Sunday, April 26, 2009

Who Hates Whom

This informative yet amusing book by Bob Harris (Trebekistan), subtitled "Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide", provides a grand overview of trouble spots around the world. The author goes from continent to continent, describing wars and tenuous peaces. He does an admirable job of wading through and summarizing a lot of complicated ugliness. Americans need this information because our media ignore so much of it -- the author points out several events that we "missed" because they occurred on the day Anna Nicole Smith died, for example.

Although the subject matter is often grim (dictators, oppression, genocide), Harris injects humor here and there. I read this book aloud to my wife, and we particularly enjoyed this passage about Nicaragua:

In 1956, [Anastasio] Somoza was fatally shot by a poet, proving that the gun is mightier than the pen. One of Somoza's sons, also named Anastasio, became the new dictator. Nicaragua clearly needed more poets.
The plentiful maps (quite useful for such unfamiliar regions as Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone) strike a similar wry tone.

Incredibly, Harris manages to remain positive about humankind after all of this awfulness, concluding with an expression of hope. He points out that although war seems inevitable and never-ending, we really have evolved rapidly -- just 150 years ago, the U.S. had slavery, European nations had colonies, and women couldn't vote (by the way, those colonial days figure prominently in a lot of current conflicts).

I'd recommend Who Hates Whom to anyone who wants a general understanding of conflicts around the world. Though certainly not comprehensive (the subtitle admits that), this engaging, entertaining book is a good place to start.

Current tally: 35 books finished, 29 books acquired

The View from Babylon

Continuing with the entertainment industry/Los Angeles theme of the last two books, my next choice from the endless, unread stacks was The View from Babylon: The Notes of a Hollywood Voyeur by Donald Rawley. Although Rawley wrote many fictional works (poems, short stories, screenplays, novels), this is a collection of non-fiction essays about Los Angeles and Hollywood. As the title suggests, the subject matter is often tawdry and unsettling. He writes about a homicidal female bodybuilder, suburban meth addicts who kill their babies, and snarky movie industry people. It's not all "downer" material, though. For example, Rawley visits Tippi Hedren at her Shambala animal sanctuary. reviewers suggest that one must be a Los Angeleno to appreciate this book, but I disagree. I've only been there once, for about three days nearly 20 years ago, but I still enjoyed this book immensely. It's a quick, memorable read, and Rawley writes better than most.

Current tally: 34 books finished, 29 books acquired

Monday, April 20, 2009

Television with the 'koffs

Last week, I read two very different books that together span the past three decades of network television.

The Last Great Ride by Brandon Tartikoff and Charles Leerhsen - Tartikoff is often lauded as the programming genius who brought NBC back to life in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of popular series including The Cosby Show, Cheers, Family Ties, Hill Street Blues, and many more. I grew up with these shows, so I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is written in an anecdotal format rather than chronological, which suits the material well. The style is conversational; it's like having dinner with Tartikoff and hearing him recount tales from his career. Although the content is obviously dated, anyone who watched prime-time TV in the 1980s should love this book.

Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff - This author's career began as Tartikoff's was ending (with a couple years of overlap). Billion-Dollar Kiss is more chronological than The Last Great Ride, and it also provides much more historical context. Rather than just telling about his own experiences, Stepakoff devotes many pages to the evolution of the television industry and the Writers Guild of America. He starts working near the end of the independent studio era and then describes the effects of deregulation in 1996, followed by the stock market crash of 2000 and the rise of "reality" programming. Along the way, he gives insight into the daily life of a TV writer. Although Dawson's Creek figures prominently in the subtitle and in Stepakoff's career, this book isn't really "about" that series (which was fine with me since I never watched it). Billion-Dollar Kiss is a good history and description of the TV writing world that should interest anyone curious about how TV series are made, especially someone considering a career in the industry.

Current tally: 33 books finished, 28 books acquired

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Solid Week of Reading

The Walrus Was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked - I went through a heavy Beatles phase about 20 years (not coincidentally on the heels of a Charles Manson phase). Back then, I bought and read at least a dozen books about them. Although I still like their music, I'm not the Beatle-ologist I used to be. But while I was looking for something else at Half Price Books, this book by Alan Clayson and Spencer Leigh caught my eye.

I enjoyed the way this book reawakened brain cells last accessed years ago, but it's not a good book. Most of it is trivial or esoteric, and I disagree with some of the authors' debunkings. For example, they contend that John Lennon was not a pacifist. Aside from an admittedly unconfirmed allegation that he gave money to the IRA, their argument is based on several incidents where Lennon got into fights. But that just proves he was a mean drunk, not that he supported war or violence as a solution. I hardly think punching some guy at a party in 1963 makes Lennon a non-pacifist any more than it makes him a pugilist. There's a lot of crap like that in this book. Many debunkings are merely conjecture and opinion. I expected some eye-opening revelations, but I found little that I didn't remember from somewhere in the deep recesses of my teenage mind. This book does have a lot of info about the early years in Liverpool, but I was never particularly interested in the details of the band's origins. There is little about the music (less than 20%), which is ultimately the most important thing about the Beatles. Also, I found it ironic that their selected bibliography criticizes books that lack indices since this book doesn't have one, either.

