this book is better suited to people who appreciate nuance (like me) as opposed to those who want answers in black & white. Sometimes, however, the authors clearly fail, such as in their weak assessment of the JFK assassination (basically, the Warren Commission says blah blah blah, and a thousand books have been written questioning their findings, but, um, they can't really prove anything). Why bother to include this topic if that's the best they can do?

Most issues originate in the past 350 years of European/British history with a few American "myths" from Paul Revere to Ronald Reagan thrown in for good measure. Although I learned a lot, especially about British and French history, some issues were too foreign (literally and figuratively) or too esoteric. For example, "Did Harold Wilson Lie Over the Devaluation of the Pound, 1967?" As an American born several years after that event, my primary knowledge of Harold Wilson is that he's the "Mr. Wilson" mentioned in the Beatles song "Taxman". Plus currency devaluation is pretty trivial compared to other lies politicians have told. My wife's scattershot approach to reading (which normally drives me nuts) might be better for Debunking History than my insistence on reading every entry.

Aside from a few lame "answers" and some not so interesting "myths", Debunking History is a thought-provoking book that certainly gives the reader a new perspective on many historical events.

Current tally: 13 books finished, 9 books acquired

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Brother Iron, Sister Steel

Dave Draper is a bodybuilding legend. His glory days (Mr. America, Mr. Universe, Mr. World) for the most part came before Arnold, but Draper is still pumping in his 60s.

What sets Brother Iron, Sister Steel apart is the pure joy bursting from its pages. Too many bodybuilders and coaches treat the subject with such dry seriousness that the reader sometimes wonders why they do it. With Draper, it's clear that lifting weights is what he loves, and he wants to share that passion. That's also why he's still advising fellow weight lifters on his Web site while most of his contemporaries have disappeared from the scene.

Another thing I like about this book is that Draper has a fairly open philosophy about training. While he has his preferences (he's big on supersets, for example), he accepts that there are many effective methods of training. This is refreshing in a genre where almost every author claims that his or her way is the single best way of building size and/or strength. Draper even suggests inventing your own moves when you're in a slump just to keep things interesting. He takes an "it's all good" approach, so there's something for everyone here. That said, the usual caveat applies: following the routines of Draper or any other champion without having his genetic gifts won't deliver the same results.

In addition to the expected training and nutrition advice, Draper shares stories from his past ranging from hanging out with other bodybuilders to acting in Hollywood. The book has lots of great photos. Some show his awesome muscle development, while others are delightfully cheesy (like his role as "David the Gladiator" introducing movies in 1963). I like the one where he is holding Sharon Tate overhead during the filming of Don't Make Waves. There is also a chapter of Draper's magazine covers from the 1960s. The photos often look silly and/or dated, but what really cracked me up was reading the teasers on the covers because they are so similar to the teasers on modern muscle magazines -- little has changed over the years.

I'd strongly recommend Brother Iron, Sister Steel to anyone with an interest in weight training or bodybuilding. Draper offers a lot of useful advice and great stories, but above all, this is a joyful book of contagious enthusiasm that makes the reader anxious to hit the weights him/herself.

Current tally: 12 books finished, 9 books acquired

It Ain't Pretty But It's Real

When I moved to Chicago, I couldn't read enough about it. Although I grew up in the metropolitan area, it wasn't the same as calling the big city my home. Alas, after nearly 15 years, much of that enthusiasm has disappeared. Now I've joined the majority of Chicagoans that I once scorned -- the kind who don't visit the museums, marvel at the architecture, or study the city's vivid history. Heck, I haven't even read Erik Larson's The Devil and the White City, surely the best known Chicago book in recent years, though my wife bought me a copy long ago.

So I guess it was out of character for me to be attracted to It Ain't Pretty But It's Real, the second book written by longtime WBBM-TV (Channel 2) newsman John Drummond (the first, which I have not read, being Thirty Years in the Trenches).

Most of the stories in the book are from my lifetime, but I didn't know much about them (I've been a news junkie since at least 1980, but I was more interested in national and international affairs). Drummond digs into the seedy side of Chicago, particularly organized crime. It's colorful stuff, such as the tale of a failed mob hit at a golf course. There are chapters about boxer Tony Zale, tough cop Frank Pape, bank robbers, missing persons, American Nazis, and more, but mobsters dominate, especially later in the book. I didn't know much about the latter-day (i.e., post-Giancana) Chicago Outfit, and this book provides a good introduction. Overall, it is an entertaining, gritty collection from one of Chicago's most famous news reporters.

Current tally: 11 books finished, 9 books acquired