Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Geography of Bliss

I stalked this book. After seeing the hardcover edition, I regularly searched for an used copy at Half Price Books. When the paperback came out in January, I bided my time, waiting for a good price. When Borders added The Geography of Bliss to their "buy one get one at half price" sale, I waited two more months until I found a second book to fulfill the "BOGO" requirement. I finally acquired this book three weeks ago and started reading it when I finished the books reviewed in the previous blog entry.

Incredibly, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World was worthy of stalking. I enjoyed this book even more than I expected. Excerpts that I read in bookstores had led me to believe it was largely a travelogue, but Eric Weiner goes far deeper. He examines what elements conspire to make us happy, finding pieces of the puzzle in countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Iceland, Bhutan, Thailand, and India. When he feels overwhelmed by all this happiness, he visits Moldova, a notoriously miserable country that doesn't disappoint.

It's rare that a book combines travel and philosophy like The Geography of Bliss does. As a tour guide, Weiner is informative and insightful, not to mention funny. He does a good job of involving himself in the book without making it an "all about me" memoir. In his search, Weiner discovers many ideas (or tactics, perspectives, whatever) that one can borrow and apply regardless of geography. For example, my life would be happier with the Thai concept of mai pen lai (it basically means "never mind," as in "let's just forget about this and move on"). If The Geography of Bliss isn't the best book I've read so far in 2009, it's at least in the top five.

Current tally: 44 books finished, 40 books acquired

Finishing May Strong

I finished a few more books this past week. More significantly, I made it through a Half Price Books storewide 20% off sale without buying anything!

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire -- Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa - I found this book to be a thought-provoking investigation of what we can attribute about "human nature" to evolutionary -- as opposed to environmental -- factors. When I told my wife about some of the findings within, she had a different take: she says it's just a lame justification for men being pigs. The reviewers at Amazon are similarly split as to the book's worth. My biggest complaint: the authors attribute so many behaviors, emotions, and preferences to the desire to reproduce that those of us who don't want children are made to feel outcast at best, genetically flawed at worst.

Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development by Brooks Kubik - If you have an unruly brontosaurus, this book won't be much help, but if you want to build honest muscle, Kubik will tell you how. He looks back to the strongmen of the early 20th century for training methods and inspiration. These men were phenomenally strong long before today's celebrity workouts and supplement-pushing muscle magazines. To be like them, one must work hard with progressively heavier poundages in productive exercises like deadlifts, squats, and presses (no "isolation" exercises or "toning" for those guys). Kubik also recommends pressing, pushing, or pulling sandbags, barrels, cars, and other "odd objects" to build real strength rather than "pumped" but ineffective muscles. He makes a lot of wisecracks about the "chrome and fern" health club denizens who use the same weights year after year, looking pretty but never getting stronger. I had already gravitated toward Kubik's approach before I started reading Dinosaur Training, and I thoroughly enjoyed this informative and inspirational book. Those who have been spinning their wheels using the "modern" training methods advocated by Mr. Steroid Olympia will find Dinosaur Training to be nothing less than a revelation. Order from Brooks Kubik's Web site.

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely and Answers to 100 Other Weird and Wacky Questions About How the World Works by New Scientist - This book examines a number of life's little mysteries. For example, as a longtime AquaFresh user, I finally learned how the manufacturer makes it come out in stripes. I was a bit disappointed with the format because it contains few definitive answers -- most of the questions have several responses contributed by New Scientist readers, and even then, some are not satisfactorily resolved. Nonetheless, the book is fun and quick reading.

Current tally: 43 books finished, 40 books acquired

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bastard of the Day

The bastards at Wyndham Rewards (formerly TripRewards, formerly Super 8 VIP card) closed my account with no warning and screwed me out of several free nights of motel stays. Thanks a lot, assholes.

Wyndham is a typical example of corporate merger mania ruining decent companies. Years ago, Super 8 had a basic "VIP" card that saved loyal customers 10% on a room. When those Wyndham bastards (or whatever they called themselves back then) took over the chain, they got rid of the simple discount and created a convoluted "rewards" program. Damn it, I hate "rewards" programs. Why make a good customer jump through hoops like a circus animal instead of offering a straightforward discount? (I know why -- because many customers won't bother or won't do it within the proper time frame or whatever -- it's the same bullshit anti-consumer philosophy behind mail-in rebates.) It was bad enough when Super 8 increased their rates ridiculously over the past few years with no visible improvement in accommodations or amenities ("Super 8, where you can pay $90 for a $45 room!"), but this is the last straw.