One Knee Equals Two Feet (And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football) - I wasn't sure whether I'd like this 1986 John Madden book, but when I saw the chapter titled "Why Payton Is The Best," I figured I couldn't go wrong. Actually, I know the players of the 1970s and 1980s much better than I know the current NFL, so this book was a lot of fun to read. My favorite chapters are the meat of the book where Madden names his favorite players at each position and explains what made them great. There are many good anecdotes, too. This is easily the best book out of the four here, and it only cost me $1!

Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages - This book is a disappointment. I've read several similar books, and Stupid History repeats many stories I've seen before. Author Leland Gregory employs too many corny puns, and some of this "stupid history" is just random "fun facts" with little or no historical value (isn't there enough real history to fill a book?). Even worse, there are mistakes. For example, Gregory asserts that Eugene Debs is the only person ever to run for president while in prison. But Leonard Peltier ran for president in 2004. The book is copyright 2007, so the author should have known. Amazon reviewers cite other errors, as well. I wouldn't recommend it and I definitely wouldn't trust it.

50 Ways to Build Muscle Fast: The Ultimate Guide to Building Bigger Muscles - I started reading this late last year and came back to it this week. I put it down because I didn't agree with some of author Dave Tuttle's suggestions, but in retrospect, I was being a bit hard on him. Aside from the typical volume training/isolated body parts silliness and a bit too much rah-rah about supplements (Tuttle's specialty), there are some good ideas here. There isn't a lot of new info, but it is useful as a quick refresher about a variety of training concepts. The end of the book is primarily motivational, which never hurts. All in all, there's nothing "ultimate" about this guide, but it's worth reading if it's cheap (as my copy was).

Current tally: 31 books finished, 26 books acquired

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Braver Than I'll Ever Be

This story caught my attention because it's about a bicycle tourist from my sort-of hometown*, Montgomery, IL:
In 18 months on the road, Isai Madriz has pedaled nearly 12,000 miles from his family's home in Montgomery through Central America and along the western coast of South America.
That alone makes him pretty brave. You couldn't pay me to ride through the notoriously dicey political environment of Latin America. But the kicker is Madriz's story about Patagonia:
The only food available here on the vast pampas of Patagonia is califate, a small fruit that has a center full of seeds. Llamas, emus and hares are the animals in this region, but they proved to be very difficult to trap. The moment came when I didn't have anything at hand to eat and, without any calafates or some succulent insect in sight, I turned to looking for those unfortunate critters who had died crossing the road. Hares adorned the highway, but the majority were flattened or bloated and, without question, I wasn't about to spend another day like that night south of Iquique, in Chile, when I was poisoned by algae. Fortunately I found a semi-fresh hare.
I cannot imagine how starved I would have to be to turn to roadkill for sustenance. And that's what makes Madriz braver than I'll ever be!

* I didn't really live in Montgomery, but I had a Montgomery postal address.

Resolution Reflections

Now that the first quarter of 2009 has passed, this is a good time to evaluate "Book Challenge 2009." My resolution was to finish reading more books than I acquire. This challenge has been about as difficult as I expected, a series of regular gains wiped out by occasional shopping sprees. Unfortunately, I was behind by one book as of March 31st, although I've since begun to rebuild a positive balance.

In the process of trying to keep this resolution, I've discovered a few things:
  1. I am learning that it will be almost as big a challenge to review every book I finish. I should have expected that since I have at least 30 books piled up around my computer from last year that I never got around to reviewing online (and probably never will). Although I could cop out with one-line reviews, I'll try to continue writing at least a paragraph about each book.
  2. The public nature of my resolution has influenced my shopping. I have rejected several books because I really didn't want the world to know I had spent (wasted) money and time on them. I guess that's a positive thing since it kept me from buying books.
  3. I've never tracked my reading statistics before. After finished 24 books in the first quarter, I've decided to shoot for 100 books for the year (and I hope to buy fewer than 100!).
  4. Reviewing the back-and-forth of the finished/acquired counts, it has become clear to me that I will never come anywhere near "catching up." I'm not terribly surprised, but it is disheartening. I feel like Sisyphus.

Okay, enough navel-gazing -- I've got reading to do!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Travels With My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago

Following in the footsteps of medieval Christians seeking forgiveness for their sins, Englishman Tim Moore decides to walk the Way of St. James, a 500-mile pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to the cathedral of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. To lighten his burden and make things more interesting, he procures a donkey for the journey. Having no prior donkey experience, Moore has to learn along the way, adding another dimension to the usual pilgrimage tale. He approaches the long walk as a non-believer, so this isn't a religious meditation. He does show a sort of irreverent respect for the legendary journey, though.

