Friday, May 15, 2009

Keeping My Head Above Water

On Mother's Day, my aunt asked how my book challenge was going. "I'm up by five," I proudly announced. Well, on the way home I stopped at Borders and they were having a big clearance sale... and suddenly I was in the hole again. Fortunately, I was close to finishing several books, so now I'm breaking even just a few days later.

Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times by Geoff Nunberg - The title may sound like a Bush-bashing book, but it's not. Going Nucular is a collection of articles and commentaries about words and grammar, especially how meanings have evolved and certain words have gained or lost favor. I bought this at Powell's in June 2007, started reading it a few months later, and then set it aside for over a year. I rediscovered it two-thirds finished a month ago. I mention all this because it illustrates my problem with this book. While I enjoyed most of the essays, I couldn't read many in a row. Even making a concerted effort, I could only get through five or six in one sitting. Yet in small doses, it's an interesting book for anyone who is into words, linguistics, etymology, media, or writing. If you're the kind of person who plays "dictionary roulette" (I can't be the only one), you'll enjoy Nunberg's book.

History's Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them by Stephen Weir - This book, which is titled Encyclopedia Idiotica in the U.S., is a good idea weakly executed. The book briefly examines 50 fateful decisions throughout history, ranging from Adam & Eve to the December 2004 tsunami. As a U.K. book, its choices are biased toward British history. Weir also divines the motivations of the bad deciders, classifying them among the Seven Deadly Sins or the three Cardinal Virtues, but this adds little to the book. I bought the illustrated edition ($9.99 at Barnes & Noble), which is indeed a lovely printing. Weir's writing, however, is another matter entirely. First, his tone is inconsistent. Early entries include funny, sarcastic remarks (my wife asked if this was the same author as in Who Hates Whom), but he doesn't keep them up with any regularity. Worse, his sentence structure is atrocious. Run-ons and lengthy fragments abound, which makes History's Worst Decisions annoying and difficult to read aloud. To top it off, Amazon reviewers note some obvious errors. Being poorly written, factually suspect, and only sporadically funny, this disappointing book isn't worth your time.

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers - I'm a little surprised that I bought this since I'm not much for "indie rock" -- I like many bands that fit the description, but as a category, it's far too broad to have much meaning (ditto for "alternative"). What sold me is the first half of the book. Like me, Sellers was born in 1970, so we experienced many of the same fads and music growing up. His reminiscences about the early days of MTV are hilarious. The book is entertaining until he gets into "indie rock." Then he writes about bands that don't interest me (the Smiths/Morrissey, Joy Division/New Order, Pavement, Guided By Voices). I had to work to plow through those chapters, encouraged by the occasional reference to something I cared about. The appendices are amusing: A is a collection of lists, B is a goofy formula for determining how good a band is, and C is a list of "judgements" rendered on current bands. Bottom line: if you were born when I was, you'll probably like the beginning of the book, but the rest of the book might bore you if you're not into Sellers' favorite bands, especially Guided By Voices.

Current tally: 40 books finished, 40 books acquired

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