Here is a list of hotel chains where I will not be spending money anymore:
  • Super 8
  • Days Inn
  • Ramada Worldwide
  • Microtel
  • Baymont Inn & Suites
  • Howard Johnson
  • Knights Inn
  • Travelodge
  • Hawthorn Suites
  • Wingate
  • Wyndham Hotels & Resorts
You bastards can take your rewards program and stuff it. You just lost a loyal customer forever. Congratulations!

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically

Jen Garrett indirectly encouraged me to read this book. She recently purchased a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Know-It-All. I commented that I own two books by Jacobs but haven't read either of them. So when it was time to choose another adventure from the stacks, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible became the obvious choice.

Jacobs sets out to follow the Bible, particularly the odd, outdated, or weird edicts, literally. Had he stuck to this narrow perspective (a joke that would have been beaten to death in 100 pages), the book would not have been nearly as enjoyable. Throughout the year, he discovers a lot about religion, the Bible, and the meaning and purpose behind them. It's more of an experiment in spirituality rather than a spiritual journey. Although he remains basically agnostic (saying, "I'm officially Jewish, but I'm Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant"), he gains a certain respect for sacredness and structure.

The Year of Living Biblically straddles an interesting line: it contains enough earnest religious material to merit back cover blurbs from religious men, and yet it is entertaining enough that one needn't be religious to enjoy it (though a Jewish or Christian background helps make the references more familiar). I think Jacobs went a little half-assed on the New Testament (I guess he's Jewish enough that he couldn't quite embrace Jesus), but I still liked the book a lot. It strikes the right mix of humor, religion, skepticism, and memoir.

This book also inspired another project. Because some parts of the Bible seem to promote slavery, Jacobs did the next best thing: he acquired an intern. While serving Jacobs, intern/slave Kevin Roose got the idea of transferring from ultra-liberal Brown University to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University for a semester. The result is The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. I haven't looked at it yet, but it's been positively reviewed at Amazon.

Current tally: 37 books finished, 31 books acquired

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When the Rivers Run Dry

As I've mentioned before, I have read a lot about water issues. Naturally, I have come to a point where many books, especially those without a narrow focus, don't provide much new information. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by Fred Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry: Water -- The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. By presenting dozens of new (to me) case studies, this book shows just how pervasive water issues are. Despite the river-centric title and theme (each of the book's ten sections begins with "When the rivers run dry..." followed by "...the crops fail", "...engineers pour concrete", "...men go to war", and so on), Pearce recognizes that water is a system and that rivers are only part of the picture. He does not give short shrift to aquifers, rainwater, desalination, and other topics. My only complaint is that there should have been many more maps (those included are excellent).

Pearce describes the failures of a U.N. program to drill wells for "safe" water to replace disease-carrying river water in India and Bangladesh. It turns out that the groundwater is often polluted with poisonous levels of fluoride and arsenic (ironically, in one town the only healthy people were those of a lower caste who were not allowed to drink from the new wells). There is a sickening story about farmers using polluted water to grow crops. They try not to touch the water because it burns their skin, and yet they use it to grow the vegetables they eat. Pearce even adds depth to some familiar tales such as the tragedy of the disappearing Aral Sea.

It's hard to choose one definitive book about worldwide water issues, but When the Rivers Run Dry is a good candidate. An Americentric reader may be disappointed (for that person, I'd recommend Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert), but anyone interested in global examples of water-related troubles should thoroughly enjoy this book.

Current tally: 36 books finished, 31 books acquired

Friday, May 01, 2009

Buy Indie Day!

I happened to be walking along Lincoln Avenue today when I heard the siren song of The Book Cellar. Their chalkboard sign was in the foyer because of the rain, but I noticed it said today is Buy Indie Day, a celebration of independent booksellers.

Well, shoot. I wasn't going to buy anything, but how could I walk out empty-handed on Buy Indie Day? Besides, I already feel like a schmuck for annually missing Record Store Day.

I always find interesting things on the front tables at The Book Cellar, and today was no exception. With two paperbacks in hand, I rushed toward the register before my brain could rationalize just a peek at the shelves, which would have wiped out the slim margin I built last month in Book Challenge 2009. As a bonus, I got to say hi to owner Suzy T for the first time in many months.

Current tally: 35 books finished, 31 books acquired