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

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Triple Play

It's been a slow June so far, but today I finished three books! (Although I reviewed News Junkie earlier today, I finished it several days ago.) Not only is my resolution going well at the moment -- nine books is my biggest margin yet -- but I am also on track for my informal goal of reading 100 books this year.

To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski - This book is getting a bit old, but then, so am I. Consequently, I remember most of the failures described in this book such as the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse and the DC-10 crash near O'Hare Airport. I've been on an engineering kick lately -- we watched a Discovery Channel DVD of Extreme Engineering last night -- perhaps because most of the money I made last year involved an engineering project whereas this year I haven't made much money, period. I never thought I'd recall 2008 as the good old days. But anyway... While I enjoyed this book, I understand why Amazon reviewers criticize Petroski's writing. He often belabors his points, but the overkill helps lay people like me to comprehend thoroughly. The book's premise is that engineers learn more from one failure than a thousand successes. This idea transcends engineering, so it isn't exactly a revelation. Regardless, it's an interesting book for anyone who wants to learn more about engineering and the stories behind some well-known disasters.

Between You and Me: A Little Book of Bad English by James Cochrane - I buy a lot of books about language. I think it's helpful to remind oneself of correct usage occasionally to resist developing bad writing or speaking habits. This book is good but short. One of the entries I never thought about was lowest common denominator -- in math, the LCD is usually a relatively high number, but that isn't how we use the term in general (Cochrane laments this as "a Lost Cause"). Between You and Me also includes George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language." At first, I dismissed this as a lame way to stretch out a too-short book. When I read the essay, however, I recognized that Orwell and Cochrane have similar perspectives, which makes the inclusion worthwhile. Believe it or not, I managed to get through high school and college without reading Animal Farm or 1984, so this is the first time I've read anything by Orwell. I enjoyed it more than I expected.

F My Life by Maxime Valette, Guillaume Passaglia, and Didier Guedj - This one is just plain fun. Anytime you feel like you're having a bad day, read this book or go to http://www.fmylife.com/ and you'll find someone whose day is worse. Of course, one might ask, "Why buy the book when you can read the Web site for free?" First, I wanted to cheer up my wife, and she's the anti-DJWriter as far as the Internet goes -- I spend many hours a day online, she spends several minutes a month. Second, I would hope that the authors filtered out the lousier Web entries. Suffice it to say*, if you like the Web site, you'll like the book. It's probably best in smaller doses (the format gets repetitive after a while), so keep it where you can read it for 5-10 minutes at a time.

Current tally: 50 books finished, 41 books acquired

* I initially left "it" out of this phrase, and then I remembered something from Cochrane's book: "If one is going to use this rather old-fashioned expression one should get it right: suffice it to say, meaning 'let it be enough to say'. Suffice to say is ignorant and lazy." Ouch.

News Junkie

Readers of this blog know that one of my pet peeves is when a book purports to be about a particular subject but turns into a memoir. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't enjoy a good memoir every so often, as long as it isn't disguised as something else.

Jason Leopold was one of the reporters who covered the California energy crisis and exposed Enron. Before he became a reporter, he was addicted to cocaine and stole to support his habit. News Junkie is about falling into addiction and trying to start over with the constant fear that the past will be exposed. This fear leads him into a self-destructive cycle, and his life falls apart multiple times. He eventually discovers that the thrill of writing an exclusive news story is almost as exciting as scoring a line of coke, the classic case of replacing one addiction with another.

News Junkie offers advice and inspiration for beat reporters everywhere. Leopold explains how one cultivates trusted sources, which is probably even more important than writing well. Indeed, in spite of the front cover art, I picture the author talking on the phone rather than typing at a keyboard. He also describes how he sometimes manipulated sources by playing them against each other, but he takes the viewpoint that it's okay as long as the story is true (some journalism ethicists may disagree with this aggressive perspective).

Leopold's memoir illustrates a complex, realistic character. He isn't entirely likable -- he confesses to doing some pretty rotten things -- yet the reader can't help rooting for him. It's refreshing to read a memoir where the author doesn't carry on about how great he is, although the self-criticism can get a bit whiny at times. This book also describes the California energy crisis, Enron's demise, and the reporting behind it all. Leopold was definitely fortunate to be "in the right place at the right time." Overall, it's an entertaining page-turner. I actually finished the last 20 pages in a parking lot because I couldn't wait until I got home!

UPDATE 08/17/2009 - For anyone interested in further exploring the "junkie journalist memoir" genre, see The Night of the Gun.

Current tally: 47 books finished, 41 books acquired

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Scurlock & Spurlock

One benefit of having a huge backlog of books to read is that I can group my selections by theme. My first two books of June are companions to documentary films by rhyming author-directors James Scurlock and Morgan Spurlock. I also rented the movies from Netflix for a multimedia experience. I have included Amazon links to the books and DVDs below.

Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit by James Scurlock - This book was a steal at the Borders outlet in Gurnee Mills last year -- only $1.98 -- which I finally got around to reading. The book and movie are a good pair for anyone interested in abusive financial practices and the roots of the current economic malaise. My wife was fascinated by Maxed Out -- she had no idea of how banks target consumers -- and she's probably the ideal reader/viewer. As someone more familiar with devious bank tactics, I found the book and movie interesting but not shocking. The greatest shortcoming of both, especially the movie, is that they are largely anecdotal. As such, they do a better job of illustrating the problems than offering solutions or explaining how we got here (though the book provides a bit of credit card history). There are other problems. The national debt is covered so briefly that it might as well have been excluded. Also, almost everyone is portrayed as an innocent victim, as if there is no personal responsibility in the act of acquiring and using a credit card. Scurlock's effort to draw attention to the credit card problem is commendable, but clearly not enough people got the message before the financial meltdown of late 2008.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? by Morgan Spurlock - In contrast to Maxed Out, Spurlock uses a humorous perspective on an even more serious subject. Under the guise of looking for the Al Qaeda leader, Spurlock travels the world and examines terrorism, Islam, the Israeli-Palistinean conflict, and U.S. involvement in all of the above. I suppose it's no secret that Bin Laden remains unfound, but Spurlock discovers much about the cultures and religions of the Middle East. He talks to people in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East including a former IRA terrorist, Muslims in the slums outside Paris, Egyptian radicals, a Moroccan publisher, Palestinian refugees, Saudi women, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and Shimon Peres, former prime minister and current president of Israel (the movie omits the European portion of Spurlock's journey except in the bonus material). This book exceeded my expectations; I thought it would be merely entertaining, but it is also thoughtful and informative. One of our country's greatest failures in the "Global War On Terror" is in misunderstanding or not knowing anything about the people, religion, and conflicts of the Middle East. For that reason, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? should be required viewing/reading for all Americans.

Current tally: 46 books finished, 40 books acquired