Moore provides an entertaining history of the pilgrimage, referencing guides and journals from the past 1,000 years, often with understandable skepticism. On his journey, he meets dozens of interesting characters and peppers the travelogue with humor and sarcasm. His donkey, Shinto (an amusing name considering this is a Catholic pilgrimage), becomes a celebrity. Kids want to pet him (though older ones tease him), elders who perhaps remember a less mechanized world gaze at him fondly, and a number of people contribute grains and grasses to sate his appetite.

Moore is sometimes compared to Bill Bryson (as Travels With My Donkey is likened to A Walk In The Woods), but I'd say Moore is coarser and more curmudgeonly. I formed this opinion while reading French Revolutions, wherein the author bicycles the Tour de France course as a tourist, but it fits this book, too. By the end of Travels With My Donkey, however, Moore softens considerably, though he still cannot resist photographing Shinto's bodily functions.

I read this book aloud to my wife, who loves all things equine. I found it rather difficult. Moore's sentence structures are hard to anticipate, and the mixture of Anglicisms, French, and Spanish weren't easy to enunciate. I'd say it is written at a more complex level than the average mass market book.

Travels With My Donkey (published as Spanish Steps in the UK) is a funny, entertaining tale, better than French Revolutions. Many armchair travelers -- particularly those who are not easily offended -- will enjoy going along for the walk. I just wish Moore had included some photographs.

Current tally: 27 books finished, 25 books acquired

You Can Lead a Politician to Water, But You Can't Make Him Think

It is a testament to my book buying addiction that I have absolutely no recollection of purchasing this book. Heck, I don't even remember ever seeing it before. With the subtitle "Ten Commandments for Texas Politics," it probably wouldn't get prominent display in an Illinois bookstore anyway. The price tag says I got it from Half Price Books (which one?) sometime after April 2008, but that's all I know. Anyway, I was looking for a book to take to dinner last week (I never dine alone, but I usually have a book for a partner since my wife works nights), and I found it on the "to read" shelf amid several hundred other volumes.

That's not to say that I didn't want this book. I have about 10 of Kinky's books, and I've even read most of them. If I lived in Texas, I would have voted for him for governor in 2006. And that's the focus of this book, Friedman's independent 2006 Texas gubernatorial campaign. It's not a straight-up memoir, but rather a collection of tales about campaigning and what he might have done if elected. I'd describe it as more of a campaign souvenir than anything else. It's even illustrated with political cartoons, photos, and magazine covers.

You Can Lead a Politician to Water is a quick read; by the time I finished my fifth or sixth Coke refill, I was more than halfway finished. Friedman actually has some good ideas about government, and it's a shame he didn't win. Following in the footsteps of Rick Perry and G.W. Bush, he couldn't possibly have done any worse! I like his "Five Mexican Generals" solution to the immigration problem. Kinky left me in tears at the end with his heartfelt tribute to writer Molly Ivins, who gave him one of his best campaign slogans: "Why the hell not?"

The book is thin, only 128 pages, and probably not worth the $22.00 list price to most people. Some of the material is recycled from elsewhere, and many of the jokes will be familiar to longtime fans. But if you voted for Kinky -- or would have if you lived in Texas -- or you care about Texas politics (which I do, for some odd reason), then You Can Lead a Politician to Water, But You Can't Make Him Think is worth checking out.

Current tally: 26 books finished, 25 books acquired

Friday, April 03, 2009

Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies

This book by David L. Robb is a real eye-opener. It explores the influence the Pentagon exerts on filmmakers who use military equipment or bases in their movies. If a movie's credits thank the armed forces for assistance, there's a good chance the Department of Defense (DoD) edited the script. The military has played a similar role in certain TV programs. JAG is an obvious one, but even Lassie and The Mickey Mouse Club were altered by the DoD.

What the DoD really wants are recruiting films, rah-rah stories like Top Gun that make teenagers enlist. The Pentagon film office examines the script and sends the producer a list of changes that must be made. Sometimes it's just a few lines of dialogue, often it's a scene or two, but occasionally the entire story is rejected. Films that address racism or sexism are unlikely to get support (because, of course, those do not exist in the U.S. military!). Even when history is on the filmmaker's side, the military will insist on its own version of events. To get DoD approval, a movie must show the military in a positive light. Without approval, a movie will cost millions more to make (although the producers pay to use military resources, it's cheaper than fabricating their own), or the entire project may be abandoned. Politics and business relationships come into play as well -- a studio would rather kill a movie that criticizes the military than jeopardize future DoD cooperation on other projects.

Some may view this as a logical quid pro quo -- you can use our toys as long as you don't make us look bad. But it is more insidious than that. At best, it's propaganda. At worst, it's censorship. The author argues that Congress is violating the Constitution whenever it passes appropriations bills to fund the Pentagon film office ("Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech...").

Robb cites dozens of examples of Pentagon-movie industry conflicts, talking to people on both sides and reproducing documents that dictate changes to filmmakers. He provides enough background that I enjoyed the book without having seen many of the films discussed. For those that I have seen, it was fascinating to learn how different the original scripts were. After reading Operation Hollywood, I may never be able to watch a war movie again without wondering whether it was edited by the Pentagon.

Current tally: 25 books finished, 25 books acquired